Top 10 stories of past year


Top 10



Toby Barker’s strategy to become Hattiesburg’s next mayor revolved around a central theme of inclusion.

The 35-year-old state representative’s focus seemed to pay off when he successfully defeated longtime incumbent Mayor Johnny DuPree by nearly 2,000 votes.

“This has been a campaign for everyone, because we believed everyone, no matter neighborhood or political affiliation, has a place,” said Barker. The campaign was built “around a shared vision for the city.”

“We have much to celebrate, but there is also plenty of work that needs to be done,” Barker said. “I’m a new mayor. I’m young. And it’s the first time in 16 years that we have had a change in the administration. I get that and I’m prepared for that. What I heard during the campaign is that people just want good government they can believe in and I think that’s something my team will be able to provide.”


Petal is No. 1 school district

A tradition of excellence is something the Petal School District prides itself in. This year is no different, with the district posting its second “A” rating from the Mississippi Department of Education’s accountability system, which evaluates how schools and districts performed during the school year.

“This is our state championship in academics, and it is nice to know we won the state championship,” said Superintendent Dr. Matt Dillon.

The accountability testing model totals 1,000 points split among 11 categories, including reading proficiency, reading growth, reading growth above 25 percent, math proficiency, math growth, math growth above 25 percent, science proficiency, U.S. history proficiency, graduation rate, college and career readiness and acceleration.

“Based on information we just got, I’m ecstatic that Petal School District is the number one district in the state of Mississippi,” Dillon. “You’ve heard me say it numerous times, our teachers work extremely hard day in and day out to provide high quality education based on the standards and based on positive relationships with students and our students respond.”


3. Tornado devastates parts of Hub City, Petal

Three years a devastating tornado caused widespread destruction across the University of Southern Mississippi’s front campus, other parts of Hattiesburg and Petal on Feb. 10, 2013.

On Jan. 22, 2017, the Pine Belt was hit hard once again by a tornado which took a different path this time, devastating some of the Hub City’s poorest neighborhoods as well as the William Carey University campus before making its way toward Petal.

USM, under the leadership pf President Rodney Bennett, took charge coming to the aid of the WCU campus, offering dormitory space for some students, while also providing classroom space, meals in its cafeteria and other courtesies to help the cripped university.

Across the Pine Belt volunteers poured in from everywhere to help with the cleanup, rebuilding, providing meals and other comforts to those affected.

“I am proud to be part of a university and a community that remain resilient in the face of any challenge and come together in support of one another. Let’s get to work.”

Work still continues across the Pine Belt as businesses and homeowners work to build back what they lost. A Mennonite Disaster Relief Team moved into the Petal area with plans to stay until a majority of the work was completed.

R3SM has been key in coordinating volunteers and sending them where the most work was needed.


4. Firefighters killed in crash

Two Sumrall firefighters were killed and another hurt after a hit and run on Hwy. 589 in Lamar County March 14.

Sheriff Danny Rigel said the firefighters were directing traffic at a dump truck accident on Mississippi 589 and Oloh Road when they were hit by a driver who fled the scene.

Killed were Clinton Alvin Beasley and Loretta Ann Sykes. Beasley had served for a number of years as Sumrall fire chief.

Chance Eaton, 31, was later arrested and charged in the deaths.

First responders from across the state turned out for a prayer vigil and funeral for the fallen officers.

In the months following the accident, the county joined forces with the state Dept. of Transportation to make  changes to the intersection where the accident occurred.


5. Let is snow!

The Pine Belt received an early Christmas present when more than five inches of snowfall fell on the Pine Belt beginning in the wee morning hours of Dec. 7. This was a new record for the South Mississippi area, which rarely sees the white fluffy mixture. The last such snow was recorded years ago in 1895 when five inches of snow provided an wintry landscape.

The original forecast called for less than 2 inches of precipitation, but area school children had high hopes for a day of sledding, making snowmen and snowball fights. They weren’t disappointed.

With snow accumulating on Pine Belt roads, bridges and overpasses, citizens were urged to stay home, businesses either didn’t open or closed early and school children got a day off to enjoy the cold white powder.

Ice was reported on about 30 roads across the southern portion of the state.


6. Growth

Growth across the Pine Belt has been abundant, but never more so than The District at Midtown located across the street from the University of Southern Mississippi campus.

