The past 12 months marked a time of change and uncertainty in Coahoma County with several investigations (some criminal), terminations, shifts in leadership, a struggle to keep vital parts of the community operating and an alarming jump in the amount of murders in Clarksdale.
For every hardship the community has endured, leaders have come together to look for solutions. In many of those cases, the solutions could lead to a revitalization of the local economy and employment opportunities as a new year beckons.
The Press Register put together a list of the top 10 news events throughout the year dealing with all of those highs and lows.
1. New jobs
At the end of this month, Jon Levingston will have completed his first full calendar year as the executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce.
He teamed up with other community leaders to create 70 new jobs in the immediate future and there’s a promise of more down the road.
The MAP of Easton Inc. plant on Highway 322 in Clarksdale added 50 new jobs between March and July, doubling its workforce. The company now has more than 100 employees. MAP of Easton Inc. is a company that molds fiberglass insulation into acoustical products or anything that controls sound and heat.
People Shores is an offshoot of the company Rural Shores, which was formed in October 2008 with the objective to provide sustainable employment to 1 million rural youth by establishing Rural Shores centers in each of the 500 rural districts in India announced it will have a location in Clarksdale in January. The plan is to train and hire 20 employees and increase that 10 times in the next two years.
Boss Wings XXX, LLC entered an agreement with the city to operate a Wingstop restaurant inside the former Greyhound bus station in downtown Clarksdale. Boss Wings will create 15 to 20 new jobs with an annual payroll of approximately $400,000.
2. Series of murders
Thirteen homicides have been documented in Clarksdale during the year.
Shortly after some of the recent murders, mayor Chuck Espy and police chief Sandra Williams put together a plan to strengthen law enforcement that was unveiled during a Board of Mayor and Commissioners meeting in December. The Clarksdale Police Department would eventually have 32 patrol officers if all goes according to plan.
Shootings have taken place more frequently in recent months including when there were six incidents involving guns in 52 hours in late October. Lakisha McGee, 38, was shot and killed in the shooting at 910 Cheyenne St., during that time when she was visiting her cousin 29-year-old Jeremy McGee, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds to his upper body.
Following a Clarksdale crime forum in late November, Darry Jenkins sustained several gunshot wounds in the robbery at his residence along the 400 block of Garfield Street. He attended the forum and was transported by personal vehicle to the Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in Clarksdale, where he was stabilized before being flown to Memphis for further treatment.
3. Hospital avoids closure
When Curae Health Inc. filed for bankruptcy in August, it appeared Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center may have to close, but it will remain open.
Curae Health Inc. has on the lease for the hospital for a little more than a year and has been responsible for keeping it running.
A bankruptcy hearing was held in a federal court in Nashville where a deal was made. Community Health Systems, which was still on the lease and ran the hospital prior to Curae Health Inc., took over managing things once again earlier in the month.
The Coahoma County Board of Supervisors allocated more than $3 million from the hospital reserve fund to pay employees until CHS took over.
As part of the deal, the supervisors and CHS have one year until around December 2019 to find a new buyer for the hospital. If a buyer is not found in time, it has been said the county will likely take over running things.
4. Clarksdale Public Utilities turnover
Clarksdale Public Utilities general manager Mark Johnson, chief financial officer Steve Reed and director of communications and public relations Chris Campos were all suspended in July with pay pending investigation with wiretapping issues at the heart of the matter.
After a two-month investigation from attorney Jim Herring out of Canton, Johnson, Reed and Campos were all relieved from their duties at CPU. Former city attorney Curtis Boschert took over for Johnson, who held the position for a little more than one year, effective immediately. Boschert has a lawsuit against the city of Clarksdale alleging discrimination was a reason he was let go as city attorney. He confirmed being CPU general manager will not impact the lawsuit.
Senior accountant Sheila Profit has taken on many of Reed’s duties, while CPA Arnold Himelstein has also been working with CPU. However, Reed and Campos have not been replaced.
Many specifics of the investigation have not been made public due to the fact that it was a personnel matter.
Jim Hemphill from The Victor Group Inc. in Starkville was the CPU interim general manager during the investigation. Boschert, before being appointed as general manager, filled in for CPU board attorney David Hunt during parts of the investigation. Hunt was on vacation at the time.
Through all of the change in personnel, a group of concerned citizens has held several meetings to discuss issues they had with CPU, particularly the rates.
5. Tourism changes/investigation
Longtime Coahoma County Tourism executive director Kappi Allen abruptly resigned in February and is being investigated for misappropriated funds by state auditor Penn Mills. No timetable for the investigation has been determined.
Assistant director Lisa Rhoden was also put on administrative leave at the time of Allen’s resignation and has since left the position.
Tom Jones was named interim director and helped get the tourism caught up with its close to $75,000 in past due bills. He resigned in September after he and a series of candidates were interviewed and he was not being considered for the position. The search was reopened and Bubba O’Keefe was appointed the new tourism director earlier this month effective Jan. 1, 2019.
Three board members have also vacated their positions since the investigation. Wayne Winter was not reappointed and Bill Gresham, who is also the interim city attorney, was appointed in that spot. Steve Hays resigned was Roger Stolle replaced him. Chris Overton resigned and Madge Howell replaced him.
