Central office saga top story of 2012

The downtown central office construction site. Photo by Sarah Campbell, Salisbury Post.
The downtown central office construction site. Photo by Sarah Campbell, Salisbury Post.

SALISBURY — “If this is accepted, we have just ended 23 years of debate.”

Perhaps Chad Mitchell, then chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, spoke too soon.


Mitchell made the statement during a special meeting held Jan. 25 in which the board voted 3-2 to borrow up to $6 million on the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s behalf to build a central office.

About two weeks later, the school board voted 6-1 to construct in downtown Salisbury on land donated by the city.

The board planned to repay the loan through sales tax dollars allocated specifically for capital building projects.

Those who thought that was the end of the conversation were wrong.

The topic continues to be a hot-button issue that seemingly everyone in Rowan County has an opinion about.

That’s why the Post news staff voted the central office saga the top local news story of 2012.

The central office re-emerged as an issue during this year’s election season.

And when Bryce Beard and Dr. Jim Emerson failed to win a third term on the school board, speculation swirled it was because of their support of the project.

The project fell back into limbo earlier this month when county commissioners voted 3-2 to put a 60-day hold on the downtown proposal, asking to meet with school board members to discuss the project.

The school board complied with the county’s request, scheduling a stakeholders meeting at 5 p.m. Jan. 3. County commissioners and City Council members have been invited to attend.

But county board chairman Jim Sides has already turned down the invitation, saying commissioners requested a meeting with the school board — and only the school board.

Newly-elected school board chairman Dr. Richard Miller has said he considers the city a stakeholder because City Council has agreed to donate land and a parking lot, each worth roughly $250,000.

Although new school members Josh Wagner and Chuck Hughes aren’t keen on building downtown and suggested considering other options, the majority sent a clear message that they are ready to move on.

During a Dec. 17 meeting, the board voted 5-2 to affirm plans to construct a 62,000-square-foot facility on South Main Street.

The project had been scaled down to about 49,000 square feet, which is too small to house the school system’s exceptional children’s department and support future growth, due to the constraints of a $6 million budget set by commissioners.

The decision came with a twist.

The school board is asking the city of Salisbury to help with the additional $2 million needed to build the larger structure.

City Council has agreed to see how Salisbury can help pay for the project. “I’m looking forward to how the city might be a solution provider,” said councilman Brian Miller.

The conversation is sure to continue into 2013.

Even if the city finds a way to finance the additional $2 million, the project still needs a nod from the county commissioners and the state Local Government Commission must grant the final stamp of approval.

The other top stories of 2012, as chosen by the Post editorial staff, were:

2. Former coach accused

Until this year, Ralph Wager was best known as a successful former soccer coach at Catawba College. He was in inducted in the school’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. After his time at Catawba, he helped establish youth soccer in Charlotte.

But that changed in July when authorities charged the 69-year-old Wager with sexually abusing a boy he’d met on the Catawba campus pool during his tenure there in the late 1980s. The victim, now in his 30s, contacted law enforcement after searching the Internet in the wake of the Penn State child molestation scandal and learning Wager still worked with children.

Since that time, Wager has received more charges involving a different victim who was 13, he told investigators, when the coach molested him at Wager’s on-campus residence. During a bond hearing in August, prosecutors said there may be more accusers.

Catawba officials have responded to the charges by saying they will cooperate with authorities while conducting an internal investigation and examining the school’s policies to ensure the alleged crimes could not happen today or in the future.

Top college officials during Wager’s employment there have retired or moved on to other jobs. Authorities said those officials’ initial response to allegations in the 1980s was to restrict Wager’s access to the pool.

Wager resigned from Catawba in 1990 citing stress. In a court filing, however, a prosecutor said Wager left his job “abruptly ... after allegations of improper contact with a minor child came to the attention of campus officials.”

Wager now faces 11 felony charges in the separate cases.

Another man came forward in New York claiming Wager molested him while a high school soccer coach. Police said the allegations were too old to investigate.

3. Debate goes viral

A North Rowan High School teacher was dragged into the national spotlight in May after a student secretly recorded her yelling and telling him he could be criminally charged for criticizing the president.

Tanya Dixon-Neely was leading a class discussion on reports that presidential candidate Mitt Romney bullied a high school classmate when the dispute began. Student Hunter Rogers questioned whether President Obama hadn’t done the same thing.

