By Billy Liggett
It’s a new year, which in the world of journalism means it’s time to look back at the year that was. For most of us, 2021 was supposed to be the year when the pandemic ended and everything got back to normal. While “normal” returned in bits and pieces, the year was a roller coaster of COVID-19 news, with vaccinations and dwindling numbers providing good news and variants and more hospitalizations providing the bad.
COVID-19 plays prominently in our look back, but there was much more to 2021 for our area. We present to you our Yearbook 2021 — here’s hoping Yearbook 2022 shifts more toward the “normal” side of the spectrum.
January is usually the start of healthy resolutions, so we thought we’d start 2021 off with a story on a new downtown business, Seva Yoga, owned by Sanford native Jan Smith. The pandemic nearly derailed her plans to open the yoga studio in 2020, but she kept at it, and when people were comfortable being in public again, her business thrived.
From the story:
Downtown Sanford got a yoga studio in a year when many people — those experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety and even depression — needed yoga most. Yet, it’s the root of all of that stress (COVID-19) that has limited the number of people who can work out in an indoor studio and enjoy the escape and health benefits that yoga offers.
It’s the ultimate Catch-22. Or, rather, Catch-2020.
But like the practice she teaches, Jan Smith — owner of Seva Yoga at 235 Wicker Street in downtown Sanford — has kept a positive mindset throughout the first four months of launching her new business. Her studio will one day run at capacity. Her clients will one day feel comfortable exercising indoors among their peers.
And when the world is ready to move on and shed the negativity of the past nine months, yoga will be there.
“There’s definitely been an atmosphere of anxiety with 2020,” says Smith, a native of Broadway. “Yoga has become something familiar and comfortable for a lot of people during this time. It just helps you feel better physically and mentally. It’s a big stress reliever.
“And that’s something we could all use right now.”
BIGGEST NEWS | THE INSURRECTION
As we approach the one-year anniversary of a dark day in American history, there were, unfortunately, Sanford ties to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Two Sanford men, Lance Grames and Jere Brower, were among the several North Carolinians charged by authorities for their involvement in the storming of the Capitol. Grames, Brower and Earl Glosser of Matthews, N.C., were charged with unlawful entry and curfew violation.
But the story that got the most local buzz was Lee County school board member Sherry Womack’s appearance with her husband at the Trump rally before the insurrection in D.C. that day. Womack was quoted in a piece by USA Today about the events of the day. Womack told the national paper she traveled to Washington to demand better election security and stronger voter ID laws.
“I’m not one of those conspiracy theorists,” she was quoted as saying. “But these are legitimate questions that need to be asked.”
The Lee County Board of Education voted six days later to investigate Womack’s actions in D.C., following several comments both against her appearance at the rally and in support of her freedom of speech. The investigation found that Womack didn’t violate any school board policy during her trip, and no action was taken against her.
Womack would later run for vice chair for the North Carolina Republican Party, losing the race in June to Susan Mills, co-founder for the Women for Trump PAC.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- On Jan. 5, Lee County began registration for its first round of COVID-19 vaccinations for people 75 or older and for health care and frontline workers.
- On Jan. 7, Sheriff Tracy Carter announced he would not seek a fifth term as sheriff after serving for 15 years in the role and more than 30 years in law enforcement. Carter’s final day in office was Jan. 1, 2022.
- Four days after Carter’s announcement, Capt. Brian Estes announced he would run for sheriff in 2022. He became interim sheriff on Jan. 1.
- On Jan. 25, Owls Nest Properties announced it has acquired and would begin extensive renovations on the Masonic Temple building in downtown Sanford. Work has been ongoing at the building since, though plans for its completion have been put on hold.
More jobs and more people have meant more construction of not only single-family homes in Lee County (with two major subdivisions in the works), but also a rise in apartment complexes and townhomes, a sign that Sanford is attracting a more diverse population.
The February cover story of The Rant Monthly focused on the apartment complexes.
From the story:
A group of townhomes at Carthage Colonies is under construction off Carthage Street. The new Hawkins Walk complex is being built where Hawkins Avenue crosses over the U.S. 421 bypass. Sandhill Court Apartments is going up on Pendergrass Road. An expansion into a second phase is happening at South Park Village on N.C. Highway 87.
Speaking in general terms, these projects — referred to as multi family units in industry talk — are popping up in just about every part of Lee County.
And there are plenty more on the way. In addition to the projects listed above, which are all in construction, another three — Kendall Creek Apartments, also on Pendergrass Road, Southeastern Development Apartments on Dalrymple Street in Jonesboro, and Pine Reserve Apartments on Center Church Road in Tramway — have been approved by the local planning department, and two more (Kendale Lofts on Lee Avenue near Kendale Plaza, and another complex on Canterbury Road) are in review. And in November, work began on a 252-united apartment complex known as Pine Reserve in Tramway (behind the Food Lion shopping center).
BIGGEST NEWS | THE GLEN
The Sanford City Council voted on Feb. 17 to approve a 131-home high-density subdivision off of Cool Springs Road, to the dismay of residents in the nearby Westlake Downs and Brownstone neighborhoods.
The council voted 5-2 in favor of the Glen at Cool Springs, whose homes will sit on quarter-acre lots on the 53-acre site.
