Friday, January 06, 2017

TOP STORY >> Our Top 10 stories of 2016

Compiled by RICK KRONLeader staff writer

These are the Top 10 topics of 2016 culled from more than 1,000 pages of news, features, in-depth investigations, reviews, forecasts and outlooks in The Leader.

The year saw a new school district come to life, an old school district get its life back on track, the Air Force base continue to be the area’s lifeline and the loss of too many lives.

The new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District spent most of the year getting ready for its first year of real operation with almost 4,000 students attending school in the new district in Aug. 15.

The new district had to hire about 600 teachers, staff, food-service workers, custodians, bus drivers and others before school started.

Along with hiring its staff, JNPSD had to find a new superintendent as Superintendent Tony Wood announced his retirement, effective the end of the 2016-17 school year.

The search was narrowed quickly to two qualified candidates and the board unanimously selected Dr. Bryan Duffie, who was hired just months earlier as one of the district’s two deputy superintendents.

At the same time the district was in court a number of times as a party to the Pulaski County Special School District’s federal desegregation case.

Highlights for the district during the year included:

U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. signed off on the Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District’s master facilities plan in January, saying, “We must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. The court holds that JNPSD’s proposed master facilities plan, though incomplete, keeps faith with Plan 2000 and is likely to promote, not hinder, eliminating the vestiges of past discrimination.”

Also principals were named early in the year. J.A. Fair Principal LaGail Biggs, a Jacksonville resident, was named Jacksonville High School principal; Mike Hudgeons remained the Jack-sonville Middle School principal and elementary principals included Gary Beck, Myeisha Haywood, Jamie Reed, Angela Stewart, Karen Norton and Dr. Janice Walker.

District patrons passed a 7.6 mill property tax to help fund $80 million for construction of a new high school, an elementary school and upgrades to the other schools.

We are the Titans! The school board selected that name and mascot for the district in May. The board voted 5 to 2 to adopt Titans as the mascot and red and white as school colors with black and gold trim.

The name Titans was proposed as a nod toward the historic 308th Strategic Missile Wing based at Jacksonville from the 1960s into the 1980s, and the movie “Remember the Titans,” wherein two racially diverse schools come together in unity on and off the field.

Before the start of school the district held a rah-rah session for all employees. “If we can build children now, we won’t have to repair them as adults,” motivational speaker Keith Brown told members of the new Jacksonville district.

“Here at JNPSD we want to set high standards. We want young people to come in as students and leave as scholars. We don’t want them to shout ‘Pig Sooie’ as a fan we want them to shout it because they are attending that university,” a pumped up Brown declared.

In mid-August the walls of the old abandoned Jacksonville Middle School on Main Street started to come down. It took about two months to demolish the old school to prepare for the resurrection of a new $60 million high school on the same spot.

In October plans moved forward for a new elementary school to replace both Tolleson and Arnold Drive Elementary schools. The district purchased four acres of land near Tolleson for about $65,000 for the planned $16 million school.

Little Rock Air Force Base always makes the Top 10 list partly because of its sheer economic impact and partially because of all its military activity.

Even though the 2016 economic impact report showed the base contribution to central Arkansas was down $300 million, it still provided a $510 million boost to the economy.

“I still can’t think of another city in this state, much less elsewhere, that has an economic powerhouse like Little Rock Air Force in their backyard,” Mayor Gary Fletcher said in August after reviewing the released LRAFB economic impact statement for fiscal year 2015.

“No matter how you look at it, those are great numbers,” the mayor said.

In April, Col. Charles E. Brown Jr., commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, discussed a pilot program on curbing violence, encouraged the business community to hire veterans, discussed the current joint forces exercise with foreign partners and announced the first-ever Arkansas Military Expo set for Sept. 17.

“We are the most combat-tested force in the world,” said Brown.

In his pitch for hiring veterans, Brown called his airmen a priceless resource, with those living on base accounting for about 20 percent of the Jacksonville population.

