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the opening ceremonies.
Following the success of the Onion Festival, it appeared the community was beginning to get back to normal. Until the Delta Variant hit us in the late spring and early summer, we were starting to believe we could breathe a sigh of relief. The second and third waves of the COVID virus were more deadly than the first, and this time its victims were younger. That crisis peaked in September, but in the last days of 2021, another variant named Omicron—thought to be more contagious but less lethal—started to emerge. Unfortunately, health experts now say that we may be contending with some form of the virus for a while. Vaccinations, boosters, masks and social distancing are still being advocated by health care providers. And we began to feel the effects of the nationwide supply chain disruption. It was reminiscent of a temporary gas shortage caused by a cyber attack on a regional gas supplier in May.
While health protocols were in place from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, thanks to Governor Brian Kemp, Georgia had never shut down completely due to the virus. Still, at the beginning of 2021, business owners were struggling. Many had been unable to weather the pandemic; others were having trouble attracting workers who had been sustained with federal pandemic relief funds. Later, Governor Kemp refused to extend these benefits because of their adverse impact on Georgia businesses.
After resorting to virtual learning for a majority of the 2020-2021 term schools were able to resume on-campus classes in Fall of 2021, although not without a few hiccups that caused some delayed openings and temporary closures. At the end of December 2021, with vaccine now readily available to all adults and children as young as five, and an abundance of caution, COVID cases among school and staff are few and far between.
The year was one for achievement in the educational realm, including the Fall opening of the Eagle Academy at Montgomery County Schools and the system’s achievement of receiving accolades for a 100% graduation rate in 2021-2022. Both the Southeastern Early College and Career Academy (SECCA) and Toombs County Schools launched new, innovative programs to groom a future workforce.
In addition to the beloved Onion Festival, other community events that went forward in 2021 included the annual “Real Squeal,” which attracted a large turnout throughout its two days of festivities in downtown Lyons and at Partin Park. The famous park, site of Lyons’ annual soapbox derby racing, was also the set this summer for a movie produced by local music celebrity Luther Wardlaw. Titled, “Blue Lightning,” the film is about a grandfather and granddaughter who bond over the sport of soapbox racing, for which Lyons is famous, and is due to be released in 2022. Speaking of movies, The Sweet Onion Cinema, which closed during the pandemic in 2020, has been remodeled and has reopened for business.
The year was one of progress in our community as Meadows Regional Medical Center was bought by healthcare giant HCA. The hospital’s name changed to Memorial Health Meadows Hospital and Matt Hasbrouck was named new CEO. The merger enabled the Vidalia- based hospital to connect with the services of HCA throughout the region, including Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah. In the first five months of HCA’s ownership of Meadows, $12.5 million has been invested in equipment and services at Meadows, which has, in turn, attracted new talent in the medical field.
Some major strides were made in Toombs County with ground being broken for the long-anticipated courthouse in Lyons. The new 50,000-squarefoot structure will replace a 50-year-old building.
Also, a campaign was launched to renovate and expand the Vidalia-Toombs County Library, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home in Lyons marked 60 years of service. Vidalia Heritage Academy celebrated 25 years as an educational leader and former Arkansas Governor and 2016 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee came to town in October to help make the occasion even more memorable.
In November, Altamaha EMC announced a $29 million broadband project that will supply 1500 miles of fiber optic cable to the area. Broadband plans were also announced in Mount Vernon and Alamo as Glenwood Telephone Company has already begun its project to install fiber optics in Wheeler and Montgomery counties.
As 2022 dawns, we are still optimistic that the future will be bright, that COVID will fade, that we have learned lessons and grown stronger through our struggles, and that we are united in the endeavor to keep moving our communities forward. The Year in Review through the Pages of The Advance
Following are highlights of significant events which occurred in 2021 in The Advance coverage area of Toombs, Montgomery and Wheeler counties. The events are listed chronologically and by the date they were reported.
