Richmond County’s 2014 Stories of the Year

Voters reject sales tax, and with it goes potential

By Kevin Spradlin

Is it over yet? Well, almost. What a year it’s been.

From the good and the bad, quite a bit has taken place since Jan. 1 in this sleepy part of the state and country. You know, someone once said that Richmond County was a place to go and rest. That has hardly been the case.

The list Super 7 stories published today is the result of a two-hour discussion and voting by a five-person panel of avid readers. The focus of the discussion was the impact of each story on the Richmond County area. Nothing was left off from initial consideration — it was an open forum — and no story on any other list, or its ranking on those lists, were made available so as to enter this discussion with a clear and open mind, free of constraint or obligation.

The panel included Post columnist and local author Howard Richardson, sports writer Nick Beggs, Jackie McAuley, of Richmond County Soil and Water Conservation District and John Hutchinson, local historian, Rockingham City Council member and financial advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors. Each panelist responded to outreach from The Pee Dee Post for public participation.

The list that started the discussion included 12 stories. Another four were added. As it turns out, the first vote was pretty much all that was needed as things fell into place quite nicely. There was one tie between Nos. 2 and 3, but since no ties were permitted, the consensus of the group directed the list played out as you see it now.

This is the finale in an eight-part series to close out the year, looking back on the top videos, news and sporting events of 2014. Happy New Year, everyone.

Dec. 24 — By the numbers: Top videos of the year
Dec. 25 —  By the numbers: Top Sports/Outdoor stories
Dec. 26 —  By the numbers: Top News stories
Dec. 27 —  Super 7 Business stories
Dec. 27 — Fantastic 15 Photos of the Year
Dec. 28 — Super 7 Feel-good stories
Dec. 29 — Super 7 Sports stories
Dec. 30 — Super 7 Stories of the Year – final

No. 1 — Voters overwhelmingly reject sales tax referendum

RICHMOND COUNTY — It wasn’t even close.

In early voting and on Nov. 4, Richmond County voters soundly rejected a quarter-cent sales tax referendum that would have helped fund an expansive multi-purpose sports complex along Old Aberdeen Road. Nearly three out of every four county voters — 8,661, or 70.4 percent for to 3,638 against — said no thanks.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

Whether it was an issue of a confusing ballot — the referendum language failed to mention anything about a sports complex — or a lack of connection for voters between the “Vote Yes” campaign signs posted throughout the county and the sales tax referendum is unknown. But the finality of the vote left no ambiguity.

The sports complex is a project nearly a decade in the works, one that the city of Rockingham already has about $889,000 invested in required environmental studies and site preparation. Wisely, less than 20 percent of that figure is taxpayer money.

The 118-acre park was to include four baseball/softball fields, three youth baseball/softball fields, four more adult baseball/softball fields, an 18-hole disk golf course, a tennis facility, a soccer complex comprised of five playing fields and an activity center, complete with a miniature train, a splash park, a carousel, a playground and a dog park, among other amenities.

The park, as planned, would have freed up Browder Park and Bynum Park for additional youth and adult groups to play soccer, softball and more — and there is an ever-increasing demand for playing fields.

But voters said no — no to paying an additional 25 cents for every $100 spent shopping. No matter the reason, the result is the same: Richmond County voters decided not to invest in themselves and residents are stuck with the status quo. This is a decision, unless revisited, that could have negative consequences for years to come in the local worlds that are business and outdoor recreation.

No. 2 — Place of Grace Rescue Mission

EAST ROCKINGHAM —  The series of articles about what came to be known as the Place of Grace Rescue Mission is among the most transforming of any community in 2014. Anywhere.

Kevin Spradlin | Place of Grace began as a tent ministry and within a few months moved into a building.

Kevin Spradlin |
Place of Grace began as a tent ministry and within a few months moved into a building.

The year started with an organization calling itself the Richmond County Rescue Mission. Separately, a man named Mark Joplin had a dream of doing something for the homeless  and a New Life Church pastor named Gary Richardson had the means to make that dream a reality.

