As Dawson County welcomes the new year with open arms, it’s time to reflect on what 2019 brought to this little north Georgia community.
Both filled with triumphs and tribulations, heartwarming and heart-wrenching headlines were at the forefront in 2019.
Dawson County mourned the loss of longtime educator and coach, Bill “Z Man” Zadernak, and Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 970 Wayne Watkins in 2019, bringing the community together to reflect and honor the contributions of those that were lost.
Nonprofits pulled at the heartstrings to help dry the tears.
In March, Abba House opened the doors of a new event venue and restaurant that will help support the organization’s mission to make broken women whole again. Abba House is a minimum 15-month, faith-based residential treatment facility for women and their children. Its focus is to help women who suffer from life-controlling issues such as addiction, depression, abuse, sexual addiction, eating disorders and more. The new venture, The Carriage Venue, includes teaching the women in the program life skills through running an event facility and restaurant.
In September, local baseball mom Kimberly Maloney spearheaded the creation of BRAVE Beyond the Call to help veterans in north Georgia. The nonprofit was sparked from a baseball tournament hosted in March that raised more than $11,000 for the For the Warriors Foundation. Now, BRAVE Beyond the Call hosts events that integrate veterans into the community and offers the Tethered Heroes program that pairs a veteran with a child, connecting them in a safe environment so that “both now have a hero they can depend on.”
Dawsonville Civitan celebrated its fifth anniversary in October. The Dawsonville Civitan Club is a chapter of Civitan International, a worldwide community service organization with a mission to serve individual and community needs with an emphasis on helping people with developmental disabilities. To celebrate its first five years in Dawsonville, members celebrated with the donation of the county’s first wheelchair accessible picnic table. It’s located in the inclusive playground at Veterans Memorial Park.
The past 12 months were also a time marked by political aspirations with Dawsonville Mayor Mike Eason winning his reelection and ESPLOST passing with over 70% of the vote, as well as economic growth with new businesses and restaurants opening their doors to an enthusiastic community.
As the community looks to 2020, here are some of the top moments that made 2019 a transformative year in Dawson County.
Etowah Village comes before BOC
For the better part of 2019, Dawson County was torn in their opinions about the proposed mixed-use development known as Etowah Village.
The development was announced in February when Dawson Village Partners submitted a rezoning application to the county. It proposed around 2,700 housing units as well as retail, office and apartment space. Lamar Wakefield, whose firm is most well-known for designing the Avalon in Alpharetta and The Battery Atlanta at SunTrust Park, was on board for the controversial development.
It went before the Planning Commission on April 16 where the planning commission voted 3-2 to recommend denial of the rezoning to the Board of Commissioners.
When it came time for the board of commissioners to vote on the rezoning in May, the decision was to table the vote until June after the commissioners did their due diligence to look over all materials and information.
The vote continued to be postponed as changes were made to the proposed Etowah Village in June until the project lost a key investor and the zoning request was withdrawn in July. It was back on the docket by the end of August then withdrawn for the second time in September.
In October during his state of the county address at the Dawson County Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Chairman Billy Thurmond said it’s most likely not the last the county has seen of the Etowah Village project.
“It’ll come back up at some point in time. I don’t know when, but it will come back up. That is something we will have to deal with when that time comes,” Thurmond said. “The board will look at that whenever it comes back up, see what is the best option for the citizens or listen to the citizens to see what they have to say, but there’s a lot of things that could happen there today.”
College and Career Academy opens at Dawson County High School
A year after ground officially broke on the Dawson County College and Career Academy, school representatives came together for an official ribbon cutting on Sept. 10, 2019.
The $7 million facility is part of Dawson County High School, housing the school’s career, technology and education programs. It was funded through ESPLOST, a one percent sales tax that is used to fund capital projects in the school system.
The 35,000 square foot facility houses labs and classroom space dedicated to business, marketing, engineering, health science, criminal justice, science, early childhood education and culinary arts. Space for a construction lab and an audio and visual studio were also built into the facility for future growth.
“We’re excited,” said Amy Smith, CTAE Director. “We’re very blessed. We’re feeling very blessed every day that we come in this building.”
The CCA continued to grow and change throughout the year, with new equipment being purchased and installed in the labs as grant money continued coming in that will help Dawson County High School fulfills its goal of graduating students that are prepared to return to their community to find careers.
Jeremy Gibson arrested for murder
On the evening of July 29, the community was shocked by the news delivered by Dawson County authorities in a late night press conference.
Amy Alexandria Gibson, of Dawsonville, called 911 and pulled into Fire Station No. 7 on Dawson Forest Road. Soon after she pulled into the station’s parking lot, a male suspect in a second vehicle identified as Jeremy Wade Gibson exited his vehicle and fired several shots into the victim’s car, striking and killing her.
