• 79°

Top stories of 2014: Hospital sale tops local news

(The Natchez Democrat)

(The Natchez Democrat)

Hard to believe all that happened in a year.

Looking back through 2014 in the Miss-Lou might take some time because the year was a busy one on several fronts that had high points and low points. Those events served to set the stage for 2015, local officials say.

From local sporting teams winning state championships to community members mourning the loss of one of their own, 2014 was filled with memories that will not soon be forgotten.

One of the most memorable events came when county owned Natchez Regional Medical Center was sold to a private hospital company after a yearlong series of events.

Natchez Regional Medical Center

Adams County Board of Supervisors president Darryl Grennell, right, signs the sales documents for Natchez Regional Medical Center Monday morning with Chancery Clerk Tommy O’Beirne, left, witnessing. Judge Neil Olack is expected to approve the sale today. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Adams County Board of Supervisors president Darryl Grennell, right, signs the sales documents for Natchez Regional Medical Center Monday morning with Chancery Clerk Tommy O’Beirne, left, witnessing. Judge Neil Olack is expected to approve the sale today. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Adams County had been trying to sell Natchez Regional Medical Center at the advice of consultants and the hospital’s board of trustees for six months when it was announced in January an offer had been made to purchase the hospital.

The apparent good news lost its luster by February, when the hospital board announced it would be forced to file bankruptcy in order to stay open long enough to even sell the hospital.

Negotiations for the sale continued even as the hospital filed a bankruptcy petition, and nearly a month after the case was filed in federal court the hospital announced it had signed a letter of intent with Community Health Systems, the owners of Natchez Community Hospital.

The federal court tentatively approved the sale agreement in July, but by August it became evident that some details were still being worked out as the hospital continued to bleed money even after the bankruptcy.

Members of the hospital staff would eventually come forward and say they had been left in the dark about the true state of operations, and questions linger even now about payments owed to the hospital’s retirement system from before the bankruptcy.

Even members of the Adams County Board of Supervisors — the body officially selling the facility — complained they weren’t given accurate information from which to operate. Some former hospital trustees have reportedly indicated they felt misled by hospital administrators at some times.

Bookkeepers had to be brought in at the 11th hour to get things in order for the sale, which the court approved in September. Ownership officially changed hands at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 30.

Since the sale, CHS has announced it will consolidate Natchez Regional and Natchez Community hospitals, and is in the process of seeking state approval to begin construction work necessary to locate all hospital operations to the NRMC campus.

CHS officials have indicated the hospital will eventually be rebranded, but for the time has started a public relations campaign stating the hospitals are “better together.” Observers of the local health care industry — including those who pushed for the sale — have said having two hospitals in this small a market led to stagnation rather than competition.

“How the hospital thing went down was a tragedy — that’s the only way to put it,” Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus said. “It was not something I would put somebody through.

“Disappointing is the word that comes to mind for me when I think about this, but if there is one positive side to it, at the end of the day I think the health care is going to be better for Adams County.”

Championship wins

Three local high schools, and one area university, brought home championship trophies for their athletic programs after hard-fought seasons.

Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — The Natchez High School girls basketball team lifts the MHSAA 5A state championship trophy at the Coliseum in Jackson Friday night after defeating South Jones High School 54-51.

Brittney Lohmiller / The Natchez Democrat — The Natchez High School girls basketball team lifts the MHSAA 5A state championship trophy at the Coliseum in Jackson Friday night after defeating South Jones High School 54-51.

The Natchez Lady Bulldogs basketball team reclaimed its throne in March, winning its first state championship since 1993.

“It feels amazing to get this win and bring the ball back to Natchez that hasn’t been here in 20-plus years,” head coach Alphaka Moore said at the time. “It’s amazing to say that I was able to do that.”

Natchez defeated South Jones High School 54-51 in the Mississippi Coliseum in Jackson, with the team being aided by a 26-point, 16 rebounds performance by Zyaire Ewing.

In another 20-year triumph, Alcorn State University’s football team captured the Southwestern Athletic Conference football championship this month.

With a 38-24 win against Southern University, the team won its first SWAC championship since 1994.

Head coach Jay Hopson credited his players’ hearts and determination for bringing the school back to prominence.

“It’s a special feeling in my heart just to watch them,” Hopson said. “They have worked so hard to achieve their goals, and they have been so dedicated. It means a whole lot. It’s as far as we can go. It’s a great feeling. This is the reason you put the cleats on.”

Wide-eyed and mouth spread open, head coach Ron Rushing braced himself for a cold ice bath seconds before his Cathedral Green Wave won the MHSAA Class A State Championship earlier this month.

With 415 yards of total offense, Cathedral ran over St. Aloysius 49-14 to win its first state championship in school history.

“It feels as good as I hoped it would,” Rushing said after the game.

