Recession tops all other news for 2009
They tell us the worst is over, the nation’s economy is on the road to recovery.
But for local residents who watched their livelihoods evaporate, business owners forced to say goodbye to loyal employees, retailers who saw sales shrivel and agencies that provide help still overwhelmed by the need for their services, recovery is, for now, just a word.
The effects of the nation’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s reached every corner of Rowan County and hit hard, and those effects will linger. That’s why the Post news staff voted the Great Recession the top local news story of 2009.
At the end of each year, the staff chooses the top news stories. And readers can too. Log on to our Web site, www.salisburypost.com, to vote for the story you think was the biggest, had the most impact or was just the most interesting in 2009.
Though we suffered through swine flu, watched county commissioners clash with the local ABC Board over money and records, and even got a break from it all when our American Legion team made a run at a national title, the voting wasn’t even close here at the Post. The recession took top billing in a landslide.
That’s not surprising. Though it started in December 2008, the recession really poured on the economic misery in 2009.
Unemployment in Rowan reached levels not seen since the recession of the early 1980s, peaking in July at nearly 14 percent. The jobless rate dipped before climbing back above 13 percent in October, the last month for which the figures are available.
All those job losses mean, of course, that businesses weren’t doing well. Freightliner, one of the county’s major employers, first announced plans to eliminate its second shift due to declining orders. Then the company reduced its first-shift workforce by a third.
Performance Fibers announced it would cut employment here by 20 percent. More than 1,000 people lined up to apply for jobs at the new Olive Garden and Longhorn restaurants. And in November, W.A. Brown & Son, a century-old Salisbury company, locked the doors when its owners couldn’t secure financing.
The hard times hit home. Foreclosures spiked in Rowan. Hundreds lined up for free food distributions at the Salisbury Civic Center. People in need poured into Rowan Helping Ministries and similar agencies. In February, 20,000 of Rowan’s 52,000 families were receiving help from the Department of Social Services.
Sandra Wilkes, Social Services director, told county commissioners demand on the agency was “absolutely at an all-time high.”
The recession drove more people to libraries where they could borrow instead of buy even as the economy forced the county to cut back on library hours and all local governments to make tough budgeting decisions on personnel, pay and services.
The phrase “furlough days” became part of the vernacular.
And more drivers chose to keep their cars going instead of buying new, though the federal government’s Cash for Clunkers program provided a bright spot for auto dealers and deals for folks who could still afford a new car.
2. The boys of summer
For three weeks in August, the Rowan American Legion Team took our minds off the hard times by making an incredible ó and some would say improbable ó run to the American Legion World Series in Fargo, N.D.
They got there by winning the state and Southeast regional titles, injecting a little drama into each. And they very nearly pulled off the most dramatic rally in Legion World Series history, coming up a run shy of completing a comeback against eventual champion Midland, Mich., after trailing 12-0.
A large contingent of fans followed the team to North Dakota, but they weren’t the only ones following the cinderella story.
Denon Hogue, a barber at Ted’s Barbershop, said at the time he hadn’t paid much attention to Legion baseball until the local team made it the big time.
“I just like the story, a small town making it to the limelight,” he said.
Though they came in third in Fargo, Rowan’s boys of summer were victorious in capturing the attention and imagination of folks all over Rowan looking for some good news in a sea of bad. They gave us something to smile about. If their success came as a surprise to some, it was a surprise we needed.
“Nobody ever thought we’d make it this far,” said relief pitcher Alex Litaker, who closed out Rowan’s last two games in Fargo. “Coming into the year we knew we had a good team, but I don’t think anybody in the world knew we were this good.”
3. Money and alcohol
It began with Rowan County commissioners wanting to know why the Rowan-Kannapolis ABC System turned over less in profits to local governments than comparable systems and grew into a controversy over the system’s finances in general and a clash between county and ABC officials.
And it ended with a shakeup of the ABC Board and the system emptying its coffers.
In April, the ABC Board rejected a request for an efficiency study to determine why Rowan’s system ranked near the bottom in the state for profits turned distributed to governments despite having $8 million in annual sales.
Board members said the merger of the Rowan and Kannapolis ABC systems and new store openings more than tripled the system’s debt and an aggressive effort to pay off that debt prevented the system from turning over more money to the county and municipalities.
ABC Board members at first refused to provide commissioners with requested reports on salaries, bonuses, raises and credit card statements. Then the board said it would provide the public records but would charge the county for them. The ABC Board finally turned over the records at no charge.
