Top 10 stories of the year: Nos. 10-6

Daily News staff

December 30, 2013

First of two parts

An analysis of the most-read articles from the LaGrange Daily News online by Google Analytics gave the following stories as the 10 most popular over the last year.

10. Mansour’s site slated for downtown hotel, parking deck

After several stops and starts, LaGrange is closer to having a downtown hotel than it has been in seven years of planning.

LaGrange City Council signed off on Aug. 26 on an agreement between the city, Callaway Foundation, Downtown Development Authority and developer that outlines the hotel plans.

The five-story, 100-room hotel, under the Marriott brand, will be built at the site of the former Mansour’s department store on the west side of the square. Directly behind the hotel, between it and Country’s Barbecue, will be a 200-space parking deck for hotel and public use.

“It’s a happy day,” said Tom Hall, LaGrange city manager, who has been working on the deal. “We’re not quite ready to break ground, but this is the business structure of the deal.”

City officials said that if all goes according to plan, demolition of the department store building should begin in February and construction of the hotel in April.

The city bought the vacant Mansour’s building about two years ago for $1.2 million. At one point, the city was taking suggestions from the community about what could be done with the property and council had looked at plans that included downstairs retail and upstairs loft apartments for the square’s west side.

The yearning for a downtown hotel has been a longer process, however, with a number of proposals being floated in the last seven years. The idea gained some steam earlier this year when council held its annual retreat in Rome. The northwest Georgia city has a fully developed downtown with a hotel/convention center.

Hall said that Bill Hodges, one of the developers of the LaGrange project, along with Ron Orr called the proposed hotel “the Ritz-Carlton of LaGrange.

“It will be one of the city’s nicer hotels,” Hall said. “It will define the downtown square for a long time.”

As part of the agreement outlined Tuesday, the city has agreed to grant the property to the development authority and demolish the former department store for a cost of $300,000 or less. The city also will work with the county and school district to create another TAD – tax allocation district – that will generate about $1.6 million in finances to help the project.

Hodges and Orr are putting up $1.5 million in cash, have secured a $6.5 million loan for the property and expect to receive about $4.9 million in “new market tax credits,” a relatively new federal tax program that aids development in low-income areas.

The Callaway Foundation is putting up $4 million for the parking deck.

Total cost of the project is $20 million, Orr said Tuesday.

As part of the agreement, the developers have said they will provide internships to LaGrange College students or other local colleges that have a hospitality program. The hotel also will provide exhibit space for local artists. Orr also said Tuesday the hotel will provide breakfast for clients, but won’t have a restaurant or retail.

“We didn’t want to compete with other downtown restaurants,” he said.

Developers and city officials said Tuesday the project is still in the planning stages.

“There’s always a possibility the economy will slow us down,” said Mayor Jeff Lukken. “This is an initial look.”

Lukken called the Mansour’s building downtown’s “most important block.”

“This is a beautiful, upscale hotel that will be a huge boost to downtown,” he said.

Hall said the hotel itself should generate about $75,000 a ye

9. Several students injured in slide collapse

An Oct. 18 slide incident that left several students injured at Rosemont Elementary School raised questions as to what caused the tragedy.

Two students were flown to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston and six others were taken by ambulance to West Georgia Health for the injuries they received during the incident.

The Troup County Sheriff’s Office did not officially conduct the investigation due to the incident being a non-criminal matter, however, their investigators conducted a general investigation into the incident.

Sgt. Kelly Ellington, an investigator for TCSO spoke with the five teachers this week who were in Rosemont’s gym at the time.

A group of about 18 fifth grade students were brought into the gym Friday afternoon to participate in the school’s Accelerated Reader celebration.

According to Sheriff James Woodruff, per Ellington, there were four different stations inside the gym that the students were divided into, which included bowling, basketball, bean bags and the inflatable slide.

