Momentum around much of the nation is to restore the glory of Main Street, an effort which is barreling ahead with full steam here in McMinnville.
A restored and thriving Park Theater is the latest step toward downtown vitality. The completion of that long-awaited project was named the Southern Standard’s top story of the year for 2015.
Community leaders have taken many steps toward attracting people downtown in hopes the vibrancy of Main Street will radiate throughout the county. With shops, restaurants, banks, and our library already bringing people downtown, the Park Theater gives our town a first-rate entertainment venue.
Just over six months since its reopening, Park Theater has been filled with activity and provided gravitation pull for the entire downtown area. It’s been a well-received success.
Other top stories, as determined by Standard employees, involve violence. The No. 2 story is one which shook the community when popular market owners Gary and Gail Dodson were found murdered in their home. The No. 3 story involved a stabbing in the VFW parking lot which was the result of a love triangle.
Our list of the biggest stories of the year is as follows:
1-Park Theater reopens
A grand reopening nearly 30 years in the making took place with pomp and circumstance May 16 when the Park Theater opened its doors to the community.
The city of McMinnville spent an initial $2 million on the renovation project that took over a year to complete.
“This project was a long time coming, but good things are worth waiting for,” said Mayor Jimmy Haley, who cut the ribbon on the memorable day. “For folks who remember the Park, a lot of memories will be rekindled. For the younger generation, new memories will be created. The relit marquee signals how I feel, that this is a beacon for good things to come.”
To breathe new life into Park Theater, the city renovated it for use as a multipurpose facility. It has a stage for plays and live performances and a retractable screen where movies can be shown. It can also be reserved for functions such as reunions and weddings.
Two plays and “The Nutcracker” ballet have been performed there. Other entertainment has included live music, a comedian, and a touching Veterans Day ceremony. There was a wide range of holiday events held this month.
Park Theater first opened its doors on Oct. 18, 1939. Cowan Oldham spent $50,000 constructing what was considered to be the most modern building and movie theater of its time. It closed in 1986. McMinnville officials have spent more than one year and in excess of $2 million renovating, modernizing and attempting to preserve and replace specific architectural features of the building, such as the medallions that were partially destroyed. The marquee was also restored.
At this time, officials are considering renovation of the Park Theater balcony, which was left untouched during the first phase of renovation. Balcony renovation, from hiring an engineering firm to project completion, is estimated to take six to 12 months.
2-Market owners murdered
Local business owners Gary and Gail Dodson were found dead inside their home this past June, their son-in-law charged with their murders.
Their bodies were discovered on the morning of June 29 after someone went to check their home when they did not show up to open their store in Mt. Leo, Gail and Gail’s Pit Stop. Their son-in-law, Bryan Cooke, who has a history of drug problems, was soon the prime suspect. He had disappeared in the wake of their murders and their vehicle was missing.
An all-points bulletin was issued for Cooke, who was found a short time later in a Jacksonville, Fla., hotel room. A hotel employee told lawmen Cooke had acted suspiciously when he checked in and gave his real name. The hotel employee, who was also a police dispatcher, did a quick check and discovered Cooke’s status.
When law enforcement officials arrived, they reportedly found Cooke lying naked and incoherent on the bed, surrounded by cash. Officers recognized him from the national alert and took him into custody.
Cooke fought extradition back to Warren County for over a month but eventually gave up his battle and returned here in August. He was sent for a mental evaluation and is awaiting the results of that test to determine if he is competent to stand trial.
The reason for the grisly murders of his in-laws has not been revealed, although Cooke had put out a rambling Facebook post just prior to the slayings, airing his disgust for people judging him due to his history of drug abuse.
3-Mike Hale stabbed at VFW
Local businessman Mike Hale was attacked and stabbed in the VFW parking lot in August, his assailants alleged to be a fellow businessman, along with the victim’s estranged wife.
Hale, owner of H&H Hale’s Plumbing, suffered stab wounds to the chest and midsection during the Aug. 9 afternoon assault. He remained under treatment for several days, undergoing surgery to repair the damage.
His alleged assailants were arrested a few days later and charged with his attempted murder. They included fellow businessman Jack Redmon and Hale’s estranged wife, Brooke Hale.
Prosecutors believe the victim and Redmon had been in a feud over Hale’s estranged wife. Lawmen said both sides made threats against the other and the bad blood came to a head that day in the parking lot of the VFW.
Hale testified he was in front of the building when Redmon and his estranged wife pulled up on a motorcycle. They allegedly charged at him with Redmon stabbing him twice. Prosecutors say Brooke Hale was swinging a motorcycle helmet at the victim and she helped Redmon chase Mr. Hale after the attack. Hale took refuge inside the VFW.
The victim’s take on the attack has mellowed since the incident, with Mr. Hale testifying on behalf of his wife in a recent bond hearing. He now says she was not part of the attack and it was all Redmon behind the ambush. He admits he wants to get back with his wife and has asked the court to lift a restraining order so they can be together.
