The coronavirus pandemic dominated the headlines for good reason, but the year was also full of action in other ways in Barrow County.
In addition to the national and worldwide public health and economic crisis, the county also was part of a heavier national focus on race relations and a historically and bitterly-divided election.
There were also stories of human triumph, changes in local government leadership and the opening of new facilities, all combining to make it an eventful 2020.
Here are some of the top local news stories of the year, in rough chronological order.
NEW MAYOR MAKES QUICK CHANGES IN STATHAM
New Statham mayor Joe Piper took office in January after being elected to replace Robert Bridges, who retired after more than 20 years as mayor, and Piper, following through on a campaign pledge, immediately initiated a slew of changes to the city’s leadership.
In a called meeting Jan. 3, the city council, with newly sworn-in members Tammy Crawley and Gary Venable on board, approved Piper’s recommendations to eliminate the city administrator position that had been held by Mai Chang and to hire Ira Underwood as the city’s new police chief, following the resignation of former chief Allan Johnston in December 2019.
Among the other changes this year were in the city attorney position, as the city parted ways with Thomas Mitchell and hired Jody Campbell to replace him.
NEW WINDER COUNCIL MEMBERS SWORN IN
The Winder City Council also gained a new look in 2020 as new members Holly Sheats and Kobi Kilgore, the second and third women to serve on the council, were sworn in during the council’s Jan. 6 meeting.
Sheats was elected to one of the council’s at-large seats to replace former councilman Michael Healan, while Kilgore ousted incumbent Al Brown in District 2 in the November 2019 municipal election.
TOMS DEPARTS AS WINDER ADMINISTRATOR; CODY TAKES OVER
Following a closed session at a Feb. 3 meeting in which the Winder City Council discussed personnel among other topics, city administrator Donald Toms submitted his resignation Feb. 4, ending a decade-long run that began in 2010 when he was hired to replace the late Bob Beck, who had died earlier that year.
Toms said of his decision that he wanted to explore other opportunities, and though there had been differences between him and some council members over various aspects of the city’s operations, city officials described the parting as an amicable one.
Following a three-month search, the council in June hired Mandi Cody to become the new city administrator.
Cody, who was selected out of a pool of 13 applicants and over two other finalists who were interviewed by the entire council, came to Winder with more than a decade of local government experience and had most recently been an interim administrator in Washington after leaving her position as city administrator in Metter in 2019.
FORMER COUNTY COMMISSIONER WEHUNT DIES
Roger Wehunt, a farmer and longtime Barrow County elected official who served parts of five terms on the county commission starting in 1998, died Feb. 8 at the age of 80.
Wehunt had been re-elected to a four-year term in his District 3 seat in 2016, but resigned in October 2018 for health-related reasons.
WINDER GETS GRANT FOR FORT YARGO/DOWNTOWN AREA TRAIL
In February, the City of Winder was awarded a $1 million state grant to complete a mile-long multi-purpose walking trail connecting the downtown area with Fort Yargo State Park.
The trail, which is planned to extend from the visitors’ center at the park to city-owned property at 41 Lee St., will have a 10-footwide pathway that will be used for walking, bicycling, inline skating and nature viewing.
It was one of 14 projects across the state selected for the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Program (GOSP) “Conserve Georgia” grant. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources announced the selections out of a field of 58 applicants Feb. 26.
With the grants, the department is awarding just under $20 million in funding for the conservation and outdoor recreation projects. The grants are largely the result of a voter-
approved state constitutional amendment in November 2018 to dedicate funding for the conservation of priority lands, stewardship of state parks and wildlife management areas, and support for local parks and trails.
In a called meeting Oct. 27, the council voted 4-3, with Mayor David Maynard breaking a tie in favor of his recommendation, to award a $1.15 million contract to Peach State Construction of Covington for the work over local firm Bayne Development Group, which submitted a bid about $88,000 under Peach State’s. City officials defended their recommendation over pushback from Bayne representatives and some council members, saying Peach State had the highest score on a scale that was set up to grade the 10 firms that submitted bids.
The city will be responsible for a 25.85-percent match for the project, which is expected to be completed by summer 2021.
The coronavirus pandemic flipped “normal” life in the country upside down in March, and Barrow County saw a wave of government office closures, restrictions on business operations as part of Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive orders (which superseded a mix of localized orders within the county’s various jurisdictions), the move of local meetings to online settings, the closure of schools to in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2019-2020 academic year, the cancellation of spring high school sports and the cancellation of other various community events.
The state’s presidential primary and general primary elections were also postponed until June.
The school closures led Barrow County School System officials to scrap the originally-scheduled traditional graduation ceremonies, replacing them with virtual ceremonies in May. District employees hand-delivered diplomas to the class of 2020 graduates at their homes. Makeup graduation ceremonies that had been tentatively scheduled for late July were also canceled due to a second surge of the virus in the summer. A group of parents organized ceremonies of their own at Innovation Amphitheater.
Bethlehem Christian Academy held an in-person graduation ceremony in July.
