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A task force studying whether Jackson County should revamp its approach to luring tourists began laying the groundwork last week to merge its two separate tourism agencies into one.

In coming months, the task force will wrestle with the best make-up and structure for a single countywide tourism development authority, which will control roughly $440,000 generated by a 3-percent tax on overnight lodging.

Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources and is less effective.

Clifford Meads, manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, suggested a makeup for the new entity that guarantees Cashiers a nearly equal number of seats on the board.

Meads tendered a proposal calling for an 11-member board, with five seats designated for tourism representatives from the Cashiers area. Specifically, he suggested six representatives from lodging businesses, three of which would hail from Cashiers; one tourism-related business representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; one chamber of commerce representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; plus a county commissioner designee. A chair would be selected from within the group.

The proposal received nods of general agreement from other task force members, though the exact makeup is clearly a long way from being decided.

Robert Jumper, manager of Travel and Tourism for Cherokee and chairman of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, emphasized that he believes it critically important that the chamber directors be on the future tourism development authority board, too. They currently serve on the Cashiers and Jackson County boards that are in existence.

“From my perspective, I saw a huge value in having the executive directors there to give us the staff perspective,” Jumper said. “In some capacity there needs to be that input.”

For now, Jackson County most likely will temporarily merge its two tourism agencies into one. There is a sense of urgency following revelations that Jackson County is out of compliance with a state law mandating that a single entity oversee room tax expenditures. Moving forward with a temporary merger for now will give county leaders until next year to hammer out the specific makeup of a permanent, future tourism development authority for the county, County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said.

While a task force comprised primarily of lodging owners has been appointed to make recommendations, county commissioners ultimately have the final say. A vote on combining the two tourism boards into an interim tourism development authority is likely to take place at the county commissioners’ meeting Monday.

Attorney Jay Coward said, like Debnam, he believed that the county needed to come into compliance with state law quickly and continue hammering out actual details about the new board.

“I think what y’all are doing is exactly what you ought to be doing,” he assured task force members in their discussions at last week’s meeting.


Look to the east?

Having to balance competing geographic interests isn’t unique to Jackson County. Haywood County, for example, had an ongoing tug of war over tourism dollars between Waynesville and Maggie Valley for years. To resolve these differences, the tourism board there was expanded from nine to 12 members about four years ago.

The board is representative of various geographic areas in the county.

Additionally, a portion of tourism tax dollars are earmarked to individual communities to spend as they see fit, yet another effort aimed at ending the tug of war and turf battles over the room tax money. Of the county’s 4 percent room tax, 1 percent is earmarked for special tourism initiatives in the different geographic areas of the county.

The special pot of money is divvied up among the county’s five “zip code” communities based on where it was collected, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. The TDA collects and administers the money, but each community has a subcommittee that accepts and review applications for dollars. The subcommittees make recommendations to the full TDA, which pretty much rubberstamps them, Collins said

“It seems to be working well,” she said, adding that the communities have “flexibility” to spend on things they feel are important and can pinpoint “what’s most needed as is related to tourism. It’s kind of like a grant program,” Collins said in explanation.

Meads said he believes the mandate for a single tourism development authority could be a good thing for Jackson County because “it forces us to come to agreement” on various tourism-related issues.

“We can craft something for ourselves” and not be “pigeon-holed” with another county’s format, Meads added.

As in Haywood County, composition of the new board in Jackson County will be key.


How we got here from there

Jackson County for months has been struggling to sort out how best to spend its room tax dollars, and how to best balance competing geographic interests in the county.

Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. The members oversee the annual 3 percent room tax money collected from the lodging industry. The amount isn’t small potatoes: each year about $440,000 is collected, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion.

Seventy-five percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area currently goes back to that community’s tourism group to spend on its own marketing. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources.

Whether to merge the county’s two tourism groups into a single countywide entity has been a source of ongoing controversy since last year. The debate essentially ended earlier this month, however, when the county discovered that its current structure doesn’t comply with state law.

The county, by seeking an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year from the General Assembly, triggered the mandate to form a single tourism development authority. The state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase as Jackson did.

Two months after the domestic violence agency REACH of Jackson County abruptly shut its doors in February, services to domestic violence victims continue to be handled by nonprofits in neighboring counties.

