1. Republicans take control of Walker County
When Walker County residents voted in November, an overwhelming majority voted Republican, which has changed the political landscape of elected offices within the county.
A total of 28,736 voters cast their ballots in this year’s general election. Of those voters, 6,546 cast a straight-party Republican vote, which is the highest GOP straight-party vote in the county’s history.
While many county residents did split their ticket, the majority voted for Republican candidates. In the presidential election, Walker County voters highly favored Mitt Romney with 21,633 votes, compared to Barack Obama’s 6,551. Voters in the county also gave the nod to GOP candidates in every statewide race on the ballot.
For at least the last couple of decades, the county has voted Republican in national and statewide elections, but Walker County has consistently been a Democrat-favored county in local elections since the two-party system has existed.
The Walker County Commission became Republican-controlled after the November election with three of four commission members now Republican. Keith Davis, Bobby Nunnelly and Steven Aderholt are the first Republican commissioners in the county in more than 100 years.
Billy Luster became the county’s first-ever Republican commission chairman when he took office in mid-November.
Only three Democrats were able to pick up wins in the general election — Rick Allison (probate judge), Dan Wright (commission district 2) and Hoyt Elliott (circuit judge).
2. Industrial growth brings jobs
It’s not very often that a governor makes a trip to Walker County, but Gov. Robert Bentley visited Jasper in August for the announcement of more than 100 new jobs coming to the area due to an expansion by global automotive supplier Amtex, now known as Hayashi Telempu North America (HTNA).
“Any time I can come announce new jobs, that’s something that I want to do,” Bentley said during his trip to Jasper. “One hundred and ten new jobs for this area, comparatively, is as significant as 1,000 in a large city.”
HTNA is adding a new plant on 60 acres in the Bevill Industrial Park. Local industrial officials have hinted that the 110 jobs that have been announced are only Phase 1 of the expansion. The number of jobs could skyrocket in the future.
Later in August, another major industrial expansion was announced when Fontaine Trailer Company, the world’s largest flatbed trailer manufacturer, said it would invest more than $5 million in new business opportunities and expansion at its Jasper campus. The company, which is headquartered in Jasper, has established two new businesses, Fontaine Intermodal and Fontaine Renew. Both are located in Jasper.
Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey toured Fontaine during a recent trip to Jasper. She called the business “top-notch.”
“What you’ve done is a great testimony,” Ivey told Fontaine officials. “Fontaine has been here, and you’ve made the decision to stay here. More importantly, you’ve made the decision to expand. That is a message that doing business in Alabama is good for business.”
Another move to bring industrial jobs to Jasper took place in February with the opening of Charles Bishop Industrial Drive, which will allow commercial access to the 400-acre Jasper Industrial Park.
“Without this road, there would not be a Jasper Industrial Park,” Jasper Mayor Sonny Posey said when the road opened in February.
3. New leadership in area municipalities
Three local mayors were voted out of office and two others decided to step down in this year’s municipal elections.
In Cordova, 25-year-old Drew Gilbert forced two-term incumbent Jack Scott into a runoff for the mayor’s seat. In his first political campaign, Gilbert received almost as many votes as his two challengers combined and narrowly missed the percentage needed to win the election outright.
He went on to receive nearly two-thirds of the votes cast in the runoff.
Sipsey Mayor Anita Sanders, who like Scott saw her last year in office defined by 2011’s deadly tornadoes, was defeated by challenger Belinda McCain in August. McCain received 101 votes to Sanders’ 74.
Oakman residents also voted for a change in leadership this year. Incumbent Mayor Joyce Todd went head-to head with council member Dennis Welch in an October runoff and lost by a vote of 152 to 104.
Residents in Carbon Hill and Dora received new mayors after the incumbents in those cities, Chris Hart and Chris Edwards, chose not to run again after serving one term.
James “Pee Wee” Richardson, a former Carbon Hill mayor and council member, beat Jacque Allred 419-382 in a runoff.