In September, volunteers spurred the opening of the Place of Grace tent city, an outdoor ministry aimed at helping the homeless get off the street and transition to a better, healthier, productive life. More than a place to keep the homeless off the streets or out of the downtown area, the intent was to make the world a better place one person at a time.

The tent city officially opened for business Sept. 6. The public hearing before the Richmond County Planning and Zoning Board of Adjustment was conducted on Oct. 7. It was amazing to hear people speak with such passion on both sides of the issue of whether or not to grant the conditional use permit for the location.

Board member Fred Morris made the motion to delay making a decision for up to 12 months, by which time church officials must approach the board with a plan for a permanent building. It allowed the Place of Grace tent city to remain in operation despite being in violation due to a lack of a permit — at least for the time being.

Turns out the group didn’t need 12 months but only one. In early November, Richardson announced that Place of Grace had been given a significant donation and leased a building a short trip down Airport Road from the tent city.

But that wasn’t the end of the good fortune. Shortly before Thanksgiving, Richardson and others announced that Place of Grace ministry had merged with Richmond County Rescue Mission to become the Place of Grace Rescue Mission.

Members of each group recently met together and “after discussing each of the organization’s visions, it was clear we were on parallel paths headed toward the same goal,” organization officials posted on the group Facebook page. “Realizing we could do so much more as a united team, we have now joined together …”

Dr. Robert L. Okin spent two years living on the streets with homeless people in California and is author of Silent Voices, His book discusses the many reasons people end up homeless and what happens to them once they are there. On Tuesday, Okin was interviewed on NPR’s The Diane Rhem Show and talked of one homeless man who, lacking access to dental care, ended up hospitalized with an infection that cost taxpayers nearly $500,000.

Leaving the homeless alone is not the answer, Okin said, but it is “an expensive problem not to solve.”

No. 3 — Same-sex marriage becomes legal in NC

ROCKINGHAM — If one is not among the oppressed, it’s probably difficult, if not next to impossible, to stand in another’s shoes and justify that the status quo is acceptable.

Kevin Spradlin | Linda Samol and Tiffany Swinson mark the first legal same-sex marriage in Richmond County with a kiss inside the Richmond County Magistrate's Office.

Kevin Spradlin |
Linda Samol and Tiffany Swinson mark the first legal same-sex marriage in Richmond County with a kiss inside the Richmond County Magistrate’s Office.

The marriage on Oct. 13 between Linda Samol and Tiffany Swinson was made possible on Oct. 10. That’s when a federal judge in North Carolina’s Western District issued an order permanently prohibiting defendants in a United Church of Christ lawsuit against North Carolina’s anti-LGBT amendment from enforcing the ban. U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. also denied Republican state leaders’ motion to intervene in the case.

At 8:41 a.m., the couple completed signing off on the related forms and walked to the nearby Richmond County Magistrate’s Office. Nine minutes later, Baxley began the ceremony, which lasted approximately two and one-half minutes.

The pair were surrounded by daughter Linnette Samol and son Steven Quiros and nearly a dozen supportive family members and friends.

The pair met some 18 months ago in a singles forum for lesbians on Facebook. The two have together since. As far back as June 2013, Linda Swinson said Tiffany began telling her that one day they’d be married.

Other than a twitching right leg, Linda and Tiffany appeared calm throughout the process of paperwork. They reflected on what the legal right to marry had on them.

“I’m personally not offended by” those who disagree, Linda said. Instead, she said, the focus was forward and on their future as a family.

“I’m grateful it finally happened,” she said. “I’m not forcing my sexuality on anybody.”

“It’s history being made,” Samol said.

On Tuesday, Register of Deeds Linda Douglas said four additional same-sex couples have applied for marriage licenses. As your mother might have said, the times, they are a changin’.

