A second year of dealing with COVID-19, a hotly debated topic of a gaming facility attempting to locate in Madison Heights and a history-making state title win by the Lady Lancer varsity softball team were among the top headlines of 2021.
Vaccinations helped life return to normal as much as possible and schools resumed full-time learning five days a week in August. While the coronavirus continued to cause much disruption, particularly in the business community and schools, many festivals and events returned in 2021 after a year off.
On a few occasions crowds turned out in Amherst County to support Glenn Youngkin as the Republican hit the campaign trail ahead of his Nov. 2 victory in the gubernatorial election. On Election Day Amherst voters had another task other than the governor’s race: deciding whether a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium should build be allowed to build a new facility in the Seminole Plaza shopping center in Madison Heights. The referendum on the pari-mutuel wagering measure paving the way for the business failed as 54% of Amherst County voters decided against it, leading some to lament the move as lost tax revenue and business support the county will miss in coming years.
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The following is a look back at the past year’s top news compiled by the New Era-Progress.
- A large crowd overflowed the Amherst County Board of Supervisors’ Jan. 19 meeting. Many supported Amherst becoming a “First Amendment Sanctuary” and taking a formal stance against Gov. Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions and some formed a petition against it. Some residents described the mandates as tyrannical, an abuse of power, an overreach and an unconstitutional breach of First Amendment rights, while others said they were life-saving measures necessary during the pandemic. The public’s comments, which exceeded an hour and consisted of more than dozen speakers, centered on a draft resolution to call upon the General Assembly to reduce, place limits on or control the governor’s emergency powers. The board ultimately directed County Administrator Dean Rodgers to write the state legislature on supervisors’ behalf and ask that it create limits, as well as checks and balances, on Northam’s authority.
- Amherst County High School’s Lancer Tech Club, which has recorded and broadcasted sporting events for years, took on a crucial role as sports returned Jan. 7, marking the first athletic contests in the Amherst schools division since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. The club’s streaming helped residents observe the sporting events as gyms were temporarily empty until restrictions were eased.
- Amherst County surpassed the 2,000 mark in positive cases for COVID-19 in January and had 10 deaths related to the virus as of Jan. 19.
- A group of educators publicly criticized the Amherst County School Board’s direction to schools administration staff in postponing a lesson plan on equity and social justice. Board members said they wanted more time to examine the material before it was rolled out.
- Amherst County officials said they were informed the deadline for spending federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was extended to the end of 2021.The county received $5.5 million in two rounds and had expected the deadline initially to be Dec. 30, 2020, which officials felt was rushed.
- Amherst County Public Schools the first week of February held a COVID-19 vaccine clinic, in conjunction with the county’s public safety department, for division employees. Superintendent Rob Arnold said the clinic was an important step for the community to move toward a normal education experience again. “Today doesn’t mean tomorrow we take our masks off and we’re all back together. It means that we’ve started and it almost feels like today is the day we turn the corner,” Arnold said.
- The Amherst County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 16 appropriated $1.3 million in contribution to Firefly Fiber Broadband’s three projects providing gigabit speed to roughly 500 homes and businesses. Firefly, a subsidiary of Nelson County-based Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, reached areas of Boxwood Farm Road, Temperance, Piney River and Gladstone. Firefly also previously was awarded $500,000 from the county for a separate project to bring broadband access to just more than 250 homes. The money comes through the county’s federal CARES Act funding.
- A year after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Amherst County reported about 2,700 cases and 33 deaths related to the virus a few days shy of the March 7 anniversary of the first case in Virginia.
- Dozens of residents from both Amherst and Nelson counties, including elected officials from each, gathered for the first stakeholders meeting of a proposed agriculture complex shared by both counties. Elected officials from Amherst and Nelson Supervisors compiled a list of priorities for the would-be complex, include career and technical education, supporting local farmers, having space for events or for regional fairgrounds and self-sustaining facility. “There’s a lot of ideas on the table and it’s a whole lot of work involved to get this done and what we’re asking for today is for a commitment from whoever’s willing to be some of the boots on the ground to get this pushed through,” said Chris Bryant, a member of the Amherst County Agricultural Committee, at the March 10 meeting at Amherst Middle School. Officials are looking at a potential 301-acre farm in Amherst County near the Tye River Bridge as a potential location. A feasibility study is underway both counties’ governing boards approved later in the year.
- Amherst County learned it would receive $6.1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill President Joe Biden signed into law March 11. The measure allowed the county to boost pay raises for employees and invest into sewer expansion needs and broadband expansion, among other areas.
- After a two-month delay, Amherst County’s high school and two middle schools proceeded with a lesson plan on topics such as equity, social justice, stereotypes.
