For some, there was the hope of change with the election of President Obama. For some, that change was frightening. Perhaps the biggest story of all was the continuing crash of the economy and the worldwide financial crisis that ensued. Corporate bailouts, the crash of the housing market and rampant unemployment dominated the headlines. Shuffled to the inside pages were stories on the ongoing War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the year progressed, and the number of deaths in Afghanistan escalated, those stories made it back in the headlines with President Obama’s plan for a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan.
While terrorism, and terrorist acts, remained a constant threat, the idea of homegrown terrorists took firm root throughout 2009. From arrests in North Carolina and Detroit, to the shooting of soldiers at Fort Hood, and finally the attempted bombing of a Detroit bound plane as the year ended, Americans began to take a closer look at their community and their neighbors.
Across the world, another threat quickly took hold in 2009 — Swine Flu. From the first reported deaths in Mexico to outbreaks around the world, health officials warned of an impending pandemic. Widespread deaths were forecasts. Communities were urged to make emergency plans to deal with the threat. Vaccines were at a premium, and while the world prepared, the flu fizzled.
While these stories played out on the world stage, closer to home much of what was going on throughout the nation was reflected in our own neighborhoods. Here are some of the top stories of 2009 in the greater Cumberland County community.
While Fayetteville suffered from the economic downturn turned recession, our community is fortunate to be somewhat insulated due to our military neighbors and their economic impact on our community. The unemployment rates did rise locally but no where near the heights of other areas in our state and nation. In October, unemployment rates here were at 7.5 percent while other areas in the state were 11 plus. And, Fayetteville ranks near the top for jobs outlook in 2010 according to Manpower Inc.
THE HOUSING MARKET CRASH
Cumberland County also fell victim to the housing market crash. Foreclosures climbed and houses, built in anticipation of BRAC moves to the community, remained empty throughout the early part of the year. As the economy began to turn, so did the housing market, but it’s not out of the woods yet. However, our homes have shown 13.4 percent appreciation, the highest in the country.
Fayetteville residents continued to keep their eye on downtown and its revitalization. While there was much talk about growth — rumors of a nightclub district and a retail tower — little changed on the downtown landscape in 2009. The city hired a manager to deal directly with downtown and its merchants, but the 300 Hay Street project stalled amidst lawsuits and faulty building. 2010 will usher in the ground-breaking for the N.C. Veterans Park, and along with it, the hope of more tourists, which should feed the need for restaurants and housing.
BASE REALIGNMENT AND CLOSURE (BRAC)
For the past five years, much of what has happened in Cumberland and its surrounding counties has been driven by the specter of BRAC. The Congressionally mandated base closure and realignment plan will bring the U.S. Forces Command and the Reserve Command to Fort Bragg. As surrounding counties jockey for the new residents set to move from Fort McPherson, many may be disappointed, as estimates from McPherson show that only about 40 to 50 percent of their current staff will make the move. That does however, open the window for new employment in the community.
The Fayetteville Museum of Art dominated the arts headlines throughout the year. Whether or not the museum would be built in Festival Park was the early question. Later in the year, the question became whether or not there would even be a museum.
In November, the museum’s board chairman Meredith Stiehl announced that without substantial community support, the museum, which had already slashed its hours, programming, staff hours and pay, would be forced to close. Community supporters rallied and bought the museum some time, and, the museum announced a Salvador Dali exhibition. With a “For Sale” sign decorating the lawn at the museum, the question remains: Where will the exhibit be?
Longtime Superintendent of Public Schools Bill Harrison resigned his post in Cumberland County to accept an appointment by Gov. Bev Perdue as CEO of the state’s school system. But there was a little problem. State residents elect the superintendent of public schools, and June Atkinson, the elected official didn’t take kindly to Perdue’s appointment. Harrison resigned from the CEO role, but remains the chairman of the N.C. State Board of Education.
In Cumberland Co., Harrison’s replacement Frank Till had little time to get acclimated before faced with a grade scandal that rocked the community. Terry Sanford’s football team was declared ineligible by the N.C. High School Athletic Association after it was found that one player did not meet eligibility requirements. The ensuing investigation resulted in the dismissal of the principal, and uncovered widespread grade changing throughout the system. Till’s take on it: No more grade changing.
LAW ENFORCEMENT 2009 was not a banner year for law enforcement in Cumberland County. Cumberland Co. Sheriff’s Deputies were charged with double dipping — working at parttime events like football games and still staying on the roll of the department.
And in Spring Lake, the entire police department was stripped of its authority after two Spring Lake police sergeants were arrested and charged with a host of crimes including embezzlement, obtaining property by false pretense, larceny, obstruction of justice, failure to discharge their duty and solicitation to commit a felony. Cumberland County District Attorney Ed Grannis asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate the department, and dismissed all misdemeanor charges pending in the department. In recent weeks, the city has hired a new police chief, Troy McDuffie, who has a vision to rebuild the department. It will take time to see if the public can again put their trust in the department that failed them so miserably.
Cumberland County is no stranger to domestic violence and child abuse. But 2009 brought the problem into perspective with the death of 5-year-old Shania Davis. The child was taken from her home, raped and killed. Authorities allege that her mother sold her to her attacker. As the county reeled from the accusations, questions were raised as to why the girl was allowed with her mother, who had been under observation by the Department of Social Services. While both Davis’ mother and her attacker are awaiting trial, and the Department of Social Services response to the situation is under scrutiny, the community has been forced to take a closer look at itself and the way it protects its children.
Cumberland County politics are always exciting. 2009 saw a resilience in the Democratic party, with the election of the nation’s first African-American President, and the defeat of Republican Congressman Robin Hayes by Larry Kissell. The year also saw the county mourning the loss of one of its most active Democrats, Grainger Barrett, the county attorney.
In early Fall, longtime N.C. Senator Tony Rand announced he would resign his seat in the N.C. Senate to take on an appointed role as the chairman of the state’s Parole Board. Rand again made the news this month as ethics allegations surfaced regarding Rand’s ownership in a company known to do business with the state. As the year winds down, nothing has been resolved; however, Gov. Perdue maintains that Rand is the man for the job on the Parole Board.
THE PRINCE CHARLES
In December of 2008, a number of bidders gathered in the conference room of the Prince Charles Hotel. At auction was the historic hotel itself. Over 80-years-old, it has 83 rooms and 3.32 acres of land. John Chen, a native of Taiwan and a New York businessman, won the silent auction with a bid of $1.9 million.
The hotel had definitely seen better days. Estimates were that at a minimum $6,000 per room would need to be spent to get the hotel back into shape. Chen appeared to have deep pockets and a desire to make something of the hotel.
Chen unveiled plans to turn the hotel into a “boutique-style” hotel, complete with shops and office space. As the year progressed, Chen’s plans seemed to come to a halt. The occupancy rate dropped and the outside of the building, in need of much work, became a point of contention between Chen and the city. Because of its National Register of Historic Landmarks status, all repairs must be in keeping with the original structure. Chen replaced wood windows with vinyl, and began wracking up fines with the city. The heating and cooling system was problematic, so window air conditioning units began to appear in the hotel’s windows — another source of problems with the city. Chen opened the doors of the hotel as an “extended stay” apartments, renting rooms for $400 a month. In early December, the residents of the hotel were forced from the building as fire inspectors declared the building a hazard, having warned Chen a number of times of safety violations. As the new year comes around, the residents are back in the building, and Chen is threatening legal action against the city.
Who knows what 2010 will bring to one of the city’s historic landmarks and our community in general? We’ll see.