The teachers told Ellington that at some point during the recreation several students ran and got onto the slide at once. There were “too many students on the slide” and it caused the approximately 24-feet inflatable to tilt, said Woodruff. The teachers were attempting to hold up the slide, but several of the students fell off. A teachers unplugged the inflatable right after.

Tina Duckett, Troup County School System’s public relations director, in an initial statement said that the slide had “immediately collapsed.” TCSS is still investigating and Woodruff said his office has officially closed its investigation into the incident.

8. Officials: Hyundai plant deal official

Gov. Nathan Deal announced Sept. 30 that Hyundai Dymos is opening a manufacturing plant in West Point to supply Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG). The official announcement of the new facility will create 350 manufacturing jobs with an about $35 million investment.

The plant will be located in West Point near KMMG and is scheduled to be completed by July 2014. The company will begin hiring in January 2014 and will begin normal production in November 2014.

“Hyundai Dymos is one of numerous Korean companies to settle in Georgia, which highlights Korea’s confidence in our business environment and the importance of building international relationships,” said Chris Cummiskey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “Projects like this don’t happen without the trust built through relationships – whether they’re international relationships or community ones.”

Founded in 1994 in South Korea, Hyundai Dymos manufactures manual transmissions, axles and seats for automobiles. The West Point plant will manufacture seats for the new Kia Sorento. Hyundai Dymos will use Georgia Quick Start to train its employees for its manufacturing needs.

“The objective of this project is to further improve the competitiveness of KMMG by providing a steady and reliable supply of auto parts for KMMG’s continually increasing production,” said Jun Mo Yoon, representative director of Hyundai Dymos. “We chose West Point because of the proximity to our customer base, but also because of the extraordinary support and interest by the local communities. The City of West Point and Troup County worked very closely with us to resolve any start-up issues. They truly are committed to building a business-friendly environment, and we feel that we have become good partners.”

Wylly Harrison was the lead project manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development, which partnered with the City of West Point Development Authority, the Valley Partnership and the Development Authority of LaGrange. The project was also assisted by David Lyons of West Point Development Authority and Hee-jung Shin of GDEcD’s office in Seoul, South Korea.

“The City of West Point is pleased to welcome Hyundai-Dymos to our community. Their commitment to create 350 jobs and initially invest $36 million will have a positive impact in West Point and the West Georgia region,” said West Point Mayor Drew Ferguson. “We are grateful for the partnership with, and support of, the State of Georgia and Troup County, which has made this project possible. We look forward to having Hyundai-Dymos as part of our success story.”

7. Board of Elections member Gilmore asked to resign

Troup County Elections Board member Ellen Gilmore was asked to resign June 20 the party that appointed her asked to name a replacement and her position could be revoked if a superior judge is petitioned and finds cause to remove her.

The issue began, publicly, after emails were made revealed between her and Probate Judge Donald Boyd, who previously was in charge of elections before the creation of the Board of Elections and Registration. In some emails, she and Boyd exchange insults of the board, which sparked the County Commission to act.

A letter written by County Manager Tod Tentler to the BOER on May 28 states:

“The BOC (Board of Commissioners) was extremely concerned by this email correspondence. As you know, the BOER (Board of Elections and Registration) plays a vital role in the elections process and it seems clear that (Mrs.) Gilmore’s intent is to obstruct and undermine its operations and credibility. It specifically appears as reflected in (Mrs.) Gilmore’s email dated April 20, 2013, that she intends for the BOER, which in her opinion was a ‘horrible mistake,’ to fail so that the BOC would ‘come back [to the former election superintendent] crawling on its hands and knees.’ Moreover, it appears from these emails that (Mrs.) Gilmore violated the confidentiality of an executive session of the BOER [email of April 29, 2013] and engaged in conduct that is both unbecoming for a public official and a breach of public trust. Accordingly, the BOC also unanimously included in its vote a request that the BOER review the enclosed documents and take appropriate action in regard to (Mrs.) Gilmore’s continued service on the BOER to address this situation.”