“When you look at what our airmen are asked to do at such a young age—with the level of responsibility placed upon them—take a risk on hiring them even if what you see on paper as their job description doesn’t directly correlate with what you need in your company,” Brown said.

“The fact that the airmen are specialists shows they are dedicated, disciplined, loyal and trainable.”

In April, actor Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band made a stop at Little Rock Air Force Base to perform a free concert. The band performs around 30 shows yearly in support of wounded heroes, Gold Star families, veterans and troops.

Sinise is well known for his performance as Lt. Dan Taylor in the movie “Forrest Gump,” which his band is named after.

In June, the 19th Airlift Wing received its newest C-130J Super Hercules aircraft.

Gen. Carlton D. Everhart, commander of Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., flew the plane in from Marietta, Ga., where Lockheed Martin manufactures the planes. The wing now has 24 C-130Js on its flightline, while the 314th Airlift Wing, which has 13 C-130Js at the base, is scheduled to receive more.

He delivered the 28th and final scheduled C-130J about a month later.

The 189th Airlift Wing Air National Guard at the base will operate the remainder of the H-models on the flightline.

At the end of July, Daniel A. DeVoe assumed command of the 314th Airlift Wing replacing Col. James D. Dryjanski, who went to serve as director of operations at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.

DeVoe, a master navigator, started in maintenance and was first assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base in October 1999 as a student to qualify on the C-130, “never dreaming he might return some day as commander.”

“It’s wonderful to return to Little Rock,” DeVoe said. “It’s a dream come true, taking command of such a distinguished organization. There is no other place I’d rather be than here leading the historic 314th.”

In September, the $108 million project to replace the 12,000-foot runway, originally set for completion in April 2017, was rescheduled for December 2017.

Demolition, then construction of that runway had not yet begun, but work on the assault strip is nearing completion, according to the Little Rock Army Corps. It was expected we would have some demolition on the eastern end of the runway by now,” a Corps spokesman said. “But it’s been an extremely wet year.”

In September, it was Military Expo time on base. It was the first open house in four years.

Col. Charles E. Brown Jr., the 19th Airlift Wing commander, said the expo brought together “all facets of our military, our reservists, our citizen soldiers, our Guardsmen, our active duty, our civilians and our contractors and showcased what they bring to the fight on behalf of the state of Arkansas and the nation each and every day.”

Brown said it was the state’s largest public military event since 2012.

Sherwood had five homicides in 2016, the most in one year that anyone can recall in recent history. But there were also three homicides in Jacksonville, and killings in Cabot, Beebe and eastern Pulaski County.

Deaths included:

Lt. Ronald Jason Adams, 29, of the Sherwood Fire Department who was killed Jan. 23. He was shot while responding to a medical call for the East Pulaski Volunteer Fire Department, where he also worked. Adams was shot on scene and pronounced dead at the hospital.

Catherine Watters, 35, of Ward. Her husband was arrested in early August for the July death. Steven Watters, 51, of 20 Moss Drive was charged with first-degree murder and violating parole.

On July 22, officers and detectives from the Jacksonville Police Department responded to Arkansas Children’s Hospital to investigate the death of a 2-year-old child with severe head trauma that occurred in Jacksonville. The child died from the injuries. The child had been left in the care of the mother’s 29-year-old boyfriend Joshua Branch. On Sept. 29, after the investigation was completed, second-degree murder arrest warrants were issued for Branch.

Jacksonville police officers investigated a murder-suicide in October that happened at 900 Madden Road.

The victims were Briani Nichole Duhon, 26, and Creig A. Green Jr., 28. The police department initially did not identify who killed whom. Police responded to a domestic disturbance, but no one answered the door when they arrived at the home. The police later said Green shot Duhon and then killed himself.

Derrick Ewing, 20, of Little Rock was arrested Nov. 18 for the shooting death of Adam Wright, 23, at the Arrow’s Edge Apartments, 300 Indianhead Cove.