Hattiesburg native and developer of the project Rob Tatum is behind the project which represents a $35 million investment his his hometown and will offer 7,541 feet of restaurant space and 23,95 feet of retail space.

The development is expected to create 200 jobs. The Hub City Lofts in downtown Hattiesburg was another of Tatum’s projects.

The site will house a 100-room Hotel Indigo, a boutique hotel at the corner of South 31st Avenue and Chevy Chase Drive.Three restaurants, Newk's Express Cafe, Tazikis Cafe and Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, Pyro's Fire Fresh Pizza, Rock ‘n’ Roll Sushi, Chicken Salad Chick and The Midtowner, a brunch concept from Hattiesburg restaurateur Robert St. John. Other facilities include 5 Star Nutrition, AT&T, Hancock Bank and South Boutique.

All told, The District at Midtown will offer 7,541 square feet of restaurant space and 23,958 square feet of retail space.

There is also room for future development.

Growth has not just been limited to the Hub City. Across the Leaf River, Petal has seen tremendous growth along the Evelyn Gandy Parkway.

A quick drive down the  Parkway will give residents and visitors a glimpse at the growth happening in the City of Petal. The highway was once much quieter with only WalMart and a few other businesses along the way for years.

The area now brandishes a new commercial corridor, with businesses new and old lining the highway. Eastbrook Commons has been rebuilt and reopened following the January tornado. The Summit at 42 and the Shops at Park Crest were completed and are now home to businesses both new to the city as well as some old favorites.

A rebranding of the city is now underway with brand development, web design, photography and event production to come from a partnership with Own Your Hill.

This past year, Petal welcomed many new restaurants, including McAlister’s and Zaxby’s, and the New Year promises the addition of Java Moe’s and Sully’s.

A new apartment complex is also on the way for Petal residents. The complex boasts five buildings consisting of 130-135 luxury apartments to be located along Byrd Parkway.


7. Bellevue

Lamar County residents who want to set up the City of Bellevue in eastern Lamar County took their case to court this past year, but they later decided that the issue of valid signatures supporting the petition to incorporate were too important to rush.

Proposed Bellevue Mayor John Adcock brought the petition to the Board of Supervisors on May 18 as a courtesy, showing the officials that they were serious about the maneuver. The petition was filed with Chancery Clerk Wayne Smith on the afternoon of May 19.

The group of Lamar County residents that oppose incorporation went to work, hiring Purvis attorney William Ducker and setting up local meetings to discuss strategy. The key to the success of the incorporation was the valid signatures on the petition, opposition leaders claimed.

Lamar County residents who are opposing the incorporation of Bellevue claim that the petition for incorporation is about 1,000 signatures short of the number required by law to complete the process. The petition for incorporating a town must have signatures of at least two-thirds of the qualified electors in the area.

According to examination by the citizens group, the 4,118-page petition contains 2,184 signatures, about 300 short of the required number. With another 600 signatures that appeared to be invalid, the petition appears to fall between 900 and 1,000 signatures short of the number needed for incorporation.

In December after court proceedings had been established, J. Chadwick Mask, the attorney representing Bellevue incorporators, filed a motion to dismiss the current effort in the William J. “Pete” Gamble III Chancery Courthouse and also said that “all signatures collected will count.”

Ducker is working to block any new proceedings, filing a motion that his clients be allowed to recoup their attorney fees and that a moratorium also be placed on refiling the petition.

In a prepared statement, Adcock said the petition would be refiled “in the near future. (The motion for dismissal) is taken to allow an opportunity to obtain a minimal amount of additional signatures and refile the Petition to Incorporate in the near future.”

May 7, 2018, had been set as the first date to investigate petition signatures for the incorporation by Bellevue officials. Ward set the weeks of May 7 and 14 for the jurisdictional procedure in the case. During these two weeks, the signatures on the petition for Bellevue incorporation would have been verified.


8. Solar Farms

The sun outdid itself providing an abundance of green energy as officials cut the ribbon on the Hattiesburg Solar Farm, the second such facility in the Pine Belt in September.

City, county and state officials as well as Silicon Ranch Corporation President and CEO Matt Kisber and Anthony L. Wilson, chairman, president and CEO of Mississippi Power, were on hand to officially open the 450-acre site located between Bonhomie Road and U.S. Hwy. 49 in south Hattiesburg. The site generates 50MW of power.