The first dose of COVID- 19 Moderna vaccine was administered to Dr. Kurt Hofmann, a surgeon at Meadows Regional Medical Center. At that time, the vaccine was available to health care workers, first responders and to persons over 65.
Tina S. Lindsey was sworn in as Toombs County Probate Judge, replacing Larry Threlkeld, who held that office for 12 years.
Kaiser Jay Salem was the first baby born at Meadows Regional Medical Center. He entered the world on January 1 at 3:51 a.m. Chicken of the Sea in Lyons announced it had increased productivity by 20%, increased its work force by 10% and produced 26 million cans of shelf-table tuna to help meet the challenge of feeding the masses during the health pandemic.
Ginger Morris took office as the first female commissioner on the Montgomery County Commission.
The Montgomery-Toombs County Chamber of Commerce held a virtual pre-legislative forum featuring Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, and District 156 State Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia. The Senior Chief Justice renewed the statewide judicial emergency, in force since mid-March 2020, urging courts to use technology whenever legal and practical to conduct court business. Altama Museum launched its Second Century Project to raise funds for the restoration of the 1911 Brazell House, the museum’s headquarters.
Meadows Boards approved the sale of Meadows Regional Medical Center to HCA, with the deal expected to close in April.
Area home sales were over $90 million in 2020, and Tom Peterson Realtors was named Top Real Estate Company for 2020 by the Altamaha Board of Realtors.
Governor Brian Kemp reported 16,000 jobs were created in Georgia during the first half of FY 2021, generating nearly $6 billion in new investments.
The City of Vidalia began the new year with a new City Clerk and Finance Director. Amy Murray began her duties on January 4, replacing Bill Bedingfield, who retired after 13 years of service.
The Wheeler County FFA Land Judging Team won first place in the Area IV FFA Land Judging Career Development Event on January 12.
Toombs County Board of Education welcomed new member John Dixon, District representative.
Farmers Insurance, Edward Jones Investment Company, J. Leigh Hair Studio, and Georgia Peach Boutique celebrated their collective opening in downtown Vidalia Half-way through FY2021, Georgia revenue was exceeding its budget by over $700 million and personal income tax and sales tax, Georgia revenue drivers, continued to grow through the pandemic.
Governor Kemp announced in his State of the State address that he was putting more focus on rural Georgia, earmarking $40 million to establish a Rural Innovation Fund and $30 million to continue building high-speed broadband connectivity in rural areas.
Vidalia teacher Bobby George was named local, district and state Teacher of the Year by the Toombs County, District 6 and Georgia Veterans of Foreign Wars and Auxiliaries.
Beloved local citizen Helen Threlkeld Darby passed away at the age of 102.
Brewton-Parker College named Debbi Byarly as Director of Nursing.
Fallen Alamo Police Officer Art Villegas, who died January 10 from COVID- 19 complications after a presumed exposure while on duty, was honored posthumously by the global nonprofit group Point 27.
The 2021 Vidalia Onion Festival Committee announced that the festival would go forward on April 22-25. The City of Vidalia and East Georgia Healthcare Center teamed up to offer COVID-19 vaccinations.
Middle Georgia Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tripp Fitzner called on the faith community to support a new early intervention program designed to offer positive alternatives for young people headed toward a career in crime. Montgomery County Schools issued a mask mandate for bus riders beginning February 16 in compliance with CDC protocol. Brewton-Parker Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Rachel Kaslowski, published a paper with the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.
Days of heavy rain closed roads in the area and caused flood warnings to be issued. Harold Quarterman, lead custodian at the Montgomery County Middle-High School, won the first ever Georgia RISE Award which honors classified school employees.
Georgia became a Top 10 Exporting State for the first time in 2020. Georgia businesses exported $38.8 billion in goods in 2020, reaching 215 countries and territories and suffered the lowest rate of export contraction despite the effects of the pandemic.
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surrounding the Toombs County Courthouse in Lyons in preparation for work on its 50,000-squarefoot, $34 million replacement.
Plans were announced for renovations and upgrades to the Vidalia-Toombs County Library.
