2013 Year in Review: New road opening is top HORIZON news story

reviewBy THOMAS P. WEAVER, HORIZON Editor

CLAY COUNTY-With roots dating back to the 1930’s, this year’s top HORIZON news story has been a long time coming.

It was talked about for over a half-century and the HORIZON has reported on it since the newspaper’s inception, but the story’s long run came to an end in 2013 as construction was completed on the new State Route 52 Highway from the county line here to Celina.

Due to its long legacy of years past and the new perspective the historic opening of the road brings to residents and visitors here, the official completion of Clay County’s portion of the legendary Cooridor J project has been chosen by the HORIZON staff as this year’s top news story.

Highlighting the other top news stories of the year was the school board’s decision to close the historic Maple Grove School, a busy City election, the combined saga of the threat of closing the fish hatchery and restricting fishing near Dale Hollow Dam, and the history-making Lady Bulldog golf team.

1.  New Hwy. 52 portion of Corridor J is now open

After grabbing headlines for the better part of a century, the long-running Corridor J saga came to an end in 2013 with the official opening of the new State Route 52 here, an event that dominated the front page of the November 13 HORIZON.

“This is a great day for Clay County, its people, businesses, and visitors and I wish to thank everyone involved in making this happen,” county mayor Dale Reagan was quoted saying in the story.

The front page story also recounted city mayor Willie Kerr’s comments.  The municipal leader, while standing at the grand opening podium alongside Reagan, Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) Commissioner John Schroer, Chamber of Commerce President Ray Norris, Clay County TDOT employees, State Senator Mae Beavers, State Representative Kelly Keisling, and others, gave special recognition to local TDOT employees “who work to keep our roads safe throughout the year,” in addition to commending everyone’s efforts towards “making the project a reality.”

The project’s initial partial opening graced the front page of the HORIZON on June 26 with a headline of “Road opening changes perspectives,” which could have been read as a major understatement because people traveling the new road were being treated to never-seen-before views.

“With the partial opening of the new Highway 52 here in Celina last week came a new perspective on the surrounding landscape and people are seeing new sights for the first time,” the story said.  “Traffic was diverted off of the old State Route (SR) 52 leading up Shanky Branch and directed up a new divide through territory unseen before by passing drivers.

“Heading into town, a glance to the right reveals previously hidden views of the Obey River’s Peterman’s Bend area and the approach to Celina offers a fresh vantage point of the town square.”

Other front page stories followed the announcement of the partial opening, including speculation about the need for the town’s first stoplight and the eventual four-way stop installation–which is still currently in place.

Digging deeper into the HORIZON archives shows the announcement awarding the project to Clay County came back in September of 2005 when then governor Phil Bredesen held a news conference at Standing Stone State Park to reveal the news.

Former county mayor Luke Collins credited the people of Clay County for their efforts in working towards getting the project.

“This is just tremendous news,” Collins said in the story. “A lot of people said at the start of this process that Clay County didn’t have the political power to get this done.

“Our people in Clay County stuck together, worked hard, and made this a reality.”

Four years later the first contract was let and awarded to Bizzack Construction, LLC of Lexington, KY.  Work on the initial portion began in November of 2009 and the 3.4-mile section with a $31.2 million cost was completed in December of 2012.

Bizzack was also the contractor for the second $24.3 million phase that began in March of 2011.  It had an estimated completion date of September 2014, but was finished in late October 2013, nearly one year early.

The project required extensive excavation, cuts and fills, including removal of 3.3 million cubic yards of material, which is the rough equivalent of filling up 412,500 triple-axle dump trucks.  The tallest cut on the project was approximately 143 feet, and the deepest fill was approximately 242 feet.

Corridor J was originally conceived in the late 1930’s as a modern highway connecting Chattanooga, TN and London, KY.

2.  School board vote closes Maple Grove

When Clay County schools returned to session last fall, the doors to the historic Maple Grove school remained closed for the first time in nearly six decades.

Clay Countians first learned of the news via a June 12 HORIZON front page story titled “School board vote closes Maple Grove,” and an article detailing the vote followed in the June 19 newspaper.

“At (last) Thursday’s school board meeting, board members struggled with the painful decision to close the Maple Grove School, but could not argue with the financial despair that lies just over the horizon for education in Clay County,” the initial story said quoting a statement from the school system.  “At the regular session Clay County School Board meeting, Maple Grove School was closed by a vote of six to four.”

After official minutes from the meeting were released, the HORIZON detailed the vote for its readers.