Among other things, the records showed about $24,000 spent at restaurants and hotels from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Fla., over nearly two years.
The board agreed to an efficiency study.
In early July, commissioners shook up the ABC Board. Though Andrews had sought reappointment, commissioners instead appointed Linda Lowman, a former ABC system manager critical of the current operation. And they appointed her chairman.
In late July, at the last meeting for Andrews as a member, the ABC Board voted to turn over $211,000 ó all the remaining profits from the fiscal year that ended June 30. That was in addition to $70,000 the system had already distributed for that fiscal year.
4. End of the road: Between High Rock and a hard place
In June, Dave Risdon, a former Boston banker who struggled for years to get High Rock Raceway off the ground in Spencer, was forced out of the ownership group after failing to repay nearly $500,000 to the daughter of partner Frank McGuire.
The exit of the project’s founder didn’t seem to help its fortunes. The proposed race track continued to struggle. Risdon admitted after his departure what he would not during his time as head of High Rock Raceway, that “the basic problem we have had is that the funding is not there.”
Meanwhile, McGuire said the remaining partners continued to seek $30 million in financing and were working to deal with unpaid debts from the Risdon era.
Those assurances did not provide enough comfort to prevent a Greensboro veterinarian who paid $25,000 down on a townhome at the proposed race track to force an auction of the 200-acre property. It was sold for $800 on the steps of the Rowan County courthouse, though the amount has been increased a couple of times in the ongoing upset bid process.
Risdon’s ejection also threw into further doubt that more than 300 ex-employees of Color-Tex ó the mill that used to stand on the property before former company board member Risdon bought and demolished it ó would ever receive some $100,000 owed to them in back wages.
5. A case of the flu
In the spring, a new strain of flu caused an outbreak of fear.
The H1N1 virus, more commonly known as swine flu to the consternation of hog farmers and pork retailers, originated in Mexico but quickly spread. And so did fear about the flu, which proved deadly for many because of its novelty.
Health officials told people to do what they always do to avoid illness, such as washing or sanitizing their hands often and covering their mouths when coughing. Some took more extreme measures, wearing surgical masks in public, though none were spotted in Rowan.
For Rowan residents, swine flu effects spread far.
In May, Cameron Kirker of Salisbury was quarantined in Hong Kong because he stayed in a hotel visited by someone who had the flu. In July, Dr. Jewell Mayberry, a professor at Pfeiffer University, spent a week quarantined in China after a fellow passenger on her flight there tested positive for the virus.
In June, health officials said a 3-year-old had tested positive with Rowan County’s first case of swine flu.
Schools elsewhere shut down when swine flu hit and school systems in Rowan and Cabarrus counties urged sick children to stay home ó or sent them home ó and made their own plans to deal with any outbreak, as did colleges and other agencies where people gather in close quarters.
On one day in October, 180 Erwin Elementary students either stayed home or were sent home sick, though by that point health officials were no longer trying to confirm individual swine flu cases.
And in September, Rowan Regional Medical Center joined a host of other hospitals in banning visitors younger than 18 because, the hospital said, children and adolescents are more susceptible to swine flu and are often contagious before they exhibit symptoms.
When vaccines reached Rowan, the county’s Health Department began conducting well-attended clinics.
6. Alcoa, state clash over Yadkin Hydroelectric Project
Alcoa Power Generating Inc.’s efforts to win a new federal license for operating the Yadkin Hydroelectric Project hit a major roadblock in 2009 with the introduction and debate of legislation aimed at a state takeover.
Senate Bill 967 proposed creation of the Yadkin River Trust to develop, sell and distribute power generated by the hydroelectric project, which takes in a 38-mile stretch of the Yadkin River and includes the High Rock, Tuckertown, Narrows and Falls reservoirs.
In May, the N.C. Senate approved the bill by a 44-4 vote, but the House voted 66-39 against the legislation in August.
Legislators who favor a state trust, including Rowan Reps. Lorene Coates and Fred Steen, said they don’t like the idea of a private company controlling public water. The pro-trust camp also argued that since Alcoa’s Badin plant has shut down and the company no longer needs the hydroelectric project to run its Badin smelter, Alcoa no longer should have the license and, with it, control of the water and its flow.
But Alcoa spokesmen characterized the efforts as a government taking of private business.
Gov. Bev Perdue sides with a public trust and has opposed the relicensing of the hydroelectric project to Alcoa. On her behalf, the state of North Carolina filed a motion in September with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission making arguments against Alcoa’s continued operation of the project.