Area teachers and school staff rolled up their sleeves to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Beginning March 8, eligibility for vaccinations was extended to include teachers and staff at public and private schools and eligible daycare centers.
Saborris Johnson was named the first Vidalia Sweet Onion Citizen by the City of Vidalia for his volunteer efforts to make the walk to school safer for neighborhood children.
Montgomery School Superintendent Hugh Kight was terminated by the Board of Education in a March 18 session, promoting an emotional outpouring from a stunned community who supported the popular superintendent. Kight said that his vision and the board’s vision differed. Jennifer Evans won her bid for the Ward 2 Seat on the Vidalia City Commission that was previously held by Gregory Johnson. He resigned to seek the Mayor’s post. The Great Vidalia Chamber debuted in a western-themed event at Hawk’s Point. Chamber Board Chair Steven Mc-Comas said the new name is part of a holistic branding effort for the Chamber that includes a new logo, new website and an aggressive marketing strategy.
Wheeler County opened the first of six fenced and staffed waste disposal centers, replacing unsightly dumpsters distributed around the county. Meadows Health Auxiliary presented a $50,000 check for a new 3D mammogram machine to CEO Alan Kent. The check completed the auxiliary’s $100,000 commitment for the equipment’s purchase.
Dr. Mark Davidson was appointed interim superintendent for Montgomery County Schools pending a search for a new superintendent. Davidson was a part-time instructor for the Montgomery County School System and former Superintendent for Wheeler County Schools.
Wheeler County School System broke ground for its new school, to be built on the site of the present middle-high school in Alamo.
Israel Timothy Williams was convicted and sentenced for his role in the 2019 murder of Bandon Colson in Lyons. Williams was convicted of malice murder. District 156 Representative Greg Morris, RVidalia, resigned his seat as the 12th District representative in the Georgia House after being assigned to the State Board of Transportation. He replaced Don Grantham, who left the DOT Board to assume a position on the Georgia Ports Authority.
Debra Brown moved into her new home on 5th Avenue in Vidalia. She was the first person to benefit from the work of the nonprofit Urban Revitalization Group, which is made of local volunteers. The group has plans to revitalize neglected housing as new homes for worthy individuals.
Ground was broken for a new Toombs County Courthouse on April 21. City of Vidalia and City of Lyons officials came together to symbolically “bury the hatchet” and mark the beginning of a new courthouse era. The significance of the hatchet harkened back to the days of the county’s founding when there was controversy about where the county seat would be located.
The 2021 Citizens of the Year were named. Pat Dixon was named Woman of the Year and James Thompson was named Man of the Year in the 73rd Annual Vidalia Citizen of the Year banquet.
Governor Brian Kemp opened ceremonies at the 2021 Vidalia Onion Festival, which attracted a crowd of about 7,500.
Meadows Hospital officially merged with HCA’s South Atlantic Division as HCA bought the formerly community-owned facility and most of its assets for $73 million. As Memorial Health Meadows Hospital, the facility connects with HCA’s system of facilities and expertise, including Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah. In addition to a name change, the regional hospital adopted a new logo: the Caring Star that represents the critical continued from page
link between team members, physicians, patients and the community.
The Lyons City Council honored late Councilman Ben Mitchell by renaming a street at Vincent Faison, Sr., Park in his honor. Mitchell served on the Council for three decades.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger set June 15 as the date for a special election to fill the post of Representative Greg Morris.
Area motorists were greeted with bags over gas pump dispensers announcing, “Sorry, Out of Service.” Whether the area gas shortage was due to panic buying was debatable, but, in any event, the effects of a cyber attack on a major, regional gas supplier were being felt locally.
Three area residents qualified to seek the District 156 House seat previously held by Greg Morris. Businesswoman Leesa Hagan, car salesman Wally Sapp of Baxley, and writer and entrepreneur Wright Gres of Appling County all threw their hats into the ring.
