From our breaking updates on Pittsboro’s water and Chatham schools’ COVID protocols, to our features on Chatham’s reaction to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and vaccinations and churches, 2021 was a long, messy, beautiful, challenging and newsworthy year.
Though COVID-19 is still with us and the Chatham community is still facing work, health and personal challenges, 2021 also brought some good news: COVID-19 vaccinations for everyone 5 and older, the reopening of in-person school five days a week, the groundbreaking of community resources like Pittsboro’s Boys & Girls club, and much more. Revisit the last year with us through the stories that best capture 2021 in all its challenging but hopeful glory — ordered in alphabetical order by category: Around Chatham, Breaking News, Business, COVID, Education, Environment and Government.
There are a lot of places, people and things that make Chatham special — work by local organizations like Pittsboro Kiwanis Club to fund college scholarships with 56 years of State Fair ham biscuits, budding athletic stars like Northwood’s Caroline Murrell, and new and growing businesses with a mission, like Black-owned comfortable and fashionable clothing store, geekchicfashion.
We’ve covered a lot of important places and people across Chatham in the last year. Here’s a smattering of some of the highlights of that coverage:
1. ‘Tiger King Park’ cats find refuge at Pittsboro’s Carolina Tiger Rescue
In June, Lars Dolder reported that Carolina Tiger Rescue, located at 1940 Hanks Chapel Rd., was housing four celebrity cats among its newest residents: rescued tigers from Tiger King Park, the Oklahoma private zoo made famous in a Netflix true-crime series. (Our readers loved this story.)
At the time, Carolina Tiger Rescue cared for 44 total big cats. The facility is North Carolina’s only federally and GFAS (Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries)-accredited big cat sanctuary. Carolina Tiger Rescue was caring for the four tigers in its possession while the Justice Department seeks their permanent forfeiture — it’s not yet known whether a permanent home for the cats has been secured.
Last May, Victoria Johnson wrote an inspiring follow-up story on the donation drive four high school juniors launched for menstrual and hygiene products earlier in the year. Though the students had low expectations, by May 5, they’d collected more than $14,000 worth of products since March 14, inspired by a TikTok by the Chicago-based nonprofit called Her Drive.
Most donations — about 700 pounds worth in total — went to the West Chatham Food Pantry in Siler City; donations that the Food Pantry didn’t accept, including used clothes, went to the Women’s Center in Raleigh.
The group also gave a bundle of period products to the Silk Hope Catholic Worker, a small homeless shelter, and Chatham Middle received about 75 makeup bag kits loaded with scrunchies, deodorant, toothbrush, soap, pads and tampons. This story highlights not only the power of community, but also of Chatham’s youth looking to make a difference.
3. Community events remember Eugene Daniel, Chatham’s Black history
On the 100th anniversary of his lynching death, Chatham County paused to remember — and formally memorialize — Eugene Daniel, and honor the county’s Black history, at two separate events in September. Bill Horner III covered the events, which were led by the East Chatham Branch of the NAACP, members of the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham, descendants of the other children of Eugene’s parents — John and Ida Daniel.
At the Monday board meeting following the commemorations, county commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution formally apologizing “for any part an elected official or appointed local official played” in Daniel’s 1921 murder, Hannah McClellan reported. Commissioner Karen Howard, the only Black member on the five-person board, read the resolution and seconded the motion made to approve it.
“If we don’t address this and begin to have these really difficult conversations about what could have been taught to the succeeding generations about what happened that day, we’re never going to unravel this,” Howard said. “I encourage us all to take that really, truly bitter fruit and talk to our neighbors and friends about who we were, who we are and who we want to be.”
The News + Record’s extensive coverage of this painful anniversary — including the above stories and exclusive pieces from Commissioner Diana Hales and Barry Saunders’ report regarding Sheila Thompson learning Daniel is her uncle — highlights the need for thorough local coverage written for and in partnership with the community.