In approving the subdivision, the council voted that the proposal made by Daniel Koeller of Atlantic Coast Land Development and property owner Forbes Forest Land Property Management LLC was consistent with the city’s long-range plan. The vote was originally scheduled for the council’s first February meeting, but was tabled after dozens of public comments from residents of the neighboring communities voiced opposition to the proposed map. The citizen-led Sanford Planning Commission also voted against recommending the plans to the city. Commission chairman Fred McIver said his group walked the property and studied the plans carefully before reaching its decision.
“There’s a big difference in house sizes, land space between homes and density from the homes in [nearby] Westlake Valley,” McIver told The Rant. “These homes just didn’t match what would be around it.”
In his proposal to the city, Koeller described the Glen at Cool Springs as a community that will complement its surroundings.
“The vision for the Glen at Cool Springs is one of tree-lined spaces and sidewalks on both sides of the road to foster a sense of place,” the proposal read. “Common green space within the neighborhood provides places for gathering and conversation. Glen at Cool Springs will be the perfect place for someone to call home.”
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- Hugger Mugger Brewing and Indie on Air announced Carolina Indie Fest, a two-day multi-stage music festival scheduled for September (more on that later).
- In one of the worst days of the pandemic locally, Lee County Health Department announced six COVID-related deaths on Feb. 4, pushing the total number of deaths at that point to 65 since the start of the pandemic. By the end of the month, that death toll would reach 73 people. Lee County also crossed the 5,000-case threshold on Feb. 8.
- On Feb. 8, Republican Tim L. Smith announced his candidacy for Lee County Sheriff in 2022.
- Human remains were discovered in western Lee County on Feb. 12, and on Feb. 16, those remains were identified as Cory Dale Moore, a 32-year-old Sanford man who had been reported missing.
- GKN Driveline announced on Feb. 19 that it would close its Sanford manufacturing plant on March 19.
- The Boone Trail road sign in west Sanford was misspelled as “Boone Trial,” The Rant reported on Feb. 26. The sign was soon corrected, to the joy of us all.
March marked a year since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country and changed life as we know it. While the virus remains deadly and serious heading into 2022, March showed signs of progress with vaccinations and cases falling locally (before the word “variant” became commonplace).
From the story:
This March will mark a year since the virus became that “life changer.” A year of quarantine. A year of mask-wearing. A year of avoiding gatherings. A year of political division and defending science.
A year of mass sickness. A year of tragedy.
Through Feb. 27 of this year, more than 5,300 people in Lee County — roughly 8 percent of the population — have contracted COVID-19. Seventy-three men and women have died. In the United States, more than 28 million people have tested positive for the virus, and the death toll surpassed the 500,000 mark in February.
But a year into the pandemic, it feels like things are moving in a more positive direction. New cases (both locally and globally) are dropping. Hospitalization and death rates are also dropping.
What’s growing is the supply of available vaccines — with three companies now approved to distribute. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that total cases and vaccinations will lead to “herd immunity” — the point at which enough people are protected against a disease so that it cannot spread through the population — in the United States by June of this year.
For the first time, there is hope.
BIGGEST NEWS | SCHOOL BOARD MESS
It’s unfortunate that this was a story, that it got so much attention and that we’re picking it as the top story from March of last year. But it happened, and hopefully we’ve learned from it.
A month after the Lee County Board of Education voted (after an investigation) that board member Sherry Womack did not violate any policies for being in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, the board agreed to investigate board member Patrick Kelly, a Democrat, after a private photo of Kelly engaged in a consensual sexual act with a woman was discovered and shared among local GOP constituents.
Lee County Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack, husband to Sherry, asked the board to conduct the investigation and tied his request to his wife’s previous investigation. The board voted to conduct the investigation on March 17.
In May, board attorney Jimmy Love told the board members he was unable to find any violation in school policy by Kelly.
“I pursued all the allegations I could hear or possibly find. I’ve talked to students, I’ve talked to parents, and my conclusion after all of that is that there was no violation of ethics policy 2120, or any other policy of the Board of Education,” Love said. “It would be my recommendation that no action be taken because I have been unable to substantiate the allegations that have been made regarding board policy 2120.”
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- On March 5, we reported on Temple Theatre’s many renovations that took place during the time off forced by the pandemic.
- Pilgrim’s donated $500,000 for a downtown home for the Sanford Agricultural Market Place. The marketplace will be housed in the former King Roofing, Heating and Air building on Carthage Street, next to the old City Hall building and will serve as a multi-functional space for civic events and gatherings; including 4-H meetings, farmer education courses, a food donation hub and bi-lingual classes on food safety, budget planning and cooking.
- Site Selection Magazine named Sanford the fifth best micropolitan area in which to do business in the United States. Sanford was tied with Auburn, Indiana for fifth place in the rankings, behind Findlay, Ohio; Jefferson, Georgia; Cullman, Alabama; and Tiffin, Ohio.
April 16 marked the 10-year anniversary of the massive quarter-mile wide EF-3 tornado that hit Sanford. The storm followed a 63-mile path, lasted for more than an hour and hit estimated maximum wind speeds of 160 miles per hour. Five people died in the storm — two in Lee County — and hundreds of homes and businesses in its path were badly damaged or completely destroyed.
The April 2021 edition of The Rant Monthly looked back at the storm and its aftermath and retold the story of Mike Hollowell, the Lowe’s Home Improvement manager who guided several customers and co-workers to safety seconds before the building was destroyed.