Over 50 area businesses— from corporate giants to small, locally owned establishments—reported difficulty in finding workers. Federal COVID relief benefits were blamed and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp stopped these benefits (on June 26) due to the adverse impact on businesses. Brewton-Parker College’s four-year nursing program was approved by the Georgia Board of Nursing to start in the Fall of 2022.
Dr. Beverly Faircloth was named Assistant Superintendent and Curriculum Director of Montgomery County Schools. She replaced Marcee Poole, who resigned.
Vidalia Apicultural Services and Bee Company was named a Georgia Department of Economic Development 2021 Small Business Rock Star. The recognition came in conjunction with Georgia Small Business Week, May 3-8. The local business was one of six Georgia enterprises to receive the honor.
The Greater Vidalia Chamber and Toombs County Development Authority hosted the Vibrant Community Workshop in downtown Vidalia. The workshop brought together community leaders to work together to enhance the area’s economic development. Georgia Power facilitated the event.
The Lyons Housing Authority received a $500,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to clean up lead paint hazards in community public housing.
The Georgia Department
of Transportation announced a plan to clean up about five miles of an old rail line running through Vidalia and Amberwood Subdivision. Residents of the established neighborhood expressed concern about the damage which might be caused to their home sites.
Voters in the House District 156 race learned they were going back to the polls in a July 13 runoff to select a new representative. Neither Leesa Hagan nor Wally Sapp achieved more than 50% of the vote. A local campaign to bring out voters was launched by area business and elected officials.
Memorial Health Meadows Hospital named Matt Hasbrouck as new CEO. The former COO at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah assumed his duties on July 5, replacing Alan Kent, who retired from his post after 21 years of service.
An announcement was made that the Vidalia branch building of the Ohoopee Regional Library System is to be renamed for Dr. Mark Spivey and Tonya Spivey, who contributed $250,000 toward the structure’s
renovation, expansion and technological upgrade.
Construction is on target for the new Wheeler County School, which is scheduled to open in Fall of 2022. The 167,262-squarefoot structure will cost $36 million to build and will accommodate Prekindergarten through 12th grades.
Partin Park was the location of the filming of “Blue Lightning,” a movie produced by musical celebrity Luther Wardlaw of
Photo by Deborah Clark
Toombs County. State Senator Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, as Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was named to all three of the Georgia Jobs and Infrastructures Committees. The committees guided the awarding of funds to Georgia through the federal ARPA.
It was announced that Eagle Academy in Montgomery County, an educational opportunity for elementary level high achievers, was to open its doors in the Fall.
Interstate 16 was reopened in just two days after a dump truck heavily damaged the Highway 86 bridge overpass. While the interstate was soon operational, reconstruction on the Highway 86 bridge stretched out for months.
Leesa Hagan of Vidalia was victorious in the bid for the State House 15 seat as voters on her home turf rallied. Wheeler County wood producer TC Logging was awarded a $2.65 million grant by the state Public Service Commission for a gas line expansion. The funds are to be used to increase wood production at the large logging and sawmill operation outside of Alamo.
Local physician Geoff Conner warned the public about the dangerous Delta Variant as a highly-contagious COVID mutation. Cases of the new virus were beginning to increase across the state. Area schools announced plans to reopen for face-to-face instruction the first week of August.
Vidalia Mayor Doug Roper was named to the State’s Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Committee. The committee regulates the operation of private postsecondary colleges and schools in Georgia.
A delegation of area leaders attended a public hearing on state and congressional redistricting held in Macon. The session was one of several held in Georgia ahead of the Special Prelegislative Session on Redistricting and hosted by the Georgia House and Senate Redistricting Committees.
Altama Museum of Art and History was awarded a $6,000 bridge grant by the Georgia Council for the Arts. The Museum announced plans to hold a kickoff for the 2021 season and a grand reopening once restoration work on the Museum headquarters was complete.
The Delta Variant caused a resurgence of COVID in the community. The patient census at the local hospital peaked. None of the COVID patients had received vaccinations in advance of becoming ill. Montgomery County schools delayed the start of Fall classes, and Prekindergarten classes were paused in Wheeler County schools because of the virus. A systemwide mandate for masking up was issued.