Jackson County commissioners would like to see a local entity fill that void and are likely to begin reviewing their options soon, with a discussion of the issue slated for a county meeting next week.

REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors shut down the agency in February amid questions of financial solvency and internal financial irregularities. REACH failed to remit payroll taxes for three quarters in 2011 to the Internal Revenue Services. Additionally, the organization was hemorrhaging financially. The board of directors fired the agency’s executive director and finance officer, and the seven remaining employees were laidoff.

Commissioner Doug Cody said that he believes Jackson County must move toward having its own agency in place to combat domestic violence and help victims.

“I think we do need a local entity that does what REACH did for us,” Cody said. “Macon County is taking up the slack right now. It’s unfortunate things worked out the way they did.”

Commissioner Mark Jones echoed Cody, calling the demise of REACH a “great disappointment,” and said that he, too, wants something in place soon on a local level.

“I think it is very important,” Jones said. “Our population is too large not to have a facility for servicing victims in immediate need.”

Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said the situation with REACH serves as a warning to people who serve on volunteer boards that they need to be cognizant of what’s happening with the respective agencies. That said, he’s looking toward another agency in Jackson County, too, to help victims of domestic violence.

“I’d like to see REACH back in Jackson County,” Debnam said. “Eventually we’re going to have to set something up. I think it needs a little different structure than last time.”

All calls are currently being handled by REACH of Macon County, which has been provided office space in the Jackson County Department of Social Services building. Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County, said there has been a continuity of services. The group is even offering life-skills classes and programming in Jackson County.

“It’s going to take some time for Jackson County (to decide what to do),” she said. “It’s up to the community to see how they want the work to go forward.”

VanHarlingen said starting a new agency up takes 18 months to two years on average, according to state statistics.

State grant funding previously earmarked for REACH of Jackson County has now been made available to REACH of Macon County, said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. Since that agency is now providing the services to domestic violence victims, they can receive the funding previously allocated to REACH of Jackson, Wooten explained.

The root of the financial problems for REACH of Jackson County date to 2001 when REACH opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. The complex was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village could not actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

The REACH village went into foreclosure. Recently control of that housing complex shifted to Mountain Projects, a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties.

The state is forcing Jackson County’s hand when it comes to forming a single entity to oversee how tourism tax dollars are spent.

Jackson County has two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of controversy since last year, prompting the formation of a task force to study the issue.

That may be for naught, however, since the county recently learned its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

It seems the county inadvertently triggered the mandate when it sought an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year. Doing so required a special bill in the General Assembly. That same bill also required Jackson County to form a single tourism development authority.

While the county has held off on enacting the room tax hike, the county nonetheless was obliged to follow through on changing the structure of its tourism boards, according to County Attorney Jay Coward.

Cashiers tourism leaders have resisted attempts to do away with their separate tourism arm, which gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing. They argue that Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with its own funding stream — to cater to its own unique visitor demographic apart from the county as a whole.

Those who supported a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication and competition that currently exists between the two entities and putting the money to wiser use under a single tourism strategy.

It would seem the argument is now moot.

County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents the Cashiers area and voted against the original proposal, said he does not believe the community will resist a unified Tourism Development Authority after all.

“But it’s going to depend on what the state recommends and what the makeup would be,” Jones said. “(There must be) a fair representation from all over the county.”

A county-appointed advisory group made up primarily of lodging owners has been meeting every two weeks to discuss this very issue. Jones said they are within two meetings or so of returning to commissioners with recommendations about the formation of a new group.

“There’s no template,” Jones said about statewide tourism efforts. “We thought we’d find something out there to serve as a good template to guide us, but it’s not out there.”

Instead, Jones said, each county in North Carolina more or less creates how to best manage tourism-generated tax dollars.

That is precisely why the legislation triggered the formation of a new unified tourism board: the state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase.

“I hope you don’t mind some friendly constructive criticism of the bill,” Coward wrote Trina Griffin this week, a staff attorney for the N.C. General Assembly. “I understand that the plan is to legislate on a case-by-case basis a consistent statewide system of tourism promotion. The obvious suggestion for a change to save other counties and towns from being confused by future bills would be to pass one statewide law.”

Coward, as of late Tuesday, had not received a reply from the state.