Mrs. Hale is free on bond, while Redmon remains held in lieu of $300,000 bond. Their trial is set for this June.
4-Bomb scares at WCHS
Students at Warren County High School were evacuated twice in April when bomb scares forced them from class – with one of those scares perpetrated by an employee of the school.
Longtime custodian Marlene Madewell was charged with orchestrating the second of what was two bomb threats that cleared the high school on consecutive days in early April.
The first scare happened when a student noticed a bomb threated etched inside a boys bathroom at the school. With an abundance of caution, administrators took the threat seriously and cleared the building and then decided to have students bused off campus to the Civic Center.
Crowds of parents arrived at the Civic Center to pick up their children, leading to a long line that stretched down to the tennis courts. The school was declared clear a couple of hours later after bomb dogs were used to search the facility. Administrators later revealed the writing on the wall could have been there for a long time, but they wanted to exercise caution.
The writing was fresh the next day when students were again cleared due to a bomb threat on a bathroom wall. However, on this occasion, administrators and lawmen became suspicious and began to interview a school custodian. Madewell eventually admitted to writing the bomb threat on the wall, saying she did it because she was mad at the principal. Madewell’s trial for the crime is pending.
A copycat bomb threat happened at Warren County Middle School the same day. A threat was found on a sign at the school track. A student later confessed to writing on the sign.
5-Driver Testing Center to close
It appears Warren County is on the road to losing its Driver Testing Center. The state is ignoring state and local officials who are trying to keep it.
“They are going to close it, it seems like,” said County Executive Herschel Wells during the latest update on the situation.
Wells says he sat down with assistant commissioner Lori Bullard about the issue. While Wells wanted to discuss how to keep the Driver Testing Center in Warren County, he said all Bullard offered was a self-service driver license kiosk to be placed in the office of Warren County Clerk Lesa Scott to be used by residents after the center closes in the first quarter of 2016.
In October, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security announced the closing of the McMinnville center. While the department cited the center’s low volume and a need to institute cost-saving measures by combining some of the lower volume centers as reasons for its closing, state Rep. Kevin Dunlap objected to the closure arguing the center was not low volume, having 14,644 customers in 2014. Dunlap also emphasized the state has millions of dollars in surplus revenue.
Dunlap said the state is removing services from rural areas and treating those residents like second-class citizens.
“You could make the argument we are treated as second-class citizens,” Dunlap said. “Of the seven counties contiguous to Warren County, none have a Driver License Center except for Coffee County in Tullahoma.”
To voice their stance against the closure, both Warren County commissioners and city of McMinnville officials passed similar resolutions opposing the closure and encouraging the state to reconsider its decision. Those were sent to the state.
The measures were fruitless. Commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security Bill Gibbons held a conference in November at the Warren County Administrative Building and said the state is still committed to shutting down Warren County’s Driver Testing Center, the ninth center to be closed.
Gibbons did offer a cost-effective partnership to either the city or county: provide a space to the state free of charge and the center can stay. At this time, the offer has not been accepted.
The kiosk can be used to renew or update driver license information only.
6-Haircut goes worldwide
The No. 1 hit on Google for the words “high and tight” in March popped up a picture of a Bobby Ray Elementary second-grader who was at the center of a controversy concerning how he wore his hair to school.
With calls coming from around the country -- and as far away as England -- the high and tight saga captured more than its 15 minutes of fame. At Bobby Ray Elementary, that attention was not appreciated as the school fielded hundreds of calls critical of the handling of the haircut worn by second-grader Adam Stinnett.
The volume of calls led to beefed up security at Bobby Ray, with both county and city officers on campus. Security was also intensified at the next School Board meeting where six officers were present. Normally, one school resource officer is present for School Board meetings.
The question of the “haircut heard around the world” was never raised during the School Board meeting. Director of Schools Bobby Cox, in a press release about the situation, pointed out there is no county policy concerning how students wear their hair to school. That decision is made by the administration at each individual school.
The Standard fielded calls from several media outlets, including the Daily Mail in London.
“The attention this story has received baffles me,” said Standard editor James Clark. “When we broke this story last Sunday, I didn’t even put it on the front page. It ended up on 3A as what I’d consider a mildly interesting school discipline issue. I think the real story now is how much attention one haircut has received.”
Adding fuel to the fire was the fact Bobby Ray is named in honor of Vietnam War hero Bobby Ray. Adam Stinnett was reportedly getting the high and tight haircut in support of his older brother, who is in the military.
7-EMS audit reveals fraud by employees
A state audit released June 9 found timeclock abuse by EMS employees. The state investigation found approximately $23,834 in wages were paid to 14 employees for time worked at another entity or for time that was undocumented.
Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson listed in his report a total of $3,514 in wages from Warren County EMS for hours in which employees were clocked in and working for a separate entity not associated with Warren County government. Investigators compared time sheets for both EMS and the separate entity and noted 256 hours which overlapped.