More than nine months into the pandemic, the county continues to feel the effects. To date, more than 4,600 county residents have become infected with COVID-19, and at least 65 county residents have died. Winder Health Care and Rehabilitation was one of many long-term care facilities across the state viciously impacted by the virus, as 17 residents died during the spring, and more than 90 residents and over 30 staff members tested positive.
The county is currently experiencing a late fall/early winter surge that has brought record numbers of cases to the country, state and northeast Georgia region, but there is hope for a better 2021 with the development of federally-approved vaccines that are being offered to health care workers and other vulnerable populations and expected to be made available to the general sometime in the spring.
Amid the human tragedy and economic turmoil wrought by the pandemic, many in the community have also rallied around each other, providing personal-protective equipment for frontline medical workers and emergency responders, providing support for businesses and volunteering to help at-risk and vulnerable populations.
WILLIAMS RETIRES AS TAX COMMISSIONER
After more than 34 ½ years with the office and 24 years as Barrow County tax commissioner, Melinda Williams retired in May, ahead of the scheduled end of her term.
Jessica Garrett, the lone candidate to qualify to replace Williams, was sworn in early and then officially elected to a full four-year term in November.
Williams had been appointed and taken over as tax commissioner in August 1996 following the death of Kate Jones. Williams won election to a full term later that year over four other candidates and then never faced any opposition in her five subsequent elections.
COUNTY GOES WITH NEW ANIMAL SPAY/NEUTER-SERVICES PROVIDER
After nearly a decade of using Leftover Pets for the county’s. animal spay/neuter services, the Barrow County Board of Commissioners voted June 9 to terminate the professional services agreement with the nonprofit and the lease agreement for the county-owned building on Barrow Park Drive in Winder that the organization helped refurbish in 2011.
The decision came at the recommendation of county manager Mike Renshaw and animal control director Jaclyn Fryman, who cited programmatic and personality differences between Leftover Pets representatives and county employees.
The BOC also approved an agreement with CatSnip to be the new provider of the services and later approved a similar lease agreement with that company for the Barrow Park Drive building.
The county’s decision drew backlash from representatives and supporters of Leftover Pets and community members who worried that many county residents might lose access to low-cost spay/neuter services.
Leftover Pets has since relocated to a building on Woodlawn Avenue in Winder.
LOCAL RESIDENTS MARCH IN SUPPORT OF BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT
Barrow County residents added their voices to the Black Lives Matter movement last weekend as a pair of peaceful protests were held in Winder in June. Protesters lined up June 6 at the front of the Winder Square shopping center along East May Street with signs. Then on June 7, another group, organized by Winder-Barrow High School rising senior Gracie Griffith, marched from the Winder Police Department parking lot and Jackson Street pedestrian plaza to the historic Barrow County Courthouse, where they rallied for about three hours with signs, chants and an open megaphone for people to voice their thoughts.
The local protests came amid weeks of protests across the U.S. and the world in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed 46-year-old black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25 while under arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
The downtown crowd on June 7 held up signs and chanted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement with many cars that passed by honking in support. They said the names of Floyd and several other people of color who have wrongfully died as the result of police misconduct and/or racism.
Among the names were Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Brunswick man who was shot and killed in February. Three white men were charged with murder after a video of the killing taken by one of the men was publicly released in May. The crowd also kneeled silently for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck as Floyd struggled to breathe before dying.
While many of the protests in larger cities included clashes between law enforcement and citizens and property damage, the demonstrations in Winder were peaceful and the moods among the crowds both warm and resolute. Winder mayor David Maynard and city councilwoman Kobi Kilgore addressed the crowd downtown in a show of solidarity, while councilwoman Holly Sheats and councilman Travis Singley were also in attendance. Singley brought a cooler full of bottled water for protesters, law enforcement and community leaders amid scorching temperatures.
Winder police chief Jim Fullington and Barrow County sheriff Jud Smith were also in attendance, while local pastor Rev. Perez Watson led a community prayer for justice, peace and understanding.
FUNERAL PROCESSION HELD FOR FRANKLIN CO. DEPUTY, BARROW RESIDENT
A law enforcement-led funeral procession and services were held in Winder and Bethlehem on
July 25 for Barrow County resident and Franklin County sheriff’s deputy Bill Garner, 53, who was killed while responding to and assisting people involved in a single-vehicle car crash on Interstate 85 around 7 p.m. July 19 when another vehicle traveled into the median after the driver lost control and hit Garner, killing him, according to the Georgia State Patrol.
The driver, Abdulhafiz Tawfik Abdullahi, 21, of Lawrenceville, was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide in the incident.
Garner had a 22-year career in law enforcement with various agencies in north Georgia.
A memorial service was held at Bethlehem Church. Prior to the service, a funeral procession with a law enforcement escort began at Smith Funeral Home, traveled westbound on Atlanta Highway into Winder, turned south on Highway 81, east on Highway 316 and then north on Christmas Avenue to the church.
WINDER TEEN SPENDS THREE MONTHS IN HOSPITAL AFTER PIT BULL ATTACK
The community spent more than three months rallying around Joslyn Stinchcomb, a 15-year-old Winder-Barrow High School freshman who was brutally attacked by two pit bulls from a neighboring house while walking through her neighborhood in Winder late on the afternoon of July 31.