David Huskins, who heads a consulting group that is helping Jackson County develop an economic development plan and who’s worked with them on this issue, said there’s no question Jackson County must put a single tourism development authority in place.

Huskins said Asheville and Buncombe County were the first in the state to seek occupancy tax legislation from the state. By the mid 1980s, the trend of enacting a room tax had pushed into the western end of North Carolina. But oversight in some cases was loose because of the varying structures of different tourism boards overseeing the money that was raised.

“Over the years, some of the local governments were diverting funds outside of tourism – the tax was originally conceived for tourism promotion and marketing. But, a lot of local governments were saying if they needed a new ambulance, well tourists get hurt, too, and we have to provide services for them,” Huskins said.

That interpretation diluted the intent of the room tax — namely to provide a stream of revenue to further tourism — and created such an outcry from the tourism industry, the General Assembly by the mid 1990s moved to set up uniform guidelines.

“If you want an increase, you come under the new guidelines,” Huskins said flatly.

Commissioners did not decide on when exactly to form their new tourism development authority. Chairman Jack Debnam indicated a required public hearing could be held as soon as the April 16 meeting. The advisory committee meets this Thursday. Coward is expected to detail more of his findings regarding the state legislation.

Historically, ballot measures on alcohol sales in Western North Carolina have been bitterly fought affairs, with pro and con forces battling it out publicly via billboards, church pulpits and through newspaper and radio advertising.

But, that’s not been the case in Jackson County, where voters go to the polls next month to decide on whether to allow countywide alcohol sales. If the referendum passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in Western North Carolina with countywide alcohol sales, joining Buncombe and Clay. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on the issue in May.

In Jackson County both sides — if there are actually two sides — look set to head to the polls next month with nary a shot fired for or against the important vote.

“I think it’s a reflection of a different era and a different time,” said the Rev. Rich Peoples of Grace Community Church in Sylva.

Peoples said he believes that “churches frankly are fairly conflicted” on the issue. Most in this day and age, the preacher said, opt to leave the decisions about whether to drink alcoholic beverages — in moderation — to individual church members. And, the same is true concerning decisions about whether to vote for alcohol sales countywide, too, Peoples said.


Clear majority?

The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

“My guess is that people want economic development and that people are concerned that it will help businesses thrive,” said Becky Kornegay, a Jackson County resident who works in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.

Like Peoples, Kornegay attributed the lack of obvious opposition to “it being just a different time — surely that battle already has been fought. You can buy beer now in Sylva.”

Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of Western Carolina University’s department of political science and public affairs, also pointed to the economy as one driving force for why there seems to be little to no public opposition.

“There may be concern about the positive economic impact” of a yes vote to the alcohol referendum, Knotts said, saying the lingering recession might have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.

Knotts also pointed to Clay County as a possible bellwether of change to WNC’s traditionally fierce no-alcohol stance. Clay is one of the region’s smallest and most rural counties. Residents there in 2009 voted to allow alcohol sales countywide.

There is a possible wildcard in the May primary: Amendment One is also on the ballot. Knotts said that could skew the vote one way or another, depending on which camp — pro-same sex marriages or against-same sex marriages — succeeds in galvanizing voters. That’s presuming, of course, that those in favor of same sex marriages would be more liberal and therefore would vote in favor of countywide alcohol sales.


Some worry

Not everybody is pointblank in favor of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson County, however. Cullowhee business owner Robin Lang said she has heard opposition and added that she has mixed feelings about voting “yes” herself. That’s because, Lang said, she’s concerned there’s no overseeing body such as a planning board in Cullowhee to shepherd in the commercial growth that likely would follow such a vote.

While Cullowhee is not an official town, as home to WCU and the large student population, it is already Jackson County’s largest and fastest-growing community. Cullowhee grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district.

Former Chancellor John Bardo floated a novel idea in 2010 to try to bring alcohol to the community. Bardo approached the tiny town of Forest Hills next door to WCU and suggested it legalize alcohol sales and then annex the university and its surrounds into its town limits — possibly opening the door for bar-like establishments that seem part and parcel of a vibrant college atmosphere. That idea has dissipated with Bardo’s retirement last July and with the very real prospect of countywide sales by referendum vote.

