Wheeler County: 2023 in Perspective
Wheeler County got off to a great start in January as a new K-12 school opened and a grant for broadband service was announced.
The weather cooperated as a crowd gathered beneath sunny skies on January 2 for a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony at the columned entrance of Wheeler County’s new K-12 school in Alamo.
As she stood at the podium, Superintendent Suzanne Couey thanked local dignitaries, school administration, and others who supported the construction of the almost $35 million structure.
“It has been, as they say, a “long and winding road,’ “Couey said at the afternoon event. That road began in April of 2018 with the selection of architects Altman and Barrett, and with the selection of contractors JCI/Lentile in May 2019. Ground was broken in December 2020, and students and staff started school in September 2022.
Wheeler County got great news on January 4 when Governor Brian Kemp announced the award of a $4.8 million grant for broadband expansion. Glenwood Telephone Company (GTC) received $4,864,941 as part of $234 million in 29 preliminary grant awards for broadband internet expansion across Georgia.
These awards will improve connectivity within Wheeler County by expanding GTC’s buried fiber optic gigabit network, allowing the company to reach more underserved and unserved residents in the mostly rural county, said GTC’s CEO and owner Jim O’Brien.
Wheeler Schools celebrated another significant event early in 2023 as the new Agricultural Pavilion was named in honor of longtime educator Bryant Oliver. A panel of photographs and a narrative tracing Oliver’s 31-year legacy was unveiled at the 38th Annual Wheeler County 4-H and FFA Market Hog Show on February 18.
Revered as “the visionary for Wheeler County’s Agricultural Department,” Oliver was praised for “making a positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth, and career success through agricultural education,” which is the mission of the National Future Farmers of America organization.
In April, Wheeler County said good-bye to a beloved member of the Wheeler County Board of Education, Charles Wayne Bridges, 72. He passed away on April 1 after an illness. On April 10, the Board of Education recognized Bridges’ service and expressed appreciation for his contributions to schools and the community. Bridges was a native of McRae who resided in Stuckey and served on the Board of Education for 16 years. He was the owner of Bridges Trucking Company.
On April 3, longtime Wheeler County resident Karen Mercer assumed the duties of Wheeler County Elections Supervisor. She was appointed by the County Commission and replaced Sheila Cheek, who was named Montgomery County’s new Elections Supervisor.
Janice Adams O’Brien, a pioneer in the telecommunications industry in Georgia, was inducted into the Independent Telecommunications Pioneer Industry (ITPA) Hall of Fame on Sunday, April 23. Mrs. O’Brien, of Glenwood, owned and operated Glenwood Telephone Company for almost 40 years, carrying on a family legacy that began in the mid-1940s.
Wheeler County residents came together on April 28 for the 27th annual Chamber of Commerce banquet held at James Stapleton Auditorium on the campus of Wheeler County School the Keynote speaker was District 156 State Representative Leesa Hagan. During the evening event, the Chamber honored its first citizens of the year: attorney Russell Clark and community volunteer Sandra Brown.
On May 4, the Wheeler County FFA Forestry Team took home first place hon- continued from page
ors at the State Forestry Day for the second time in the history of Wheeler County Schools. Not only did Wheeler FFA win the state championship in the senior event, but its ninth grade junior team finished third overall and the middle school team was seventh overall at the state contest.
The Wheeler County Board of Education welcomed Tucker Dixon as a new member on May 8. Tucker is a local businessman and fills the position of Charles Wayne Bridges, who passed away on April 1. The term expires December 31, 2024.
The City of Alamo received a $2.2 million grant for community upgrades as part of a $225m grant package announced May 18 by Governor Brian Kemp. The grant went to 142 qualified projects and is intended to improve neighborhood assets like parks, recreation facilities, sidewalks, and healthy food access in communities across the state disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Alamo, the grant is being used to improve Eastside Park.
In a regular session on May 15, the Alamo City Council accepted the resignation of Councilman Harry Lewis, who cited work obligations for his inability to continue serving his current term that expires in 2025. During the same meeting, the Council approved the hiring of a nationally-certified professional who has worked as an inspector in the Secretary of State’s office, Lekitte Holt-Robinson, to enforce the city’s ordinance for cleaning up and clearing derelict property.
In June, The Advance announced the election of Wheeler County Clerk of Juvenile and Superior Courts, Carol Bragg, as President of the Superior Court Clerks Association of Georgia, Inc. Bragg’s duties include serving on the Board of Constitutional Officers Association of Georgia (COAG), which is made up of sheriffs, tax commissioners, probate judges, and court clerks.
During her two-year term, Bragg will preside over the meetings of the 159-member Clerks’ Association. She has worked in the Wheeler County Juvenile and Superior Courts Clerk’s office for 28 years.
Also in June, The Advance announced that the City of Alamo’s Police Department received a $259,380 grant for beefing up public safety. The grant, announced June 9 by Governor Brian Kemp, was part of $83.5 million in ARPA funds to be allocated to 118 Georgia communities to boost law enforcement. The funds are being used in Alamo to hire two additional police officers.
