ALBANY, GA (WALB) - For better or worse, 2017 was a transformative year for South Georgia.
From back-to-back storms that devastated the area to a controversial drug search at a high school, and from a break in a decade-old murder to the beginning of downtown Albany's revitalization, 2017 certainly left a mark on 10 Country.
During the year, the education and healthcare industries also faced new challenges and changes.
Take a look at our highs and lows of 2017.
Five South Georgia football teams were Atlanta-bound this season for the GHSA State Championships. The Clinch County Panthers, Coffee Trojans, Colquitt County Packers, Lee County Trojans, and Irwin County Indians were all set to play for the title at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium...until the majority of the games were snowed out. Schools closed early and buses loaded with fans made their way to downtown Atlanta only to return home for another week. Lee County defeated Coffee 28-21 for the 6A State Championship, and Clinch beat Irwin 21-12 for the Single-A Public State Championship. Colquitt County fell to North Gwinnett 17-19.
South Georgians could have a new place to get treated for health and wellness. In May, Lee County officials announced their plan to transform the Grand Island Golf Course into a medical center. Grand Island homeowners filed a lawsuit, impact studies were done, and various public officials' stances for and against the medical center were made public. The Certificate of Need was approved in November and Lee County Commissioners wasted no time moving forward with their plans for the proposed Lee County Medical Center.
Could 2017 be the year we look back on and see as the starting point of downtown Albany's comeback? Only time will tell. Downtown Albany has seen a resurgence this year, but the big question looming over city leaders' heads is will the new Pretoria Fields Microbrewery and loft apartments spur further development to the area? Add to that mix the Albany Museum of Art planning a move into the old Belk building, and we just might have the beginnings of a new, revitalized downtown. Commissioner BJ Fletcher put it best when she said, "five years from now two things will happen: People will ask how we turned it around or they will ask how we didn't."
A controversial drug search at Worth County High School has left Sheriff Jeff Hobby and two of his deputies in a lot of trouble. In April, Hobby and several deputies searched the school for drugs and patted down nearly 900 students. No drugs were found. Sheriff Hobby defended the search, saying that as long as a school administrator was present, the personal search of the children was legal.
Sheriff Hobby and Worth County Deputies Tyler Turner and Deidra Whiddon, also known as Deidra Tucker, are facing numerous charges. A $3 million settlement was reached in a civil lawsuit and will be divided among all the students who were present for the search. Governor Deal issued an Executive Order suspending Hobby, and issued another EO stating Bobby Sapp will fill the temporary vacancy as sheriff of Worth County pending the changes against Hobby or until his term ends, whichever comes first.
As 2017 began, Albany had two higher institutions of learning. Albany State University and Darton State College officially merged on January 1. ASU officials would spend the next 12 months working on improving academics, student experience, human resources, communication, and most importantly, enrollment at the newly consolidated university. Enrollment for the new ASU was down 7.6 percent from the 2016 Fall semester. In 2017, ASU opened their new $19 million Fine Arts Center and restructured the curriculum in a move that dropped 15 majors.
On June 6, The Dougherty County School Board voted four to three to close Albany High effective immediately. Milton Griffin, Rev. James Bush, Dr. Dean Phinazee and Geraldine West Hudley voted to close the school. Velvet Poole, Robert Youngblood, and Melissa Strother voted against, filing a motion to delay the closing to next year. The closure would save DCSS over $1 million each year. Rising seniors at Albany High School had the option of choosing which high school they would like to attend for their senior year. Easterseals of South Georgia honored Albany High on their annual Christmas ornament.
After a shocking rise to 22 homicide cases in Albany, Mayor Dorothy Hubbard vowed to crack down on the city's crime rate and created the Safe City Coalition. For 2017, Albany Police worked a total of 22 homicide cases. One case involves a victim whose remains were only identified this year, but the crime happened two years ago. In October, city, county, and community leaders and law enforcement agencies led a symbolic funeral procession of 21 hearses through Albany to raise awareness on the rash of homicides.
After over 11 years of investigation, arrests were made in the Tara Grinstead case. Grinstead, a teacher and beauty queen, disappeared in October 2005 after she attended a pageant in Ocilla. For more than a decade, investigators searched for any sign of Grinstead. In February, Ryan Duke was arrested and charged with burglary, aggravated assault, murder and concealing a death. Bo Dukes was arrested the next month and was charged with concealing a death, tampering with evidence and hindering the apprehension or punishment of a criminal.
The weather was without a doubt the biggest story of 2017. Just days after ringing in the new year, back-to-back storms, including an EF-3 tornado, ravaged Dougherty County and several surrounding areas leaving more than a dozen dead and dozens more injured. The parents of 2-year-old Detrez Green claim their child went missing during the tornado on January 22, and nearly a year later, investigators are still searching for answers in his disappearance. Mother Nature didn't stop after January. In April, September, and October, South Georgia faced severe weather threats, including Tropical Storm Irma.