- Youngkin campaigned in Amherst, mingling with voters over plates of eggs, waffles and bacon at a packed house at The Briar Patch restaurant. He took aim at Democrats’ left-leaning policies and said he wants to use his experience as a business executive to “reinvigorate, rebuild, reestablish” the state. “We do not recognize this great commonwealth today. She is in the ditch … Democrats drove her into the ditch and they have been piling dirt on her every chance they get,” Youngkin said. He also campaigned in Madison Heights in early August and in Amherst the week prior to the election.
- The former church that currently houses Second Stage Amherst, a venue of the arts, small businesses and coffee lovers, was named to the Virginia Landmarks Register. The sanctuary was constructed in 1882 with multiple elements of various architectural styles, including Italianate, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival and Colonial Revival.
- The Amherst County School Board was told the division will receive $7.1 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan. Arnold said $3.6 million of the division’s CARES Act money must be spent by the end of 2023 and two-thirds is included in current fiscal year 2022 budget. The $7.1 million must be spent by 2024 and has specific requirements, Arnold said
- Vaccine clinics were held for county residents in the high school gym. “The community seems to be very supportive of what we’re doing,” said William Wells, assistant superintendent. “We’re just glad to be able to do it.” Amherst County as of April 29 recorded 2,897 cases of COVID-19, 120 hospitalizations and 35 deaths related to the coronavirus, according to VDH.
- Amherst leaders and Waukeshaw Development, Inc. marked the opening of “The Westie,” a 41,000-square-foot apartment building on Phelps Road in Madison Heights. The 41-unit complex formerly was a school. Those touring the restored building marveled at the sights of the new apartments with large windows, new countertops, washers and driers in each unit.
- The high school held a vaccination clinic for students, following Northam’s announcement earlier in the month that Virginians ages 16 and older would be eligible to get the vaccine. The clinic was optional and not required.
- Sweet Briar College celebrated the first traditional commencement ceremony held by a Lynchburg-area college or university in two years. Though a bit different from normal with three guests per graduate and mask requirements, the event marked the area’s first college commencement of 2021 and the first in-person ceremony since before the pandemic. With many holding onto their caps during sporadic wind gusts, more than 60 graduates collected various degrees.
- Nearly three years after his retirement as superintendent of Amherst County Public Schools, Steven Nichols was remembered as a passionate educator. Nichols, who steered the division from July 2013 to June 2018, died at age 69. The Amherst post was the final in his career that spanned 47 years.
- The matriarch of the Woodruff’s Store: Café and Pie Shop and a staple in the Amherst County community, Mary Fannie Woodruff, died at age 104. She was known for her welcoming presence and interactions with customers in the pie shop near the village of Elon. “She loved life,” said her daughter, Angela Scott. “Her joy was being [in] the shop every day and greeting the customers.”
- Amherst Circuit Court held a jury trial for the first time since the pandemic with mitigation measures in place. Jurors sat in the gallery where they could be spaced further apart and access in and out of the courtroom was more tightly controlled by deputies. Jurors deliberated in the courtroom, a departure from the smaller room they usually are in to accommodate social distancing, and a screen was set up outside the courtroom to allow public viewing of the proceedings.
- Amherst County High School’s 65th commencement was held at Liberty University’s Williams Stadium to allow more space for social distancing. Principal Derrick Brown encouraged graduates “when the walls come crashing down — just like this year — and it seems like all hope is lost, look for the good. Pick up the pieces. Rebuild from the rubble.”
- More than 70 residents piled into a June 2 joint committee between the board of supervisors and school boards to weigh in on an equity lesson taught in secondary schools, and more than 25 spoke. Arnold said the lesson, which is not graded, is a result of an Office of Civil Rights agreement the school division entered in 2015 after the high school was found to have discriminated against students based on race by disciplining African American students more harshly than white students. “The goal of this lesson was to give students the tools to do a better job hearing their neighbors, working through differences in a civilized manner to find solutions to very real and complex problems,” Arnold said. The lesson was formed to aid teachers in discussing the civil unrest during the summer of 2020. Arnold said the lesson was formed with resources and guidance provided by the Virginia Department of Education and the state superintendent. A few speakers expressed concerns the material is associated with critical race theory, a term for an academic framework examining how policies and the law perpetuate systemic racism, which has drawn backlash among conservatives across Virginia.
- The owner of the Camp Trapezium brewery and Amherst town and business leaders on celebrated its opening. Waukeshaw Development, Inc., the Petersburg company that purchased the historic Amherst Milling Company structure in 2017, spent several years repurposing the historic landmark into a facility that sells craft beer and brick-oven pizza. Dave McCormack, president of Waukeshaw, said the restoration has been one of the “craziest,” most emotional and beautiful renovations the company has ever done.