Vaccinations were urged as COVID numbers continued to climb. Meadows Hospital reported that 12 people were on ventilators, the highest number in the facility’s history. The hospital was at maximum capacity and sending more critically ill patients to other facilities for treatment.
Toombs County Schools implemented a unique pathway for students as the Heavy Equipment Operations Program was launched. The Career, Technology and Agricultural Education program is the first of its kind in the state, and Georgia is among three in the nation with this type of program.
Greg Johnson and Doug Roper qualified to seek the Mayor’s Post; Sonja Eason and Cathy Benton qualified to seek the Ward 2 seat on the Lyons City Council; Tracy Johnson qualified to seek the Ward 1 seat on the Council and John E. Moore qualified to seek the Ward 4 seat on the Council. The election was set for November 2. COVID was hitting the community hard, but health experts expected the epidemic to be near its peak. After community clinics were established, it appeared the public was heeding the call to get vaccinated.
Vidalia Police Commissioner Brian Scott was terminated following his re-indictment on charges stemming from an investigation in Glynn County, where he was formerly employed. Scott was charged with violation of oath by a public officer.
The COVID epidemic peak date was pushed to September 15 as cases continued to climb. As of August 30, Meadows Hospital had treated 57 COVID patients, ages 30 to 54, with 15 of these on ventilators. The hospital is licensed for 70 patients but was accommodating the overflow in areas normally reserved for postoperative and outpatient care. “There are no beds to be had,” one hospital official said.
A free, drive-through COVID test site was set up at Meadows Hospital. The mobile test site, initiated September 1, was seeing approximately 40 to 60 patients daily. Construction on the Vidalia branch building of the Ohoopee Regional Library System, to be named the Dr. Mark and Tonya Spivey Public Library when completed, was put on a fast track due to combined local fundraising efforts and state assistance. The project was initially expected to require three years to complete. “Make It, Move It” was launched at the Southeastern Early College and Career Academy. The fast-track educational program, focused on training students in manufacturing and logistics, was a partnership between SECCA and community businesses.
Altama Museum of Art and History announced plans to celebrate its 40 years in the community and the second hundred years of the 1911 Brazell mansion, its headquarters, with a front porch event on September 16.
Vidalia police were able to defuse a dangerous situation without any injuries after a suspect in a pawn store robbery opened gunfire on them downtown. The suspect was apprehended and later the officers involved in the incident received recognition for their professionalism and bravery.
Dress code complaints brought parents and students to a session of the Vidalia City Schools Board of Education meeting. The complaints stemmed from an incident in which a student was called out for wearing clothing displaying the American flag.
Election integrity was the focus of a town hall meeting hosted by Vidalia Senator Blake Tillery, RVidalia, on September 16. The session provided an update on the controversial topic about which Tillery had received numerous contacts.
The Georgia Public Service Commission approved a $9.4 million regional gas line project, which will substantially increased the capacity of a gas line running through Wheeler County. The expansion will benefit several area counties.
As the COVID virus abates, elective surgery resumes at Meadows Hospital.
Local businessman Tommy Rollins was named Lions Citizen of the Year at a banquet held September 30.
The Montgomery County Board of Education named veteran educator Dr. Stan Rentz as the finalist for the Superintendent’s position. Rentz is the former Schools Superintendent in Jeff Davis County.
It was announced that the big guns were coming to town as Lyons prepared for its 10th annual Real Squeal BBQ Festival and Cookoff on October 8 and 9.
Dylan Harrison was working his first shift on October 9 as an Alamo police officer when he was gunned down in front of the police station in downtown Alamo. After an intensive manhunt, authorities apprehended suspect, Damien Ferguson of Alamo, who was charged with murder. Later, two other suspects were charged in connection with the incident.
Former Arkansas Governor and 2016 Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee headlined the 25th anniversary celebration of Vidalia Heritage Academy on October 5. The fundraising event was held at First Baptist Church in Vidalia and drew a capacity crowd, which helped put VHA over its fundraising goal.
