On Aug. 8, 2017, a long-awaited event took place: Big South Fork Medical Center opened, and accepted its first patient. That was the top news event of 2017 in Scott County.
The community’s only hospital had been closed since July 2016, when Mississippi-based Pioneer Health Services shuttled operations in Oneida amid bankruptcy proceedings. The future of the hospital on the hill seemed bleak, especially after it was revealed that the IRS had a $500,000 tax lien on the hospital real estate, in addition to the lien that had been placed on the property by a local bank after PHS borrowed money for renovations at the facility a year earlier.
But by the time the 2016 calendar year had drawn to a close, Florida-based Rennova Health Inc. had offered to acquire the hospital from PHS, and a federal bankruptcy judge had approved the transaction.
The 2017 calendar year began with an anticipated spring opening for the Rennova-owned hospital. While spring came and went without an opening, Rennova had settled on a name for the facility — Big South Fork Medical Center, which was the result of a community contest that had taken place on Facebook — and was working towards reopening the facility.
Finally, hospital CEO Tony Taylor announced in July that the facility would open on Aug. 8. And it did, complete with all the celebration and hoopla one would expect from a hospital opening in a rural community.
Not only did Rennova buck a trend by establishing a hospital division and investing in a rural hospital — with the opening of Scott County’s hospital coming at a time when headlines involving rural hospitals were usually about their closure — but the Scott County facility quickly exceeded expectations. Only 100 were expected to be employed in the early months, but those initial employment estimates were exceeded by about 30 percent.
As the 2017 calendar year drew to a close, Rennova announced that it is adding MRI diagnostics to its expanding lineup of services, and also announced that BSFMC will treat every insurance carrier as “in network” while it works to secure contracts with the insurers — meaning any person can be treated at the hospital and pay what their insurance copay requires.
Here are the rest of Scott County’s top stories from 2017:
2.) Georgia man killed in police shooting: Ron Harlan Lewallen, 30, of Dalton, Ga., was killed in an officer-involved shooting in Oneida during the early morning hours of May 27, following a police pursuit of Lewallen’s vehicle.
A preliminary report by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation did not indicate whether Lewallen was intentionally attempting to run down officers or attempting to flee the scene. However, sources told the Independent Herald that officers on the scene had reason to fear for their lives as Lewallen accelerated his vehicle in their direction. Those sources said surveillance video from nearby businesses backed up that account.
Lewallen attempted to elude officers on the Four-Lane section of Alberta Street shortly after midnight, leading police on a pursuit for 1.5 miles before stopping his vehicle near the intersection of Alberta Street and Depot Street. But after a female passenger exited his vehicle, investigators said, Lewallen accelerated the vehicle, nearly striking officers. Several shots were fired into the vehicle, which crashed near First National Bank a few hundred feet north. Lewallen was declared dead at the scene.
The Independent Herald reported later that day that Lewallen had a lengthy police record, with arrests in several north Georgia jurisdictions, and that he had been charged in November 2012 with willful obstruction of law enforcement officers in Whitfield County, Ga.
A total of three officers from the Scott County Sheriff’s Department and Oneida Police Department were involved in the shooting. Those officers were never publicly identified by the TBI, which concluded its investigation and turned over its findings to the District Attorney General’s office.
3.) Scott County’s unemployment falls to record low levels: The month of October saw Scott County’s unemployment rate drop to 3.8 percent, the lowest it had been since records-keeping began in January 1973, as it beat out the previous low-water mark of 3.9 percent that was set in May 2001. It was also the lowest unemployment rate set in the month of September by 1.2 points, beating out the old mark of 5.0 percent, set in 2000.
At that point, there were 7,770 Scott County workers gainfully employed — up from 7,620 a month earlier — while the number of unemployed Scott Countians dropped to just 310. The local work force was at 8,080 — about 600 fewer than in January 2011, when local unemployment topped out above 23 percent, but with about 1,100 more Scott Countians working than then.
The year began with 7,280 Scott Countians working, but it ended with still fewer Scott Countians at work than when the recession began in late 2007. Back then, just over 8,000 Scott Countians were employed.
4.) Historic solar eclipse fascinates thousands: The solar eclipse on Aug. 21 was one for the ages. It marked the first time in 99 years that an eclipse cast a path of totality from coast to coast . . . and that path just happened to fall close to Scott County.
While the sun was not totally eclipsed in Scott County — disappointing many who waited anxiously for the eclipse but were underwhelmed, even though the path of totality was well publicized in advance — eclipse viewers didn’t have to travel far to see it. The nearest point of totality, by major roadway, was in the Pilot Mountain community of northern Morgan County, just south of Sunbright. And in Wartburg, totality lasted for about a minute and 13 seconds. During that precious, 73-second window, the sun was totally obstructed by the moon, casting the world into darkness and giving the appearance of a 360-degree sunset on the horizon. In Scott County, the sun was more than 99 percent obscured by the moon, but at no time did the eclipse reach totality.
Thousands of visitors poured into Tennessee from points north to watch the eclipse, and the National Park Service hosted special viewing ceremonies at both the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area’s Bandy Creek Visitor Center and at the Obed Wild & Scenic River’s Lilly Bluff Overlook. Both local school systems dismissed classes for the event.
5.) Scott County industry expands: It was a story that developed over the course of 12 months — the need for more employees at local industries. As Scott County’s unemployment dropped to an all-time low, Scott County’s leading employers were still searching for workers. In December, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam announced that Takahata Precision Tennessee will add about 80 workers when it expands its Helenwood operation this year. Earlier in the 2017 calendar year, Takahata sought and received a parcel of land from Scott County that will accommodate that expansion.