Wyatt Boothe scored five total touchdowns and Dee Fleming accounted for 194 yards of offense and a touchdown.

Centreville Academy topped Adams County Christian School 35-21 in November to win the MAIS Class AA state championship.

The win gave Centreville head coach Bill Hurst his ninth state championship as the head man at Centreville.

Natchez-Adams School District ups and downs

The Natchez-Adams School District went through a number events this year spanning from a restructuring of several schools to protests against multiple top district officials to the release of state accountability results that showed significant improvements across the district.

Thomas Graning / The Natchez Democrat — A vehicle passes by the group of residents protesting for a change in district administration.

Thomas Graning / The Natchez Democrat — A vehicle passes by the group of residents protesting for a change in district administration.

The restructuring changed the makeup of two schools in the district, with the plan centered on creating smaller classes, or learning communities, and more personal teacher instruction.

The plan included establishing three smaller learning communities for students: middle school academies, an early college model and a career academy.

Morgantown was split into three different academies on the school site, while the high school was divided from a traditional ninth through 12th grade school with ninth-grade students moving to the former Central School on Lynda Lee Drive. The high school also diversified its offerings, allowing students to attend different academies based on what they want to study or what field they want to work in after high school.

Robert Lewis Magnet School also went through a change, expanding at the former site of Robert Lewis Middle School to house students in sixth through eighth grades.

As those changes were being approved, a group of teachers, parents and even students hosted public protests and signed petitions seeking for the removal of the district’s top leaders, as well as all members of the NASD Board of Trustees after the restructuring led to some long-time teachers and administrators leaving the district.

The protest fervor faded, particularly after state letter-grade ratings were released showing three schools in the district received higher ratings, including one school that jumped from an F to a C.

“We feel that the district made a change for the better, and we can get behind that,” said Amos James, a Natchez resident who spearheading the petition movement. “It seems that the district is moving in the right direction.”

District leaders say keeping the positive momentum and increased scores on state tests throughout this school year could bump the district up to a C rating or better in 2015.

U.S. 61 wreck kills 1, injures others

Community members stopped and mourned the loss of one of their own in March following a two-vehicle collision on U.S. 61 South that killed an Adams County Christian School graduate and Copiah-Lincoln Community College student and left others severely injured.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Community members gather around the flag pole at Adams County Christian School Monday evening for a prayer vigil for the victims of Sunday’s car wreck on U.S. 61 South.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Community members gather around the flag pole at Adams County Christian School Monday evening for a prayer vigil for the victims of Sunday’s car wreck on U.S. 61 South.

Tyler Brumfield played baseball at ACCS and was a member of Springfield Baptist Church. Members of the community hosted prayer vigils in Brumfield’s honor following the wreck.

Brumfield’s vehicle collided with another vehicle heading northbound on U.S. 61. April Nikki Worthey, 20, of Natchez, was traveling in Brumfield’s passenger seat and was airlifted to an Alexandria, La., hospital with severe injuries.

Worthey sustained severe head lacerations and brain trauma during the wreck and started rehabilitation therapy at an Alexandria hospital shortly after the wreck.

Sarah Roy, who helped organize fundraiser to benefit the families of Worthey and Brumfield after the wreck, said Worthey is slowly recovering, continuing to visit hospitals and rehab clinics.

City charter change

After more than a year of trying to get accurate numbers for the city government’s finances, the Natchez Board of Aldermen took an unprecedented step of moving to amend the city charter and change the city clerk’s position from an elected one to an appointed one.

Board members had floated the idea in 2013, but didn’t take action until August.

The reason for the change, the aldermen said, was to ensure whoever was appointed city clerk in the future would have a background in finance and would be able to keep accurate financial records.

City Clerk Donnie Holloway has said he plans to serve out his term, but did not have plans to seek re-election for the position he has held since 2000.

The charter change required approval by the state attorney general’s office and the governor, which was granted, and no objections were raised from the public when the matter was advertised.

The aldermen have since said they would look to hire an appointed clerk sometime in spring 2016.

Darby’s Fire

NFD firefighter Randy Simpson climbs a ladder to break the windows above Darby’s during the fire. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

NFD firefighter Randy Simpson climbs a ladder to break the windows above Darby’s during the fire. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

A quiet November afternoon quickly turned disastrous for Darby and Dennis Short when a fire broke out on the third floor of their Main Street store — Darby’s Gifts and Decorative Accessories.

The fire, which officials later discovered was caused by an extension cord powering a chandelier, caused substantial smoke and water damage to the second and third floor of the store.

But just three days after the fire, Darby’s employees were back in the store cooking up batches of its famous fudge and moving other items three stores down on Main Street. That store is now filled with rugs, clothing, shoes and other merchandise rescued from the fire, thanks to a handful of employees and community members who ran into the store during the fire to remove items.

The outreach from community members since the fire, and continued support throughout the holiday season, left Darby and Dennis saying they feel fortunate to live in such a caring community.