From the story:
Mike Hollowell was helping a customer at the home decor desk inside Lowe’s Home Improvement in Sanford on April 16, 2011, when he looked up to see employees and customers sprinting toward the lumber section. Curious about the commotion — and aware that big storms were predicted in the area that day — Hollowell hurried to the entrance to see for himself what had people seeking cover. Across Horner Boulevard, barely a quarter of a mile from where he stood, a swirling blackness engulfed the nearby Tractor Supply Company building. Without hesitation, Hollowell acted.
The store manager got on the radio with his two assistants and ordered everybody in the store to head toward the back, per safety protocols. As they ran, Hollowell looked up to see the roof on the giant warehouse start peeling back. The group reached safety just in time — the front right side of the store was obliterated, reduced to a pile of twisted metal and splintered wood. The rooms in the back remained mostly intact.
More than 100 people were safe. Amazingly, nobody died in Hollowell’s store.
“I remember when it passed, there was this eerie silence. Before we started hearing the sirens,” Hollowell recalls. “I looked out to see if everyone was OK, and I remember seeing daylight where a roof was supposed to be. [Minutes later,] I saw one of my assistant managers standing on top of a pile of rubble throwing [rubble] to the side. A pick-up that was parked by the lumber side of the building to escape the storm was pinned. A man and his young daughter were inside, and she had crawled out to find help. There just happened to be an emergency response seminar going on at the [nearby] convention center, and those first responders were on the scene faster than the fire department. They got that gentleman out of the car.”
“The tornado was terrible. But we had a lot of things going for us that day.”
BIGGEST NEWS | MNT. BIKE MAYHEM
Officials announced the indefinite closing of San-Lee Park’s Gravity Park bike trail following a serious injury in early April. The section of bike trail was shut down so Parks and Recreation officials could review safety standards and maintenance needs.
Gravity Park saw seven “serious” injuries over the course of a year, prompting the move. The most recent injury in April happened to an 11-year-old boy.
WRAL reported that injuries on the trail have included broken bones and head injuries. Four people have been airlifted to hospitals, including the 11-year-old on Easter weekend.
According to the county, San-Lee’s original bike trail was built 20 years ago, largely by volunteers who have continued to expand and maintain it over the years.
“We understand that there will be members of the mountain biking community that are disappointed by the planned trail modifications, but the county priority is improving the safety of the bike trails for all riders and in creating an environment where riders of all ages and skill levels can safely enjoy biking in the natural environment and setting of San-Lee Park,” County Manager John Crumpton said.
In December, after months of work, the bike trail reopened to the public. More on that later in this story in our November round-up.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- Local barber Reginald Green offered free haircuts to anybody who showed up with a COVID vaccination card from April 12-15.
- Carlton Lyles became the first Democrat to announce his intentions to run for Lee County sheriff in 2022.
- Sanford Mayor Chet Mann announced he would seek a third term as mayor in 2022.
- Sanford’s Bret Schaller competed in the History Channel show, “Assembly Required,” hosted by “Home Improvement” stars Tim Allen and Richard Karn.
- The Sanford Spinners announced their return to baseball’s Old North State League after a 60-year hiatus. The Spinners last played in the World War II era.
- Biotech firm Abzena announced in April it would bring 300 jobs with an average pay of $63,000 a year to Sanford.
- Sanford’s Britton Buchanan sang for former President Jimmy Carter at his church in Plains, Georgia, on April 18.
- A deadly wreck on the U.S. 421 bypass killed three people — Lloyd Atkins, Kimberly Atkins and Judy Atkins. Ivory Adajar was arrested on three counts of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.
- In lighter news, the sign at the new Popeyes restaurant was mounted on April 29, much to the joy of all.
Sanford is home to nearly a dozen venues that are attracting anywhere between 20 and 40 weddings a year. And the pandemic has done little to slow the industry down — Daniel’s Ridge hosted roughly 30 large-scale events in 2021, most of them weddings. Five miles away at Sugarneck on Buckhorn Road, there were 40-plus big events scheduled for 2021.
Again, most of those will involve exchanging rings, kissing and saying “I do.”
The May cover story of The Rant Monthly featured Daniel’s Ridge, the Farm on Cotton, Hawkins House, Oakland Farm, Luminarias and other wedding venues that are bringing in hundreds of weddings and thousands of people to the area each year. Guests are staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants, drinking at local breweries, shopping in local stores and visiting local tourist attractions — contributing greatly to the local economy.
The domino effect doesn’t stop there. Wedding planners, interior designers, florists, photographers and videographers, DJs, caterers, officiants, tux shops and hair stylists (to name a few) … they’re all benefiting from Sanford’s newfound Wedding Central label.
From the story:
“I’ve worked weddings in the mountains and on the beaches, and I’ve worked local weddings for the last eight years,” says photographer Alicia Hite of Broadway. “I think because of its central location and because of the variety of venues you can find here, people are looking at Sanford as a real wedding destination. There are just so many options for large and small ceremonies.
“I absolutely think Sanford is becoming the wedding capital of North Carolina. I’d love to see that title here. It’s deserved.”
BIGGEST NEWS | FALSE HOPE
Considering where we are heading into 2022 — the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter life as we know it, and new variants are more contagious than ever — it’s disheartening to read stories like this one from May.