“There are people a little afraid of the alcohol vote,” Lang said, however, counting herself among that number. “There is a bigger picture. I was originally for it, but I’m more confused now about which way to vote.”

Whittier and the Gateway area of Jackson, which serves as an entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is the other community most likely to experience growth if alcohol sales are voted in countywide. Mark Rose, owner of GSM Thrift and Gift is all for the economic boost he believes alcohol sales would bring. His business is located between two service stations; Rose said customers looking for beer are turned away every day.

“People stop here for beer and we have to send them on back up the road to Sylva,” he said. “I tell them, go to Exit 81. That man at Exit 81 must be rich. All our tax dollars go there, and we need to try to keep them here. Everybody is struggling for money.”


Alcohol exceptions

While Jackson County is dry, alcohol sales have been permitted in Sylva in some form since 1967. Most recently, Sylva voters approved the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants in 2006, giving it the full compliment of beer, wine and liquor sales, whether in restaurants or to take home. Dillsboro has allowed the purchase beer and wine only in restaurants since 2005.

In Cashiers, numerous loopholes in the state ABC law allow several bars and clubs there to legally sell alcoholic beverages in ostensibly “dry” Jackson County, either by qualifying as a “members-only” club or a sports club if its has an on-site golf course or tennis courts.

There’s no clear winner in a complex and multifarious new system for ranking roads projects when it comes to the ongoing debate over Sylva’s main commercial drag.

In just-release road rankings, redesigning N.C. 107 out ranked the competing proposal to build a new highway bypass around it — but just barely.

The two dueling projects — redesigning N.C. 107 versus building a bypass to divert traffic from it — ranked second and third on a wish list of road building projects for the six western-most counties, with 45 and 44 points respectively.

The near tie means controversy is bound to continue over the best way to address perceived congestion on Sylva’s thoroughfare.

The two projects are neck and neck in the ranking process, despite a strong message by local leaders that they overwhelming prefer to rework N.C. 107. A regional transportation committee comprised of leaders from the six western counties got to weigh in on the road ranking — and in doing so awarded reworking N.C. 107 the maximum number of points it could.

By contrast, the regional leaders awarded zero points to the concept of a bypass around N.C. 107.

The bypass was catapulted forward anyway, however, thanks to heavily weighted points injected into the ranking process by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Sarah Graham, a transportation planner and community liaison for the Southwestern Planning Commission, sees the ranking process as a success for public input, even though the preference of local leaders was nearly outstripped by DOT’s own rankings.

“The conversation we have going on now is of improvements to the current road, compared to a few years ago when the conversation going on was whether or not we wanted a (bypass),” Graham said. “The community said we want to see what it would take to improve 107 before you build a new 107.”

Indeed, community input got the idea of reworking N.C. 107 put on the list in the first place, and then advanced it forward.

But, some Jackson County leaders are discouraged that their input into the ranking process, which showed a clear preference for reworking N.C. 107 over a bypass, got watered down after the state DOT was done with the list.

“It is frustrating to see that a project the county planning board and the county commissioners ranked very low to score so highly on the statewide ranking,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner. “It made the time the county commissioners and planning board put into reviewing the projects and ranking them seem to be wasted and it felt as though our input was given much consideration.”


Point jockeying

The road rankings were done under a new system launched last year that is supposed to be objective and data-driven. The DOT awards its points based on several predefined variables. The old process was considered subjective, determined in part simply by the preferences of politically appointed DOT board members.

Gov. Beverly Perdue ushered in the new system, as one of many state government reforms aimed at transparency and ending political corruption.

“It is a scientific approach that would remove so much of the politics involved in funding transportation and try to infuse the process with more science and more local input,” Graham said.

The ranking process can be a bit daunting to the novice, however.

The final list is a mish-mash of rankings by local leaders, the local DOT office and state DOT planners. Each has its own system for awarding points. Points are also weighted, so the points awarded by the state DOT office count for a greater share of the total than those awarded by local leaders.

The system is still relatively new, but local leaders on the regional transportation committee have already figured out a way to game the system and try make their points count more.

Since the DOT’s block of points are weighted more heavily, input by local leaders can only carry a project so far. The regional committee is given a block of 1,300 point to divvy up among its favorite road projects, with the caveat that it can’t award more than 100 of the points to a single project.

