Leader Blues

Monday, January 05, 2009

TOP STORY > > Recapping the top 10 stories of 2008

Leader staff writer

These were the top stories of 2008 as decided by the staff of The Leader. Complete synopsis of these events appeared in the Dec. 31, 2008, issue

Jacksonville had eight homicides (six have been cleared or solved) during the year, while Sherwood had two, Cabot had two (both solved or cleared) and even Ward had one, but the two murders that attracted the most attention were not in any of those cities. Jacksonville resident, business and politician William A. “Bill” Gwatney, 48, was shot and killed in Little Rock and a Sherwood couple was found murdered in Festus, Mo., at the hands of a serial killer.

The local area was hit by waves of tornadoes and hurricane remnants during the year causing excessive damage to Cabot, Carlisle and Sherwood.
“Overwhelming,” is how Sherwood’s Parks and Recreation Director Sonny Janssen described the damage to city’s sports complex the morning after an EF-2 tornado roared through the area. Sports activities were limited at the complex for most of the year. The tornado also caused about $750,000 worth of damage to Sylvan Hills High School. Another tornado, rated EF-1 and packing winds up to 110mph, hit Carlisle.
n Hurricane Ike made its mark on Cabot in early September as one of the feeder bands spawned a tornado near South First Street, destroying a mini-storage building, damaging the roofs of an apartment complex and knocking out windows at a shopping center.

The 2,500-acre rural community of Gravel Ridge became part of Sherwood only after multitude of public meetings and three annexation votes. The first vote came in January and included residents of Jacksonville and Gravel Ridge. Then about a month later residents of Sherwood and Gravel Ridge voted. That led to a third election of just Gravel Ridge residents in April.

It took more than a year of public hearings, council meetings and lawsuits, but Sherwood now owns 106-acres of green space formerly known as the North Hills Country Club.
The purchase of the 106-acre defunct golf course, with all the related fees, was set in late August at $5.35 million. Sherwood’s Public Facilities Board got the money on a three-year loan from Twin City Bank and is leasing it for $29,000 a month.
What it will do with the property won’t be decided until a master parks study is completed sometime in February 2009. But in the meantime the city’s Advertising and Promotion Commission has coughed up $100,000 to renovate the clubhouse for city use, meetings and rentals.

After a multi-year battle by the state and other organizations to close payday lending firms because of their high interest rate and preying on those in financially stress situations the war may just about be won. Jacksonville now has one remaining payday lender.
Payday lenders typically make small loans, perhaps $300 for a fee of $50, but on an annualized basis, such interest is more than 300 percent, far in excess of the state’s usury cap of 17 percent.Borrowers can get caught in a cycle of debt, able to pay off old loans only by taking out new ones.
Gas prices
From January through September gasoline prices in the area, in the state, and all across the nation skyrocketed over the $4 mark. From those peaks, gas prices fell even faster than they had risen, hitting a low of $1.27 at a pair of Sherwood stations and $1.29 at a pair of Cabot stations in late December.


Cheers erupted from supporters of stand-alone Jacksonville school district in September in the Pulaski County Special School District boardroom as the board unanimously approved a resolution favoring creation of such a district.
The approved resolution calls for petitioning the state board of education for a Jacksonville/North Pulaski district once the three conjoined districts are declared unitary by the federal courts. Little Rock has already achieved that status leaving North Little Rock and PCSSD to become unitary.
The resolution favoring the district doesn’t force any action, but is an expression of the will of the board—the first time in decades of denial that PCSSD has gone on record as agreeing in principle with the concept of a Jacksonville/North Pulaski County district.

In January the buzz was about a multitude of positive changes including a new name, going from Rebsamen Medical Center to North Metro Medical Center. But the bottom line was the city-owned hospital was losing money. In late December the city leased the hospital to Allegiance and also gave the firm an option to buy the hospital.
“This has been an effort to maintain an acute-care hospital in the city of Jacksonville,” said the mayor. “We can not continue to maintain a hospital,” the mayor said, “North Metro is losing $400,000 a month.”
The mayor said Allegiance has plans to consolidate aspects of its operations that are in other leased locations to North Metro and believes it can make the hospital profitable within about six months.


The idea of remodeling and privatizing Little Rock Air Force Base was stalled for the entire year when American Eagle abandoned the project in the middle of 2007 and the military didn’t come up with a replacement company until the end of the year. Representatives of the new firm, Hunt-Pinnacle, toured the housing area earlier this month they found shells of new homes and concrete slabs that American Eagle abandoned mid-build 18 months ago.
Hunt-Pinnacle will begin the clean up of construction sites in January. Completion of the partially built homes should begin in February, renovations in April and new construction should begin in June.


Throughout the year, the newest of the C-130 fleet, the C-130Js, were flown into Little Rock Air Force Base, making the base their new home. With more C-130Js on the way, Brig. General Rowayne Schatz said the future looks bright at Little Rock Air Force Base.
Currently, the new 19th Airlift Wing has 13 state-of-the-art C-130Js and is slated to receive three more over the next six to nine months, according to Schatz, who is base commander and commander of the 19th Air Mobility Wing.