No. 4 — McInnis ousts McLaurin in state Senate race

ROCKINGHAM — On Nov. 4, McInnis, of Ellerbe, won 50.4 percent of the vote to oust one-term incumbent and former Rockingham mayor Gene McLaurin, a Democrat, from the senate seat. McInnis garnered 28,496 votes to McLaurin’s 26,632 (47.1 percent). Libertarian P.H. Dawkins, of Hamlet, tallied 2.5 percent (1,412 votes).

Shortly after The Pee Dee Post published the story on election night of Tom McInnis’ slim victory of incumbent Gene McLaurin for the District 25 state Senate seat, reader Camilla Hudson chimed in: “Great news for Richmond County! Now walk the walk.”

Kevin Spradlin | Tom McInnis, in the white shirt, shares the moment of verified victory Nov. 4 with family members as the state Board of Elections website was updated with the 69th and final precinct reporting in from District 25.

Kevin Spradlin |
Tom McInnis, in the white shirt, shares the moment of verified victory Nov. 4 with family members as the state Board of Elections website was updated with the 69th and final precinct reporting in from District 25.

The comment could be interpreted as a note of congratulations to the Republican from Ellerbe. Or it could be taken as a foreshadowing of things to come. To be sure, McInnis should be on notice already — yes, even four days before being sworn into office — because he will need to satisfy the voters who put him into office.

What’s the reason for caution? One need look no further than to McLaurin. The former Rockingham mayor did absolutely nothing to get him kicked out of office after a single, two-year term in the state legislature. McLaurin voted with a conscience and was outspoken on, among other things, the need to protect our drinking water as well as government transparency.

In the aftermath, McLaurin told the News & Observer that “the deciding factor” in the closely contested race was a last-minute television ad in which McLaurin’s policies and image were portrayed as a rubber stamp of President Barack Obama’s policies. Towards the end of the commercial, Obama’s image morphed into McLaurin’s.

That was difficult to swallow for the Democrat who was recruited by state Republicans to switch parties. As for the Republican who won, take note: McLaurin represented rural North Carolina as well as anyone, and if you can’t do better, then you, too, might be looking for the reason you lost the 2016 election.

No. 5 — Rockingam Speedway

ROCKINGHAM — While other stories on this list focus on what could have been and what could be, the bulk of the fifth most important story in Richmond County in 2014 is about what once was.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

On Sept. 18, after no small amount of time perusing a case file — a public record — inside the Richmond County Judicial Center, The Pee Dee Post broke the story about the takeover of Rockingham Speedway.  Track co-owners Andy Hillenburg, of Harrsburg, N.C., and Bill Silas, of Stuart, Fla., owed $4,532,796.23 as of Aug. 8 and were due in Richmond County Superior Court a week later.

The speedway is situated on 244.24 acres. The land alone is valued at about $2.5 million. Hillenburg and Silas purchased the track for $4 million in 2007 from Speedway Motorsports Inc. at an auction that had fewer than 10 bidders. Hillenburg worked as the on-site manager to build and promote the sport of racing. NASCAR abandoned the track in 2004. Hillenburg worked to bring lower-tier racing back and, in 2012, brought back NASCAR truck racing — but it wasn’t the same, and the gate receipts demonstrated fans knew the difference.

The final blow to Hillenburg’s efforts might have come in October 2013, when NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series schedule was released sans Rockingham. One month earlier, NASCAR officials announced the the K&N Pro Series East series in November 2013 had been canceled.

On Sept. 25, the Post once again was first to report that a deal seemed to be in the works, and that Judge W. David Lee was asked to grant an extension to the parties in order to allow them to reach an agreement that would keep the speedway out of foreclosure. Hillenburg and a small army of attorneys were involved in the discussions, as was Craig Northacker. Northacker is a forensic certified public accountant and executive director with, an organization that aims to assist American military service members from separation of service through stable, good-paying jobs. The idea is to rejuvenate the American economy through veteran leadership and labor, Northacker said at the time.

As it stands, the judge signed a consent order that put on hold foreclosure proceedings and allowed Hillenburg and Silas to work to find a new owner or arrange an auction by Jan. 1.

