Houston & Peach

Top local stories of the decade

A governor from Middle Georgia. The loss of a baseball team and a cigarette maker. And the death of Warner Robins’ mayor.

Those stories were among the biggest of the past 10 years in the midstate.

Now that 2010 is in the record books, here’s a look back at The Telegraph’s top local stories of the past decade.

2001: Bye, bye Braves

For a while on the evening of Nov. 6, 2001, Rome businessman Randy Davis paced back and forth at the old courthouse in downtown Rome. The naysayers were ahead in the vote on a 1 percent special purpose local option sales tax that, if approved, would move the Macon Braves to Rome in the spring of 2003.

By 9 p.m., however, Davis was leading the cheers as the final tally revealed the tax had been approved by a 7,163 to 7,021 vote.

“I have to say one thing: We got a baseball team coming to Rome. We had to have every single vote,” said Davis, who led the campaign to pass the sales tax.

The tax was to pay for a $15 million baseball stadium, custom-made for the Braves. Officials with the Atlanta Braves, owners of the Macon Braves, promised the people of Rome that they would move their Class A South Atlantic League team to Rome if the tax was approved.

Months before, Braves representatives began searching for a new location after talks bogged down with Macon officials over renovations at Luther Williams Field, the second oldest minor league stadium in the country. Not until the Braves threatened to leave Macon did local officials take action. City and county officials pledged the $1 million in a NewTown Macon package.

But the Braves wanted out of Macon and threw their support behind the Rome sales tax. They sent several corporate pitchmen, including General Manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox, to Rome to stump for the stadium.

After the votes were counted, Macon City Council President Anita Ponder said, “I guess the fat lady has sung.”

2002: A Sonny day

The November election brought Georgia something it hasn’t had in 130 years: a Republican governor. And he came from Middle Georgia.

Not many folks paid attention when then-state Sen. Sonny Perdue of Houston County announced in fall 2001 that he might run for governor. One Atlanta reporter suggested that voters were wondering, “Sonny who?”

Now they know.

The 55-year-old agribusinessman from Bonaire waged an under-funded, underdog campaign to win a historic victory over an incumbent Democrat who had the largest campaign war chest ever assembled in Georgia.

Perdue won a GOP primary battle against Linda Schrenko, Georgia’s maverick state schools superintendent, and Bill Byrne, a feisty Cobb County commissioner.

Observers say incumbent Roy Barnes had courted defeat by his handling of the state flag, education reform and redistricting. Perdue’s supporters say Perdue represented a refreshing change.

2003: Brown & Williamson gets the ax

In early October, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, the nation’s second- and third-largest cigarette companies, announced that they would merge and close B&W’s Macon plant.

The news was deeply disturbing to Macon-area leaders seeking to stimulate the economy in this jobs-hungry region, to vendors and other businesses expecting a nasty “ripple effect” from the closing, and to many local charities that benefit from donations by the company and its employees.

But hardest hit was the company’s 2,100 employees and their families. Some of them were offered jobs at R.J. Reynolds’ North Carolina plants, but most were out of work.

U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon organized a lobbying campaign aimed at stopping the huge merger from getting Federal Trade Commission approval, but the company packed up and left town.

2004: Trouble at Macon City Hall

The city of Macon may have seen more difficult years, but for sheer turbulence, 2004 was hard to beat.

It was a year of investigations by the Internal Revenue Service and the Bibb County district attorney, a bond rating reduction, questions about the management of contracts at the Terminal Station and a failed effort to recall Mayor Jack Ellis.

Not to mention that the city all but resorted to title pawn in order to make a midyear payroll.

In May, a series of articles in The Telegraph revealed problems with Macon’s efforts to renovate the downtown Terminal Station. Among them:

A consultant with no transportation experience had been unable to produce a renovation plan, jeopardizing more than $800,000 in federal funds;

More than $1 million in bond money earmarked to match federal grants for Terminal renovation had been spent on other things;

Some of the bond money for the Terminal Station’s redevelopment and six other downtown initiatives had been spent in ways that bond experts warned could be illegal.

In early June 2004, the Bibb County grand jury opened an investigation into how the city spent $12 million in money that was supposed to pay for Terminal Station work and six other downtown revitalization projects.

Ellis said the city’s finances weren’t as bad as his critics made it appear, and that the City Council shared some blame for the problems. Both Ellis and Clark’s attorney said she did nothing wrong. No city officials were ever found to have broken the law.

2005: Georgia goes to war

A war far from Georgia was on the minds of many midstate families in 2005.

The Macon-based 48th Brigade of the Georgia National Guard deployed to the Middle East in the spring.

By the end of 2005, nearly 9,000 members of the Georgia Army National Guard had been called to active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan in the global war on terror. That was everyone except for a few administrative staff members and the band, according to National Guard Lt. Col. Ken Baldowski.