The dogs, which had escaped from an open door while their owner was not home, caused severe facial, throat and neck damage to Stinchcomb. They were later captured and euthanized, and the owner was arrested and charged with reckless conduct and violations of the county’s animal-control ordinance.
In a journey to recovery that garnered national and even worldwide attention, Stinchcomb spent nearly three months in an Atlanta children’s hospital and underwent 19 surgeries. She was welcomed back home to Barrow County with a large parade Oct. 24. Led by an escort from local public safety agencies, the parade began at the Ingles on Atlanta Highway in Auburn, traveled into Winder, turned onto North Broad Street and ended in the parking lot of First Baptist Church of Winder, passing hundreds of community members with signs of support along the way.
In the church parking lot, as Stinchcomb sat in a fire truck, Winder First Baptist and Jackson County Baptist Church pastors Chad Mantooth and Matt Booher gave prayers and words of encouragement for the family.
The WBHS marching band dedicated its 2020 season to Stinchcomb, and she even got to perform with the band during its halftime shows later in the football season. She also was selected as the grand marshal for the city’s “reverse” Christmas parade in December.
The Barrow County School System’s third high school, Barrow Arts and Sciences Academy began instruction in August.
A delayed ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Oct. 6.
Construction of the $18.8 million, 114,000-square-foot facility off Austin Road in Winder next
to Sims Academy was led by Charles Black Construction and took two years to complete. It includes a student center, which houses the media center, cafeteria and learning spaces, and the academic building for classrooms and lab spaces. The high school, serving grades 8-10 this year, is a school of choice — meaning that students apply to attend and are admitted based on a lottery, with no pre-requisite requirements for attendance.
In December, the school board approved design and construction manager at-risk contracts for Phase 2 of BASA, which will include additional classrooms and a future elementary school at the district’s Austin Road property.
316/81 INTERCHANGE OPENS
The new interchange at state routes 316 and 81 opened fully in October, a little more than three years after the construction contract was awarded by the Georgia Department of Transportation.
The $27 million federally-and state-funded project is a full diamond urban interchange providing access to and from SR 316 to the cross road SR 81.
It was intended to alleviate congested traffic at the intersection.
NEW VICTOR LORD PARK FACILITIES OPEN
A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Oct. 7 for the more than $10 million Victor Lord Park expansion project, which was approved by county voters as part of the SPLOST 2018 referendum and includes three multi-purpose athletic fields (one synthetic turf, two sodded grass), a grandstand/restroom building, an eight-court tennis complex, a dog park and other amenities.
The size of the athletic complex, which already included baseball and softball fields,
is now 103.3 acres. Several county officials and members of the citizen SPLOST committee that recommended and advocated for the project spoke during the Oct. 7 event.
AUBURN BREAKS GROUND ON FUTURE MUNICIPAL COMPLEX
Auburn officials held a ceremonial groundbreaking for the future new municipal complex south of Atlanta Highway on the eastern edge of the city limits on Oct. 14.
The complex, which is expected to be completed in 2022, will be a replica of the Perry Rainey Institute — a college that housed students from 1902 to the 1940s — and is part of what is planned to eventually be a town center-type, mixed-use development with dozens of single-family detached houses and townhomes, a brewpub and other potential businesses.
Dave Schmit, the project’s master developer who was hired by the city in 2017 to help officials come up with the vision for the project, said the municipal complex will be the focal point of the development and be situated on top of the hill, essentially positioned as the high ground for the city.
The city purchased the property from the Hawthorne family with special- purpose local-option sales tax proceeds, and the municipal complex portion currently has an estimated price tag of $12.25 million.
Construction will be paid for with up to $12.5 million in urban redevelopment agency bonds, with the Auburn Downtown Development Authority serving as the financing conduit.
QUIET ELECTION IN BARROW
In the only locally-contested race on the ballot in Barrow County on the Nov. 3 ballot, Bryan W. Bell won a special election for the open Bethlehem Town Council seat, topping two
other candidates with 41.5 percent of the vote. Bell will replace former councilman Tommy Parten, who resigned his post earlier this year when he moved to Winder.
COUNTY MANAGER RENSHAW RESIGNS
Following a closed session at the end of its Dec. 8 meeting, the Barrow County Board of Commissioners accepted the resignation of county manager Mike Renshaw after 4 ½ years with the county.
Renshaw, who has been a finalist for numerous local government positions elsewhere in the last couple years, accepted the position as general manager of the Highlands Ranch Metropolitan District in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, an unincorporated community just south of Denver. His final day with Barrow County is scheduled to be Jan. 12.
Renshaw had initially been offered the top administrative post in an unincorporated community in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in July but ultimately turned down the position when contract talks broke down.
The Barrow BOC approved the hiring of outgoing Walton County Board of Commissioners chairman Kevin Little to serve as interim county manager. Little served five terms as BOC chairman and essentially functioned in a management role for Walton County. He has said he would be interested in applying for the full-time job in Barrow once candidates are sought.