Last year, the regional transportation committee carefully spread their allotted bank of points among a long list of road projects, splitting hairs over how many points each project should get out of the total 1,300 they had to work with.

Their balancing act ended up being for naught once the DOT added its points to the mix, however. The preferences of local leaders were watered down once the DOT plunked its more valuable points into the mix.

So this year, the local leaders on the regional transportation task force decided to game the system. Instead of spreading their allotted points around to lots of different projects, they dedicated all their points to a handful of top projects and gave zero to the rest.

In the end, they got more bang for their points.

“They realized you have to work together to get your projects moved up the ladder,” Graham said. “They said, ‘let’s give 100 points, the most we can give, to our top projects and start pushing them up faster.’ If we are going to be given some say, we want it to mean the most.”

Graham said the transportation planning committees across the state have caught on to the strategy as well.

Convoluted? Perhaps.

But, public input actually had an influence in the state’s road project rankings, so Graham sees it as a success.

“If we had not put improvements to 107 on the list and given it 100 points, it would not have been on there at all,” Graham said.

The rankings are all well and good, but the question ultimately is which ones will get money.

“We don’t really know how much money is going to be applied,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. “What everybody wants to know is what is going to get worked on. We don’t know that yet.”

Technically, building a bypass is further along in the planning process than reworking N.C. 107. The alternative of reworking N.C. 107 emerged only a few years ago, while the idea of a bypass dates back two decades and has been inching ahead, albeit slowly.

“It is already in the development stage,” Setzer said.

But, “there is very little work being done on it,” he added.

Now, it is unclear whether that work should be halted, and the money put toward reworking N.C. 107 instead.

“We can’t hopscotch around the priority list,” Setzer said. “Because of the rankings, we can’t continue to work on the planning of the 107 (bypass) without addressing this potential project to widen existing 107 because widening existing 107 ranked higher.”


Devil in the details

While Setzer refers to the project as “widening” 107, that’s not what local leaders who requested the project would call it. They want traffic flow improved, but in their book, that doesn’t necessarily mean a carte blanche widening.

In fact, that highlights a source of contention between the community and DOT over what exactly a “reworked” N.C. 107 would look like.

DOT did a cursory plan for reworking N.C. 107 that calls for wider lanes, more lanes, bigger intersections and medians. The new footprint would be so wide it would take out nearly every business lining the commercial thoroughfare.

Local leaders and the business community believed there had to be another option for reworking 107, however.

“They didn’t like what the DOT suggested,” Graham said. “They said we don’t want the study defined for us. We don’t like the way it was defined for us.”

So a task force of town and county leaders, along with local business owners, hopes to come up with a more tenable solution. It has been meeting for a few months.

“There wasn’t really a clear vision of what had to be done with 107,” said Chris Matheson, a Sylva town board member and business owner. “There’s a lot more to consider than how to get from the light at 107 to the high school quicker. We are finding out just how complicated it is.”

Opinions on the committee vary on the extent of the congestion — which will ultimately frame out much of a “fix” the road needs.

Randy Hooper, owner of Bryson’s Farm Supply, doesn’t think traffic is that bad judging by his own commute.

“I can leave here in the afternoon and be home in 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, I could do the same thing,” said Hooper. “It takes no longer to get back and forth to work now as it did 20 years ago.”

The goal of the task force is to speak with one voice on what the community wants a “reworked” 107 to look like.

“We need our community leaders to be backing a single vision. We hope the corridor study will create the community consensus so as we move this project up the funding ladder we can say, ‘This is our vision. Help us fund it,’” Graham said.

Setzer agreed consensus is currently lacking.

“We are polarized right now on what we think we need to do, as a community,” Setzer said.

The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center will not be buying and moving into Waynesville’s former Department of Social Services office building after all, leaving Haywood County back at Square One trying to unload the large, dated, four-story brick complex built decades ago as a hospital.

DSS had outgrown the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year. The center expressed an interest in buying the old office building earlier this month.

The agency had weighed uprooting its headquarters from Sylva and moving to Haywood County, taking with it 60 jobs. The primary motivation was finding a larger space to house an additional 100 jobs being added in the next two years as Smoky Mountain Center gears up to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

But, the proposal received strenuous political pushback from Jackson County and leaders in the far-western counties concerned about potential job losses in their neck of the woods.