According to reports, Gibson's two children, ages 8 and 5, were also present in the victim's car, but were uninjured.
On Aug. 1, Jeremy Gibson was officially charged with two counts of murder, one count cruelty to children in the first degree, one count aggravated assault/family violence, and one count possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of a crime.
The first count of murder is under O.C.G.A. 16-5-1(a), which is defined as "a person commits the offense of murder when he unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causes the death of another human being." The second count of murder is under O.C.G.A. 16-5-1(c), which is defined as "a person also commits the offense of murder when, in the commission of a felony, he causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice."
Gibson is currently awaiting trial.
Progress continues on Main Street Park, Farmers Market
In spring 2019, construction on the Main Street Park and Farmers Market in downtown Dawsonville got underway once again after significant delays due to rain in the winter.
Throughout 2019, the city saw dirt move as the park’s walking trails and parking areas were paved and sodding and landscaping began. By August, the park had its inclusive playground nearly completed, however it remains unopened until the park is completed.
The inclusive playground, designed by Great Southern Recreation, was installed this summer on the Allen Street side of the park. It includes a zip line, slides of all sizes, climbing elements, a music station, swings and wheelchair accessible equipment.
It features five different types of swings. Beyond the standard swings and baby swings, the park has a double-seated swing for a parent and child to swing together as well as swings that allow for children or adults be strapped in.
Dawsonville Mayor Mike Eason anticipates the park will be opening in spring 2020.
Throughout the summer and fall, the pavilion at the new Farmers Market on Allen Street was erected. The new facility allows for vendors to pull up their vehicles and set up shop under the pavilion. It is expected to be open in time for the 2020 Amicalola Regional Farmers Market that begins at the end of May.
Pickleball craze comes to Dawson County
Pickleball proved it’s here to stay in 2019. The popular sport became the latest activity offered at Rock Creek Park in late February.
Since pickleball’s inception in 1965, the sport has slowly gained in popularity, with more than two million people in the United States currently playing the game. It’s played on a badminton size court with a paddle twice the size of a ping pong paddle and a ball very similar to a whiffle ball. Like tennis, pickleball can be played as singles or doubles.
It seemed to be a big hit in Dawson County. The Parks and Recreation staff was even able to get the No. 1 senior pickleball player in the world, Scott Moore, to teach clinics at the park in April.
Not long after, the sport garnered enough traction for a Dawson County team to come together and compete in the district tournament.
Dawson County sent its first-ever pickleball team to the District 7 Regional Pickleball tournament in August and picked up two titles.
The 11-member team captured two District Championships and two second-place finishes across four events.
City and county implement vaping ordinances
If school safety was the biggest topic of discussion in 2018, then vaping was the biggest discussion of 2019.
After a Dawson County Junior High School student was transported to the hospital due to vaping an unknown substance in March, Dawson County Schools Superintendent Damon Gibbs issued a letter to the community regarding the dangers of electronic cigarette usage among students.
The letter was the start of a discussion and actions taken by the city council and the county commissioners as to what should be done about vaping.
On May 6, the city of Dawsonville adopted a new ordinance aimed at reducing the usage of vapes and tobacco products inside city limits.
“We want to try to do something to help control the problem before it gets totally out of hand,” Eason said. “The purpose of this was to protect the kids.”
The ordinance restricts usage of both tobacco products and alternative smoking and vaping products within the city, prohibiting them in all city government buildings and on all city government properties. It also prohibits usage in or within 100 yards of any church and in or within 200 yards of any school building or college campus.
The county followed suit, passing its own vaping ordinance in October that went into effect Jan. 1, 2020.
After much discussion with vape shop owners, the county unanimously approved an ordinance that raises the legal age to purchase, possess or use vape products to 19 and places similar restrictions as the city’s ordinance as to where vape products can be used. Vaping is prohibited within 300 feet of any church building and within 600 feet of any school or educational building.
Three candidates announce run for sheriff in 2020 election
In 2019, Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson announced his intentions to run for reelection in the May 2020 election. Two challengers also publicly announced their candidacy to run against Johnson.
In July, retired parole chief and 27-year law enforcement veteran Jeff Perry announced his bid for sheriff on social media. He is currently teaches the Criminal Justice program at Dawson County High School.
Soon after Perry’s announcement, Dawson County resident Marcus Sewell announced his campaign. Sewell is currently the Commander of Criminal Investigations at the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office.
All three candidates are running as Republicans.
The biggest issues the candidates have on their platforms include leadership, the budget and officer retention.