The remaining $20,319 in wages went to 12 employees for hours that had no documentation to support the employees were at work. Investigators made several recommendations to improve accuracy and oversight of time worked and pointed to a lack of supervision as a problem within the department.
Warren County leaders installed biometric timeclocks that require EMS employees to clock in and out using their thumbprint. EMS was the only department to be taken off the honor system.
County officials have refused to release the names of the 14 employees.
“They won’t say and they won’t let me say, because the report doesn’t list names,” said Brian Jennings, who was the director of EMS at that time. Jennings resigned this month, effective Jan. 3. “The only information I can give you is the information contained in the report because it’s already been released publicly. The only thing they did was list positions. They said names remain confidential unless the county wants to release them.”
The comptroller’s report was handed over to District Attorney Lisa Zavogiannis’ office for its consideration on prosecution. Zavogiannis handed the case over to a special prosecutor.
“I’m going to ask that a DA pro tem look at this because we work too closely with the ambulance service,” said Zavogiannis. “They are often the first ones on a crime scene so it’s a case where I don’t really feel comfortable.”
County Executive Herschel Wells said he was advised by legal counsel to wait until charges are filed before making any decision on termination.
At this time, no charges have been filed, no names have been released and there have been no terminations stemming from the timeclock fraud.
8-County commissioner plays wrong card
A county commissioner fresh from a Warren County Commission meeting was among 22 people busted when lawmen raided an illegal gambling house on the edge of town in August.
The commissioner, Wayne Copeland, claimed his innocence of the charges until a video tape surfaced showing him buying into the illegal poker tournament.
Authorities raided the gambling house, located on Academy Lane in the northern part of McMinnville, after receiving complaints of drug use and illegal gambling there. They sent in an undercover operative who observed the gambling and drugs. The operative signaled for the raid and lawmen moved in from all sides, taking everyone into custody. Among them was Copeland who had arrived after just attending a County Commission meeting.
All 22 people were cited on gambling charges. The alleged owner of the gambling house, Margel Ward, was charged with promoting gambling.
While fighting the charges at first, Copeland’s defense was blindsided by a surveillance tape prosecutors revealed at preliminary hearing. The tape seemed to show Copeland paying a registration fee to enter an illegal poker tournament. The undercover operative testified Copeland was in fact registering for the tournament. Copeland was eventually indicted by the grand jury on the charge of gambling.
While gambling is a minor misdemeanor, a clause in the law allows for removal of an elected official who is convicted of such a charge. The clause leaves Copeland in a precarious position should he take a plea or be convicted. The case is set for the coming year and he remains on the County Commission.
9-Bad day at work captured on video
It was message you wouldn’t find inside a fortune cookie: “Your temper tantrum inside a Chinese restaurant is about to go viral.”
That’s what has happened to a China Wok employee in May after he was captured on cellphone video yelling loudly, slinging food, and then telling customers, “Get out! We closed.” The video was posted online and received more than 150,000 views in about three days. It even drew interest from Nashville TV stations who came to McMinnville to report the story.
While containing many elements of humor, the video was not embraced by the family that owns China Wok.
“This is affecting my business, it’s affecting my reputation, it’s affecting my normal life,” said Jin Zheng, whose family has owned and operated China Wok for 20 years. “This was a family argument that happened inside our family restaurant. No one had any business recording it and posting it like that. And then there are people who make comments about it to make fun of us and make us look bad. People are heartless. We were just arguing. Would you rather me punch a table or punch a customer?”
While Zheng said the video was affecting his number of customers, business was brisk during his interview with the Standard. A number of those customers picking up food said they were going to continue to eat at China Wok with some saying they thought the video was in poor taste.
China Wok remains a community fixture and continues to operate at Northgate Center.
10-City loosens beer restrictions
McMinnville officials removed the 300-foot distance restriction in the downtown historic district between churches, schools and establishments that sell beer. Considered a compromise, the measure ended a heated debate that saw City Hall flooded with protestors.
The measure passed 6-1 on second and final read in June. Voting in favor of removing the space limit were Mayor Jimmy Haley, Vice Mayor Ben Newman and Aldermen Mike Neal, Ryle Chastain, Steve Harvey and Everett Brock. Voting against it was Alderman Jimmy Bonner.
Relaxing the city’s beer restrictions caused an uproar from the community. Stemming the resistance was a last-minute compromise by city officials to remove the distance restriction from only the downtown historic district and leave the rest of the city under the 300-foot distance requirement.
The compromise drove to the heart of issue, that being the proximity between the old New York Grill building and Oasis. When the restaurant was in existence, it held a beer permit. Once the business closed, future owners might be prevented from obtaining one because Oasis was within 300 feet.
The new ordinance reads, “No sale or distribution of beer shall be at places within 300 feet of any school, public or private, kindergarten or churches. The Downtown Central Commercial District (C1) described in the zoning map outlines in red, attached hereto and incorporated by reference, is excluded from the 300-feet restriction on beer permits and exempt from said resolution.”