Police found Wright face down in the apartment complex, dead from gunshot wounds.

A Beebe man was charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his brother on Nov. 25.

Roy Miller Jr., 33, of 114 S. Cypress St., was charged in the shooting death of Rahmal Miller, 21. The shooting occurred near 1904 Kamak Drive where officers found Miller, 21, dead lying in the parking spots of the apartment.

A Cabot man was arrested in late November in the stabbing death of his wife.

Codie Hogan, 25, of 300 Chapel Ridge Drive, Apt. 121 was charged with first-degree murder.

Police were called Nov. 28 to the apartment about a woman covered in blood lying in the bathtub. Officers found Tiffiny Hogan, 23, with multiple stab wounds.

The year started off with floods from heavy rains right at the beginning of 2016 and ended up with more rain the end of December. In between there was snow, rain, heat, rain, heat and more rain.

It was the warmest year since 2012 and the third warmest on record. Rainfall was above normal, but it was still considered a dry year. The spring turned out to be one of the wettest ever recorded with the area receiving more than 20 inches of rain. March, with 12.33 inches of rain, was the wettest since 1897. The combined rainfall in July and August made it one of the wettest summers on record but a parched September made fall the driest in 63 years.

Snowfall was above average for the year, but all hit in storm, Jan. 21-22.

August’s average low temperatures were the warmest low on record since 1881.

Beebe Fire Department had to rescue some residents in the Windwood subdivision because of floodwaters from an early January deluge.

Just as Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher finished giving his State of the City address in late January, City Attorney Bobby Bamburg leaned over and showed the mayor a text he just received, “Main Street Bridge is starting to ice over.”

The council meeting was adjourned and the city hall was empty in minutes.

That Thursday night drizzle, rain, and sleet gave way to snow and area residents awoke to 5 to 7 inches of snow on the ground, setting a record for Jan. 21.

Central Arkansas received more rain from a storm system that wobbled through Arkansas in mid-March than the area received all through January and February.

For the first two months of the year the area had received about 5.6 inches of rain, down about 1.5 inches from the 30-year average.

But a solid four days of rain in March dropped about 6 to 7 inches onto the area.

On April 29, a first strong wave of rain barreled through Jacksonville, lightning struck a tree on Halifax Cove in the Stonewall subdivision and ignited the gas line under it. That day 2.61 inches of rain fell in Jacksonville and 3.13 inches in Gravel Ridge.

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning around noon and at just about the same time Jacksonville schools were notified that the Boys and Girls Club had flooded.

In mid-May storms produced straight-line winds as high as 90 miles an hour, along with two possible tornadoes and lots of rain in central Arkansas.

The storm set off sirens in Jacksonville and Sherwood.

In mid-July, storms ripped through Arkansas, causing power outages for more than 100,000 residents.

First Electric Cooperative’s Jacksonville district, which includes portions of Lonoke, Prairie, northern Pulaski and White counties, also experienced storm-related outages that affected approximately 1,690 members. Entergy Arkansas reports outages peaking at 138,216.

Record rains hit in August making the month one of the wettest on record. By mid-month, with close to 6 inches of rain, it was already the 12th wettest on record.

From late October to late November it was dry, dry, dry, almost 30 days without rain, which put almost half the state under a burn ban.


In interviews with the top administrators of North Metro Medical Center, the word was the facility was improving, making headway and taking care of its problems. But then came another lawsuit from the state, a former doctor or Health Department inspections because of concerns.

This year the hospital saw two CEOs and has had four since 2013. Mike Randle was the interim CEO for most of the 2016 but was fired in the fall and replaced with Bill Bledsoe. Prior to Randle, state Rep. Joe Farrer had the helm for about four months and before him it was Cindy Stafford, who was CEO from April 2013 to May 2015.

