Meridian Star

January 2, 2013

A look back at 2012

By Michael Stewart and Steve Gillespie / The Meridian Star
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Looking back, 2012 was a year filled with failures and successes and heartbreak and celebrations.

    The Meridian Star covered both the positive and the negative.

    Meridian had much to celebrate in 2012, from the opening of a new college campus downtown, to the installation of synthetic turf at Ray Stadium.

    There were accomplishments, such as Meridian Main Street's expansion of Earth's Bounty and creation of the Downtown After 5 Alive concert series at Dumont Plaza. Both proved popular with local residents.

    There were losses, such as the April death of beloved Meridian musician Chris Ethridge. In October, former director and owner of Alpha School of Dance, Mary Alpha Johnson Donnelly, too passed away.

    And there were tragedies in the form of fatal wrecks and shootings.

    Picking the top 10 stories of the year is subjective and we recognize that there are other stories not included in our list that could have easily been chosen.

    Equally subjective is ranking stories in order of importance. Whether the opening of the downtown MSU-Meridian campus in the historic Newberry building or the closing of the Handy Hardware distribution center is more noteworthy depends on whom you ask.

    For that reason, we have chosen this year to list our top 10 stories in the order that they occurred rather than rank them in importance.


MSU-Meridian opens downtown campus

    In January MSU-Meridian began offering business classes at the historic Newberry building.

    The college's business division was moved into the building on Fifth Street, which was donated to Mississippi State University in June 2009.

    “We are excited about the new year and the opening of our new building downtown," said Dr. Stephen Brown, dean and associate vice president of MSU-Meridian.

    "This is a tremendous opportunity for us. The Riley Foundation, city of Meridian, citizens and several foundations have combined to provide this opportunity for our students," Brown said.

    The downtown campus not only allows MSU-Meridian to expand the university, but also gives business students the opportunity to study in the heart of the city's business district.

City Hall reopens after years of renovations

    An open house and dedication took place at Meridian's historic City Hall on Jan. 31 after six years of renovations plagued by delays and complications.

     When the city initiated the renovation project in 2004, it was expected to take around two years to complete and be paid for with just a portion of a $10 million bond loan. A number of unforeseen complications with the project led it to be dragged out for an additional four years and to cost the city approximately $25 million, including interest to be paid on the financing.

        Construction on the project began in 2006.

    In May the newly renovated City Hall was recognized by the Mississippi Heritage Trust.

    Originally built in 1915, Meridian City Hall was one of 21 preservation projects in the state awarded the demonstration of excellence in preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and interpretation of Mississippi's architectural and cultural heritage, according to the Mississippi Heritage Trust.

Money woes delay work on police station

    In February, work on a new station for the Meridian Police Department was stopped because of delays in getting new market tax credits, according to project developer David Watkins.

        Watkins said at the time that the project, renovating an old grocery store building on 22nd Avenue into a new police station that will serve the entire department, was taking significantly longer than expected to finance.

    The week following the announcement, the Meridian City Council voted to stop paying Watkins Development a monthly consulting fee until work resumed on city projects.

        Meridian hired Watkins Development in October 2010 to work as a consultant for $10,000 a month, with a one year contract automatically renewable each year.

    Work resumed in June after the Meridian City Council approved a lease with Meridian Law Enforcement Center.

    A new contractor, Tim Allred of Heritage Building Corporation, was brought in to finish the project, which is still underway.

    Once completed, the city will pay rent over a period of 20 years for a minimum of $8.2 million, including $2.1 million the city will pay up front from funds derived from police department seized property.

    The annual rent will be $305,000, allowing for possible increases based on the consumer price index every five years.

The passing of a legend

    On March 17, former Meridian Mayor Al Rosenbaum died of natural causes at his home. He was 92 years old.

    Rosenbaum served as mayor from 1977 to 1985, was an accomplished  businessman and was instrumental in establishing NAS Meridian more than 50 years ago.

    In one of his last interviews, Rosenbaum said NAS Meridian was one of the things of which he was most proud.

    "That is maybe the biggest accomplishment I've been associated with in my life," Rosenbaum said. "There were others I'm proud of but that one really was a turning point."

    He also helped preserve NAS Meridian during three rounds of Base Realignment and Closure hearings and helped recruit companies like Lockheed Martin to East Mississippi.

    Rosenbaum won many awards in his lifetime, including the Sertoma Service to Humanity Award, the Lauderdale County Bar Association Liberty Bell Award, and the J.H. Johnson Memorial Award for Distinguished Service to the Insurance Profession.

        Along with his jobs as mayor of Meridian, founder of Meyer and Rosenbaum insurance, and in military service, Rosenbaum was the vice president, treasurer, and CFO of Riley Development Systems, the president, treasurer and CFO of the Riley Foundation, and the director of First United Bank.

        The list of organizations he served on includes Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, the Girl Scouts, the United Way, local and state Navy Leagues, the Lauren Rodgers Museum, and the state and national associations of insurance agents.

    In 2011, Rosenbaum was presented the Medal of Service award by then Gov. Haley Barbour. The Medal of Service award is presented annually to Mississippians who throughout their lives have made significant contributions to improving their state.

City buses quit running

    In April the Meridian Transit System stopped all local bus service in Meridian, impacting local residents and students at Naval Air Station Meridian, who used the buses to visit the city.

    At the time, MTS Board President Bo Hawkins said cuts in funding from the city prompted the move.

     "It's real simple. It's a lack of funding," Hawkins said at the time. "We've been cut in the last three (city) budgets."