The front page story said board member Jerry Eads made the motion to close the school and Nathan Sherrell seconded it before they, along with Chris McLerran, Todd Lynn, Russell Cherry, and chairman David West, voted “aye,” while Veda Hix, Benji Bailey, Vonda Weir, and Anthony Smith were opposed to the decision and voted “no.”

The same story explained “the nearly sixty-year-old institution had previously survived the proposed fate for the better part of a decade,” after “the school had avoided the chopping block in 2006 when Hermitage Springs High School was consolidated into the current Clay County High School and discussion about the possible closure had continued since that time.”

The potential closure was revisited by the board in the fall of 2007 but a HORIZON news story at that time said “in the end, no action was taken by the board and no date was set to discuss the issue again.”

That date came on June 6, 2013 as the school was closed with the board citing “partially unfunded mandates and Clay County’s inability to fund the matching amount of money required to pay for the mandates” as evidence for the decision.

The school system also explained “meeting the required spending is placing the school system budget in financial jeopardy,” and led to “board members (struggling) with the painful decision” of closing the school.

When Maple Grove was closed last spring it was the smallest public school in Tennessee and had been in its current location since 1954.

3.  Celina city election

Celina mayor Willie Kerr was elected to his second term and a pair of new alderman, along with a lone incumbent, claimed the alderman seats in a busy City election last June.

The ballot was set a couple of months earlier and a front page story on March 27 detailed the list of candidates.

“The ballot was set with three throwing in their hats in hopes of becoming Celina’s mayor and a half-dozen candidates making the decision to battle for three available alderman seats,” the story said.  “Incumbent city mayor Willie Kerr will have two challengers–Carrol Smith, who qualified several weeks ago, and Donald Collins, who turned in his papers last week, are both looking to unseat the current mayor.

“Incumbent aldermen Donnie Long, Don Haston, and Joey Locke will be on the ballot again this year and they will be joined by three challengers–Buddy Thompson, Pat Burton, and Charlie Goad.”

The article was one of more than a dozen front page stories about the busy election and the run culminated with results from the June 4 balloting on the June 12 front page.

“Willie Kerr received just under 60 percent of the vote in the mayor’s race to win re-election to the city’s top spot here last Tuesday, while only one incumbent was re-elected to the city’s three-man governing body,” the story said.  “Kerr received 338 votes (59.82%) in the mayor’s race, while challenger Donald Collins got 198 (35.04%) and Carrol Smith received 29 votes (5.13%).

“Incumbent alderman Don Haston was the only one of the trio vying for re-election who retained his seat.  He narrowly kept his position by 10 votes over longtime public servant Donnie Long.  Haston received 223 votes versus Long’s 213 to claim the third spot on the board.

“Political newcomer Charlie Goad was the top vote-getter with 303 and will carry the title of vice-mayor moving forward, while former mayor and alderman Buddy Thompson will be back in familiar territory as the second-leading vote-getter among the alderman garnering 250 ballots,” the articled continued.  “Like Long, incumbent alderman Joey Locke fell shy of re-election with 182 votes, while Pat Burton received 157 in her second try at the position. “

A total of 568 voters cast ballots in the election representing only 43.83 percent of the electorate. Just shy of 200 ballots were actually cast on election day, while 369 came via early or absentee voting.

4.  Fishing threats:  Hatchery future, restrictions near dams

A pair of threats to area fishing came to light and have been put on hold over the past year thanks to public outcry and the work of Senator Lamar Alexander.

Cuts in federal funding have jeopardized the future of the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers threatened to close fishing access above and below Dale Hollow Dam.

Stories updating readers on both issues were found on the HORIZON front page nearly a dozen times in 2013, including the announcement of both issues and the news about the ending of the threats, at least for the time being.

Hatchery

The possible closure of the fish hatchery came to light in 2012 and the news of a deal to keep it open came on the front page of the May 22 HORIZON.

“The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Nashville office was the site for a news conference where U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, and officials from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, TWRA, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources announced a new agreement Friday to continue popular trout stocking programs in the Tennessee Valley region–which means operations here at the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery will continue keeping the local facility open,” the story’s lead explained.  “TVA will provide more than $900,000 per year over the next three years to support federal fish hatchery operations that provide trout for stocking.”

“Closing Dale Hollow would have been a disaster for 900,000 Tennesseans and visitors who bought fishing licenses last year,” Alexander said in the same article. “Dale Hollow helps make Tennessee’s rivers and lakes among the most prized trout fisheries in our country.”