On May 12, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced he was rescinding the state’s mask order. Three days later, Sanford Mayor Chet Mann announced the city was rescinding its order that had been in place since Nov. 25. The news coincided with the announcement that children ages 12-15 would be eligible for the COVID vaccine.
Months later, mask and vaccine mandates are still being discussed, a sign that the pandemic will still be top of mind for a third straight year.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- Lee County Elections Director Jeni Harris has announced she was leaving the position effective June 14.
- A state of emergency stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic and declared in Lee County on March 16 ended on May 18, two months later.
- Central Carolina Community College named Dr. Kristi Short its new vice president and chief academic officer.
- Kirk Smith, the Republican chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, said in an email obtained by The Rant that teachers in Lee County shouldn’t receive an increase in supplemental pay due to the “mediocre performance” by local public schools on North Carolina’s school report cards. The school board voted later to approve bonuses for teachers and staff.
Fonda Lupita earned high praise later in the year when it was named one of the 11 best new restaurants in the country by Eater.com. Months before the accolade, it was the center of a feature in The Rant Monthly on the business growth in the Jonesboro Heights area.
From the story:
When Birdiana Frausto began seeking out a location for Fonda Lupita in 2019, there wasn’t a whole lot happening in the Jonesboro Heights area of Sanford.
When Frausto discovered that the space formerly occupied by the then recently-relocated Landmark Breakfast Shop was available, it seemed like as good a space as any to put a small Mexican restaurant.
“My parents used to come here when it was the Landmark,” she said. “And I was like, ‘this is a cute little small space.’”
Frausto didn’t know at the time that she would be among the first in a string of new businesses that have been slowly but surely breathing new life into a part of Sanford that had been fairly dormant for a long time.
Merenda’s Soul Food Kitchen. Brick City Boba. Valenti’s. The Eyelight Coffee and Comics. All have sprung up or are set to open soon on Main Street in downtown Jonesboro, and there are plenty of reasons to believe more are on the way.
“I felt like everything was dying here at one point,” Frausto said. “The coffee shop wasn’t there. The boba place wasn’t there. So, for a lot of locals to come into this strip, I think it’s a good thing.”
BIGGEST NEWS | NOBODY LIKES TAXES
Sometimes, you have to choose your “biggest” story of a month based on the comments, and in June, no story garnered as much attention in the online comments as a two-cent city tax hike to fund a new fire station on June 2.
The story seemed small enough — the revenue from the increase would fund a fourth fire station in the city, and the vote passed by a 6-1 margin.
But the online critics were loud. “Liberals will be liberals” wrote one commenter.
Despite their consenting comments, the fourth fire station is a need. It will be located at the intersection of Colon Road and U.S. 1, home to huge industrial growth and the soon-to-be constructed Galvin’s Ridge Subdivision, which will house nearly 1,000 new homes in the coming years.
As one commenter put it: “Sanford and its leaders should be praised for lifting their heads out of the sand in regards to the area’s future. Those that do not like it can and should move to places like Asheboro, Seagrove and Troy.”
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- The Sanford Spinners’ opening night on June 7 featured an 8-7 win over the Fayetteville Chutes.
- Sanford dancer Mariah Reives was a dancer in a Tonight Show sketch featuring Lin Manuel-Miranda and Jimmy Fallon welcoming the return of Broadway.
- Southern Lee graduate Thomas Harrington was named the Big South Conference Freshman of the Year after going 5-2 with a 2.94 ERA pitching for Campbell University in 2021.
- Betsy Bridges, who served as principal at SanLee Middle School since 2013, was named the new principal of Lee County High School on June 16.
- Central Carolina Academy, Lee County’s third charter school which expects to open in the fall of 2022, has named veteran educator Greg Batten its lead administrator.
- A 36-year-old man was found murdered at the Prince Downtown Motel in Sanford on the morning of June 28. The Prince was the subject of the first edition of The Rant Monthly for its years of criminal activity. An arrest was made in the shooting death two days later.
- Lee County Health Department offered $25 cash cards to entice people to get a COVID-19 vaccination.
The cover feature told the story of a fascinating club that played (and won) in the Tobacco League back in the 1930s and 40s.
From the story:
The Sanford Spinners drew nearly 600 people a game at its peak in the early 1940s, playing at Temple Park, located where McIver Street meets Bragg Street in East Sanford (Wilmington led the league in attendance with more than 1,000 per game). They were already an established brand by then — in 1935, Herbert “Doc” Smith, a Harnett County native and longtime Minor League catcher, formed the first Tobacco League featuring four teams. Sanford would advance to a national tournament in 1940 in Wichita, Kansas, and place fourth that summer.
The Tobacco League got the Spinners back after the war in 1946 and lasted a solid five seasons before the league folded for good in 1950. Attendance dropped from 600 people a game in 1947 to just under 300 a game in the final year.
When the league folded, Minor League Baseball in North Carolina remained strong in places like Durham, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, but smaller cities like Sanford, Angier and Mount Airy were left behind.
Still, the Spinners’ time in Sanford was memorable. In seven seasons in the Bi-State League and Tobacco State League, Sanford never had a losing record. And several memorable men spent a season or two in Sanford and made their mark.