Gilmore and Boyd have denied any wrongdoing. The BOER called a meeting June 5, asking Gilmore to submit her resignation, which she refused to do. On June 20, County Commissioners read a statement by the Troup County Republican Party, which originally appointed Gilmore, stating that it would choose a new appointee if asked by the BOER. Commissioners drafted a letter to the BOER asking it to take action on the statement.

At the BOER’s regular meeting, it voted to request the TCRP make a new appointment. The appointment cannot replace Gilmore unless she is taken off the board by a Superior Court judge or resigns.

Ellen Gilmore and her husband Bill Gilmore, who was Chairman of the Troup County Republican Party when she was appointed, said her attempted removal from the board stems from personal differences between the two and county officials, including Board of Elections and Registration Chairman Jane McCoy.

Bill Gilmore said the McCoy took some of the Gilmore’s sign opposing the SPLOST during the 2011 election, which began a dispute between them. McCoy said she has no dispute with the Gilmores.

The Gilmores added that County Commission Chairman Ricky Wolfe was a main contributor to the Citizens for the Future of Troup County group, contributing $11,000, along with current Troup County Republican Party Chairman Patrick Crews, who contributed $950. The group distributed flyers about certain candidates in the 2012 election, including one against Gilmore, who was running for County Commission.

In a letter given to media after the June 20 BOER meeting, Ellen Gilmore said Crews was not a member of the board when she was appointed. Crews said Friday that wasn’t true.

“I was a member of the Troup County Republican Party at the time that Ellen was nominated, the issue was that Bill had instituted a $10 membership fee, and when I questioned him about who was providing security at the meetings, Bill chimed in, ‘Well, we’ll just return your $10 check, your membership money,’ much the same way he did to (Commissioner) Buck Davis,” Crews said.

Gilmore had similarly returned the dues of Davis after the commissioner had written a letter supporting the special-purpose, local-option sales tax and resident Nancy Green after finding out she had voted for President Barak Obama. Although Gilmore gave Crews his dues back, Crews said he still was a member of the party.

Bill and Ellen Gilmore also have accused McCoy of favoritism, calling her Wolfe’s “lapdog.” Recently, they accused McCoy of the same practice of personal attacks in a public email that Gilmore has been accused of with her email exchanges with Boyd.

In a February email, McCoy said she documented an incident she felt was disturbing that involved Ellen Gilmore at the Registrar’s office one day. She sent a copy of the email to former legislator Jeff Brown and Green, who have no connections to the elections board.

The email begins by stating:

“On February 1st, Ellen Gilmore’s effect on the Board of Registration and Election staff was to interfere with their ability to complete a vital, time-sensitive transition task assigned by the county manager. Her intrusive, intimidating manner was punctuated by barely-controlled anger. Overall, her verbiage was filled with minutia and hostile criticism of county management — “the third floor.” She made occasional facetious and sarcastic remarks about commissioners. I was very uncomfortable and felt intimidated by her words, tone of voice, and manner. Inasmuch as she stated that she does not intend to work as a member of the BER, she was not there to contribute. Her presence in the Registrar’s Office interfered with the employees’ ability to perform assigned tasks. I feel that the purpose of her visit was to intimidate the employees, and Amy (Hyatt, then-county elections supervisor) in particular.”

The email then gives a timeline of Gilmore’s alleged actions while in the office, including watching employees work, whom McCoy said were intimidated. Gilmore also spoke to Hyatt about an upcoming hearing on an issue that Gilmore was a complainant on, the emails states, also allegedly intimidating Hyatt.

