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Looking back on 2017
Damage from Hurricane Irma in September, such as this scene at Fort McAllister Marina, was among the top stories in Bryan County for 2017. - photo by File photo

Here is a look at the top stories and issues in Bryan County over the past year.

Just 11 months after Hurricane Matthew hit, Bryan County in early September was bracing for what Hurricane Irma might bring.

Gov. Nathan Deal issued a mandatory evacuation order on Sept. 7 for residents living east of I-95 to begin Sept. 9. Just as with Matthew, schools were closed and government offices shut down.

Although Irma’s impact was not as bad as first expected, nor was it as damaging as Matthew, it was still felt as thousands lost power and several neighborhoods flooded. Fort McAllister Marina and the adjoining Fish Tales restaurant also sustained damage.

City and county officials said that lessons learned in dealing with Matthew better helped them respond to Irma.

Unlike Matthew, however, Irma did not cause the cancellation of the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival, and the annual party was back on in October after a year’s hiatus. Tens of thousands of people turned out for the event, highlighted by Saturday night’s 38 Special concert.

The man who many say put the GOSF on the map with his 2002 performance — Gregg Allman — passed away at his Richmond Hill home on May 27. The rock icon had lived here for several years and enjoyed the way he was accepted.

“He was a star, but to us he was just a neighbor,” said Bonnie Proctor, a long-time member of the GOSF planning committee.

Growth, infrastructure and the multitude of issues surrounding the topic continued to draw interest throughout the year.

Voters in March approved a $100 million school bond and renewed the E-SPLOST levy. Bryan County Schools expects to grow by some 3,500 students over the next decade and plans to build a new high school, elementary school and middle school in South Bryan over the next six years.

SPLOST would pass in November, meaning the county and the cities of Richmond Hill and Pembroke will collect about $33 million over the next six years. A transportation-specific SPLOST was placed on the ballot for May.

The on-again, off-again widening of Highway 144, which was supposed to have begun next spring, is off again for now. The Georgia Department of Transportation removed the project from its statewide improvement list while environmental impact studies are redone. Those studies had been completed, but they expired as the state dealt with acquiring property from land owners along the route. County Commissioners Chair Carter Infinger, however, said the list is “fluid” and the project could still be started in 2018.

Financial commitments are in place, including $2.1 million each from Bryan County and the city of Richmond Hill, for the expected start on the new I-95 interchange at Belfast Keller Road in 2018.

Richmond Hill completed the annexation of 5,000 acres along Belfast Keller and Belfast River roads, with officials saying some 9,000 housing units could be built on the land over the next several decades.

Shock waves in the business community were felt in October when North Bryan’s Daniel Defense announced a massive downsizing. Estimates are that about one-third of the company’s 330 employees were let go. At the same time, although unrelated to the layoffs, Daniel Defense confirmed that at least one of its weapons was spotted in photos released by Las Vegas law enforcement in the wake of the mass shooting there on Oct. 1.

Daniel Defense continued its planned expansion at the Interstate Commerce Centre in Black Creek, with several other infrastructure improvements planned at the industrial park off of I-16 to get it ready for new tenants.

Tragedy also struck Bryan County in 2017 and caught the attention of our readers.

Warren Eugene “Gene” Hall drowned two days before Thanksgiving in the small lake next to the county building at Henderson Park. Hall, 36, was a county maintenance worker. He was hailed as a hero after he died rescuing a girl and her dog from the water.

Another county employee, John “Tony” Cribbs, passed away in July due to injuries he sustained on the job. Cribbs, 59, was part of a crew cutting down trees on Highway 144 near Sweet Hill Road. The Bryan County Sheriff’s Office reported that a tree Cribbs was cutting with a chainsaw struck him and he was cut on the upper right leg with the chainsaw. The report said he also suffered injuries to his chest and abdomen.

Three people died Aug. 28 when a small plane crashed in North Bryan off of Eldora and Croft roads. Killed in the crash were William Cocke, 42, and Catherine Cocke, 39, of Savannah, along with the pilot, Randy Hunter of Tyrone, Ga. The couple left behind five children ranging in age from 10 months to 13 years.

The end of 2017 also saw the end of Richmond Hill Mayor Harold Fowler’s time in office. And in the final days of the year, Bryan County Administrator Ben Taylor opted not to pursue a job offer to become the new city manager in Camilla.

Two Bryan County Democrats announced their intentions to run for office in 2018, with Lisa Ring challenging incumbent Congressman Buddy Carter for the First District seat and Otha Thornton pursuing the nonpartisan state schools superintendent job.

In the world of sports, 2017 saw three state champion performances by Richmond Hill athletes.

Taylor Wilson won the individual title at 182 pounds at the Class AAAAAA state wrestling meet in February. Sam James won the 400 meters and was part of the winning 4x400 relay team, along with Demond Fleming, Rakim Gonzalez and Jacob Hedgepeth, at the state track meet in May.

Other top performances included Elite Eight appearances by the Bryan County girls’ basketball team and the Richmond Hill baseball team. The Richmond Hill boys’ and girls’ soccer teams both advanced to the Sweet 16, as did the Wildcat tennis teams, and the Bryan County boys’ soccer team hosted its first-ever state tournament game. The Richmond Hill boys’ and girls’ basketball teams also advanced to the state tournament, and the Wildcat cross country teams both had top 10 finishes at the state meet.

Bryan County named three new football coaches in the span of three months last spring, finally settling on long-time assistant and girls’ basketball coach Mario Mincey. Former Redskins coach Mark Wilson was hired in March to replace Allen Cartwright. Wilson ended up changing his mind and so Tony Glazer, defensive coordinator at Liberty County, was hired. Glazer in May also changed his mind, leading to Mincey’s appointment.

On Dec. 26, Bryan County announced that Abram Scott, the assistant principal at Bryan County Middle School and a former Richmond Hill assistant coach, would be the Redskins’ football coach in 2018.

It was announced in early December that Al Butler would not return as the Bryan County softball coach. He guided the Redskins to the Final Four twice and saw more than 15 players go on to the collegiate level.

The Richmond Hill football team advanced to the state tournament for a second straight year and three players — James, Justin Jeffery and Joseph Petrino — signed to play at Division I schools.

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