No. 6 — Hubbub in Hamlet

HAMLET — Though the tracks seem to be straightening and appear on a descent, in terms of ease, and an inline in terms of quality and civility, the bulk of 2014 was nothing but trouble and turmoil for the city of Hamlet.

Embattled City Manager Marchell Adams-David was under pressure since the 2013 election in which the election of Councilmen Eddie Martin and Jesse McQueen gave, along with Johnathan Buie, a new majority. While Adams-David grieved at the loss of her husband … an employment contract signed by Adams-David was voided by City Council on a technicality and a revised one was not offered.  resigned on July 21.

Then the dominoes began to fall.

* The very next day, Miranda Chavis resigned. Chavis served as downtown coordinator, Hamlet Depot Museum manager and generally one of the most passionate, outspoken caretakers of the city of 6,500.

* Out was Mitch Bowman. In early September, the parks and recreation director had had enough. Though he never publicly listed his gripes, he did his best to offer a parting shot.

Former Police Chief Amery Griffin announced his retirement in May. Capt. Rodney Tucker was appointed interim chief, but Tucker — a candidate for the position on a permanent basis — resigned to take a job with the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office.

Capt. Scott Waters was appointed interim chief and new City Manager Marcus Abernethy removed the interim tag on Nov. 21. Waters was sworn into office on Nov. 24. The first five weeks on the job have proved to be an uphill battle, at least administratively. Waters has a number of vacancies to fill, including a captain of investigations and a patrol captain.

The city of Hamlet ends the year, however, on a positive side. Abernethy is in place, and so is Waters. On Wednesday, Abernethy will announce his selection for Chavis’ replacement as downtown coordinator and museum manager. Next month, Abernethy is expected to announce the hiring of a  new parks and recreation manager.

It’s hoped that the city has the right people at the top because, beginning in 2015, some difficult decisions are going to have to be made. The dreaded “t” word — as in taxes — has been mentioned more than once and the city has an antiquated water distribution system and costly needs in nearly every department. In addition, the city still has the former A&P building and needs to decide what, if anything, to do with what some consider to be the next police headquarters.

No. 7 — Hitchcock Creek a ‘trail of discovery’

ROCKINGHAM — Tuesday, May 13 was a good day to be connected to the city of Rockingham.

Some might point out that any day is such a day, but for the dozens gathered ’round at the old Pee Dee Mill site at 615 Steele St., there couldn’t have been one better. At 4 p.m., dozens of local officials, city employees and dignitaries far and wide gathered to celebrate the official ribbon-cutting for Hitchcock Creek, a 3.67-mile stretch of blue trail from the Roberdel access point off Nicholson Road to downtown Rockingham.creek2

The ceremony marked the effort that goes back to a vision City Manager Monty Crump had around 2001.

“This is a long journey that we’ve been on,” said Michael “Squeak” Smith, board chairman for Resource Institute Inc. Resource Institute was one of more than three dozen partners, including government agencies, private foundations and businesses as well as individuals, who helped make the vision a reality.

Crump opened the ceremony with words of welcome, thanks and a bit of incredulity that the vision came to life.

“Pulling this project together, with all of these moving parts, has been incredible,” Crump said. “I’m speaking to folks who don’t need to be told this … it’s just phenomenal what the results are.”

There’s little down the Hitchcock Creek will help Rockingham and Richmond County become a destination getaway for those looking hit the water. Paddlers can put in at Roberdel and stop at the Steele Street access for a bite to eat — about three-quarters of a mile walk — before returning to their kayaks or canoes and going to Diggs Tract, camping and then on south along the Pee Dee River.

Honorable Mention

* Giving back: Dannell Ellerbe returns to Richmond County

ROCKINGHAM — Since graduating Richmond Senior High School, Dannell Ellerbe has excelled in his profession and is being paid a lot of money to perform at a high level.

Kevin Spradlin | Dannell Ellerbe signs autographs for children for whom he funded a Christmas shopping trip at Walmart on Dec. 22 in Rockingham.