Though we’re a weekly paper, we’ve done our fair share of providing breaking coverage online in the wake of consequential board meetings, tragic accidents and COVID-19 news. We provided regular updates on Pittsboro’s PFAS drinking water woes, along with Chatham County School’s school protocol decisions and masking mandates. Here are a few breaking stories that were particularly important or widely viewed over the last year:
In September, Lars Dolder wrote a thorough report regarding the Siler City board of commissioners’ approval of three resolutions to close and reroute a series of roads abutting the Mountaire Farms facility — almost three years after the national poultry processor first requested permission to overhaul the downtown artery. Dolder followed the story closely from the summer, when he’d written an exclusive report providing a first look at reroute plans after Mountaire representatives shared their presentation with the News + Record ahead of the town’s first hearing.
According to Mountaire’s virtual rendering of the $6 million project it plans to fund, East Third Street’s current terminus at U.S. Hwy. 64 will close to regular traffic and shift about 510 feet west, replacing North Avenue. East Fifth Street and Johnson Avenue — minor roads running through the Mountaire complex — will also close to the public. Before final design and construction can begin, the N.C. Dept. of Transportation must also approve Mountaire’s request, although NCDOT representatives previously told the News + Record the agency is likely to follow the board of commissioners’ lead “so long as required traffic improvements are made and they are up to current safety and design standards.”
It may be a couple of years at least until construction has finished, Siler City Planning Director Jack Meadows previously told the News + Record. We’ll provide construction updates throughout this year.
Last July, Lars Dolder kicked off a series of reports regarding the illegal discharge of a dangerous chemical into the Haw River — Pittsboro’s only drinking water supply — which Taylor Heeden has continued covering since she joined the CN+R in October.
It was in July, for the first time in more than a year, that Pittsboro’s drinking water was contaminated with suspected carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane after the City of Greensboro discharged levels 20 times higher than EPA recommendations into one of the Haw River’s tributaries — violating a Special Order by Consent and prompting Pittsboro to shut down water intake.
In November, the town experienced a spike in 1,4-Dioxane levels in the water related to an improper discharge from a yet-unnamed Greensboro industry. In addition to providing regular and timely updates on the chemical levels in Pittsboro’s water, our coverage has also consistently provided context for what health threats such chemicals might pose, along with solutions the town is working toward. Follow our work in 2022 for more investigative work regarding past water issues and how they’re impacting residents.
In October, the Siler City community was shaken by news that a car driven by 60-year-old John Salvatore Graviano of Siler City crashed into Johnson’s Drive-In, hitting four customers, one of whom — 64-year-old Mark McKinney, a Pittsboro resident and the pastor of a Morrisville church — died at the scene. In the days that followed, Hannah McClellan and Bill Horner III followed police reports and talked with victims, witnesses and Johnson’s employees about the crash.
After briefly closing to make repairs to the front of the building, Johnson’s since reopened, and added barriers to section off an area where customers stand and across the front of the building, in the unlikely chance this type of event happens again.
Meanwhile, Graviano’s case has been continued until Jan. 26; he was charged the day after the crash with misdemeanor death by vehicle, as well as two additional charges of failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and driving left of center.
Last January, Hannah McClellan investigated past bureaucratic secrecy to report on a stunning COVID outbreak at the Siler City Post Office that caused major staffing shortages and mailing delays. A spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service declined to comment on specific COVID-19 case counts at the office, citing privacy law, but sources — including employees of the Siler City office — told the News + Record that 75% of staff had tested positive with COVID-19.
The News + Record received multiple tips from employees or family of employees at the time saying the entire staff either tested positive or was quarantining. Customers and workers told the News + Record and posted on Facebook that the post office was staffed by workers coming in from Fayetteville and elsewhere in the state. The News + Record never received confirmation regarding the reports, highlighting the difficulty in gaining information about COVID-19 spread in many settings.
“Most carriers won’t talk to you for fear of termination or retribution. We have been told repeatedly NOT to speak with the media by our supervisors and union representatives,” one employee said in an email. “The USPS is more concerned about ‘bad’ media and focusing on distribution and operations.”