Dixon-Neely didn’t know that Rogers was recording the increasingly heated exchange with a cell-phone video camera that was face-up on his desk, and she can be heard saying he couldn’t question Obama because he is the president, but that Romney’s past could be questioned because he was only a candidate.

In the video, Dixon-Neely can be heard telling Rogers that he could end up in jail for criticizing Obama and that people had been charged for bad-mouthing former President George W. Bush.

Posted online, the video went viral and made Dixon-Neely a target of conservative bloggers and news organizations. She was suspended the rest of the academic year and required to take professional training.

4. Praying for a fight

On March 5, Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber opened the board’s meeting with a prayer, concluding it “in Jesus’ name.”

That would’ve been a fairly run-of-the-mill event at a political meeting in Rowan — or anywhere else around these parts — had it not been for the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union had just asked the county board to stop praying that way.

Fresh off a victory in which the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Forsyth County’s appeal of a ruling that its board’s opening prayers were unconstitutional, the ACLU sent letters to about two dozen government bodies across the state calling on them to stop opening their meetings with religion-specific prayers.

Those letters were sent to governments against whom the civil liberties group had gotten prayer-related complaints, an ACLU in North Carolina attorney said. The attorney said Rowan commissioners had generated the most complaints.

At that first meeting in March — which fell on the same day the ACLU?had requested an answer from Rowan commissioners — several hundred people packed the county government building, most of them showing their support by praying and singing hymns.

Commissioners have gone on praying the way they always have — with some saying they’d be willing to spend taxpayer dollars defending that practice in court — while a threat by the ACLU?to file a lawsuit had, at last check, gone unfulfilled.

5. Manufacturing an economic rebound?

When Freightliner announced in January it would bring 1,100 jobs back to its Cleveland truck manufacturing plant, Gov. Bev Perdue was on hand to proclaim it evidence of an economy on the rebound.

Perdue, the outgoing governor, wasn’t around in August when the company acknowledged only about half those jobs had actually been filled, citing weaker-than-expected orders for its trucks.

Nonetheless, that acknowledgment was evidence of something else:?an economy that’s recovering slowly — possibly even more slowly than economic pundits and developers had forecast this time last year.

Rowan had some good news this year with several companies besides Freightliner announcing expansions or plans to locate new facilities with a few hundred jobs on the drawing board.

But there were setbacks. GE announced it would close its Salisbury plant next year, for one.

And a lot of people are still out of work.

After starting the year with an unemployment rate of more than 11 percent, the county jobless rate stood at just under 10 percent in October, the last month for which the figures are available.

6. Elections make for change

This year’s election was already going to be one of change — and maybe a little confusion — for Rowan County.

Redistricting had removed any part of the county from Congressional Rep. Howard Coble’s 6th District. It had added a big chunk of western Rowan to fellow Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx’s district, expanded the 8th District westward from Cabarrus and further condensed Democratic Rep. Mel Watt’s already skinny 12th District.

The GOP-led General Assembly’s effort to shore up Republicans’ chances in congressional elections paid off. Even with President Barack Obama’s victory, Richard Hudson ousted Democrat Larry Kissell in the 8th District and many Rowan residents got new representation.

The parade of new faces didn’t stop at the federal level.

When popular state representative Fred Steen left his seat to make an unsuccessful run for Congress, that created a void eventually filled by former county commissioner Carl Ford, who’ll now represent the 76th N.C. House District.

And the domino effect continued. With Ford and Raymond Coltrain — the sole Democrat on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners — not seeking re-election, two seats opened. They were filled by Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce.

Caskey’s departure halfway through his term on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education meant that board would see the biggest change, with new members filling four of its seven seats. Newcomers Chuck Hughes and Josh Wagner ousted former chairman Dr. Jim Emerson and Bryce Beard and Susan Cox won the seat previously held by Linda Freeze, who didn’t seek another term.

Former board member L.A. Overcash was appointed to serve the rest of Caskey’s term.

7. A bridge to the future

Early in the morning on Aug. 2, the final car rolled across the southbound side of the old Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River.

It was the end of an era — and good riddance, said many.