Despite TVA’s pledge, the possible closure came up again this fall and Alexander responded with a letter encouraging federal interior secretary Sally Jewell to support the program.

The September 25 HORIZON front page included a story titled “Department of Interior puts off hatchery closure and urges agencies to work towards long-term solution”–which explained “there will be no closures of national fish hatcheries” at this time, but it also said the department “had instructed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with Congress, state wildlife agencies, and fishing groups to discuss long-term solutions.”

The secretary’s statement did not close the books on the dilemma and a November 20 front page story explained that fact.

“U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander said last week the “closure threat still exists” for the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery here and others across the region after learning the details of the recently released U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) report on the National Fish Hatchery System,” the story said.  “A release from Alexander’s office said the report does not recommend closing Tennessee’s hatcheries at Dale Hollow and Erwin in 2014, but does highlight long-term funding challenges.”

Restrictions

News of the possible restriction of fishing access above and below Dale Hollow Dam broke in late 2012 and the threat continued through the spring of 2013 when the Corps actually implemented their plans, but soon thereafter Alexander, along with support from the public and other lawmakers, helped pass a bill to put an end to the restrictions.

Details of the Corps’ plans made front page news in the January 23 HORIZON and a graphic showing the scope of the restrictions dominated the layout.

“Locally, anglers can expect to see waters below Dale Hollow Dam closed from the structure 500 feet downstream and 100 feet from the dam on the lake side,” the story said.  “The Corps sites safety concerns as evidence towards the relevance of the restrictions.”

Many front page stories followed as Alexander and others worked to dismantle the Corps’ plan, but despite the outcry, they went through with it anyway.

“Despite overwhelming opposition from anglers and public officials–including U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and others, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last week they were “beginning to implement permanent full-time waterborne restrictions around the 10 dams on the Cumberland River and its tributaries,” which will end fishing access here immediately above and below Dale Hollow Dam and at many others across the region,” a font page story said on May 8.

Just weeks later Alexander spearheaded a bill to temporarily stop the Corps from implementing the restrictions.  The two-year ban became law shortly thereafter and that news was announced on the front page of the May 22 newspaper.

Then in October Congress passed a bill to permanently protect the right to fish at dams and that news also made the front page on October 30.

“We don’t need Big Brother holding the hands of fishermen,” Alexander said in the story.  “This legislation will permanently stop the Corps from pursuing some of its most unreasonable restrictions that would waste taxpayer dollars and keep fishermen from enjoying fishing areas that draw visitors from all over the country.”

5.  Strode, Lady Dawg golf team make school history

The Clay County Lady Bulldog golf team, led by senior standout Savanna Strode, made history in 2013 and HORIZON front page stories honored their accomplishments.

The September 25 edition featured a headline reading “Lady Bulldogs claim district golf championship two years in a row” and detailed the team’s back-to-back conference championships.

The feat was a first for the school, but Strode made sure it wasn’t the only “first” the squad would enjoy as her play set her up for a return appearance to the state tournament–which eventually led to her becoming the first Clay County golfer to ink a scholarship to compete at the next level.

The December 18 HORIZON front page featured Strode’s big day with photos and an account of her signing with Cumberland University.  The story also reported on the team’s overall accomplishments, including receiving academic recognition from the TSSAA and being honored by State Representative Kelly Keisling.

The story said Keisling presented Strode; her teammates Madison Baijo, Alayshia Brannon, and Baleigh McLerran; and her coaches Amy Dodson, Doug Strong, and Betty Jo White a copy of a proclamation from the State House honoring the team’s accomplishments, along with the latest edition of the Tennessee Blue Book.

“Coach Strong spoke of the team’s academic success–which was recognized by the TSSAA, and recapped their season on the links,” the article explained.  “He said Brannon’s 3.74 GPA, Baijo’s 3.7 GPA, and McLerran’s 3.2 GPA, combined with Strode’s perfection (4.0 GPA), averaged out to a team mark of 3.66–enough to obtain the highest honor of “distinguished” from the athletic association.”

The article also explained Strode’s new coach was excited about her future with his team.

“Savanna is the total package,” Cumberland golf coach Richard Williams said in the story.  “She’s a great player, a pleasant person, and a standout academically.

“We feel lucky to have her.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:  The HORIZON staff could not include all of the noteworthy news in this ‘year in review’ story and we realize there were other happenings that warrant the distinction, but due to space limitations only a top five was chosen.