“Ellen repeatedly brought the conversation back to the upcoming hearing. At this point, I suggested that since it ‘wasn’t personal’ and since we were all together talking about it in front of Amy, who was part of the complaint, perhaps Ellen would like to dismiss the charges. Ellen quickly stated, with one finger in the air pointed towards me, ‘that that kind of thinking was a liberal’s way of thinking.’ I told Ellen that it was my high hopes and expectations that we could go forward in a non-partisan way, and that luckily there was nothing partisan to be argued about surrounding election oversight of the BER. I complimented her depth of knowledge and suggested that it’s possible to be harmonious and without contention going forward - out of the past. …

Ellen continued to press by asking if I had ever been to a hearing. I told her that I was familiar with them, but from a long time ago. She then asked “under whose direction?” I replied Kathy Cox, to which she immediately corrected me, saying that Cathy Cox was the Superintendent of Schools. I then corrected her and said that there was also the Secretary of State at the time named Kathy Cox - and it was during that time, a long time ago, that I had been exposed to the process through training. I restated that I respected her abilities and knowledge about the law and suggested that we might find something in common to which she said, ‘we have absolutely nothing in common, let me assure you - nor will we ever.’”

McCoy said she and employees in the registrar’s office were advised by county officials to document the incident. She said she sent the emails to Brown and Green because she trusted them to give her advice on how to handle future situations.

“I was hoping for feedback on this incident as it was personally very disturbing to me,” McCoy later told the Daily News. “I felt it was unwise to share such information with other board (of elections) members. I was seeking input from someone who might offer their advice in the situation.”

Gilmore said the email was McCoy making public personal and negative comments about her.

“Trust me, not only McCoy, but Ellen and all of the board are in over their heads,” Bill Gilmore wrote in an email to the Daily News and Valley Times-News. “All of the members admitted they had no clue how to run an election. The main thing is Ellen has not gone public with her concerns with the chairman’s ineptness, but to the contrary, McCoy has had her many negative comments about Ellen public.”

McCoy said she didn’t initially intend the email to be made public. She added that she was only documenting an incident and didn’t feel sharing what happened in a county office violated any ethics.

“I know of no rule that would preclude discussing my personal experience in a public place with any individual that I chose to,” McCoy said.

McCoy added the difference between what her email states and the correspondence between Boyd and Gilmore is that “no government time or resource was utilized in these communications.” The emails between Boyd and Gilmore were exchanged on Boyd’s county-issued email.

6. Seven shot at Union Street park

LaGrange police launched a manhunt for three men June 1, in a shooting at Union Street Park that injured seven.

Police say they were called to the park about 9:30 p.m. to a disturbance with a large crowd. As officers were responding, 911 dispatchers received more information that indicated a person involved in the disturbance had a gun. When officers arrived on scene they heard several gunshots and observed a large number of persons running and driving from the scene.

Officers found four people at the park who suffered gunshot wounds. Emmanuel Roberts, of Peachtree Street, was airlifted to Columbus Medical Center and the other three were treated at West Georgia Medical Center. Two more victims were located at the West Georgia Medical Center within 30 minutes of the call and a final victim was located at Lanier Memorial Hospital in Valley, Ala., within an hour.

West Georgia Health officials said no information on any victims treated at the facility was available this morning, citing HIPAA privacy laws. Patients have the right to deny hospitals to release any personal information.

LaGrange police Sgt. Marshall McCoy said this morning security was heightened at the LaGrange hospital as victims were brought in, due to the nature of the incident. Jan Nichols, director of marketing for West Georgia Health, said the hospital was on lockdown until 10:30 p.m.

“For the safety and well-being of patients and visitors, we initiated a lockdown to avoid any escalation or continuation of violence from that location (Union Street Park) to our campus,” Nichols said. “Staff initiated the lockdown with the assistance of local law enforcement officials.”

The initial investigation revealed that a fight began in the park which led to three separate people firing guns at one another in the crowd. Xavier Edmondson, of LaGrange, and Lewis Antonio Shells, of Cedar Street, have been identified as two of the three subjects shooting into the crowd. The third suspect was described as a black male wearing dark colored clothing.