The 57-year-old Yadkin River bridge had been deemed outdated, overcrowded and one of the worst in the state for years. When officials in Raleigh finally decided to appropriate funding and build a new one, they could probably hear the cheers going up from this area.

“Given the number of people that use that bridge — truckers, commuters — it’s going to be a real pleasure now as opposed to being a nightmare,” Tom Crosby with AAA?Carolinas said

The new I-85 bridge — formally the Yadkin River Veterans Memorial Bridge — is part of a $200 million project that will also widen the interstate for seven miles in Rowan and Davidson counties and replace other bridges.

But the Yadkin River bridge is undoubtedly the centerpiece of that project. Standing in the middle of the four-lane northbound span in early may, Gov. Bev Perdue called it a “major transportation artery, not just for North Carolina but for the entire East Coast.”

North- and southbound traffic are currently using the northbound span of the new bridge. State officials say the southbound bridge will open early next year, providing four lanes for traffic in each direction.

8. Flames destroy livelihoods, claim lives

Brent Lyerly could only watch as his family’s 55-year-old business burned to the ground on a mid-April afternoon.

A malfunctioning furnace sparked the four-alarm fire at Lyerly Funeral Home on Salisbury’s South Main Street. The inferno grew so large that at one point, more than 50 firefighters battled the blaze with another 50 waiting in support.

It got so bad, the firefighters had to stop trying to save the building and focus on preventing the flames from spreading to others.

The bodies of three people — two of them sisters — awaiting services were recovered in the days after the blaze. Brent Lyerly, his spirit intact though the building lost, vowed to rebuild with a state-of-the-art funeral home.

It wasn’t the only fire to claim a business this year.

In June, Sonya Graham died after chemical vapors ignited, causing an explosion and fire at the China Grove taxidermy and archery business she ran for 25 years with her twin sister Sionna Graham.

With her sister gone and their business destroyed, Sionna Graham considered shutting down S&S Graham Archery, but reopened in August with the support of the community.

In February, nine dogs died in a fire that gutted Rowan Animal Clinic on Statesville Boulevard. The clinic’s owners, the Dr. R.B. Lowe family, moved to a temporary location and broke ground on a new clinic in November.

9. Airplane crashes into High Rock

Steve Bown and Karyn Martin took off from the Lexington airport in Bown’s single-engine Cessna shortly after 1 p.m. on a misty March 2. Thirty minutes later, the small airplane plunged into the waters of High Rock Lake.

They both died in the crash. Despite a large recovery effort took divers a couple of days to recover Bown’s body from High Rock’s murky waters and salvage crews nearly a week to pull the plane’s cockpit and motor from the lake.

Bown was head of Performance Springs Inc., a Michigan company with ties to NASCAR, and was in the area on business. The couple were headed to Florida when they left Davidson County.

It was one of three fatal small-plane crashes in Rowan this year.

In June, 64-year-old Dieter Floeth crashed shortly after takeoff near his home at Gold Hill Airpark, a private community where homes have attached hangars. The Socata Trinidad Tobago airplane crashed into a wooded area and caught fire around 4 a.m.

In October, 49-year-old Cecil Brown died when the small experimental aircraft he was piloting crashed in Granite Quarry.

10. Mall withers, I-85 retail blooms

When New York real estate developer Igal Namdar bought the troubled Salisbury Mall out of foreclosure for $2.5 million in February, he expressed optimism that its many vacant spaces could be filled with new tenants.

Later in the year, Namdar learned he’ll have another big hole to fill, maybe two.

Belk is leaving the mall next year to anchor an expansion at Wallace Commons, the new shopping center just off Interstate 85 at Julian Road that already features a Kohl’s department store.

And while the its U.S. 70 location was seen as a prime shopping spot when the mall was built a quarter-century ago, retailers’ focus has shifted across town to the interstate. Along with Belk, the Wallace Commons expansion will have Ulta, Shoe Carnival and Michael’s.

And the exodus from the mall could continue. Big Lots is planning to move into the redeveloped Office Depot building next to Kmart on East Innes Street, according to plans on file with the county. The chain hasn’t confirmed it will close its store at the mall.

Namdar has remained upbeat in interviews. He says there are other potential tenants for the mall, retail and otherwise. He even said he’d be willing to sell the whole thing to the Rowan-Salisbury School System for a new central office.

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