It has been a year of change, and that theme runs through the top stories of 2015: change in the Columbus medical and university communities, change on multiple fronts at Fort Benning, change in matrimony and change along the Phenix City riverfront.
Here are the top local news stories of 2015:
1. St. Francis proposed sale
At the top of that change list is the pending sale of St. Francis Hospital to a Tennessee corporation. St. Francis' deep financial troubles surfaced in November 2014, and the hospital's board of trustees spent this year trying to save the facility from almost certain bankruptcy.
The final outcome will not be fully known until sometime before "Auld Lang Syne" is played Thursday night, as Lifepoint Health is scheduled to close the deal before the end of the year.
The deal will end what has been a difficult year for the hospital and its board. The biggest changes in the deal are the hospital will cease to be a nonprofit entity, and it will no longer be owned locally. Lifepoint is a for-profit cooperation. Another change is the nearly $250 million financial cloud that the hospital has operated under will be gone, said Leif Murphy, LifePoint executive vice president and chief financial officer.
"If this transaction did not go through, the leadership at the hospital would have to go through a very complex restructuring process to try and get to a place where it could continue to exist," Murphy said.
2. Fort Benning personnel cuts
The Army is downsizing, and it began to hit close to home this year. During the summer, the Army announced that the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team was being inactivated. That will result in a loss of about 2,200 soldiers, which started this fall and will conclude in spring 2016.
The 3rd Brigade is among the combat units caught up in the Army's downsizing in two phases from 570,000 troops to 450,000.
Still, Gary Jones, executive vice president of military affairs at the Great Columbus Chamber of Commerce, insists the impact from the current downsizing isn't as bad as it would first appear. Out of the 120,000 soldiers cut from the
Army, Fort Benning lost 1.8 percent of that number.
"When the Army draws down 120,000 and our part is just 2,200, we have a great success story," he said. "That says, 'OK, did we take a disproportionate lick? Did we take a light lick? Did we take a heavy lick?' We took a very light lick because you had some places that have lost more than brigades."
3. City lawsuits
It has been a costly year of litigation for the city of Columbus. Taxpayers spent more than $1 million in 2015 on attorney fees in three lawsuits filed against the city by four elected officials. Like the St. Francis issues, these lawsuits started in late 2014 but were in full force this year.
Sheriff John Darr and Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce filed lawsuits against the city and its top leadership, claiming their offices were not funded sufficiently for them to carry out their obligations, and that their budgets were incorrectly, if not illegally, crafted by the city's administration and Columbus Council. Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop and Marshal Greg Country co-filed a similar lawsuit the same week.
The courts have dismissed pieces of Darr's and Pierce's suits, but they remain in Superior Court after a trip through the state Supreme Court.
The city's motion to dismiss Countryman's and Bishop's suit was recently transferred from the Supreme Court to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
4. Louisiana movie theater shooting
Columbus was dragged into the national and international news when Columbus native John "Rusty" Houser, a government gadfly and failed politician, killed two women and wounded other moviegoers 20 minutes into "Trainwreck" in a LaFayette, La., theater.
Houser shot himself as police closed in, leaving those who remembered the son of a city tax commissioner to wonder what he was thinking.
Research profiled a man who long had craved power and attention but never found his place. He tried to crusade against pornographic theaters and got arrested for trying to pay someone to burn the office of a lawyer representing the businesses. He ran for his father's job and lost. He bought a house in Phenix City, lost it to foreclosure and sabotaged it when he was evicted.
He became estranged from his wife and daughter when they sought a protection order to prevent him from disrupting his daughter's wedding.
His Internet postings in later years showed his views were becoming increasingly extreme, even praising Hitler. "The ammunition necessary to bring the real America to its feet is here," he wrote Feb. 14, 2014, blaming blacks and Jews for "building and maintaining this alliance of evil that grips the globe."
5. Female Rangers
Nowhere was change more evident than at U.S. Army Ranger School. The Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade headquartered at Fort Benning admitted women for the first time since the inception of the school in 1951.
More than 100 women tried to get into the school by participating in a pre-Ranger School course, but only 19 were successful. By the end of October, three women had successfully completed the Army's most difficult combat leadership course.
Capt. Kristen Griest, 26, and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver, 25, graduated in August, and Maj. Lisa Jaster, a 37-year-old mother of two, completed the training in October after nearly six months in the school.
Not long after Griest and Haver graduated, the school was open to all qualified soldiers, male or female. By the end of the year, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had opened to qualified women all military combat positions that were open to only men.
6. Gay marriage
The change was not restricted to the military. It also came in full force to courthouses in Columbus and Phenix City hours after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26 that such unions were legal in all 50 states.
Muscogee County Probate Judge Marc D'Antonio was clear he will follow the law.