Brian Ingraham, area director for Smoky Mountain Center, and Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs, emphasized that the agency merely had been exploring options when considering the old hospital in Haywood as a site for their expansion and new headquarters. But when that option was taken to Smoky Mountain Center’s board of directors last week, they ruled it out — to Haywood County’s obvious chagrin.

“Well, it is disappointing. But I do understand the situation,” said Bill Upton, a Smoky Mountain board member and Haywood County commissioner. “They were caught between a rock and a hard place. And there will be other opportunities for Haywood County.”

Haywood still stands to gain a slice of the new jobs Smoky Mountain Center will be adding, which could now be placed in several locations across its 15-county service area, Foreman said. Haywood could end up with a majority of those new jobs, while Jackson gets to keep its existing ones, Jackson County Commissioner Jack Debnam said.

The mental health agency is poised to morph into basically a public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid.

“The situation is fluid,” Ingraham said. “We have to adapt to that and plan for the best possible outcomes that we can.”

Ronnie Beale, a Smoky Mountain board member and Macon County commissioner, said “this wasn’t the time to be buying any property.”

Beale said the board vote was not unanimous, and that a strong argument was made that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, thereby increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs.

Beale said that he doesn’t buy arguments that it will be more difficult to recruit workers into the far western counties than into Haywood County, which is better poised to draw on the workforce pool in neighboring Asheville.

“That’s part of the stigma is that you can’t hire people out here,” Beale said. “I think we can.”

As for what to do with the old hospital in Haywood County, Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said the county would continue its marketing efforts.

The $289,000 loan from Jackson County to the new owner of Sylva radio station WRGC has finally gotten the green light, meaning the popular local station could be back on the air early next week.

“I think everything is in place to move forward with this,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners earlier this week.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a souring economy. Sylva resident Roy Burnette hoped to buy the station and get it back on the air, but lacked the money or financing to do so.

540 Broadcasting Co., the business formed by Burnette, sought an economic development loan of $289,000 from the county. The deal has been in the works for months. Although commissioners OK’d the economic development loan in theory, it got hung up on issues of collateral. It was unclear what assets Burnette would put on the table to guarantee the loan.

Proper collateral, allowing the county to recoup its money should Burnette fail to make payments, is a touchy issue. The county’s track record for economic development loans has not been great in the past — finding itself in possession of the questionable collateral from underground fiber optic lines to 500 sewing machines — and it is trying to be a tad more judicious these days, explaining the hold up on the loan.

The issue of collateralization has now been resolved, County Attorney Jay Coward assured commissioners. Burnette will put up personal real estate “worth in excess of $175,000.” Additionally, an inventory of the radio station’s equipment shows that it, too, is worth in excess of $175,000, Coward said.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette needed $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette is providing $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

Burnette plans to expand the radio station’s reach, previously limited to Sylva, from Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.

The fallout from Metrostat Communication’s going belly up keeps getting more complicated, with Jackson County commissioners learning this week that an Asheville company owns some of the defunct company’s fiber optic line.

Metrostat, a high-speed Internet and phone service company in Sylva, went under late last year still owing about $500,000 in outstanding economic development loans to Jackson County and town of Sylva. The county and town took possession of the fiber optic lines and other Metrostat assets, including a tower, which had been put down as collateral. But not, as leaders thought, all of the fiber optic line.

“Things continue to just pop up,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

It turns out ERC Broadband, a nonprofit, owns 12 of the 48 strands making up some of Metrostat’s fiber optic lines in Sylva along U.S. 23 and N.C. 107. ERC bought some of Metrostat’s fiber lines in 2006 for $147,000. ERC Broadband was a grant-funded initiative dating to the late 1990s to run a high-speed Internet backbone through rural mountain counties. ERC acted as Metrostat’s provider to link its own fiber lines to the greater Internet world, Wooten explained.

Jackson County and Sylva initially wanted to simply sell the entire system, fiber optic cable, the tower and other Metrostat equipment, to a single buyer at the highest price possible. Problem is, no buyers emerged — Frontier Communications Co. said it wasn’t interested, and then BalsamWest FiberNET made an offer then withdrew the proposal.