7. Sheriff George Wilhelm steps down after 11 years in office
After 11 years in office and with one year left on his term, Rowan County Sheriff George Wilhelm retired Nov. 30 to the surprise of many local political observers.
Earlier in the year, Wilhelm said he would be running again in 2010, but he soon began asking the county to give him vacation and sick days going back 11 years, a move that would add more than a year to his retirement benefits.
“I know this is quick, but I believe it’s best for the Sheriff’s Department,” Wilhelm told the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. He said the timing of his announcement also gave prospective candidates plenty of time to prepare.
The state had placed Wilhelm’s secretary, Kathy Hudgins, on leave while the State Bureau of Investigation looked into the possible misappropriation of cash in the office.
Chief Deputy Kevin Auten stepped in as acting sheriff, and he continued to serve in that capacity as the year ended. County commissioners have the option of appointing a new sheriff to fill out Wilhelm’s term or make no decision and allow Auten to stay in the position through the 2010 election.
Meanwhile, the Rowan County Republican Executive Committee has recommended Tony Yon to fill Wilhelm’s unexpired term. Yon is a Davidson County sheriff’s deputy who once ran for Rowan sheriff.
8. School redistricting: Plan, then plan again
As always, the question of changing district lines and sending students to new schools caused plenty of reaction in Rowan County, starting with release of the first plans in September.
A N.C. State educational consulting company was paid $40,000 to come up with possible redistricting plans and, by year’s end, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education was considering a 40th different option from the company.
The education board originally instructed OR/ED to develop redistricting options based on objective data that would result in utilizations between 80 and 87 percent at each high school.
Public hearings drew scores of parents protesting the board’s initial redistricting plan.
Earlier this month, the board voted 6-1 to proceed with a new high school redistricting plan that would leave the Carson and South Rowan districts intact.
The new proposal makes the controversial recommendations that Salisbury’s Country Club section go to North Rowan; the Morlan Park area in Salisbury move from East Rowan to North; the Westcliffe section of Salisbury from West Rowan to North; and the N.C. 150 corridor, including the Summerfield, Windmill Ridge and Hidden Hut subdivisions from West to Salisbury.
If the board moves ahead with its latest plans, a public hearing will be held Jan. 19 at Knox Middle School.
9. Three plead guilty after dentist murdered in his Country Club home
Three people charged in the 2008 murder of Salisbury dentist Dr. James David Boyd were sentenced earlier this month to 19 to 40 years in prison.
Christopher Allen Boyd (no relation to the doctor), Jonathan Alexander Barnett and Candice Jo Drye pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and numerous other charges.
Christopher Boyd, 22, of Kannapolis, was identified as the dentist’s killer and will spend at least 40 years in prison with a maximum of 50 years.
The dentist died in a robbery that went wrong June 26, 2008, and he was killed after one of the masked robbers, Barnett, blurted out Christopher Boyd’s name.
District Attorney Bill Kenerly said Christopher Boyd replied, “He knows my name. I have to kill him.”
After the murder, authorities said Dr. Boyd had been under investigation by local and state agencies over allegations of trading prescription drugs for sex at his office on Statesville Boulevard. Drye had told authorities she was one of the women who traded sexual favors for drugs.
Dr. Boyd’s body was found in the master bedroom of his Country Club home. It was discovered by an employee from his dental practice who went to the home after Boyd failed to show up for work. He had been strangled. His hands and feet were bound by electrical cords cut off from lights or appliances.
Before he was killed, Boyd apparently was cut several times as the robbers forced him to say where several hundred dollars in cash could be found.
10. Former mayor taken into custody after armed standoff
Former Spencer Mayor Alicia Bean faces two felony counts of assault on law enforcement officers with a firearm after her bizarre standoff with police May 15 in the backyard of her house at 218 N. Yadkin Ave.
Police were first summoned to the house in response to a suicide threat. Bean held responding officers at bay with an assault rifle, which she alternatively shook in the air or in the direction of officers.
Bean also screamed, shook her hands above her head and walked in and out of at storage building at the rear of her property. Officers eventually sneaked around the building before rushing Bean and tackling her inside.
The standoff lasted for about an hour. Officers later learned that the rifle was not loaded.
Bean went to Rowan Regional Medical Center before being transferred to Broughton State Hospital, a mental health facility, from which she was released into officers’ custody in September.
She was placed under $20,000 unsecured bond and $5,000 secured bond and is out of custody awaiting trial.