Old Kroger shopping center sees new tenants
Throughout 2019, the county has seen tremendous growth with new restaurants such as Olive Garden, Ray’s Signature Grill and Chipotle opening along Ga. 400 – but the question that was one everybody’s minds was “what’s going in the old Kroger?”
In 2019, county residents received their answer.
In February, Planet Fitness announced its plans to move inside the empty storefront. The gym is located on the left side of the anchor space, where the Kroger pharmacy was previously located.
Kroger relocated to a new 125,000 square foot building in November 2016 as the anchor for the Dawson Marketplace shopping center. Its old location has sat vacant until Planet Fitness opened its doors.
Not long after Planet Fitness opened, the Stalnaker family announced in September that they would be opening a Launch trampoline park in the main portion of the vacant building.
“With all that’s coming here and all the businesses that are coming to Dawson County, the expansion that’s been happening – we totally want to be a part of that and be able to say ‘we were there when there was nothing,’” Corey Stalnaker said of opening Launch.
The trampoline park is set to open in spring 2020.
In December, Derrick Dawson was excited to unveil the plans for his new restaurant, Jerk City USA, which is located inside the old Taco Bell in the old Kroger shopping center. The new Caribbean restaurant is scheduled to open Feb. 15, 2019.
Four indicted in multi-county murder investigation
On Dec. 20, four men arrested following the death of Lumpkin County woman Hannah Bender were formally charged by the Dawson County Superior Court.
Shortly after Hannah Bender was reported missing on Sept. 19, bloody clothing was found in Dawson County and her body was discovered in a shallow grave in north Forsyth County. The discovery of Bender’s body sparked a statewide manhunt for Austin Stryker, 24, the main suspect in the case.
Stryker, 24, Isaac Huff, 18, and Dylan Reid, 19, were indicted on a host of charges related to Bender’s death, including murder, aggravated assault and battery, concealing the death of another and violation of the state’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act. Jerry Harper, 78, was also indicted, although his indictment does not include a murder or aggravated assault charge.
According to the indictment, Stryker, Huff and Reid are accused of shooting and stabbing the 21-year-old woman and concealing her body on Sept. 15, 2019. Harper has been accused of harboring Stryker following the murder.
Huff, Harper and Reid are being held in the Dawson County Detention Center under no bond. Stryker is being held in custody by the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office.
This case will be presided over by Judge Kathlene F. Gosselin of the Northeastern Judicial Circuit and will be prosecuted by Conley Greer, senior assistant district attorney for Dawson County.
Ground breaks on new senior center
County officials and local residents gathered behind the Margie Weaver Senior Center on July 18 for a ceremonial groundbreaking that signified the beginning of construction for the Pauline Stephens Ivey Senior Center.
Plans for the new facility include a multipurpose room for lunch and special events, a game room with computers, a conference room, an Alzheimer’s respite care room, a movie room, a commercial kitchen and lots of storage space.
Expanding the senior center isn’t the only exciting news for Veterans Memorial Park. The groundbreaking ceremony also signified the construction of a new family pavilion to replace the current pavilion near the senior center.
Parks and Recreation Director Matt Payne provided an update on the revitalization project underway at the park, which includes the new state-of-the-art pavilion as well as a multipurpose field.
“Our Field 3 up here, that’s going to be moved down. We’re going to have a big, beautiful multi-purpose field that’s going to be right there. We’ll be able to do an enormous amount of different things there, and of course our big nugget in this is going to be our brand new pavilion. We are so excited about the pavilion,” Payne said.
Local education programs visited by national, state leaders
It was an exciting year for education in 2019 as Dawson County educational programs were the topic of discussion at the state and national levels.
In February, Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to Dawson County High School to lead a round-table discussion about mental health services in public schools.
The discussion centered on the Apex grant and how Dawson County Schools has benefitted from the program.
The Apex program began as a pilot program in 2015 with the goal of building infrastructure and increasing access to mental health services for school-aged youth throughout the state by providing counselors inside local schools.
After a series of roundtable discussions with schools across the state, Kemp successfully increased the budget for the Apex program to $8.4 million, effectively doubling the reach of the program.
On Sept. 18, the Next Generation Clubhouse received a very special visit from Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of Education Frank Brogan, who stopped by the prevention clubhouse to complete his Georgia leg of the 2019Back-to-School tour.
Brogan visited the prevention clubhouse to learn more about the success of after-school prevention programs and gather innovative ideas to bring back to Washington D.C. next week when the national tour concludes.
“It’s not only been fun, it’s been very illuminating,” said Brogan. “This is one of those unique programs that you have to look for to find and when you do you’re glad you did.”
Next Generation, also called NxTG, is one of three substance abuse prevention clubhouses in the state of Georgia that receives funding from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). The after-school clubhouse has been open and serving at-rick youth in Dawson County since 2013.