Opening of I-22 among top stories of decade

Posted

When the decade began, the people of Walker County still couldn't reach Birmingham via Interstate 22, downtown Jasper wasn't a lively place and no one was talking about opioid abuse as a local problem, much less a national epidemic.

Here are 10 stories that defined the decade of the 2010s.

1. Interstate 22 opens

Authorized in 1978 as Corridor X, an interstate connecting Birmingham to Memphis took more than 30 years and $1 billion to complete. 

The final section opened in June 2016. Approximately 50 local officials and residents attended the ribbon cutting ceremony. One notable absence was former Congressman Tom Bevill, who died in 2005.

"Without the work of Tom Bevill, this interstate would not be here today," Sen. Greg Reed said. "He worked tirelessly on this project, and he definitely deserves a lot of credit for it."

Before leaving office, Bevill cut the ribbon in November 1996 on the first section of Corridor X to open in Walker County — a three-mile stretch from Alabama 69 South to Alabama 269. 

David Knight, executive director of the Walker County Development Authority, called the completion of the interstate "critical to the future of our area."

Daily Mountain Eagle staff are currently working on a project on the history of Corridor X, renamed Future Interstate 22 in 2004, that should debut in 2020.

2. Opioid epidemic grips county

In January 2011, the Eagle reported that several Christmas cards mailed to the county contained heroin, which one law enforcement official said was a drug "that we don't see a lot of in this area."

By 2014, local LEOs were reporting that heroin use was on the rise because prescription pills were becoming harder to obtain. Drug Enforcement Agency investigations that spanned several years culminated in the indictments of Dr. Muhammad Wasim Ali of Walker Rural Health Care and Jasper pharmacist Rick Bolling in 2015. 

Walker County developed a reputation for being at the epicenter of the nation's opioid crisis. According to statistics on the sale of pills published earlier this year by the Washington Post, nearly 9 million pills a year flowed into a single Walker County pharmacy between 2006 and 2012.

As heroin replaced painkillers, overdoses increased dramatically with some overdose victims being found with the needle still sticking in their arms. In 2016, 18 overdoses resulting in one death were reported in the county in a single day.

Over the past two years, local groups have come together to seek ways to combat the problem. Programs such as the Mercy Project have helped get individuals into treatment. 

The Eagle reported in September that the county has received more than $1 million from several sources in the past year to address a range of needs related to the opioid crisis.

3. Tornadoes devastate county

"Total devastation" was the headline that appeared in the Eagle following the April 27, 2011, tornadoes that took nine lives and forever changed the landscape of the county as a whole and the city of Cordova.

The Walker County Long Term Recovery Committee worked for two years to get storm survivors into homes that were "safe, sanitary and secure." The final home dedication was held on the second anniversary of the storms.

The projects were funded by more than $2 million that flowed into the county for recovery efforts and completed largely through the labor of faith-based volunteers from all over the United States and Canada that rotated in and out of the county.  

In Cordova, rebuilding has been a never-ending process. Demolition was completed in 2013. The city's only grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, opened in 2014. A new City Hall and police station were opened in 2015. 

As a result of the storms, approximately two dozen community storm shelters have been added across the county. 

4. Five area schools close

In the span of three years, students and parents in five communities were devastated by the loss of their schools. 

In 2011, the Walker County Board of Education closed Farmstead and Townley Elementary/Junior High schools. At the time, the board was looking to make up a $4.6 million budget deficit.

In 2014, the board voted to close Parrish High School, T.S. Boyd Elementary/Jr. High and SipseyElementary/Jr. High. A reduction in state funding, low enrollment and mediocre test scores were among the reasons given for the decision.

Each time schools were slated for closure, community members made passionate appeals to save them.

5. County deals with financial woes

There was an 11-year-old, $27 million elephant in the room when a new slate of Walker County Commissioners met to develop a budget in 2013. 

In 2002, commissioners agreed to pay back $27.2 million on a $9.5 million loan that was spent on basic operating expenses and on projects in each of the four districts. The county began paying back the debt in 2018. 

Walker County Sheriff John Mark Tirey balked when commissioners instructed all department heads to cut their budgets by 4 percent.

In 2014 the commission formed a financial advisory committee made up of nine community leaders tasked with helping the county prepare for paying back the debt. The committee, chaired by David O'Mary, reported in 2015 that the county had operated at a deficit of at least $1 million for two of the last three years. Among the suggestions made by committee members were raising the sales tax and property taxes, eliminating the Civil Service Board, replacing the office of Treasurer with a Chief Financial Officer who would be hired rather than elected and switching county government to a modified unit system that would eliminate the need for districts.

The committee completed its work under a cloud after Commissioner Dan Wright filed suit, stating that members were violating the Open Meetings Act. The suit was dismissed at Wright's request later in 2015.

In 2018, a 1-cent sales tax increase proposed by the commission was voted down by local residents. The commission responded with a 10-percent budget cut for all departments along with cuts to discretionary spending.