BIGGEST NEWS | SPORTS COMPLEX INCHES CLOSER
The long-awaited Multi-Sports Complex came a step closer to reality in July when county commissioners approved the purchase of property located near the intersection of U.S. Highway 421 and N.C. Highway 42, known locally as Broadway Road. The purchase of the 119.82 acre tract of land was authorized in November 2020, when 58.59 percent of voters approved a bond referendum for the project.
The budget for the purchase of the land that was approved by a unanimous vote of the commissioners includes a payment of $1.914 million for the Myrtle Matthews Poe property that will be combined with a donated tract of land from the Stewart family through Wesara Associates LLC.
The commission’s action also provided payment for the $102,110 in due diligence work done by the McAdams civil engineering firm in Durham. The McAdams group reported to the commissioners that the site that had been selected for purchase was well-suited for the proposed complex, which will have space for at least 10 multi-purpose fields and five baseball fields, all full-sized.
Access to the property will be from Broadway Road and there will be none available from U.S. 421. Broadway Road is set for a widening project in the coming months by the state Department of Transportation and McAdams recommended early coordination with the county to avoid any potential conflicts that could lead to construction delays.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- A Sanford man was arrested in early July for animal cruelty after sheriff’s deputies found 28 dogs at his home, many of them mistreated.
- A few months after the mask mandate was lifted, Lee County was named one of six counties in the state still experiencing “substantial community spread” of COVID-19.
- Wild Dogs Brewing opened in downtown Sanford on July 3.
- North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper visited Sanford on July 15, making stops at Temple Theatre, Added Accents, the Purple Poodle and downtown’s murals before a final stop at Yarborough’s for ice cream.
- Central Carolina Community College received a $2 million pledge from Bear Creek Arsenal owner E. Eugene Moore, a graduate of the college’s tool and die program.
The feature highlighted Mertek Solutions Inc., founded by Jerry Pedley originally in the 1990s as Electro-Mechanical Specialties before it became Mertek (named for his father Merle) in 2009.
From the story:
Mertek builds the robots that make many of the products you use today. Many items that aren’t necessarily “Made in Sanford” have their roots here because of Mertek.
“Consumer goods are a big thing for us,” says Pedley. “If you’ve got a dishwasher in your house, there’s a good chance someone from Mertek had a hand in it. Or a range — we have machines we put in just recently that tests ranges for a company. We create the machines that put things together and make them better.”
For example, when San Francisco-based Velano Vascular needed precise machines to produce their intricate PIVO single-use, needle-free blood collection devices (which attach to IV systems), they turned to Pedley and his team. The device is being used by hospitals all over the country.
Toilet bowl cleaners. Date rape fingernail kits. Inhalers. Vehicle intake manifolds. Hotel water bottles. Branded logos on cedar planks used for cooking fish. The machines that help create the fiber rods to catch those fish.
“We like to use the word ‘automated’ to describe what we do,” Pedley says. “If you need a part — maybe a brake sensor for your car and it has six or seven parts in it — our machine would put those together automatically at whatever speed they want. They might need one every three seconds. They might need one every minute. But we can put that whole part together and make sure that it’s correct. A lot of the things we make — these are things that you just can’t have operators doing all day long … repetitive stuff. We can do that.”
BIGGEST NEWS | FIRST HEALTH TAKES OVER EMS SERVICES
Unlike July, August was full of big news in Sanford.
The biggest was the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ vote to select FirstHealth of the Carolinas to take over EMS services for the county effective October 1.
Five of the seven commissioners voted in favor of the EMS Advisory Committee’s recommendation to award the franchise to FirstHealth.
A crowd of about 125 people gathered at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center on Aug. 17, to listen as the commissioners conducted the second of two public hearings on awarding the contract, which had been held since the 1990s by Central Carolina Hospital EMS.
More than 20 people spoke during the public hearing portion of the meeting that lasted for more than 90 minutes. Most of those addressing the commissioners spoke in favor of Central Carolina retaining the contract, which expired on Sept. 30.
On Aug. 11, FirstHealth opened its third convenient care clinic in Lee County. James Liffrig, M.D., the medical director of FirstHealth Convenient Care, said continuing to provide residents with easy access to medical services is a top priority.
“As areas of Sanford continue to expand and grow, it is important that communities have an option for medical services that lie between the needs of a true emergency and the routine and preventative care of a primary care provider,” he said.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- The Lee County Board of Education voted at a special called meeting on Aug. 3, to require that students and staff wear masks for the academic year. Heading into January, the mandate remains in place.
- Sisters Lexie Anne Stephens Brown, Mary Blaire Stephens and Colbie Normann Stephens launched Triple Pointe Academy, which opened in August at the old YMCA building in the Spring Lane Galleria between Dollar Tree and Office Max.
- The City of Sanford announced it was receiving just under $10 million in COVID relief funds from the federal government as its share of the American Rescue Plan Act, signed into law by President Biden.
- Lee County Libraries hosted POP!-Con on Aug. 21, featuring actors from various sci-fi programs and a Renaissance flair with the Triangle chapter of the Knightly Order of the Fiat Lux.
- Former city police detective Darla Cole was found with multiple knife wounds on Aug. 12. A juvenile in the home, not identified by police due to his age, was taken into custody at the scene and charged with juvenile petitions for assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury, assault with a deadly weapon, and resisting an officer. Cole and her husband Michael were treated at Central Carolina Hospital with several injuries, but both recovered.