The only possibility left was Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware, who wanted only the tower on Kings Mountain, which once beamed out high-speed wireless Internet service, so that he could provide Internet to his guests. But, the county doesn’t want to sell Metrostat’s system piecemeal.

So the county and town have been left searching for Plan B. Use Metrostat’s assets as the base to provide all of Jackson County with wireless Internet service. The dream includes linking the various emergency towers across the county to provide this blanket coverage.

The county manager said that means there could be an advantage to ERC Broadband’s sudden appearance in the what-to-do-with-Mestrostat game: the focus of the nonprofit is to further economic development in Western North Carolina, which could fit like a hand in Jackson County’s wireless Internet glove.

ERC Broadband could bring the technical expertise to the table Jackson County needs to try and use Metrostat’s infrastructure to provide countywide wireless Internet, Wooten said. A meeting between county officials and company representatives is scheduled for Friday.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever get our money back, but we may end up with something that is an asset to this community,” Wooten said.

Jackson County’s planning board will continue weighing proposed changes to open-space regulations for a few more weeks before passing them on to commissioners for their thumbs up or thumbs down.

Jackson County is one of the few mountain counties with an open space rule, which requires developers to set aside a portion of new subdivisions as green space, natural areas and recreation. The open space rule has been in place for four years, but is being revisited for possible changes.

The planning board recently held a public hearing on the proposed changes. Members chose to hold off on a final decision about passing their recommendations along to county commissioners, who would have final say.

Planning Board Chairman Zachary Koenig and other board members, in delaying a vote, agreed they wanted time to consider what speakers had discussed and asked during the hearing.

The main concern expressed? Fear that the changes would hurt groundwater recharge. When the original open space rule was ushered in four years ago, along with a host of other steep slope and development regulations, groundwater recharge was central to the debate. Open space allowed rain water falling on the mountains to soak back into the soil and recharge the groundwater so many rely on for wells.

Some who spoke at the public hearing feared weaker open space requirements would negate what the previous board tried to accomplish.

Board members denied diluting the rules, however, saying they in fact consider the issue so critical they removed it from the open-space regulations to ensure separate consideration of the matter during the next few months. Multi-family and commercial development also will be addressed in these future groundwater recharge standards. The current open space standards address single-family residential development.

“That will be our next task as a board,” Koenig promised speakers. “We think highly enough of water recharge to put together an entirely new ordinance.”

A couple of speakers seemed unpersuaded by the planning board’s decision.

“I must say I’m a little taken aback at the idea of erosion, water recharge have essentially been pulled out of the open space” discussion, said former developer John Beckman, who works as a farmer these days in Jackson County. “How can you not discuss hydrology, and the impacts that would have on the environment? It is not like open space is totally distinct and different from water-related issues.”

Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, noted “on balance” the proposed changes “appears as a net positive for developers and a notable benefit for the environment and the future homeowners in news developments.”

Clapp did urge the planning board to set the document aside for a bit, as it did, though he requested “the issue of recharge … be addressed.”

The conservationist argued that the document turned the universally accepted definition of open space “on its ear. It never means built-up recreational areas such as tennis and basketball courts and golf courses, in my experiences.”

The changes include continuing to allow certain “hardscaping,” such as tennis courts, sidewalks and swimming pools, to count as open space in efforts to gain recreational space for the county’s residents, as the current ordinance does.

County Planner Gerald Green disagreed with Clapp, saying that including recreational space as “open space” is standard in planning circles. Planning board members also defended the use of recreational space.

Commissioner Doug Cody and Chairman Jack Debnam both attended the hearing. Cody said he hopes that residents “don’t have preconceived notions about what these revisiting of the ordinances are … I’m bothered that people think we are trying to destroy something. We’re not. We are trying to reach a balance.”


Other changes include:

• Currently, for subdivisions of eight or more lots, 25 percent of land must be placed in open space. Conservation design subdivisions open-space requirement would go to 20 percent open space of the land area. Green said that remains higher than in other counties. Twenty-five percent, he said before the hearing, in his opinion “increases the costs of homes for people who work and want to live here and does not effectively address the goals that have been identified by the county, which include promoting sustainable development.”