2021 marked a big year for Chatham’s business sector — locally, with developments from Charter Furniture in Siler City, 3D manufacturing company PolarOnyx, Chatham’s three megasites and growth anticipated from Chatham Park; and regionally by economic booms in surrounding areas like Cary, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham. In March, the country also sent out revaluation notices, with more than three-fourths of the nearly 46,000 Chatham properties assessed in the county’s state-mandated reappraisal process seeing valuations increase. The total overall valuation of parcels in Chatham County, when finalized, showed an increase by as much as 18%, according to Tax Administrator Jenny Williams, with 77% of parcels having gone up in value and 23% having gone down.
Though we included many features and updates on new business and industry expansions, here are two stories with a lot of context and big business actors in Chatham.
8. As pandemic wanes, Chatham Park going, growing in a ‘great direction’
In March, Bill Horner III provided an in-depth look at 7,068-acre development Chatham Park, which has a 30-to-40-year buildout plan and anticipates 60,000 total residents. Over the last 17 years, Tim Smith, Julian Rawl and their Cary-based Preston Development Company team have spent more than $200 million worth of infrastructure investment, with more than half of the plan to go. Last year, the first dozen or so residents bought homes in the neighborhood development.
The development will bring large growth to Chatham, and for that reason is controversial among some residents with concerns about infrastructure strain. In November, some critics were pleased to see the Pittsboro Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the last of Chatham Park’s “additional elements” components — requiring 7.5%, or 1,650, of the planned community’s 22,000 market-rate housing units — to be affordable housing. Affordable housing was the final element of 12 approved for the Chatham Park development after the initial approval, back in 2015, of Chatham Park’s master plan.
In the original proposal in 2016, Chatham Park offered to make 1% of its residential developments affordable housing units; November’s approved plan had Chatham Park agreeing to 7.5% of residential properties being affordable homes. Taylor Heeden reported on the development, which we’ll be following closely this year.
Following a series of high-acreage purchases in Chatham, Bill Horner III reported in December that regional developers say location and vision make the county ripe for growth and “hot” for sellers. Michael Smith, the president of Chatham’s Economic Development Corporation, said the EDC had a record year in 2021 for interest in, and visits to, the county’s two megasites — the Chatham Advanced Manufacturing (CAM) site in Siler City and the TIP site in Moncure.
Smith said the EDC would be sharing more information with the public soon, which we’ll certainly be following. He’s featured in the Chatham Chat in this week’s edition.
In many ways, 2021 was defined by the COVID-19 pandemic as much as 2020 was. By the start of the year, vaccinations were available to elderly adults and healthcare workers — expanding to most other adults by the spring, and last summer, to children ages 5-11. Still, variants such as Delta and Omicron have led to continued surges in cases (even breakthrough cases with typically mild symptoms among those fully vaccinated) and strains on hospitals.
In Chatham 57% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 54% are fully vaccinated. On July 7, exactly 50% of Chatham’s population became at least partially vaccinated — suggesting vaccination numbers have stayed relatively flat in the last six months. Still, community leaders and organizations are working to increase vaccinations and keep residents healthy. Here are a few of our best stories highlighting COVID trends last year:
The county’s health department has emphasized equity in its vaccine outreach efforts throughout the pandemic — leaning heavily on community partnerships with local churches and organizations such as the Hispanic Liaison.
Chatham’s Hispanic community was hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, before vaccines were available. Though Chatham’s population is about 13% Hispanic, 32% of its total confirmed coronavirus cases were among Hispanic residents earlier this fall, according to the state’s COVID-19 data.
Now, according to data compiled by CCPHD data scientist Maia Fulton-Black and reported by our Victoria Johnson, 51% of the county’s eligible Hispanic population — 5 years and older — is at least partially vaccinated, while 47% are fully vaccinated, as of Dec. 1. We’ll continue keeping an eye out on equity and COVID in the months to come.