- Central Carolina Hospital announced Chris Fensterle as the organization’s next chief executive officer.
- Lee County sheriff’s deputies arrested two people after they were found unconscious and apparently suffering from drug overdoses with a child in the home.
- The BreadBasket of Sanford, founded in September 1990 in the parish hall of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, served its millionth meal in August as a crowd of about 40 people came out to mark the occasion – and to thank the many volunteers and donors who have made it possible over the last 30-plus years.
- A multi-month investigation by the Sanford Police Department resulted in the arrest of a business owner on prostitution charges. Mingqiu Du Aleksa, owner of Healthy Feet, a massage parlor at 340 Wilson Road in Sanford, was charged with a felony count of promoting prostitution by providing an establishment, and misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution, aiding and abetting prostitution, and practicing massage therapy without a license.
TRM COVER STORY | INDIE FEST
On Sept. 18-19, the city played host to nearly 50 musical acts who comprised the first ever Carolina Indie Fest, a free music festival with three stages boasting musicians from across the globe, performing styles ranging from country to “astral pop” to rock and beyond.
The roster boasted a mix of young up-and-comers — Michigan’s The Accidentals, for example, aren’t a household name yet, although they’ve been signed to Sony Masterworks since 2017 and have been named to a number of “must see” lists over the years — as well as headlining artists like Paleface, a long time singer-songwriter originally from New York City with nearly 20 albums under his belt and a lineage connecting him to famous acts like Beck, The Ramones and The Doors.
Local country act the Cliff Wheeler Band, which tours regionally and is signed to Indie On Air, also performed (in fact, it was Wheeler who connected Popka and Emmert when the idea of a local festival was first discussed).
Perhaps the most well received act on Day 1 was funk/soul artist Nitro Nitra, whose one-hour set on Wicker Street had the crowd asking for more.
Carolina Indie Fest was a success based on the good crowd size despite the pandemic, and organizers have chosen Sanford for an even bigger event coming in May with the Wampus Cat Music Festival, a three-day event to be held at Gross Farms II near Broadway. Wampus Cat will feature several artists who performed at Indie Fest, plus several other up-and-coming names in the industry.
BIGGEST NEWS | REDISTRICTING BEGINS
Action by the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ Republican majority to redraw county electoral maps is 2021 got widespread national attention, thanks to an op-ed that appeared in December in an online news reporting website with nationwide reach.
The editorial, entitled “Redistricting Threatens Decades of Black Voters’ Hard-Fought Victories,” was published in Truthout, a nonprofit news organization whose online journal focuses on reporting and commentary on a wide range of social justice issues.
The editorial concerns actions taken by the Republican majority during the fall to revise the county’s maps for choosing its members, a task that was required by shifts in the population that were identified through the 2020 Census.
In Lee County, commissioners were originally presented with four maps as possible means of redrawing the district lines, but a new map was produced at each of the next three board meetings with little opportunity for public review or comment.
The redistricting process began in September, and what is usually a ho-hum process that garners little public attention became a trash fire locally after several missteps. In October, “Plan F” — a plan that was not presented to the public or the full board until just days before the vote. It faced criticism not only from its surprise appearance, but also because it appeared to reduce the number of African-American residents in the county’s only majority-minority district.
In November, the board voted to rewrite a portion of the minutes from the Oct. 18 meeting — a request proposed by Republican commissioner Bill Carver. Carver wanted to remove four sentences from the original draft of the minutes that describe the deliberations of commissioners on Plan F and substitute 11 other sentences in their place that attempt to rationalize the thought processes of the majority as they rejected six other plans and adopted a seventh.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham has said that Plan F was developed “behind closed doors in a process that lacked the transparency needed to instill public confidence” in both the process and the product. Carver’s revisions seek to establish a basis for the Republican majority’s vote in anticipation of a lawsuit that would attempt to overturn the new districts.
Entering 2022, the local redistricting plan is still a hot topic and will almost certainly be the topic of future local/state/national headlines in the coming months.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- On Sept. 7, it was announced Sanford and Lee County’s Raleigh Executive Jetport would receive $4.77 million from the state of North Carolina to construct new and improve existing taxi lanes at the airport.
- Sanford’s Popeyes location – which began construction in December of 2020 and had been in the works for months prior to that – opened on Sept. 13, much to the joy of many.
- After two cancellations in the previous three years — one for COVID-19 in 2020 and for Hurricane Florence in 2018 — the Lee Regional Fair returned in September.
- Lee County Board of Education member Christine Hilliard changed her party registration and announced she will run for re-election in 2022 as a Democrat. Hilliard wrote that her “relationship with the local (Republican) party is untenable.”
- LPH Media LLC, which owns and operates The Rant and The Rant Monthly, joined the North Carolina Press Association as an associate member in September.
- Kenneth Earl Allen, who had been charged in connection with the March 2019 murder of 80-year-old Norma Brown, pleaded guilty to her murder in Lee County Superior Court. Allen, now 40, will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prior to the plea agreement, the state had been pursuing the death penalty.
From the story:
SanLee Futbol Club represents something different and something important to the 25-plus players, coaches and staff who dedicate a good chunk of their lives to it — for nearly all of them, it’s a “side gig” to their 50-hour work weeks or full-time school schedules. There’s an overarching “underdog” quality to the program, from its home games on a small private high school’s pitch to its underfunded (yet remarkably effective) practice facilities in the Kendale area.