Dr. Stan Rentz was named new Montgomery County Schools Superintendent, allowing Dr. Mark Davidson to step down from his duties as interim Superintendent.
Georgia’s new Rural Strike Team held its inaugural session in Vidalia. The team heard from representatives from area counties about their economic development needs. The Team, headed by Executive Director Brian Marlowe of Tifton, was formed to assist Georgia’s rural counties in fostering and furthering economic development goals. Montgomery County Schools achieved a perfect graduation score in the 2020-2021 academic year and earned top honors in the Georgia High School Association Class A Public Region 4.
Altamaha EMC announced a $29 million broadband project that will supply 1500 miles of fiber optic cable to the area. The project will extend from Toombs County to East Dublin and cover Montgomery County and portions of Tattnall, Treutlen and Laurens County. Also, in 2021, Windstream/Kinetic announced fiber optic projects in Mount Vernon and Alamo.
In November 2 balloting, Doug Roper won re-election to the Vidalia Mayor’s post, and Cathy Benton displaced Sonja Eason in the race for the Ward 2 post on the Lions City Council.
United Way of Toombs, Montgomery and Wheeler Counties exceeded its goal of $460,000 and raised over $477,000 to serve the area.
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awarded to the Wheeler County Schools to build a telemedicine and distance learning network.
Elementary school teacher Karen Walker was named the Montgomery County School District’s Teacher of the Year.
Ronnie Bates of Laurens County was named to the Little Ocmulgee EMC’s Board of Directors following an election at the LOEMC annual meeting in Alamo.
The names of 16 veterans were added to a memorial in downtown Alamo during a Veterans Day ceremony. Middle school instructor Elizabeth Adams was named the Montgomery County Schools Teacher of the Year.
The Special Redistricting Session wrapped up at the State Capital with Toombs, Montgomery and Wheeler Counties in the Senate District 19 and House District 156. The changes, based on population shifts, will take effect in 2023. The Vidalia Airport received a $2.2 million federal grant for runway repairs. The airport is a local rock star as it continues to operate in the black.
Memorial Health Meadows Hospital introduced the community to its new Da Vinci XI robotic surgical equipment during an open house on November 18. The new equipment will help minimize invasive surgical procedures.
Following a multiyear, multicountry federal probe, 24 suspects were indicted on charged related to human smuggling and labor trafficking operations traced to Mexico and Central America. The laborers were brought in to work on South Georgia farms and two of the suspects were from Toombs County. Julie Caraballo, a seventh grade teacher and 18-year veteran educator, was named Vidalia City Schools Teacher of the Year.
Captain James Jermon was named Chief of the Vidalia Police Department on December 3. His promotion following the exit of Commission Brian Scott in August. Two Toombs County Schools—Lyons Upper and Toombs Central Elementary— earned the Lighthouse Award, the highest prize give by the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence. Little Ocmulgee State Park has a new manager, Brad Smith, who brings with him an extensive background in the hospitality field, as well as a love of the history of South Georgia where he grew up.
After closing during the pandemic in 2020, Meadows Fitness Center reopened under new management in November. An open house was held December 16. Malique Rheam Harrington, Jr., was found guilty of three of five charges in the 2018 shooting death of Jerry Clark, Jr., at Raymonia Apartments.
December 22: The Vidalia Woman’s Club, which disbanded this year, donated proceeds from the sale of its club building to various community projects, including paving Pinecrest Cemetery roads. Funeral home director Ron Hall who has launched an effort to pave streets at Pinecrest Cemetery. Hall was presented a check for $20,000 to assist the project. Higgston’s annual “Christmas in Dixie,” presented by the Robert A. Toombs Camp #932 Sons of the Confederacy, raised funds to benefit needy families, as well as $7,000 to heart transplant candidate Tim Evans of Dublin. Elementary instructor Laura Hart was named Toombs County Schools Teacher of the Year.