Though some evangelical Christians have earned a reputation for being staunchly against COVID vaccinations, some churches have worked to decrease vaccine hesitancy and refusal in their congregations, Hannah McClellan reported in September.
Across Chatham and the state, Black and Latino churches led efforts to tackle vaccinations in their congregations, by sharing critical information with congregants and even hosting COVID-19 vaccine clinics. This story reflects the importance of community and solutions-based reporting that local outlets are positioned to do well, and highlights efforts to solve community challenges.
“The way the community has come together and helped the families that found themselves in those difficult situations is quite powerful and touching to witness,” St. Julia’s Catholic Church’s Fr. Julio Martinez said.
Bill Horner III also provided an in-depth look at the impact of the pandemic in September, talking with Chatham Hospital’s COO and chief nursing officer Erick Wolak about the hospital’s nursing shortage, among other challenges, such as increased COVID hospitalizations. “We’ll continue to work to convert people who are kind of on the fence (about vaccines),” Wolak said. “Over the course of the next couple of months, I’m very hopeful we’ll be in a much better spot in a year. I’m hopeful for spring.”
As of Monday, there have been more than 1.7 million cases of COVID in North Carolina; 8,063 cases in Chatham and 99 deaths. Such shocking numbers still likely under-represent the coronavirus’s spread and impact, due to state health guidelines which only require congregate living settings, schools and childcare facilities to report clusters or outbreaks, as reported by Lars Dolder and Hannah McClellan last April. Other settings — such as churches, public venues and most businesses — are not. Members of the latter category may voluntarily report COVID-19 cases to the health department, but others do not, thereby “under-represent(ing) the full scope of clusters and associated cases,” according to the introduction of the NCDHHS COVID-19 Clusters in North Carolina report.
The start to the 2021-22 school year marked the first in three years of those impacted by the pandemic that Chatham students returned to the classroom for in-person school five days a week. As of January, all of Chatham’s schools — CCS and its three charter schools — remained fully open with indoor masking mandates. In addition to dealing with the pandemic, Chatham saw a new superintendent at CCS, a new high school (Seaforth, the first built in the district since 1972), efforts to combat staffing shortages and to offer expanded summer learning across the county. We’ve provided extensive reporting on education; here are a few stories from 2021 that were especially relevant and timely:
Last summer, Hannah McClellan and Victoria Johnson spoke with Hispanic students and parents about the services offered to them at Chatham County Schools. CCS has more than 2,700 Hispanic students, according to the district’s May 2021 Ethnic Enrollment report, or 31.6% of its total student population. In the district’s Siler City schools, those numbers are higher: 65.5% of students at Siler City Elementary are Hispanic, 73.4% at Virginia Cross Elementary, 71% at Chatham Middle School and 62.6% at Jordan-Matthews High School, according to the same report.
While the district has increased its translation services in recent years, and many parents and students said they’re grateful for these services, others wish the district would do more, particularly when it comes to engaging immigrant parents and offering more bilingual resources. This story highlights the importance of coverage that partners not only with school leaders, but students and parents, and why following up on stated district priorities matters.
Last March, Victor Hensley reported that remote learning challenges in the fall led to many students — from incoming freshmen to seniors — being stripped of their eligibility in the spring season, hitting schools like Jordan-Matthews and Chatham Central much harder than usual.
The semester before, the number of Chatham County students who received a grade of D or F in at least one class increased by nearly 74% from the previous year, according to December data released by the district’s central office.
Statewide student-athlete eligibility standards set by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) require a student to attend at least 85% of mandatory classes and pass “a minimum load of work” in the semester before the start of their sport’s season. The number of students who fell behind notably increased the number of student-athletes declared ineligible to compete when sports started back up across Chatham County last winter, according to data from several district coaches and directors.
16. Chatham counselors, therapists support increased mental health services
In light of increased mental health challenges wrought by and throughout the pandemic, Hannah McClellan reported in September that CCS is working to address rising mental health needs in schools by increasing its contracted mental health services for in-school therapy and by hiring two additional counselors and three social workers — supported by federal COVID-19 relief funding. The district will continue its contract with Renaissance Wellness Services, a Pittsboro clinic it has partnered with since 2017, for $57,811.