As a whole, SanLee Futbol Club is quality, competitive semi-professional soccer.
And according to Tim Blodgett, general manager and owner/founder of the San Lee Soccer Academy, it’s a hidden gem in the Lee County sports scene. When San Lee joined the United Premier Soccer League in 2018, he laid out his goal of not only building a strong adult program, but growing the sport at the youth levels as well.
“Soccer is loved by so many here locally; youth and adults deserve to experience the sport to its fullest,” he said in 2018. “We’re focusing on structure and professionalism here in Sanford … setting up players for the best opportunity to play soccer on the biggest stages, regardless of their backgrounds or social upbringing.”
BIGGEST NEWS | THE MASK DEBATE
The issue comes up at nearly every school board meeting now — with parents bringing their so-called “research” to the board to demand they stop forcing kids to wear masks to school.
On Oct. 12, the board voted again to continue the mask mandate on the doorsteps of the highly contagious omicron variant and rising COVID-19 numbers locally. One parent called the mask mandate “child abuse.” Another grandparent, however, praised the decision.
“I have seen, through my grandchildren, the effectiveness of the universal mask mandate,” she said. “Both of my grandchildren have experienced COVID cases in their classrooms in Lee County. However, because they were wearing their masks and because the persons infected were also wearing their masks, only the person infected had to go home. My grandchildren did not have to stay out of school for 14 days like they did last year, and that in itself is a good reason to keep this mandate in place.”
Masks will continue heading into January. But there are new criteria for that to continue. The board voted in November to leave the current masking mandate in place until 10 consecutive calendar days of “moderate-level” transmission of the COVID virus have been recorded in the county. If that goal can be reached, a special called meeting would be convened to review the situation and consider further action.
According to a law passed this summer by the North Carolina General Assembly, school boards are required to revisit requirements for face coverings at least once a month until the law is changed.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- The town of Broadway unearthed a time capsule buried just inches below the ground at the northern foot of the town’s water tower. Inside were items that had been placed there during the town’s centennial celebration in 1970 to commemorate the founding of Broadway 100 years prior and there was great excitement among the crowd about what was inside. But as the men began to pull away the seal, it became clear that portions of it had failed over the years and the contents inside the vessel had been damaged by the seepage of moisture. Town officials sent the items away for preservation.
- The Sanford City Council on Oct. 19 annexed a 169-plus acre tract of land near the end of Valley Road on which a multi-use subdivision has been proposed. With new industries coming to Lee County and existing ones preparing to ramp up their hiring over the next few months, Sanford is poised for an unprecedented period of growth. Already, 4,500 new housing units are either under review or already approved, along with another 1,250 apartments that will change the character and size of the city.
- Two New York women were arrested on Oct. 29, charged with felony promoting prostitution by providing an establishment, felony conspiracy, misdemeanor aiding and abetting prostitution, and misdemeanor practicing massage therapy without a license. The women were arrested when Sanford Police Department’s narcotics division executed a search warrant at King Spa and Reflexology, following a “several month long investigation.”
When Lee County officials closed down the mountain bike trails at San Lee Park back in April after a series of serious injuries to inexperienced riders, there was a good chance they’d never open back up.
To the benefit of mountain bike trail enthusiasts in Lee County and beyond, county officials decided to stick with making them safer. County Manager John Crumpton talked to leaders in the mountain biking community who convinced him that the trails — which have existed for the better part of the last decade, built almost entirely by volunteers and collectively known as the Gravity Park — could not only be made safer, but also leveraged into a quality of life amenity that gives locals another recreational option and draws in scores of out-of-town riders.
The new and improved trails at San Lee Park opened in December.
From the story:
The new trails — there will be five total, two of which are complete with a third about 75 percent done — range in length from half a mile down to closer to a quarter mile and increase in difficulty. Riders will see some instructive “filter features” that will help them figure out which trails are appropriate for their skill level.
“We’ve really tried to take a lot of the variables out of it, where it’s like, at first you’re just focusing on riding, and then as you go on and get better you can focus on jumping,” said Black Diamond’s Joseph Litaker, who is leading the redesign. “It’s really progressive and intuitive almost to where it’s like, I really just have to focus on learning how to jump, which makes it a lot safer.”
That being said, the more advanced the trails get, the more visibly difficult they become, even to a non-rider.
“That’s what we mean by filter features,” said Clayton Newman, a member of the Black Diamond team. “If you see that jump that looks intimidating right at the start of the track, you’re going to know you should go for one of the easier trails.”
BIGGEST NEWS | GOOD EATING
What does Sanford, North Carolina, have in common with New York City, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles, Austin, Chicago and Portland?
It’s home to one of the 11 “Best New Restaurants in America,” according to a November article in Eater, a national food-focused website with more than 3 million followers on Facebook.
Fonda Lupita — Sanford’s new “Mexican comfort food” restaurant that opened in the Jonesboro Heights area in 2020 — was named to the select list, joining restaurants from the largest cities in the country (Sanford’s 30,000 population was by far the smallest, with Portland, Oregon, 10th at 645,000 people).