The two remaining board members from before the investigation are Al Jones, who was recently appointed chair, and Wilhelmina Newson.
6. Plans for sports complex/convention center
Clarksdale mayor Chuck Espy unveiled his plans to build a $52 million sports complex and convention center in the community, which will be called the Corey L. Moore Sports and Recreation Complex.
The project will be 76.12 acres along Highway 61 at a cost of $1,141,800, or $15,000 per acre, on which the sports complex would be located. The owner of the property is Hopson-Nance, LLC.
Dwan “Dee” Brown is a consultant for the city and the lead developer in the public-private partnership.
A Quality of Life Commission was established for the facility. The sports complex and convention center is expected to contain ball fields, a 100-room hotel, a two-acre water park, Checkers restaurant to be located on one parcel of property and a gas station on another.
The groundbreaking and construction are expected to take place in 2019.
7. Charter school opens in Clarksdale
Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School is the first charter school in the Mississippi Delta and opened at the beginning of the current academic year with Amanda Johnson as executive director.
The school is located at St Paul's United Methodist Church on East Second Street and has a goal of enrolling around 50 students per grade. There are currently kindergarteners through second graders in the school, but it will eventually work its way up to enrolling children through the eighth grade.
The state approved the opening of Clarksdale Collegiate Public Charter School in 2017 and there has been some opposition from the Advocates for Public Education group, which is led by president Jeffrey Gooden, arguing is takes funding from traditional public schools.
Leaders from the Clarksdale Municipal School District, including superintendent Dennis Dupree, have also opposed the charter school.
The argument in favor of the charter schools is it provides alternative learning methods including extra instructional hours and helps prepare children for college. Anyone can apply for a charter school, but it must be approved by the school board in the local district if the district does not have a D or F grading at the last grading period. The CMSD’s latest grade with the Mississippi Department of Education was an F.
8. Changes in Coahoma County School District
The Coahoma County School District has been through three superintendents during the calendar year of 2018.
Xandra Brooks-Keys, after serving a year and a half as CCSD superintendent, was terminated from her position in March. She was initially put on suspension before being relieved of her duties.
Keys filed a lawsuit in April alleging her discrimination was gender-related, as she was a female working under an all-male school board.
John Curlee took over as interim superintendent on April 1 and resigned effective July 29 for “personal reasons.”
Dr. Ilean Richards is currently serving as the interim superintendent.
The CCSD had a failing grade with the Mississippi Department of Education for the 2017-18 school year, but Richards has gone on record saying she plans to make sure the teachers have the necessary training to make improvements. Her short-term target grade for the district was a “C,” but the long-term goal was a “B” or “A.”
9. Kroger closes in Clarksdale
It was announced in December 2017 that the Kroger grocery store, located on South State Street for many ways and open in Clarksdale since March 16, 1942, would close.
Kroger did close on Feb. 3 and the building where it was located has been vacant for nearly 11 months.
A new grocery store could come into Clarksdale in 2019, but the closing of Kroger has caused a variety of reactions.
Mayor Chuck Espy went on record at a community meeting in February saying he did not believe Kroger closed due to a lack of profitability. He said he told Kroger representatives they were leaving because of reports of rats and roaches in the facility years ago.
The closing caused a void in the Clarksdale CARE Station. Kroger donated food to the CARE Station for close to eight years including 53,000 pounds worth in 2017 and played a big part in making sure those in need were fed.
10. CCC employees charged with embezzlement
Two former Coahoma Community College employees were accused of engineering one of the largest embezzlement schemes ever in Mississippi over a four-year period and are being told by the state auditor’s office that they have 30 days to pay back nearly $1 million.
According to state auditor Shad White, who spoke at a press conference in Coahoma County, his office’s investigation concluded that Stacie Neal, who worked in the CCC accounts payable business office, and administrative assistant Gwendolyn Jefferson embezzled an estimated $758,000 from 2013-17.
The embezzled amount, plus the $194,000 in interest and the $28,000 cost of the investigation, add up to the $981,600.64 Neal and Jefferson are being told to pay back.
District attorney Brenda Mitchell will make the decision on whether or not file charges and prosecute.
Best of the rest
• Coahoma Collective, a local organization, bought the old Travelers Hotel building on 212 Third Street and it is expected open in early 2019 with 13 rooms upstairs and seven downstairs. The hotel will have a space for exhibitions, workshops and music, a little bar and a small kitchen and the goal is to make anyone in the community feel welcome.
• Jonestown mayor Kenny Lester has been charged with five counts of embezzlement where he could face up to 100 years in prison. The first indictment alleges that Lester, while serving as mayor, took the money residents paid for water bills and water line repairs and converted it for his own use between July 2017 and August 2018. A separate indictment alleges that Lester accepted a city-owned Glock Model 22.40 caliber handgun from an employee and pawned it for cash while he was the acting mayor.
• Morgan Wood, who served as administrative assistant to county administrators Daniel Vassel and the late Hugh Jack Stubbs for a total of 17 years, was rewarded for her hard work. Wood was named county administrator after the retirement of Vassel in January.