By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
The economic boom caused by construction projects continued in Atmore over the second half of 2021. But the subject of the previous year’s top story — the Covid pandemic — charged back to become the biggest news creator of the year.
A pandemic-blamed global spike in the cost of building materials, coupled with a sharp decrease in availability of those materials, delayed the start of or stopped many projects.
An $8.7 million senior housing complex opened in midsummer, work was started on a new city parking lot, a West Escambia Utilities headquarters building was completed, and the much-anticipated rehabilitation and renovation of the Strand Theatre and Atmore Hardware Store buildings finally got under way.
The spread of Covid seemed to slack up for part of the summer but came roaring back to force a mask mandate for students, teachers, visitors and all others at the county’s public schools. The mandate was extended once but was finally canceled in late October. Sick pay for lost time due to Covid was also extended.
The county’s Covid death toll, which reached 148 by year’s end, topped 100 in September. By December 28, more than 7,000 Covid cases had been reported within the county. While almost half the county’s population had been vaccinated by year’s end, Escambia County Healthcare Authority officials announced that vaccinations would not be mandatory for local healthcare employees.
The city and surrounding area lost some well-known residents to death over the last half of 2021, including Charlie Rutherford, who was the city’s fire chief for 45 years; Escambia County Board of Education District 6 representative and former coach David Nolin, former banker Ray Bolden and former mayor Howard Shell each passed away.
While each of those four individuals died of natural causes, others did not.
Atmore resident James Millikan died December 23 in a head-on collision near Huxford, Flomaton’s Andy Moye succumbed a week later to injuries he suffered in a two-vehicle mishap that same day in downtown Atmore, 10-year-old Kendall Watkins lost his life in a single-vehicle crash on U.S. 31, and Robert Martin Hadley was killed in a head-on crash on Alabama 21.
The county school system — and Atmore’s local schools — generated plenty of good news in the final six months of 2021, including the selection and eventual hiring of Michele McClung as the new Superintendent of Education.
Four Escambia County Middle School students — Latabitha Burt, Ariyana Young, Tayshawn James and Isac Manzano — each turned in a top-three showing in the Alabama ABC Board’s Essay, Video and Poster Contest. Burt took first place in the essay and poster competitions.
In other education-related news, Sherry Digmon was appointed by county board of education members to fill the vacancy created by David Nolin’s death. Fifteen students were inducted into the ECMS chapter of National Junior Honor Society, and the Atmore branch of the school system’s Central Office became fully staffed for the first time in recent memory.
Coleman Wallace and Danny Benjamin were selected by their peers as president and vice president, respectively, of the county BOE. Brian Stallworth of Rachel Patterson Elementary School was selected by Mobile television station WKRG as a Golden Apple recipient, the school’s first, for excellence in teaching.
Five educators were named Teacher (or Co-Teacher) of the Year at their respective schools. Tiffany Hobbs and Tyler Parker shared TOY honors at Escambia County Middle School, while Anna Michelle Wheeler was the winner from Escambia County High School, Cheyanne Ikner was selected at Huxford Elementary School, and Allison Brooks was TOY at RPES.
Another story that ties the building boom and education together came when the county BOE announced that its five-year capital plan included a $2.5 million gym for Huxford, which has not had a formal PE facility since the school’s founding.
Some other local news stories that occurred between July 1 and December 31:
*Lana Langford retired after 35 years at United Bank. “Big John” Stallworth retired after a 28-year career at Atmore Police Department.
*Medstar replaced ASAP as the city’s medical transport provider.
*Drug abuse reared its head, as dozens of felony possession arrests were announced here by city police, sheriff’s officers, state troopers, state drug agents and other law enforcement officers.
*Concerns over veiled threats posted on social media sent city, county and state lawmen to ECMS (twice) and to ECHS.
*Atmore and Poarch police, county deputies and Alabama State Troopers made a show of force at the ECHS-Vigor football game after Mobile County authorities expressed concerns for the safety of fans and players.
*Former ECMS Principal Debbie Bolden returned to the school on a part-time basis as an administrator to assist Assistant Superintendent Sandra Reid, who is serving as interim principal.
*Escambia Academy again took top honors in local sports news. The Cougars appeared in their sixth straight AISA state football championship game, and two members of their fishing team — freshmen Robert Stanley and Luke Bell — earned invitations to the Mossy Oak Bassmaster High School National Championship Series competition.
*Members of two distinct sports groups — eight from Atmore’s 1961 Senior League Baseball All Stars, who earned their way to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn., and almost two dozen players, coaches and cheerleaders from EA’s first football team — held reunions in Atmore.