Eater‘s Erin Perkins wrote: “Customers happily dip crispy quesabirria tacos into rich consomé, and nearly everyone has a gordita on their table. The gorditas, a hit since opening in March 2020, boast char-flecked tortillas, generously filled with chorizo con papas or chicken tinga and a sprinkling of queso fresco.”
The write-up ends: “If it’s true that a good restaurant can help define the town it’s in — and it is certainly true in North Carolina — Fonda Lupita may just put Sanford on the map for having some of the most heartful cuisine in North Carolina.”
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter officially submitted his resignation from the post on on Nov. 1, effective Jan. 1.
- Sanford’s own Aslan Freeman appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live on Nov. 1, alongside Lainey Wilson as the budding country music star performed her hit single, “Things a Man Oughta Know.”
- A divided Sanford City Council voted 4-3 on Nov. 3, to assign a Conditional Zoning District for the proposed Brookshire development, the 168-acre tract of land bordered by Valley and Forestwood Park Road, U.S. 421, and the Wildwood subdivision.
- Sanford’s Equity Task Force presented a 46-page report to the City Council on Nov. 9. The document was the culmination of a year-long effort that included consultations with local and regional experts in the development of a blueprint for social change in six main areas. They include wages and income, criminal justice reform, housing and home ownership, communication and community responsibility, leadership and inclusion, and education and health.
- Local attorney Brad Salmon was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to serve as District Court Judge for District 11 covering Lee, Harnett and Johnston counties.
- The so-called “Carolina Core” got one step closer to adding another interstate shield to the region, thanks to language included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill signed by President Joe Biden. Business and civic leaders within the region are partnering with local, state and federal officials to designate part of Highway U.S. 421 as a future interstate in an effort to further spur economic growth and make the region even more competitive on a global stage.
The December edition of The Rant Monthly highlighted the man under the night cap, Ebenezer Scrooge himself, Peter Battis, a professional actor and longtime scholar of Charles Dickens’ work.
From the story:
For nearly 180 years, readers and fans of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” have debated over the exact point of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from the greedy, selfish miser we meet at the beginning to the caring man full of Christmas spirit by book’s end.
But few have had the opportunity to truly jump into the character like Peter Battis, a veteran of the stage and scholar of Dickens’ work who’ll be making his fourth appearance as Scrooge in the musical adaptation of the Christmas classic this month for Temple Theatre.
For Battis, that transformation is a slow burn that begins early on with the visit from the first of the three spirits forewarned by Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past. During that visit, Scrooge sees the moment he chooses wealth over the love of his life, his fiancé Belle.
“He’s first softened by seeing himself as a young child and seeing what he was going through, but the big moment for me is when his fiancé says, ‘You’ve grown into a different person. I don’t recognize you,’” Battis says. “And she says, ‘I release you from our obligation,’ and he lets her go out the door. For me, that’s the moment when Scrooge begins to crack. And the rest is just a continuum of that.”
BIGGEST NEWS | ABORTION VOTE
Still reeling from the national exposure of its controversial redistricting plan, the Lee County Board of Commissioners voted in December to support the passage of the “Heartbeat Bill” in North Carolina. The Heartbeat Bill is a law passed in Texas in 2021 that blocks legal abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
The discussion among commissioners turned into an impassioned debate at the December meeting. County commissioners have no authority to regulate abortions within their jurisdiction, but they do have the right to express opinions on issues being considered at the state or federal level, or in the courts. Board Chairman Kirk Smith’s proposed resolution drew sharp criticism from fellow board member Cameron Sharpe.
“This is beyond the scope of the board to address this issue,” Sharpe said. “I was elected to bring jobs, build schools, support teachers and provide them with the supplement that you (Republicans) did not choose to give them during the pandemic. Also, I was elected to help bring lower taxes, which I have supported twice. As for this Heartbeat Bill, the North Carolina General Assembly hasn’t had a public hearing on this and if they wanted the support of the people, they would have held public hearings. But they didn’t, kind of like we didn’t have a public hearing on redistricting.”
Sharpe continued that he viewed Medicaid expansion as a related issue worth adding to the resolution.
“You guys want the babies to be born,” he said, “but you don’t want to take care of them afterwards — the poor, the people in need, the people who can’t take care of them. I think Medicaid expansion would take care of that. So, since this is beyond the scope of this board, whenever an issue like this comes up in the future, pick up the phone and call your legislator or congressman or senator. This isn’t what the people of Lee County elected us for. I think I know how this vote is going to go, but that’s my feeling.”
Republican Commissioner Bill Carver supported the resolution, adding, “We talk about the citizens of Lee County. The citizens that we fail to think about are the babies in the womb. The hard attitude behind this Heartbeat Bill has to do with a moral conscience about whether or not it’s appropriate to elevate the woman’s right above the right of the baby to survive. So, I would offer that as a reasonable and logical argument.”
The final vote was 5-2 in favor of the resolution, with Democrat Mark Lovick crossing over to vote with the Republican majority in favor of the resolution.
WHAT ELSE HAPPENED?
- San Lee Park’s “Ranger Steve,” Steve Godfrey, retired after nearly 40 years of service.
- The Town of Broadway selected John M. Godfrey as its next town manager and hired Evan B. Gunter as its next police chief.
- The Sanford City Council gave its approval to several new housing developments in various stages of completion, developments which will help address current and projected housing shortages as new industries start up their operations.