Early last January, Randle said the hospital’s owners were developing new relationships and mending old ones. “Our focus is to preserve and grow this hospital for Jacksonville and the surrounding area,” he said.

But in January, North Metro lost its wound center, which opened a year earlier to great fanfare, and has lost a $160,000 lawsuit in conjunction with the center leaving.

The center opened in December 2014 and closed the first of January despite a June article in The Leader where the local director said the center was “hitting its stride” and was offering “world-class care.”

In February, it came to light that North Metro owed the IRS about $2.9 million in back taxes. There was also a state tax lien against the hospital for $160,000 for 2014 taxes not paid.

Randle acknowledged the debt saying the hospital was doing everything it could financially and legally to take care of the problem. “We are working on a plan with the IRS but it has not been cemented,” he said.

“We are not in any jeopardy,” Randle emphasized. “Our financial picture is improving. If things go as planned over the next six months we will be in very good shape. We are poised to be reborn,” he said.

The $2.9 million debt was not all done under Randle’s watch, but mostly inherited by Randle and the last two CEOs. At one time in 2014, according to IRS paperwork, the hospital owed as much as $6 million.

The hospital celebrated its new cardio vascular center and remodeled sleep lab in April.

The hoorahs continued into May with Dr. Tracey Phillips, the chief medical officer, saying, “We are back doing what a real hospital does for a community. We are in a very, very good position and expect to be stable within a year.”

But as Phillips and Randle praised the hospital, the parent company, Allegiance Hospital of North Little Rock, was having a $45,000 lien placed against it for nonpayment of unemployment taxes. It was the fifth lien the unemployment division has filed against the hospital owners over the past five years.

There were also issues with slow pay for ER doctors.

Then in October it was reported that North Metro lost more than $3 million last year and was one of the least profitable hospitals in the state, according to a report released by Arkansas Business.

Plus, it was cited by the federal government for having too high of an infection rate and too many readmissions. As a penalty it received reduced Medicare reimbursements.

Then rated the hospital a “D” in its spring survey of medical facilities.

In October, Dr. Marvin Ashford, a former chief of staff at the hospital sued over his dismissal. He was suspended almost a year earlier because of his likelihood to be an “immediate danger,” according to the complaint. Ashford sued the hospital, its owners and two doctors for breach of contract.

Ashford filed the suit Oct. 14 and asked for a jury trial. No date has been set yet.

In late October, Randle was fired and Bill Bledsoe, the director of cardiac labs for St. Vincent Infirmary, was hired to take over Dec. 1.

Bledsoe came on board as a recently discharged patient looked to bring a class action suit against the hospital, and a number of other suits were already in the court system.

The Arkansas Department of Workforce filed a complaint that the hospital owed the state $150,694 in past due taxes that had already been collected from employees.

The state filed a 10-year lien against the hospital for $298,663 in taxes it owed.

Universal Hospital Services, a medical equipment rental company, filed suit Sept. 23 against “Allegiance Hospital of North Little Rock DBA North Metro Medical Center.

In July, American Paper and Twine sued the hospital over nonpayment of a $3,378 bill for items like bathroom cleaner, paper towels and germicidal cleaner. That case was dismissed with prejudice about two weeks ago after the hospital paid the bill.

In May, a former employee, Jeanne Snelson, filed a lawsuit claiming the hospital disregarded FMLA law when they fired her.

Bledsoe, 57, began work Dec. 1 as North Metro Medical Center’s new chief executive officer and said in a visit to The Leader that he was determined to improve the long troubled Jacksonville hospital.

“We can turn the place around. We can make it one of the best hospitals in this area,” he said.

The first part of the year Sherwood issued $10 million in bonds, financed by a voter-approved tax, for a new library.

Then in March, Sherwood used $6 million in bonds to refinance the golf course, a move that will save the city about $1 million over the next 30 years.

Jacksonville refinanced $15.8 million in wastewater bonds, saving the city about $2 million.