A total of 66 Georgians, representing most branches of the military services, died in the war through the end of 2005. According to the Associated Press, 25 members of the 48th Brigade died.

Midsummer was especially painful. Eleven Georgians died in an 11-day span. Gov. Sonny Perdue wept. On Aug. 18, at Perdue’s request, the state paused to remember the dead and honor the living. Flags flew at half-staff, and a service at the state Capitol was sent out via the Internet so members of the Guard’s 48th Brigade in Iraq could watch.

In early December, three guardsmen -- two of them from Middle Georgia -- died in an accident. Sgt. Philip Allan Dodson Jr., 42, of Forsyth, and Sgt. Marcus Shawn Futrell, 20, of Macon, were killed when the Humvee they were riding in overturned while in a military convoy.

2006: Bibb deputy slain in early morning drug raid

Long before dawn on March 23, the sun set on the life of an aspiring Bibb County drug investigator.

Sgt. Joseph Whitehead was gunned down during a raid on Atherton Street shortly before 1:30 a.m.

Whitehead, 36, led the charge as the drug squad barged into a cinder block house on a dead end street on the fringes of Unionville.

The father of three and 11-year-veteran of the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office was shot four times.

The district attorney is seeking the death penalty against the alleged shooters, Antron Dawayne Fair and Damon Antwon Jolly.

The shooting sparked a contentious debate as the sheriff and mayor sparred over the existence of gangs in the community.

Whitehead became the first Bibb County deputy in nearly 81 years to be killed in the line of duty. His funeral drew hundreds of law enforcement officers from all across Georgia.

2007: A new Macon mayor, a new City Council and the end of the Ellis administration

Mayor Robert Reichert steamrolled all comers in an election billed as the most important for Macon in many years. Term-limited Mayor Jack Ellis’ controversial tenure wound down. And nearly half the City Council seats turned over in 2007, leading more than a few people to toss around the phrase “new guard.”

It was a big year in Macon politics.

Reichert headlined, winning every precinct and 63 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. The former state representative beat out four other candidates, including two well-known City Council members who saw their political careers cut short as a result. Even if all of Reichert’s competitors -- Democrat and Republican -- had added their vote totals together, Reichert still would have won by some 3,600 votes.

Then came the general election, when Reichert won 96 percent of the vote. The numbers spoke to a desire for change, said politicians, city voters and observers. So did the council elections. Six new members took office just a year and a half after two other newbies joined the council in special elections.

Those eight tipped the balance of power on the 15-seat council. Newly elected members were named to head five of the council’s seven regular committees and Miriam Paris, who came to office in one of those 2006 special elections, was named council president.

And, of course, who could forget Ellis? The city’s first black mayor, the man who is either loved or hated across the city, made national headlines at least twice in the last year of his tenure. Once when he announced his conversion to the Muslim faith, then again when he reached out to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, pledging support for the America-bashing leader.

The closing months of Ellis’ tenure, though, were relatively quiet as his time ended and Reichert’s began.

2008: Mother’s Day tornadoes

Packing winds of 130 mph, a tornado ripped through the Macon area in the pre-dawn hours of Mother’s Day.

South Macon homes were chewed up. Massive trees crushed roofs. Storms spawned other tornadoes across Middle Georgia.

The neighborhoods around Lake Tobesofkee were hit hard. Bibb County’s tree canopy was decimated. At Macon State College, officials said 90 percent of the trees were gone.

A Laurens County couple, Tracey and Lisa Clements, died after a tornado hit their mobile home. Miraculously, the two grandchildren inside were not hurt.

In the final tally, government surveyors listed 97 Bibb County homes destroyed. Statewide, insurance companies doled out about $125 million for damages. Debris cleanup took months. Snapped tree trunks will remain for years.

But maybe we were lucky.

A storm tore off a church top in Dry Branch. A few hours later, the church would have been full.

A sleeping Eisenhower Parkway was ravaged by some of the highest winds. A few hours later, thousands would have been on the road.

Across the midstate, those in Mother Nature’s path reported waking up, then huddling with their families as the fury passed above.

2009: Warner Robins Mayor Donald Walker’s suicide

On Sept. 28, 2009, just after 11 a.m., Warner Robins Mayor Donald Walker’s wife called 911. The mayor had shot himself in the head at his home. Walker, 60, died later that day at The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

The son of a former mayor whose family’s history in Warner Robins goes back to its earliest days, Walker was praised for his efforts to enhance the city. During his 15 years as mayor, the city more than doubled its geography and added about 40 percent to its population base.

At the time of his death, Walker had been facing strong opposition for the first time as he worked to hold onto the job he first took after a special election in 1994. After Walker’s death, Councilman John Havrilla took over as mayor, a job he held until Chuck Shaheen took office in January 2010.

Fallout from Walker’s death caused ripples at City Hall. Two city employees were placed on leave for trying to gain access into his office. The District Attorney’s Office investigated, and a grand jury decided no criminal charges would be filed against the two.