Such efforts are important, because as students themselves say, many are struggling.
In addition to coping with the continued stressors of the pandemic, Chatham high schoolers are also — like teenagers across the country — often facing increased mental health challenges, McClellan reported in November. Students are also working through traumatic news in Chatham and beyond — most recently with the deaths of beloved Northwood students Bryan Vilchis, 18, and Desmond Patterson, 16, who died following an Oct. 23 car crash. In the months to come, we will continue looking at how the pandemic is impacting students, and schools generally.
Other notable education news: The Hispanic Liaison launched a second Hispanic youth group at Seaforth, allowing Orgullo Latinx Pride to serve 48 students and counting across the county; five mobile units at North Chatham Elementary School were destroyed in a November fire overnight (no one was injured); CCS hosted first-ever Dual Language camp last summer, with about 170 students registering; after lobbying by LGBTQ groups, N.C. school records will list students’ chosen names, announced last spring; and new social studies standards meant to guide discussions of the nation’s history were revised last February to remove “systemic racism,” “gender identity,” and “systemic discrimination” from the standards and replace the words with racism, discrimination and identity.
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Last summer, for the first time in more than a year, Pittsboro’s drinking water was contaminated with suspected carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane after the City of Greensboro discharged levels 20 times higher than EPA recommendations into one of the Haw River’s tributaries; another discharge took place in November. PFAS has been a regular contaminant in Pittsboro’s drinking water since at least 2018 — both 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are suspected carcinogens which pose severe health risks if regularly ingested over long periods of time. High exposure is associated with thyroid disease, increased blood cholesterol levels and birth defects, and possible inhibition of the body’s immune system.
PFAS compounds have been detected throughout North Carolina, but earlier this year, Pittsboro’s levels of PFAS concentration led to nonprofit research organization Consumer Reports naming the town’s drinking water as among the worst in the country. The town is working toward solutions, including eliminating and removing PFAS through updating its water filtration systems at the municipal water plant to filter as much as 90% of all PFAS from the drinking supply. It will take at least a year for the system to be completed and operational, and it could cost millions. We’ll be continuing to cover the water situation in Pittsboro closely in 2022, along with the following two environment stories:
In this last of a six-part series investigating Chatham County’s water and sewer infrastructure, Lars Dolder explored the potential challenges of sewage systems being overseen by private developers, rather than the government. After years decrying deficiencies in their neighborhood’s private wastewater treatment plant, Briar Chapel residents had new quantitative evidence last May to prove that sewage smell and intermittent leaks are more than just a nuisance: their homes were devalued as a result.
More than 87,000 gallons of sewage have spilled from the community’s plant in 32 different leaks since 2016, according to the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality. Of those, more than 72,000 gallons drained into Pokeberry Creek, a tributary of the Haw River and Jordan Lake. The frequent spills have suffused Briar Chapel with rank air as raw sewage bleeds onto private land and runs through the streets. The treatment plant — which was privately developed and has been privately managed by various operators over the years — is located at the neighborhood’s highest point, worsening the effects of leakage and complicating facility upkeep.
Previous stories in the series explored plans for infrastructure expansion in Pittsboro, Siler City and county-operated facilities. Such reporting emphasizes the importance of investigative community journalism to highlight issues that many residents don’t know much about until they’re impacted.
As the impacts of climate change continue to be felt on a national scale, Chatham County is not immune — particularly with significant development and population growth expected over the next 20 years. This October report by Hannah McClellan examines the impact of climate change in the county, as well as efforts to mitigate such effects. Chatham County is limited in what it can do because of state jurisdiction as well as low emissions levels from the county government itself. Still, local officials and leaders are pushing for creative solutions — like adding solar panels to its buildings, buying electric or hybrid electric cars as old ones need replacement and installing two electrical vehicle stations, one in Pittsboro and one in Siler City.