In Dora, Randy Stephens received 462 votes to win the race outright in August against challengers John Jackson and Henry Morgan.
4. Long-term recovery continues
April 27, 2012, marked the one-year anniversary of the deadly tornadoes that forever altered the landscape of Walker County and changed the lives of hundreds of residents.
Former professional athlete and Auburn alum Bo Jackson made the day a little easier for storm survivors by bringing his “Bo Bikes Bama” fundraiser to Jasper and Cordova. Proceeds from the five-day, 300-mile bike trek benefited the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund.
The Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee continued to play a central role in the local disaster relief effort. Its primary task was tackling the area’s $4 million in unmet needs from the tornadoes.
Hundreds of volunteers from all over the country worked countless hours on construction projects. LTRC’s first total rebuild was completed this year, and several house blessings and dedication ceremonies were held for grateful families.
As months passed, Cordova residents grew increasingly frustrated with the perceived lack of progress in their town. Demolition never occurred in the devastated downtown, which was further damaged by two fires in 2012 as well as one in fall 2011.
The city’s only grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, reopened in March but in the neighboring city of Dora. As the year drew to a close, Gov. Robert Bentley revived hope in the city with the announcement that Cordova has been awarded nearly $1.4 million to rebuild its grocery store.
5. Retail growth across county
While a major shopping center on I-22 didn’t happen in 2012, Walker County did see its share of retail growth throughout the year.
The Love’s Travel Stop opened on I-22 in May and has provided a positive impact on Jasper’s sales tax revenue.
“That’s new tax money to the city,” Mayor Sonny Posey said earlier this year. “Those are cars that were driving by on the interstate, and now they have a place to stop.”
Restaurant openings in Jasper have included Sakura Japanese Restaurant and Daylight Donuts. An announcement was made in August that the great white whale of restaurants will be coming to Jasper. Posey announced Cracker Barrel had purchased land near the Love’s. While many called the announcement a campaign stunt, the Daily Mountain Eagle spoke to Cracker Barrel officials who confirmed the purchase of the property and the intent to build the restaurant. Restaurant officials said the company typically doesn’t hold groundbreaking ceremonies before construction begins and does not have a timetable for when the restaurant will be opened.
In other areas of the county, Dora’s economy got a major boost with the opening of Piggly Wiggly in March. Almost every part of the county now houses a Dollar General store, and each municipality has seen growth in locally-owned businesses throughout 2012.
6. Sumiton goes wet
Sumiton became the fourth city in Walker County to allow the sale of alcohol inside the city limits. The city earmarked the tax revenue earned from alcohol sales for the construction of the city’s new fire department.
Voters in the municipality approved the sale of alcohol by a vote of 224-111. The vote also signified a remarkable change in the attitude of these votes. Votes in 2011 in Carbon Hill and Dora became heated battles that polarized the communities, while Sumiton’s vote seemed uneventful.
Although the vote passed by a two-to-one margin, the vote represented only a small portion of the city’s more than 1,800 registered voters. Alcohol sales had already been approved by neighboring Dora, which city officials believed played a role in minimizing the voter turnout.
“You can tell by the numbers of people who came out to vote that it just isn’t as big an issue to most people, because we’ve got it just across the street,” Mayor Petey Ellis said after the results were announced.
7. Smith Lake named to Alabama Bass Trail
Tourism in the area was improved substantially when Lewis Smith Lake was named in March as one of 11 stops on the Alabama Bass Trail.
The Alabama Bass Trail features 11 premier bass-fishing areas and is a cooperative effort between the governor’s office, the Alabama Tourism Department, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. The 10 other areas included in the trail are Lake Guntersville, Wheeler Lake, Pickwick Lake, Neely Henry Lake, Logan Martin Lake, Lay Lake, Lake Jordan, the Alabama River, Lake Eufaula and the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.
Linda Lewis, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County, said Smith Lake being a part of the trail will provide a tremendous boost to the local economy.