Although it hasn’t been formally announced, JDS Technologies President Jerry Slaven has said in Facebook posts that his company has acquired the old ABC building in Winfield, and will add about 100 employees once it begins operations there.
Meanwhile, several companies — including Container Technologies Industries, Tennier Industries and Great Dane Trailers — have conducted advertising blitzes in search of new workers for their expanding operations. Twin K Enterprises conducted a job fair to help fill jobs it has available.
As the 2018 calendar year begins, there are dozens — if not hundreds — of jobs available throughout the manufacturing sector of Scott County’s growing industry.
6.) Spring floods ravage Scott County: It wasn’t the worst flooding Scott County has ever seen, but the flooding that resulted from heavy spring rains in April was a once-in-a-generation event that forced evacuations, caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, and blocked several roads throughout the region.
A number of secondary streets in Scott County were closed for days, while major state routes — including U.S. Hwy. 27 in Glenmary and S.R. 456 in Paint Rock — were closed for at least a day as Tennessee Department of Transportation crews worked to repair damages caused by the flood, or waited for flood waters to recede.
Up to 10 inches of rain fell across Scott County on Saturday and Sunday, April 23-24, causing the road closures, evacuations, and forcing school closings on April 25. Both the Oneida Special School District and the Scott County School System canceled classes on Monday, as did Roane State Community College’s Huntsville campus.
As residents forced from their home by flood waters returned in the aftermath of the flood, they dealt with flooded basements and other flood damages. At Buffalo Raceway east of Huntsville, damage estimates ranged in the tens of thousands of dollars after a concession stand was carried away by flood waters.
Meteorologists said the alignment of the jet stream was responsible for funneling extremely moist air into the region. With rounds of thunderstorms setting off downpours on Friday and Saturday, flooding was already being reported by late Saturday, even as the sun appeared and a double rainbow graced the skies. But thunderstorms were sparked again on Sunday, leading to even more severe flooding. At one point, the Scott County Road Department exhausted its supply of barricades and simply advised motorists to use extreme caution on all backroads. The Big South Fork River crested 25 feet above normal.
7.) The ongoing war against substance abuse: Drug abuse and drug trafficking continued to be major story lines throughout the 2017 calendar year. Homegrown methamphetamine continued to make a comeback, after being nearly eradicated years earlier, and local authorities expressed concern in the spring after seeing an uptick in the number of Scott County teenagers abusing highly dangerous and sometimes lethal synthetic drugs.
Drug abuse is no secret in rural Appalachian communities, including Scott County, and an Independent Herald from August highlighted new statistics showing that opioid prescriptions were being written at a rate of 1.6 for every man, woman, boy and girl in Scott County — making this community one of the top counties in the nation for opioids.
But as the year ended, the Independent Herald focused on the positive side of the struggle against opioids: the story of a Scott County man, Randy Byrge, who took back his life from the vicious cycle of addiction, and is now sharing his story with others in an effort to help them, too, turn their lives around.
8.) January accident claims two lives: The first of several tragic accidents to mark the 2017 calendar year occurred during the early morning hours of Friday, Jan. 6, when two Oneida men were killed in a single-vehicle accident on Niggs Creek Road just south of Oneida.
Jonathan C. Lewallen, 25, and Juan C. Garcia, 27, were fatally injured in the accident, which occurred when Lewallen’s Subaru Impreza crashed on Niggs Creek Road, leaving the roadway and striking a tree near The Primitive Barn. Lewallen was a railroad worker and a former football player at Oneida High School. Garcia was a native of San Jose de la Paz in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and was a popular server at El Rey Azteca in Oneida.
The accident was one of two in Scott County in 2017 that involved multiple fatalities.
9.) Two killed in Oneida accident: Jeffrey N. Maney, 28, and Margaret “Gayle” Bridges, 60, both of Winfield, were killed in a two-vehicle accident on U.S. Hwy. 27 near Pine Grove Road on May 19. It was the second accident in Scott County in 2017 that involved multiple fatalities.
Both drivers died at the scene of the accident, which drew a large response from emergency responders. Reports indicated that the accident occurred when Maney’s Nissan Sentra crossed into the southbound lane of U.S. Hwy. 27 and collided with Bridges’ 2013 Kia Optima. Maney was survived by a daughter. Bridges, a well-known member of the community, was survived by her husband, three daughters and 17 grandchildren.
10.) Litton Covered Bridge Road controversy continues: It was the story that just couldn’t end — controversy over the Litton Covered Bridge Road.
A chancery court ruled on March 1 that the roadway must remain open. It was the latest setback for property owners Steve and Marla Howard, who owned the property surrounding the abandoned, dead-end dirt road and sought to have it closed. Their request had previously been rejected by Scott County Commission, leading the Howards to barricade the road and seek a court’s ruling that it could remain closed.
Once the court rejected their petition, the Howards turned over a key to the gate they had erected to the Scott County Road Department. When the Road Department did not reopen the roadway, several County Commissioners took exception and demanded action, leading Howard to say that he would fight the battle as long as it takes — even if it means going to jail to keep the road closed.
An Independent Herald story in July detailed the road’s history and the efforts to close it. The final five months of 2017 saw the story go quiet, with no further action sought by County Commission and no further discord over the road — which remains barricaded.