- More than 5,500 vaccine doses were administered during Amherst County’s clinics held from February to the first week in June, according to county officials. As of June 18, the county had 2,979 cases and 40 deaths from the virus, according to VDH. Just more than 24,000 vaccine doses have been administered throughout the entire county and 11,735 people were fully vaccinated as of June 18, data on VDH’s website showed.
- The high school’s varsity softball team won the Virginia Class 4 State Championship on June 26 against Hanover County, the team’s first ever state crown.
- The county passed the 3,000-mark for positive COVID-19 cases and as of July 16 had 3,007 cases, 129 hospitalizations and 40 virus-related deaths, according to VDH.
- A marker celebrating 65 years’ worth of history of Central High School was dedicated at Amherst Middle School. When Central High opened in 1956, it was only for African Americans to attend. It was created as an alternative to Amherst County High School, at the time an all-white school, which gave African Americans “separate but equal” facilities, despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated public schools were “inherently unequal.” Central was the first school in the county to offer African Americans schooling all the way up to 12th grade. The school remained open until the county officially desegregated schools under a federal court order in 1970, which turned Central into what is now Amherst Middle. Students of Central’s first class reminisced with each other, shared lunch in the cafeteria and even sang their alma mater one more time.
- A new residential development consisting of 36 patio homes and 14 townhome units on South Coolwell Road received unanimous approval from the board of supervisors. An 11-acre parcel was rezoned to allow the project aimed at providing desired housing for seniors, which several speakers told officials is much needed in the county.
- Shortly after Northam’s announcement that all K-12 schools in Virginia must mask up for this school year with coronavirus case counts surging, Madison Heights resident Josh Vickers was in tears speaking before the Amherst school board. Vickers lamented the mandate of face coverings in schools, a measure he said is detrimental for his son dealing with breathing issues. He thanked the board for “holding out” and previously deciding masks would be optional in the school year that kicked off Aug. 18 and leaving it up to families to choose. “It hurts to go back and have this conversation,” Vickers said of the mask mandate’s effect on children. “And it is not fair to them that they are being pawns and put in the middle for a choice we can’t make as parents, you can’t make as a school board, and they obviously do not make as children. It’s not fair.” Madison Heights resident Gloria Witt described the uproar over masks as madness. “This idea of holding out and not wearing masks, thank God Governor Northam did what we couldn’t do, which is mandate masks,” Witt told the board. “We are literally killing ourselves because we politicize something that is a health issue.”
- The board of supervisors committed just more than $3 million toward a regional broadband expansion effort. The board approved a resolution that states the money will be used as local matching as Firefly Fiber Broadband and other partnering parties seek a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development through its Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI), which later in the year came through.
- Amherst County Public Schools returned to full, five-day in person school week after a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning in 2020-21 school year.
- Sweet Briar College recently welcomed 205 new students from 41 states, the college’s largest incoming class since 2013.
- Due to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases, Amherst County Public Schools temporarily closed to students and staff the division’s positive cases in the first few weeks of school already eclipsed the previous school year’s total. “Clearly we have a major health issue in our community,” Arnold said at a Sept. 2 news conference. Arnold said during the conference 198 active positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported since the school year began Aug. 18. During the entire 2020-21 school year, the division saw just around 100 positive cases of the virus, he said. Later in the month Arnold addressed the schools’ difficulties at a school board meeting and asked for more support for educators. “Our people are doing everything they can do to make this year work and we’ve been put in a tough spot,” he said.
- The Amherst County Service Authority’s former executive director, Dan French, who served 35 years steering the authority’s daily operations, died at age 70. French, who began with the authority in 1980 and retired in June 2017, had a career spanning more than four decades in the water and wastewater industry and was passionate about protecting the environment, said Chris French, his son.
- Alan Bumgarner, a youth sports coordinator for Amherst County’s recreation and parks department and former Amherst County School Board member, died at age 63. The school board later in the year passed a resolution honoring his life.
- A majority of the board of supervisors passed a resolution expressing formal support of Colonial Downs Group building a new Rosie’s Gaming Emporium facility in Madison Heights. The resolution is a symbolic gesture for county officials backing a potential business that has sparked much debate in the county. Opponents raised concerns of legalized gambling bringing detrimental effects to the Amherst community and supporters point to an economic boost many say is much needed. Supervisors Jimmy Ayers, Tom Martin and Claudia Tucker were in support; chair Jennifer Moore was absent and Vice Chair David Pugh abstained.
- The county surpassed the 4,000-case mark for positive cases of the coronavirus and had 48 deaths as of Sept. 25.