    Council members pointed out during a March meeting that MTS had been evaluated by an expert who provided them with a list of cost-cutting recommendations. They also pointed out that MTS was allotted a certain amount of money at the beginning of the fiscal year, and had not been hit with any surprise cuts.

Coach arrested on sex charges

    In September Clarkdale High School girls softball coach Ricky E. Roberson waved his right to a probable cause hearing and surrendered to authorities with the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department.

    Roberson, 59, was fired from the Lauderdale County School District and formally charged with two counts of lustful touching of a minor while in position of authority, and one count of statutory rape.

    Roberson was placed on $20,000 bond, $5,000 each for the two lustful touching offenses and $10,000 for the statutory rape charge. Roberson made bond shortly after he was booked and processed into the LCSD jail system.     

    According to affidavits attached to court documents, Roberson allegedly had inappropriate contact with a 10th grade student in 2010 that continued into the 11th grade.

    Another affidavit alleges Roberson made inappropriate comments to a ninth grade student up until August 2012. The affidavit alleges Roberson bought the girl gifts and grabbed her in inappropriate places.

    A third affidavit alleges that in 1984 Roberson had sexual intercourse numerous times with another girl, a student at Clarkdale High School at the time, over several months, and that the girl, a minor, became pregnant.

    "A baby girl was born from that pregnancy in (date redacted) of 1985 and the child was given up for adoption," the affidavit states.

    The case was to be turned over to the next available grand jury.

    Since 1993, Roberson has been coaching girls slow-pitch and fast-pitch softball teams at Clarkdale High School, amassing 11 state titles, seven in slow-pitch and four in fast-pitch.

Federal court in Meridian targeted for closure

     Also in September, the Supreme Court of the Judicial Conference announced that Meridian's federal court is among six in the South that will close in a cost-cutting measure expected to save $1 million a year in rent.

    "This is part of an aggressive cost containment effort because the money to operate the courts has been frozen by Congress the past three years," David Sellers, a federal courts spokesman, said at the time.

        Sellers didn't know where federal court proceedings for Lauderdale County residents would take place in the future. He said those decisions would be made at a later date.

    Meridian's federal court has handled many high profile cases over the years, including historical civil rights cases in the 1960s.

    In 1961, James Meredith's legal battle to integrate the University of Mississippi began in that courtroom.

    On June 16, 1964, Michael Schwerner, along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, who had come to the rural Neshoba County community of Longdale to inspect a black church that had been burned to the ground, were killed. Their bodies were discovered 45 days later buried in an earthen dam.

    On Oct. 7, 1967 in the Meridian courtroom of Judge William Cox the trial began. A jury of seven white men and five white women, ranging in ages from 34 to 67, was selected. On the morning of October 20, 1967, the jury returned with its verdict. Seven of 19 men indicted were convicted of depriving the victims of their civil rights.

DOJ files school-to-prison pipeline suit

    A U.S. Department of Justice investigation into an alleged school-to-prison pipeline in Meridian resulted in a lawsuit being filed in October against the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, two Lauderdale County Youth Court judges and the Mississippi Department of Youth Services.

     The lawsuit alleges that students in trouble with the judicial system had been deprived of their constitutional rights and were jailed for violating probation conditions over relatively minor infractions, such as talking back to teachers, flatulence and dress code violations.

    The lawsuit mentions that these are students in the Meridian Public School District but the district itself was not named as a defendant.

    Responses to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Jackson, were filed separately by attorneys representing the city of Meridian, Lauderdale County, and Youth Court Judges Frank Coleman and Veldore Young.

Distribution center announces closure

    On Nov. 7, Handy Hardware CEO Ken White announced that the two-year old distribution center located on Handy Drive next to Interstate 20 east of Meridian would shut its loading docks Dec. 31. White said the decision to close the Meridian facility was made to restore company profitability.

    The 107 employees at Handy Hardware were given notice of the decision on the same day.

    The Mississippi Development Authority awarded Handy Hardware a $3.6 million grant to open the distribution center and Lauderdale County spent $600,000 on infrastructure and site preparation. A Mississippi Development Authority official said the state will ask for the $3.6 million back from Handy Hardware.

    Wade Jones, president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, said work is underway to attract a new tenant for the building. Just two days after Handy Hardware announced the closing, Jones was in Atlanta and called on three consultants who represent companies that are looking for new locations.

Armed robberies, fatal shootings prompt call for action

    In December, Meridian Mayor Cheri Barry called a press conference in which she declared, "The gloves are off. We are taking our streets back!"

    The press conference was in response to a spate of armed robberies, shootings and murders within the city.

    Barry asked the Meridian City Council to amend the city's budget so an additional $100,000 could be earmarked to pay officers overtime to put more patrolmen on the streets.

    Community and church leaders have also conducted meetings and prayer vigils calling for an end to the violence that includes nine fatal shootings this year.

    There have also been numerous reports of gunfire where homes and cars were struck by bullets and several nonfatal shootings in the city, including one in early December in which civil rights leader Roscoe Jones Sr. was shot after struggling with two youths reportedly attempting to steal his car.

    On Dec. 3, a mother and her 10-month-old child were each shot outside Eastern Garden Apartments. Both mother and infant recovered and police said they were not the targets of the shooting.

    Many community leaders have attributed the shootings, which are believed to have been mostly committed by youths, to a growing gang problem within the city.

    Reports of ongoing crime has prompted an uptick in local gun sales at sporting goods stores.