"If I am going to continue to do marriages, I can't discriminate," D'Antonio said. "I took an oath to follow the law of the land, and this is the law of the land now."
The situation was a little more complicated on the other side of the Chattahoochee River, where Alabama probate judges faced conflicting court orders and outside political forces. They had been dealing with the issue since February, when a federal judge in Mobile, Ala., ruled the unions are admissible in the state. The Alabama Supreme Court chief justice had offered a counter ruling.
Russell County Probate Judge Alford Harden ceased issuing all marriage licenses on the day of the Supreme Court ruling, but he resumed the next week. His office did halt performing marriage ceremonies.
There have been about 70 same-sex marriage licenses issued in Muscogee County out of a total of more than 1,140 since the Supreme Court ruling, D'Antonio said. There have been less than 20 in Russell County since the court ruling, Harden said.
7. Whistle-blower lawsuit
Nearly two years of uncertainty and concern over a federal whistle-blower lawsuit involving billing at Columbus Regional Health's John B. Amos Cancer Center concluded Sept. 4.
Columbus Regional Healthcare System and Dr. Andrew Pippas agreed to settle claims that they incorrectly billed governmental insurers and violated the False Claims Act. Columbus Regional agreed to pay $26 million with the possibility the amount could reach a total of $35 million over the next five years. Pippas, medical director of the center, has agreed to pay $425,000 to settle billing claims against him.
Richard Barker, the former top administrator of the John B. Amos Cancer Center, filed the wide-ranging and detailed allegations under the Federal False Claims Act -- also known as a qui tam action -- in May 2012 in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia. The case was under seal, and Columbus Regional did not know of its existence until June 2013.
Barker filed a second, similar suit in December 2014, accusing Columbus Regional of overpaying Pippas.
The original suit was scheduled for trial in August, but U.S. District Judge Clay Land delayed the trial date in April so the sides could work toward a settlement. The details of that settlement, which ends both lawsuits, were made public on Sept. 4.
"We have been dealing with this lawsuit the last two years," said Columbus Regional President and Chief Executive Officer Scott Hill. "We entered into some discussions with the government at the beginning of the year, and we need to move forward as an organization. ... To continue to fight this litigation is costly for the organization, and ultimately the end result of going to trial is probably not one that is feasible for our organization at this moment."
8. Renee Eldridge kidnapping
The early July homicide of a Columbus woman was a twisted case that worked its way across two states and involved a Fort Benning soldier who had been charged with the rape of Renee Eldridge being cleared after spending nearly two months in jail.
Eldridge's body was found in a Valley, Ala., creek on July 7. The 25-year-old Columbus woman had been reported missing by her family for several days.
Eldridge had reported a rape in December 2014, and an Army Ranger was arrested and charged with the crime. He became an initial suspect in Eldridge's homicide but was cleared of all rape charges and was no longer suspected in the homicide.
Stacey Gray was arrested about a week after Eldridge's death and charged with murder. His DNA was tested, and he was charged with the December 2014 rape of Eldridge.
9. Phenix City riverfront development
There is a phoenix rising from the ashes of the Phenix City riverfront.
The city, Troy University and private investors have spent millions of dollars to redevelop the riverfront, and a critical piece was put into place in 2015. Troy University invested $10.8 million in a new campus across the river from TSYS on the Columbus side.
It opened this fall. The new building contains programs from the Sorrell College of Business and the College of Health and Human Services, along with the Center for Water Resource Economics and the Center for Risk Management and Insurance.
All of the Troy University-Phenix City offerings from its location on the Chattahoochee Valley Community College campus are expected to move to the riverfront. The plan is to expand the new building in coming years.
The city has invested heavily in the Alabama riverfront. In addition to the $4.9 million in funds and land it gave to Troy, the city is turning Fifth Avenue into Whitewater Avenue at a cost of $2.9 million; it has also spent $3.7 million on a parking garage and landscaping and $500,000 on the Chattahoochee whitewater course.
The parking deck will serve Troy and the new $12 million Courtyard Marriott, which opened late last year and is located just north of the 14th Street bridge.
10. CSU president
Columbus State University started 2015 without a president after Tim Mescon retired at the end of last year. By mid-April, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents had hired Chris Markwood, previously the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
Markwood, quiet and deliberate, brought a much different style to the job than Mescon, who came in six years ago as an agent of change.
June 1 was his first day on the job, and Markwood made it clear he was going to court the community involvement and support that have been the hallmark of CSU's growth.
"I see a campus and a community that have really partnered together to put an educational institution on a trajectory of tremendous growth -- growth in excellence, growth in numbers and growth in quality," Markwood said. "That is exciting to see how the city and community have seen this as a partnership, not as something that one or the other is going in alone."
-- Staff writers Tim Chitwood, Mike Owen and Stephanie Pedersen contributed to this report.