- Amherst County’s new cigarette tax and the Town of Amherst’s cigarette tax each took effect Oct. 1. The county’s rate is 27 cents per pack; the town’s is 22 cents. The county implemented the measure following recent state legislation that opened it up for counties to take advantage of. Town officials said while they didn’t push for the tax they felt the town should get the revenue if one is imposed.
- The Monacan Indian Nation purchased more than 1,000 acres on Laurel Cliff Road in Monroe for $5.5 million, a move that ties into the Amherst County-based tribe’s plans for development opportunities. Chief Kenneth Branham said the tribe is planning a rehab center, housing and a retirement home community in the future. The tribe also celebrated groundbreaking of a new health clinic at its headquarters on Highview Drive in Madison Heights.
- The Apple Harvest Festival celebrated its 50-year anniversary and the Amherst County Fair and Sorghum Festival each also were held. All three events returned after a year off because of the pandemic.
- Carson Grey Candler, 20, pleaded guilty to murder, aggravated malicious wounding and using a firearm in a felony during a November 2019 shooting that killed Justin Samuels, 43, who served as a father figure and mentor to him, and seriously wounded Blakeman “Bru” Norconk. In exchange for his guilty pleas, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Amber Drumheller reduced a first-degree murder charge to second-degree murder and dropped a second firearms charge. That lifts three years of mandatory minimum time off Candler’s sentence and reduces the murder sentencing range to anywhere between five and 40 years, taking off any prospect of a life sentence. Candler is set for sentencing Feb. 17.
- The board of supervisors voted to use $2.3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to go to a bonus for all Amherst County employees, a new fire truck for the Pedlar Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad, investments in a Madison Heights dog park, upgrades to Mill Creek Lake Park and support for youth sports organizations. The board also previously directed ARPA money to the following items: $1 million toward water and sewer infrastructure, nearly $2.6 million for broadband internet expansion, $120,000 in bonus pay for public safety and law enforcement workers and $75,000 combined for personal protective equipment, unemployment and other COVID-related expenses. Amherst Town Council agreed to use about $2 million of its ARPA money for water and sewer infrastructure needs.
- Amherst County voters shot down a referendum that would have allowed a Rosie’s Gaming Emporium to set up in Madison Heights with 54% against the referendum and 46% in favor. The company said it would have invested millions of dollars into the property it intended to purchase with some calling the referendum’s failure a lost opportunity for the county.
- Also in the Nov. 2. election, Supervisor Claudia Tucker was reelected to a fourth term and Drew Wade was elected to the District 5 seat on the board of supervisors. Eric Orasi and Dawn Justice also were elected to seats on the county’s school board and Abby Thompson, the school board vice chair, was reelected.
- Amherst Town Council appointed Andrá Higginbotham, who previously served on council from January 2015 to December 2018, following the resignation of former member Kennenth Bunch.
- Amherst County Public Schools officials presented a request to the board of supervisors for a high school addition and renovation project. The first phase includes a new 1,400-seat auditorium adjacent to the school’s two gyms and a renovation to the cafeteria, which totals $13.8 million. Other work in later phases includes renovating career and technical education space, improvements to Lancer Stadium and a new fieldhouse for the baseball and softball programs. The division is committing is $8 million and is requesting funding help from the county.
- A reverse Christmas parade was held in the town of Amherst for the second consecutive year, allowing motorists to drive through and see floats and participants spread out over a longer route. Town officials said a return to a traditional parade is hopeful this year.
- A first-degree murder charge was dropped against Justin Jay Sales, 20, who was accused in a June 2019 shooting that killed 92-year-old Doris Puleio and severely wounded Trudy Ann Goetz, her daughter. Peleio was founded dead at a house at Bobwhite Road in Amherst and Sales arrested a few weeks later on July 10, 2019. Commonwealth’s Attorney Lyle Carver said the prosecution encountered several issues with moving the case forward, including a lead investigator being unavailable because of COVID-19 and a chain of custody issue that could not be addressed in time for trial. Sales, who faced an aggravated malicious wounding charge, was released from custody after more than two years. Carver said the homicide investigation remains active.
- U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th, resumed in-person town halls for the first time since the pandemic. At a Monroe town hall, he said he is opposed to a federal vaccine mandate and addressed the omicron variant that is surging across the nation. “We’re working to make sure we beat this thing and we ensure anyone who wants a vaccine can get one,” Cline said. “I firmly believe the Constitution does not include the ability for the federal government to mandate that you be vaccinated for it.
- Amherst County announced it will get $6 million in grant money for broadband expansion. Preliminary planning for the regional project identified 4,322 locations in the county as unserved and plans to reach these locations include 548 miles of new fiber optic cable.
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