Businesses closed, businesses opened

During 2014, Natchez lost two long-time businesses, J.C. Penney and the Natchez Eola Hotel.

The Natchez J.C. Penney store opened in 1954 on Main Street at what is now Kimbrell Office Supply. It relocated to the Natchez Mall in the 1980s.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Skylar Morgan walks out of the Natchez J.C. Penney store Wednesday evening after making a purchase. The store and its sign will disappear from the local landscape after 60 years of serving Natchez customers.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Skylar Morgan walks out of the Natchez J.C. Penney store Wednesday evening after making a purchase. The store and its sign will disappear from the local landscape after 60 years of serving Natchez customers.

When the company announced corporate restructuring would close 30 stores, Natchez was one of the locations slated for closure.

The store locked its doors in May.

The Natchez Eola Hotel, one of Natchez’s key downtown landmarks, closed earlier this month after it was sold to a new owner — sort of.

The building’s buyer, Robert Lubin, had previously owned the hotel during the 1990s, but later sold it to Bob Dean.

When Lubin re-purchased the building, he said the Eola would no longer operate as a hotel, though the restaurant and bar in the bottom floor would eventually re-open.

Lubin said at the time he has long-term plans to add hotel rooms, apartments and senior living space in Natchez.

The 131-room Eola opened in 1927. It previously closed during the 1970s before reopening as a hotel once again.

While Natchez welcomed a number of new businesses during 2014, a new retail grocery market emerged — Cash Saver — as among the most visible retail changes.

The 50,000 square-foot grocery store in Magnolia Mall is part of a privately owned grocery chain owned by the Vowell family. The store opened in late September, adding the first significant competition to the local grocery market in several years.

Rather than using a routine retail markup basis, Cash Saver sells items “at cost” — a formula the store determines including transportation costs and employee pay — and adds a flat 10 percent markup to all items at the register.

“Get on Up” movie premiere in Natchez

The year 2014 got a little bigger for Natchez when a red carpet premiere for “Get on Up” was hosted at the UA Natchez Mall 4 theater in July.

Chadwick Boseman, center, and Natchez twins Jamarion and Jordan Myles pose for pictures on the red carpet  at the Mississippi Premiere of "Get On Up." Boseman and the brother play the role of James Brown at various points in his life. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Chadwick Boseman, center, and Natchez twins Jamarion and Jordan Myles pose for pictures on the red carpet at the Mississippi Premiere of “Get On Up.” Boseman and the brother play the role of James Brown at various points in his life. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

The film, which was directed by Mississippian Tate Taylor, began filming in Natchez in November 2013 and wrapped up January.

Taylor, who directed the Academy Award-nominated film “The Help,” opted to use Natchez as the backdrop for a biopic that told the story of James Brown’s life.

Taylor and Chadwick Boseman, who portrayed Brown throughout the film, attended the showing in July.

Natchez twins, Jamarion and Jordan Scott, who portrayed Brown as a child, attended the event as well.

Taylor and Boseman walked the red carpet with the twins and took several photos before entering the theater for the showing.

Natchez-Adams County Humane Society new shelter groundbreaking

After much time and effort, the Natchez-Adams County Humane Society obtained a new, pre-fabricated NACHS shelter building at the start of December.

Escorted by Santa Claus, the new building arrived at the future location of the shelter on Liberty Road in Natchez.

Sue Stedman, Kathy Fitch, Barbara Platte, Mike Lazarus and Butch Brown break ground for the new facility with NACHS board members watching from behind. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Sue Stedman, Kathy Fitch, Barbara Platte, Mike Lazarus and Butch Brown break ground for the new facility with NACHS board members watching from behind. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Morton Buildings in Garden City, Ala., manufactured the metal structure.

NACHS officials and city and county officials broke ground for the shelter’s new site.

The concrete pad and some plumbing were already installed onsite for the 5,000 square-foot building for which is more than half-way paid.

The new shelter cost the organization nearly $1.38 million. Of that, $500,000 still needs to be raised by the NACHS.

NACHS officials said they expect to occupy the building in March or April.

Snow shutdown

Snow is rare in the Miss-Lou.

Rare enough that in January sleet and snow fell and stuck on the ground to cause the westbound Mississippi River bridge and schools across the area to temporarily close.

At one point, the entire westbound span of the bridge was shutdown because of icy conditions, and area schools and government buildings soon followed with closures of their own.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Ice covers limbs of crape myrtles as  cars travel down Canal Street.

Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat — Ice covers limbs of crape myrtles as cars travel down Canal Street.

Despite road and school closures, Miss-Lou residents took to the streets to enjoy the winter wonderland by building snowmen, making snow angels and having snowball fights.

The snow and ice eventually melted, but area residents will never forget when the Miss-Lou’s landscape changed, even if just for a little while.