Kevin Spradlin |
Dannell Ellerbe signs autographs for children for whom he funded a Christmas shopping trip at Walmart on Dec. 22 in Rockingham.

His focus is, justifiably, on his job and his family. No one ever would have thought twice if Ellerbe and his wife, Shervella, of Ellerbe, put Richmond County behind them. Dannell Ellerbe went on to play football at Georgia, then the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and then signing a five-year, $35 million free agent contract with the Miami Dolphins.

In July, Ellerbe returned to Rockingham to host his annual youth football clinic. Under a blazing sun, nearly 200 young athletes ages 5 to 17 put their talents on display on the Raider football practice field. Ellerbe saw the dedication in their movements and intensity in their desire. Neither the youth, nor their parents, paid for the camp — Ellerbe paid for it all. So the kids had nothing to lose by not showing up, or giving up when the streams of sweat became too much to bear.

No one quit. Ellerbe was moved. He and his wife decided to do more for Richmond County, an aspiration that became easier to make a reality when a hip injury sidelined him for the bulk of the 2014 season.

In November, Ellerbe returned to Rockingham in November to fund and distribute Thanksgiving meals to 85 seniors and family members at the Richmond County Aging Services building on South Lawrence Street. Ellerbe even provided curbside service for some individuals unable to conveniently leave their vehicles.

Mary Evers, of East Rockingham, said she was glad to see the NFL lifestyle hadn’t absorbed Ellerbe enough for him to forget his roots. He helps, she said, because “it’s from the heart. I think he likes giving back to people.”

And he wasn’t done giving. Before leaving town, Ellerbe reached out to a friend at the Richmond County Department of Social Services and said he wanted to help provide a Christmas to 59 children — the number being his jersey number with the Dolphins — who otherwise might not have one.

* Ashton Locklear wins world title

In a place calling Nanning, Ashton Locklear helped make history.

Photo by Xinhua / Wang Yuguo | Ashton Locklear of Team USA performs on the uneven bars during the women’s team final of the 45th Gymnastics World Championships in Nanning, capital of south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Oct. 8, 2014. Team USA won the title with a total of 179.280 points.

Photo by Xinhua / Wang Yuguo |
Ashton Locklear of Team USA performs on the uneven bars during the women’s team final of the 45th Gymnastics World Championships in Nanning, capital of south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Oct. 8, 2014. Team USA won the title with a total of 179.280 points.

Locklear, 16, of Hamlet, and the U.S. Women’s Team made USA Gymnastics history by winning the USA’s second consecutive World team title at the 2014 World Championships at the Guangxi Sports Center Gymnasium in southern China.

Locklear placed fourth overall on the uneven bars.

The USA led the entire competition, winning by a convincing 6.693 margin over runner-up China. Russia rounded out the top three. Team USA won the vault, uneven bars and floor exercise — three of four events in the women’s team final.

* The Pee Dee Post opens up shop

Perhaps no other first-year business has impacted its industry in Richmond County in recent history than The Pee Dee Post in community journalism.

Since launched on April 28, it’s allowed consumers of local news to have a timely and reliable source instead of having to wait 10 to 18 hours, or sometimes days, for the report to come out in a printed edition. The reports written from information gathered on scene, and not from the office, and often are accompanied by vibrant and expansive photo galleries that help tell the story better than the words themselves.

The new business model, one that is supported by paid advertising and financial contributions who appreciate local news, seems to be a hit through eight months and approaches the start of 2015 with a high degree of optimism.

Perhaps a testament to the important of The Pee Dee Post is this: There never was an introductory story for The Pee Dee Post and explain just what is intended to be. Instead, the Post went right to work. The first story? A first-hand report (including photos and video) about 554 youth from across North Carolina taking part in the 36th annual Youth Hunter Education Skills Tournament at the Millstone 4-H Center east of Ellerbe.



Filed in: Latest Headlines, Outdoors, Sports

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