Tirey's successor at the sheriff's department, Jim Underwood, filed two lawsuits against the commission related to financing. In late 2018, the commission announced a revenue increase in September and gave the Sheriff's Office and jail a 2.5 percent increase in funding.

By the time the 2019-2020 budget was approved, the Eagle reported that "commissioners could relax as the improved economy and cost savings eased the sense of impending doom seen over the past couple of years with the finances."

6. County becomes GOP stronghold 

Walker County, dominated by Democrats for decades, turned from blue to red seemingly overnight.

In 2010, county voters sent Republicans to the state House and Senate. High-profile Democrats who went down to defeat included Tommy Sherer and Ken Guin. 

In 2011, an exodus from the Democratic Party began with Superintendent of the Walker County Board of Education Jason Adkins, Circuit Clerk Susan Odom, local judges Jerry Selman, Doug Farris and Henry Allred and Treasurer Shelia Rice changing their political affiliations. 

Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie crossed over in 2013, and District Attorney Bill Adair officially made the switch in 2014.

The 2012 general election brought the highest GOP straight-party vote in the county’s history. Only three Democrats — Rick Allison (probate judge), Dan Wright (commission district 2) and Hoyt Elliott (circuit judge) — won on election night.

In 2014, every Republican running for one of the six county-wide offices on the ballot won with at least 70 percent of the vote.

By 2016, there were no local Democrats on the ballot. 

7. Downtown Jasper revitalized

In 2013, the city of Jasper and the Downtown Merchants Association began working together to increase traffic in downtown Jasper. A list of 63 events, including the return of Foothills Festival, was announced.

In 2015, Jasper was one of three communities selected to join Main Street Alabama. The coveted designation as a Main Street community opened the door to a variety of resources to help local leaders breathe new life into downtown.

In 2016, "Flourish with Us" was announced as the program's slogan. 

Jasper Main Street has sponsored a banner program and a series of murals downtown. More recent projects include the installation of speakers that play music throughout the downtown area and a bicycle share program. 

8. Alabama Bass Trail 

In 2012, Lewis Smith Lake was named as one of 11 stops on the Alabama Bass Trail. More than 220 amateur bass anglers from across the Southeast competed in the Alabama Bass Trail’s inaugural championship tournamentat at Lewis Smith Lake in 2014. The tournament included 117 two-person teams and had an estimated economic impact of $1 million.

In April 2015, the lake was host to one of the event’s qualifying tournaments and included 400 anglers.

The lake now hosts multiple tournaments throughout the year, each one having a positive impact on the economy. 

The 2014 Economic Impact Alabama Travel Industry showed that Walker County had the second largest rate of growth in direct and indirect travel earnings from 2013-2014.  

Kay Donaldson, director of the Alabama Bass Trail, told the Eagle earlier this year that local officials roll out the red carpet each time the anglers come.

"I think for the Alabama Bass Trail to start the 2019 season there (Smith Lake) is great," Donaldson said. "It's probably one of the best venues we go to each year."

9. New high school built under new name

Jasper High School opened its doors to nearly 800 students for the first day of classes in  January 2017. 

In a controversial move, the Jasper City Board of Education voted in June 2016 to change the name of Walker High School to Jasper High School.

The school system also completed a reconfiguration in 2017 to have students in Pre-K through first grade at T.R. Simmons, second and third at Memorial Park Elementary, fourth, fifth and sixth at Maddox Middle School and the remaining seventh through eighth grade students at Jasper Jr. High/High School.

West Jasper Elementary School and North Highlands School closed as a result of the reconfiguration.

10. Gorgas Steam Plant closes

Alabama Power Company officials confirmed in February 2019 that Plant Gorgas would close in April after more than a century of operations. 

"After more than a century of providing safe, reliable, affordable electricity to customers, Plant Gorgas is closing because of costly, federally driven environmental mandates," the company said in a release.

Jim Heilbron, the company's senior vice president and senior production officer, pointed in the release to government regulations related to the handling of coal ash and wastewater as the reason for the decision. Company officials estimated it would cost $300 million to comply with the newest environmental mandates in order to continue operating the plant's three coal-fired generating units.

A company website said the company has invested more than $853 million in environmental controls at the plant, reducing emissions as a result.

"We recognize that Plant Gorgas and the men and women who have operated it have brought great value to Alabama Power, our customers and the local community," Heilbron said, adding, "We are also concerned that more regulations are on the horizon that could require additional, costly expenditures at the plant."

The release went on to say, "Federally driven environmental mandates related to coal, and the costs to comply with those mandates, are changing the way Alabama Power provides electricity to customers. Since 2015, these cost pressures have caused the company to reduce its coal-fired generating units from 23 to 10. After Plant Gorgas is retired, the company will have seven coal-fired units remaining, at three power plants. Prior coal unit reductions have been accomplished either through retirements or by converting units to natural gas."