Sherwood voters, in November approved a plan to use a portion of the city’s Advertising and Promotion tax to back a $5 million bond issue for park improvements.

Cabot used a $13.5 million bond issue approved by voters to build and open its new sports complex and aquatic park in May.

Ward borrowed $4.8 million to improve its wastewater treatment system by constructing a new treatment plant and expanding its current facility.

Although no decision was made and no specific amounts were discussed, Lonoke city Treasurer Phillip Howell floated the idea of a tax increase to support a bond issue to help with much needed water, sewer and other repair issues in the city.


The beleaguered school district, which had been under state control for the past five years was released from state oversight in early March, setting up school board elections in November.

The PCSSD board was dissolved in 2011, when the state took control of the district for being in fiscal distress and since that time, the director of the state Education Department has served as a one-man school board with non-binding counsel from an appointed community advisory board. The state appointed Dr. Jerry Guess as the superintendent.

Two Sherwood residents were elected to the new board in November, Dr. Linda Remele and Shelby Thomas. Remele was also elected board president and Thomas was selected as vice president. The board’s first working meetings will be later this month.

The district non-renewed, or fired, all Jacksonville-based teachers and staff in February with no promise of rehiring any of them. At the same time the new Jacksonville district made no hiring promises.

In the end the district also non-renewed another 200 teachers and staff because of the downsizing of the district.


Excel Ford spent most of the year building, preparing and moving to its new Cabot location on West Main Street.

It was announced in March that a Denny’s restaurant was coming to Sherwood near Wildwood Avenue and Warden Road.

State Rep. Joe Farrer got back in the physical therapy business, opening a practice in the Jacksonville Medical Clinic.

Jacksonville got the word early in the year that it was going to be the home of a new SIG Sauer $5.7 million ammunition manufacturing plant. SIG Sauer is turning the old Meador’s Lighting facility off Swift Drive into their ammunition plant. The new facility will employ about 75 workers.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Arkansas a premier location for the firearms industry.

About the same time Remington Arms in Lonoke County announced a $12 million expansion that would add another 80 jobs to the plant.

In late January, GES, Inc., owner and operator of Edwards Food Giant and Edwards Cash Saver supermarkets, announced it would open a new Edwards Cash Saver in the former Knight’s location in Jacksonville.

Steve Edwards said that the company had been looking to expand in the Jacksonville area for a few years and was able to negotiate with the Knight family to buy their supermarket as well as the Jackson Square Shopping Center.

The Knights, later in the year, sold their Cabot and Beebe stores to GES.

In July it was announced that Danny Wintz, a 1983 Jacksonville High graduate and former Sunnyside resident was going to open a Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in the old Cici’s Pizza location by the end of the year.

The Texas-based Fuzzy’s Taco Shop got its start in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2003. Now there are close to 100 Fuzzy’s in 11 states.

Hardee’s came to Jacksonville on North First Street during the summer.

In late summer, Hibbett Sports opened a store in Jacksonville. The company, which already has 43 stores in Arkansas and more than a 1,000 in 33 states, is located close to J.R. Gumbo’s, near Walmart.

The 5,000 square-foot store specializes in “quality branded athletic equipment, footwear and apparel like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour, as well as clothing and equipment for local teams and leagues.”

Also, Dairy Queen announced in late summer it was coming to Sherwood. The restaurant, only the second one in central Arkansas, opened in New Year’s Eve on Country Club near Delta Dental.

The DQ Grill & Chill restaurant runs about 2,800 square feet, seats 85 customers and has a drive-through window. The restaurant employs about 50 workers.


Although southbound traffic over the Main Street overpass on Hwy. 67/167 in Jacksonville was switched over a few months back onto two new, recently completed lanes, work on the northbound lanes and overpass is just beginning and won’t be completed until mid-2018, according to state Highway Department spokesman Danny Straessle.

“We started working on that in August 2014,” he said.