Silicon Ranch funded the $100 million project and will own and operate the facility for the long-term, an approach it takes with every project it develops.

The acreage consists of 198,548 fixed-tilt polycrystalline solar panels mounted to tables. The site produces 50 megawatts of energy, enough to break down electricity for 6,500 homes, 14,000 vehicles or 22,000 tons of waste. The green energy will reduce emissions equivalent to nearly eight million gallons of gasoline.

Mississippi Power has a contract with Silicon Ranch to purchase the electricity for the next 25 years.

On July 7, the power entity partnered with DEPCOM Power and D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments to open a slightly larger site in Sumrall. It produces 52 megawatts and has 215,000 solar panels that can create power for 8,000 homes.

With nearly 160 megawatts of approved solar power, Mississippi Power is the state’s largest partner in providing renewable energy.

 Construction of the facility took about 15 months from the time it was first discussed until it went online in September. Construction of the site by Strata Solar employed about 350 workers, many of them local, to construct the facility.


9. The Arts

• Levitt Amp Hattiesburg Music Concerts – Hattiesburg was one of 15 communities across the United States to host the Leveritt Music Amp Series during the summer. The series, funded with a $375,000 matching grant from the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation, was awarded to 15 nonprofits serving serving small to mid-sized towns and cities across America to produce free outdoor concerts. The top 25 finalists were chosen during a three-week period of voting by the public. Hattiesburg presented 10 free concerts featuring a diverse lineup of high caliber entertainment. The concerts were held each Friday night at Chain Park.

Jonathan Pluskota, assistant professor in the School of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi and producer of the Levitt AMP Hattiesburg Music Series, spearheaded the effort.

Pluskota partnered with the city of Hattiesburg and the Hattiesburg Arts Council to submit the Levitt AMP proposal that brought the concert series to the Hub City.

The Hub City is in the running to host another concert series in 2018. Hattiesburg made the Top 25 cut and now awaits the decision of the foundation naming this year’s grant recipients.

• Arts Center

The development of an arts center has been a dream of the Hattiesburg Arts Council for the past several years. During the last Hattiesburg City Council meeting of the year, the board received the donation of the former Hattiesburg American building at 825 N. Main St., a building that was offered to the city by Dr. David McKellar two years ago for the Hattiesburg Arts Council.

The 35,000-square-foot warehouse and office space would provide space for all arts disciplines. A conceptual plan was drawn by architect Sarah Newton to include “gallery space, studio space, collaborative office space, culinary arts, a performing arts auditorium and a recording studio capable of recording large ensembles, dance studios, classrooms (and) rehearsal space.”

In March 2016, HAC members presented their plans to the City Council, proposing a 10-year renovation plan over three stages. The building served as a site in April 2016 for an intercollegiate design charrette with architecture and design students from LSU, USM and University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

• Phantom of the Opera

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, the most iconic and longest-running show on Broadway, was presented by the Southern Opera and Musical Theatre Company this fall. Directed by Mike Lopinto, with music direction by Jay Dean and Michael Miles, the production, which sold out all performances, featured an all-Southern Miss cast and the venerable Symphony Orchestra in an elaborate spectacle that showcases both.

10. Hattiesburg High chases state title

The Hattiesburg Tigers punched their ticket to the 5A State Championship for the first time since 1998 after beating rival Laurel 33-22 in the South State Championship at D.I. Patrick Stadium.

But in the end weren’t triumphant as The Tigers (14-0) were defeated 41-15 by West Point (14-0) for the State Championship which was played at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on the campus of Ole Miss.

This was Hattiesburg’s fifth trip to the State Championship in the program’s history (1989, 1992, 1995 and 1998), and was head coach Tony Vance’s fifth trip as a high school coach (2004, 2005, 2011 and 2012) – all while at Charleston. He was an assistant for the first two trips, and a head coach for the latter two.

“We worked hard to get to this point,” Vance said. “At that moment, we did it. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t just our team, wasn’t just our school, it wasn’t just our district, it was the whole city. It felt like the whole city was behind us and supporting us. We did it as a city, it felt like. I just wanted to turn around and acknowledge them and thank them for the support.”