The community was introduced to the new warden at Wheeler Correctional Facility, Shawn Gillis, at a June 23 meet and greet held by the Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce. Gillis is a native of Vidalia with an extensive background in corrections. Gillis has served with CoreCivic, which owns the Wheeler County facility, for a number of years in different locations and is eager to continue the positive relationship between the community and Core-Civic.
“I know there are a lot of upset people here tonight,” Chairman of the Wheeler County Board of Tax Assessors Martin Roberts said as a muchanticipated meeting kicked off on July 20. The session, held at the Alamo Community Center, was conducted by the Board to answer the public’s questions about recent property assessments that increased substantially over last year — by as much as 50%, according to one local resident in attendance.
A complicated murder case wrapped up on August 14 with the sentencing of the last of four men convicted in a 2020 shooting death in Alamo. Ronesta Kotoya Williams, 42, of Alamo was shot to death, and Michael Waddell and India Harris were wounded at a May 24 graduation party on Bluebird Lane. Jaquaves Hooks of Alamo, Cory Johntavious McRae of Glenwood, and Turner Logan Flint and Malik Chavez McDuffey of McRae-Helena, were included in one indictment and were convicted and sentenced over a period of several months. “It was a challenge to unfold,” said Timothy Vaughn, District Attorney for the Oconee Judicial Circuit of Georgia, which includes Wheeler County. “It was like putting together one of those thousand-piece puzzles as to who did what. The cases against individuals came together at different times.” Flint and McDuffey were sentenced on January 4. Hooks was sentenced on July 6. McRae was sentenced on August 14.
During a quarterly gathering on August 16 hosted by the Wheeler County Chamber of Commerce and the Wheeler Correctional Facility, Ann Norris was honored for her legacy of community service. Mrs. Norris marked her 20th year with the Alamo Housing Authority in August.
The man accused in the 2021 shooting death of an Alamo policeman was rearraigned on an additional charge in Wheeler County Superior Court on August 24. The state is seeking the death penalty in the case.
Damion Anthony Ferguson of Alamo entered not guilty pleas to seven counts against him in his second arraignment. He was first indicted on December 21, 2021, on six counts stemming from the October 9, 2021, incident which claimed the life of Alamo Policeman and Oconee Drug Task Force Agent Dylan Harrison.
The officer was working his first shift with the Alamo Police Department when he was shot and killed outside the police department. He was a full-time agent with the Oconee Drug Task Force in Dodge County, married, and the father of a young son.
Wheeler County Schools were among 74 districts across the state that garnered a $175,000 grant aimed at promoting parent engagement in their children’s school life. The Safer Georgia School Grant announced at the Wheeler County Board of Education meeting on September 11 will support implementation of FAST (Families and Schools Together) which is designed to make a significant, longlasting impact on child and family behaviors. The district will implement two FAST cycles (one each semester) with teams comprised of parents and school representatives.
The City of Alamo welcomed a new councilman, Geoffrey Villegas, at its September 18 meeting. Villegas, a manager for an Alamo automobile parts store, will assume the remainder of Councilman Harry Lewis’ term, which ends in 2025. Lewis resigned earlier in the year due to work obligations.
The Wheeler County Board of Education received good news at its October 16 session: the school district received two new grants totaling almost $60,000. The Wheeler School District was among three systems in the state to receive a grant that will go toward a middle school project. Specifically, the $48,120 grant will fund the purchase of tools for middle school classrooms. Additionally, the system received a $10,000 StART grant to purchase instruments for the middle school band. Wheeler was among 20 systems across the state to receive this grant.
Wheeler County voters went to the polls on November 7 to elect officials and to cast ballots in a Special Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) referendum.
Long-time Glenwood Mayor G.M. Joiner was reelected by the slimmest of margins — just two votes — which was confirmed in a recount at the Board of Elections on Monday, November 13. Joiner, who has served as mayor for the past 40 years, was challenged for the first time in his mayoral career by Wheeler County teacher Ava Bess Jones.
The only item on the ballot on which all Wheeler County residents voted in a special election on November 7 was the SPLOST referendum, which was approved. The measure will take effect on April 1.
An election in Wheeler County’s other municipality, Alamo, was not necessary due to lack of opposition to any of the candidates qualifying to run for seats on the Alamo City Council.
Wheeler County Correctional Facility (WCF) marked 25 years in the community of Alamo with a celebration luncheon on November 28 attended by guests who included former wardens and staff members of the Georgia Department of Corrections, and state and local dignitaries.
The award-winning prison, which is equipped to house 3,000 inmates, is privately owned by Core Civic and is one of the two largest prisons in the state of Georgia.
The rain rolled in on December 2 but the weather could not dampen spirits at the City of Alamo’s 15th annual “Christmas in the City” celebration. For the first time, Christmas came early for five special families and children throughout the county as they benefitted from a “Christmas Store” sponsored by “The Benny Show,” a YouTube podcast based in St. Petersburg, Florida.
The event was staged inside a city-owned building and went off without a hitch. Santa, Mrs. Claus, an elf and “The Grinch” were all on hand to ensure the holiday experience was complete. Because of the inclement weather, Glenwood moved its annual Christmas parade to the following weekend and Santa found time in his busy schedule to make a second appearance.