“This is big for Walker County,” Lewis said. “We couldn’t be happier. We are excited to be a part of the Alabama Bass Trail.”
Kay Donaldson, the trail’s program director, said anglers currently spend more than $700 million in Alabama each year. Donaldson has spent much of 2012 promoting the trail across the state and the nation, including a few trips to Jasper to speak at the chamber’s annual luncheon and to civic groups.
Smith Lake will host a major FLW tournament in March 2013, which is expected to bring millions of dollars to Walker County.
8. Law enforcement (Suspects charged in murders)
The work of area law enforcement is constantly a source of front page material for the Daily Mountain Eagle.
In 2012, several area murders were solved by local investigators.
In February, Brandon Reid, a 26-year-old Cordova resident, was found stabbed and shot to death in front of his home. About three weeks later, Cliffton Rexford Akins, 24, and Joseph Grant Lewis, 32, both of Jasper, were charged with Reid’s murder. Both men pleaded guilty to the murder and are now serving time in state prisons.
In June, the body of Jesse Brandon “Money G“ Joseph was found near the Frisco Community Cemetery, just outside the Jasper City Limits. In September, Ralonte Terrell Swain, 20, of Jasper, pled guilty to shooting Joseph “in a fit of rage.”
In September, a Detroit native was charged with one count of capital murder in the death of Greg “Homie” Johnson. The shooting death happened on July 13, 2011, and was Jasper’s only murder that year.
9. Law enforcement (controversy)
While area law enforcement provided many positives to the community in 2012, there were also several instances where local police were the subject of much controversy.
In late September, Scottie Wilkins, a former Jasper police officer was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison after being charged with taking a $5,000 bribe to influence a case in state court.
In early February, the former director of the Walker County Narcotics Enforcement Team died after a single-car collision in the Townley community. Paul Kilgore’s death was surrounded with wild rumors, but an Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences report obtained by the Daily Mountain Eagle confirmed his death was a suicide from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Kilgore was a highly-respected member of the Walker County Sheriff’s Office for more than 30 years. Hundreds of area residents and members of law enforcement attended his funeral service on Feb. 10.
In August, a Sumiton police officer at the center of an Alabama Bureau of Investigations inquiry also killed himself. Sumiton Police Department had requested the investigation into allegations of improper conduct between Officer Christopher Daugherty and inmates. Daugherty killed himself at his home on Aug. 17.
An ongoing police controversy in 2012 was allegations against former NET agent Adam Hadder, who was terminated by the Walker County Sheriff’s Office in late September.
Jasper attorney Thomas Carmichael filed a civil suit in August on behalf of Gerald Garrison, a process server who was allegedly arrested by Hadder for attempting to serve him with a subpoena. Carmichael cited posts made by Hadder on the Daily Mountain Eagle Facebook page as evidence that he tried to intimidate and threaten Garrison and others, which led to Hadder being suspended from the sheriff’s office.
Hadder has said the suit, as well as others filed against him by Carmichael and Jasper attorney Byron McMath, is a personal vendetta against him. Hadder has appealed his termination and the appeal is expected to be heard by the Walker County Civil Service Board in January.
“None of these allegations have gone to trial, and they are simply allegations by attorneys,” said Gail Gear, Hadder’s attorney, in September . “The public needs to know that my client has worked successfully and uneventfully protecting them for 15 years. He looks forward to having a full hearing and clearing his name.”
10. Skull found under Jasper home
Jasper Police reopened an old missing person case after a renter in South Lowell discovers a human skull beneath his house. The residence was the last-known permanent address of 104-year-old Mary Cobb and her 83-year-old daughter, Wynona Delvecchio. The women were reported missing in 2005 by Cobb’s son, Henry Cobb. Subsequent searches were made of the residence and neighborhood using earth-penetrating sonar equipment owned by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and a canine cadaver team.
The skull was sent to the Alabama Department of Forensics in Huntsville and Jasper Police Chief Connie Cooner Rowe reopened the missing person case.