Over that last year, Chatham County government has worked to respond to COVID-19 — including funding campaigns to vaccinate the community against the virus — to recover from the October 2020 cyberattack that incapacitated many of the county’s business systems for two to three months, and make time to celebrate the county’s yearlong celebration of its 250th anniversary. It’s been a busy year. Here are some highlights, concluding with a February update on the 2020 cyberattack — which apart from COVID, was arguably one of the county’s biggest stories of 2021.
19. ‘It is a priority for us’: Chatham works toward expanding services for Spanish speakers
In August, Victoria Johnson and Hannah McClellan investigated the county’s Spanish resources, following a report on hurricane coverage that revealed the county did not offer consistent Spanish-translation alerts. In Chatham, more than 12% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and according to the U.S. Census’ five-year American Community Survey, 11.6% of Chatham residents — nearly 8,000 people — speak Spanish at home. Five percent, or nearly 3,500 people, speak English less than “very well.”
Even so, Chatham County offers few readily available Spanish-language materials and resources, like permitting forms and instructions. Though Hispanic community leaders say the county has expanded its Spanish resources in recent years — in many cases ahead of neighboring counties — several gaps still persist, including translations for important county alerts and services as well as bilingual staffing. “In Chatham, it’s gotten so much better,” said Ilana Dubester, executive director of the Hispanic Liaison and an immigrant herself. “ … There are still, you know, gaps out there, particularly when it comes to translations, but it certainly has gotten better.”
20. What’s the status of Pittsboro’s removed Confederate monument?
In October, Bill Horner III followed up on one of the county’s biggest stories from 2019: the Commissioner-approved removal of the “Our Confederate Heroes” monument removed from in front of the historic Chatham County Courthouse grounds. Now more than two months later, interested parties are still awaiting a decision from the N.C. Court of Appeals about the monument’s legal ownership, following a decision that said United Daughters of the Confederacy owned it. In the meantime, the statue and its pedestal are locked within a Greensboro warehouse, with Chatham County footing its $300/month storage bill.
If the court case determines that Chatham does in fact own the statue — rather than the UDC — state law could require the statue to be replaced. County officials aren’t commenting on that possibility. “It’s in storage right now, and it belongs to the Daughters of the Confederacy,” County Manager Dan LaMontagne said. “Until they find an appropriate location for it, we’ll keep it in storage and continue to pay rent and keep it protected there.”
Stolen Chatham County government files posted online following an Oct. 28, 2020 ransomware attack contained personal information — including data such as Social Security and bank account numbers — of some local residents, in addition to current and former county employees, an exclusive February report by Bill Horner III, Lars Dolder and Hannah McClellan found. The News + Record learned about the posting of sensitive data files by the criminal enterprise responsible on Feb. 8; county officials later confirmed to the newspaper that sensitive data had been released by the ransomware group known as DoppelPaymer.
This news came after more than three months of county staff working diligently to mitigate the impact of the “cyber incident,” with many staff reportedly working nights and weekends to ensure services to county residences went uninterrupted. DoppelPaymer’s first data upload was made Nov. 4 2020, a week after Chatham County officials announced the breach; it contained “mostly innocuous” files, LaMontagne told the News + Record at the time, including files that fall under North Carolina’s public records laws; a second upload in late January contained more sensitive data.
The stolen data files were posted after Chatham County failed to pay a 50 bitcoin ransom — the cryptocurrency was worth roughly $708,000 on Nov. 4, a week after the attack. Cybersecurity experts routinely warn businesses and entities not to pay ransomware demands, saying it incentivizes cybercrime. Following the crime, the county added new safeguards against potential future breaches, including: a training on security awareness and email, using multi-factor authentication, implementing additional network security monitoring and Next Generation Anti-Virus Software (NGAV).
This story was the result of our team continuing to stay on top of the cyber incident story from 2020. Though not a happy story to tell, it shows the importance of keeping the community informed — a goal we will carry with us into the year to come.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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