• Developers can opt now to pay a fee in lieu of providing open space. This fee would go to the Jackson County Recreation and Parks Department to help fund activities and spaces for residents. Developers also could offer other land for open space.


Groundwater recharge

Recharge is the process by which groundwater is replenished, and a recharge area is where water from precipitation moves downward to an aquifer. Groundwater is recharged naturally by rain and snow and by creeks, rivers and lakes. Recharge can be hampered by construction or other human activities such as logging.

Prospects that Rover might one day find himself banned from attending events and festivals in traditionally pooch-friendly Sylva has left some dog owners here feeling like they are on the end of an increasingly short leash.

Town commissioners recently considered following Waynesville’s lead and prohibiting canines, even when controlled on leashes, from street festivals and town-sponsored functions.

Commissioner Harold Hensley emphasized on Tuesday “I am not a dog hater,” but said that he’s heard a rising tide of complaints from citizens and from law enforcement officers about dog-people interactions at town events and festivals.

“There was a man, he spread out on the ground for a picnic, and a big dog came up and helped himself to a piece of chicken off that man’s plate,” said Hensley, adding that more and more towns are moving to prevent those and more serious sorts of interactions.

Sylva leaders ultimately decided to postpone the discussion for now because one of the town’s most storied events, Greening Up the Mountains, is just around the corner, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association.

Greening Up, Sylva’s annual celebration of the arrival of spring when thousands converge on downtown for the biggest street festival of the year, takes place April 28.

The dog-ban issue hasn’t gone away, however, it simply has been postponed for additional debate until a later time. This frustrates dog owners in Sylva, who’ve been free to come and go with their animals as long as they abide by the town’s leash laws and clean up behind their animals when necessary.

“It kind of bugs me when people throw up blocks to bringing all God’s critters together,” said Annie Harlow, who is active in ARF, Jackson County’s humane society.

Harlow’s dog, P-Nut, is a rescue animal. Harlow said she hopes to bring P-Nut to Greening Up to help further socialize the terrier-mix dog.

Harlow emphasized that she’s in favor of some animal-oriented regulations, such as spay and neuter laws and animal-protection acts.

“But, we need to look at why we’re regulating and what it is accomplishing,” she said.



Waynesville long has banned dogs, even when on leashes, from downtown street festivals. That town’s ordinance dates to 2002.

“We’ve had situations over time with dogs being eye to eye with babies and strollers, and situations when folks have almost tripped over dogs’ leashes,” said Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association.

Phillips said the ordinance seemed particularly critical because the sidewalks in Waynesville are narrower than in many other Western North Carolina towns. This placed dogs and people in uncomfortably close proximity, she said.

The decade-old ordinance places dog bans on Waynesville’s parades, four festivals, a block party and street dances. Signs are stuck in sidewalk flower planters on the approach to Main Street announcing the law to festival-goers.

An attempt to provide babysitting services for people’s puppies petered out almost as soon as it began. Haywood Animal Welfare Association offered dog sitting at a festival the first year the ordinance was passed, fearing owners would leave their pets in potentially lethal hot cars while partaking in the street festivities. But, finding volunteers proved difficult, and people just weren’t comfortable leaving their animals with strangers, Phillips said.

Dogs receive their dues and welcomes at Waynesville’s annual Dog Walk, she said, an event sponsored by Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation designed to highlight animal adoption efforts.

Dogs being brought to events and festivals in Franklin and posing hazards to others simply hasn’t been an issue to date in that town, said Franklin Planner Mike Grubbermann. For whatever reason, bringing dogs out into Franklin isn’t a particularly popular pastime, he said.

Pat Thomas, who lives in Sylva and is co-owner of City Lights Café on East Jackson Street, said that she’d be extremely disappointed and even shocked if dogs were banned at Sylva-based events and festivals.

The restaurant has a “pet friendly” patio so that people’s pets can be with there while their owners’ dine.

“In this day and age where pets are considered a part of the family, I cannot imagine not being able to bring my pet dog to an outdoor festival,” Thomas said. “Many visitors that come to this area vacation with their pets. I feel the demographic we are speaking of, in the majority, are responsible pet owners, whether they are visiting, or they reside here. I can definitely say that if I knew an area wasn’t pet friendly, I’d be reluctant to vacation there and would also not suggest the area to any friends.”

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