The existing two-way frontage roads along the highway will be converted to one-way frontage roads between Main Street and Vandenberg when the final phase of roadwork between Redmond Road and Hwy. 5 in Cabot are complete, probably in 2022.

The entire project from Redmond Road to Cabot will cost approximately $200 million.

After Phase I of Hwy 67/167 widening and reconfiguration is complete, construction will skip to Phase III, which starts just north of Vandenberg Drive and continues to the Hwy. 5 interchange at Cabot. Finally, in 2019, work will begin on Phase II to fill in the gap from just north of the Main Street overpass to and including the Vandenberg interchange. Construction on that final phase should wrap up in 2022, at which time the frontage roads will become one way.

In Phase I, the major structures or changes, from south to north are the southbound entrance ramp at Redmond Road and the widening of the Redmond Road overpass to allow more lanes.

North of there, a new southbound ramp behind the Jacksonville Municipal Building will open with the completion of Phase I.

Work on southbound Hwy. 67/167 includes widening, rebuilding, and reconfiguring the Main Street overpass. That overpass has been the site of numerous accidents over the years, including a fatality in recent years.

The section between Vandenberg Drive and Hwy. 5 is pretty straight forward, with minor adjustments only, mostly a widening project.

This was a presidential election year and in the primary it was Donald Trump, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz finishing one, two, three with Hillary Clinton easily surpassing Bernie Sanders.

In the March primary, Dist. 34 Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) squeaked by Rep. Donnie Copeland in the Republican primary to face and defeat Democrat Joe Woodson in November.

The quarter of a percent sales tax to expand and improve the county’s bus service was strongly defeated by 12,000 votes.

Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) got another term after besting Lonoke County Justice of the Peace R.D. Hopper. Williams lost Pulaski County by about 100 votes, but won the other three counties his district represents. Williams had no opposition in November.

In another very close race, Democrats Kent Walker and Victoria Leigh, both attorneys, battled for Copeland’s Dist. 38 seat, which includes the southern half of Sherwood with Leigh coming out on top by fewer than 100 votes.

Leigh faced and lost to Carlton Wing, a Republican, in November.

Last January, the Jacksonville District Court and the Maumelle District Court became one and has jurisdiction over all of Pulaski County.

Rita Bailey, previously Wrightsville and Cammack Village judge, and former state Sen. David Johnson (D-Little Rock) battled for the position in March with Bailey winning. The judicial seat is nonpartisan, so party affiliation is not listed on the ballot. As winner of the primary, Bailey will be the judge for a four-year term.

In an historic presidential election that pitted the first woman to possibly become president against the first person in a century or more to make it to the top without ever holding a political office, the Electoral College went with the outsider.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 million votes against Donald J. Trump, but he won the presidency by winning more electoral votes.

Arkansas voters sided with Trump, 60 percent to 34 percent.

Arkansans also kept all the Washington incumbents who were running for re-election.

Also, all ballot issues, including the use of medical marijuana, passed.

In the two competitive local House races, Dist. 42 Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) beat back a solid challenge by Patrick Thomas.

Lonoke County Justice of the Peace Roger Lynch came from behind to beat Rep. Camille Bennett (D-Lonoke) for the Dist. 14 seat. Lynch netted 3,832 votes, or 52 percent, while Bennett pulled in 3,537 votes, or 48 percent.

Sherwood residents also approved a measure that will improve parks and give the city flexibility to get the work done faster and cheaper without raising taxes, but redirecting current Advertising and Promotion taxes.

In Cabot, Alderman Doyle Tullos’ two opponents, Norma Naquin and Wendell Gibson, split the vote almost equally for the Ward 3, Position 1 seat. Naquin won the runoff.

Challenger Damon Bivens defeated Alderman Jon Moore, and Alderman Rick Prentice stood strong against a challenge by Tom Koller for the Ward 3, Position 2 seat.

Judge Joe O’Bryan lost to Ward City Attorney Clint McGue.