When Dale McElroy plunked down $100,000 to expand Mica’s Restaurant & Pub in southern Jackson County last year, he was banking on the status quo staying the status quo: a dry county remaining dry.
McElroy, like other savvy business owners in the area, have used numerous loopholes in the state ABC law to legally sell alcoholic beverages in “dry” Jackson County. McElroy can legally sell alcohol as a semi-private club.
At Mica’s, patrons are knocking back plenty of beer, wine and even liquor. McElroy is counting on that continuing — it’s how he plans to pay for his new outdoor deck, fire pit and remodeled dining room.
McElroy also sells beer and wine from a small to-go shop adjacent to the restaurant. To keep it legal, he sells lifetime memberships for $1 and piggybacks on the golf course and country club to help qualify for the status as a private club.
It’s the beer and wine sales from that shop that help subsidize his restaurant.
But take away the corner on the market he currently enjoys, and suddenly his investment doesn’t look very rosy.
That’s the case, too, for Jacqueline and Joel Smilack, who spent what she described as “a lot” to build two, full-sized asphalt tennis courts. That transformed JJ’s Eatery along N.C. 107 in the Glenville community into a sports club, legally entitled to sell alcohol.
McElroy, for one, doesn’t mince words. If the sale of booze becomes legal for every business — not just the ones such as his and JJ’s that invested big bucks to earn the right to sell alcoholic beverages — then he’ll be forced to shut his doors. The upfront investment has been too great to suddenly have to compete with every Tom, Dick and Harry who owns a service station or restaurant in the Cashiers area being allowed in the game.
The way it works now is that each week, McElroy must call in his order to Sylva’s ABC store detailing the amounts and types of liquor he needs, wait until they call back and say it’s ready, then go pick up the filled order.
So, he must be happy that Jackson County Chairman Jack Debnam wants a vote, too, on opening an ABC store in Cashiers? Wouldn’t that be convenient?
Well, no, as a matter of fact, he’s not happy at the news.
“I’d rather spend $1,000 a week to go down to Sylva than $300 to go into Cashiers,” McElroy said.
In other words, he’s making money because of the exclusivity and inconvenience of the situation as it stands now. The referendum passes, “and I wouldn’t continue running this place,” McElroy said flatly.
It’s midday on a weekday, and the bar is hopping at Sapphire Brewing Company near Cashiers.
Jackson County, technically, is “dry,” with the sale of alcoholic beverages limited to the town limits of Sylva and Dillsboro. The truth, however, is a far different matter — businesses all over the county are selling beer, wine and mixed drinks, and they are doing so legally and by the letter of the state’s ABC law.
Nowhere is this relatively unrestricted flow of booze in an ostensibly “dry” area more evident than in the southern part of the county, “on the mountain” around the Cashiers area where droves of well-heeled retirees and seasonal residents flock each summer and fall.
“There are so many loopholes,” said Amber Powell, one of two bartenders needed this hot day at Sapphire Brewing Company to keep up with the brisk demand for cold, on-tap beer. “Honestly, the law’s not very fair — it should be all businesses, or none.”
Uniformity just might be on the horizon, if Jackson voters next year approve a referendum for the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages. Four of the county’s five commissioners say they will put the question to a public countywide vote, either in the May primary or the 2012 November general election.
For now, businesses outside of Sylva and Dillsboro wanting to take advantage of Jackson County’s big thirst have encountered few problems finding ways to capitalize on the numerous exceptions in North Carolina’s alcohol laws.
But working legally within the state’s ABC system can entail meeting some fairly odd requirements. Whether it’s building tennis courts to qualify as a sports club or proving historic entitlement, there’s dozens of loopholes — but they can be complicated to understand and expensive to implement.
Take one such exception — for a “tourism ABC establishment” — as an illustrative example of the apparent tailor-made nature of most of these right-to-sell booze exceptions. Restaurants or hotels within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are allowed to serve alcohol — a handy exception if you happen to be the Balsam Mountain Inn in the Balsam community of Jackson County, or a similarly situated establishment, but not much use otherwise.
Far more common, especially in Cashiers, is the golf-course exemption.
Sapphire Brewing Company has a public golf course, so under the law, anyone age 21 or older can stride right up to the bar and order a drink, the bartender explained.
“These are adults who want to sit and have a beer,” Powell said. “It’s not like these are underage kids.”
Donald Irvine, busy eating a BLT sandwich at the bar and washing it down with a cold brew, was one of the patrons there last week. He retired in 2005 and now travels regularly from his fulltime home in Tampa, Fla., to the second home he built in Cashiers. Irvine believes North Carolina’s ABC laws are a mishmash of confusion, and that Jackson County would be better off just passing countywide alcohol.
“I can just put up a tennis net and say, ‘I’m a sports club’ and sell alcohol,” he said in wonderment.
Well, it’s not quite that easy, but it’s close — if you’ve got the cash to back the dream. In the Glenville community outside of Cashiers alongside N.C. 107, JJ’s Eatery qualifies as a sports club. Owners Jacqueline and Joel Smilack built two regulation-size tennis courts, and now they are running a bar and restaurant, BP gasoline station and a package store.
Never mind that JJ’s tennis courts are up a weedy, relatively unused-looking dirt road and out of sight — they are in fact used, they do in fact qualify the couple to legally sell alcoholic beverages, and the Smilacks are doing a brisk business indeed serving thirsty lake-goers and Glenville residents unwilling to hoof it off the mountain to buy beer.
To meet the state’s requirements for a sports club, the Smilacks charge $5 for a weekly membership or $50 for a year, with tennis court rentals extra at $15 an hour. Or, for the tennis lover in their midst, there’s a $75 annual membership option with unlimited court time.
Provide a name, address, date of birth and driver’s license number, sign on the line and you, too, can buy whatever you’d like to drink from JJ’s — the membership fee is automatically included in the prices of the alcoholic beverages you buy.
“That was the requirement from ABC to do what we do here,” Jacqueline Smilack said of the sports-club designation. “We don’t make the rules, we just have to abide by them.”
Heidi Taylor, who stopped into JJ’s last week to get a cool six-pack before heading out for a hot day on the lake, moved to Glenville just last year.
It was her first experience with a dry county, and at first she thought it meant exactly that. But she quickly learned the lay of the land.
“It is really not that much of a problem to buy alcohol,” Taylor said, easily ticking off half a dozen places where you can buy it, either to go or from a bar.
She personally made the $50 investment for an annual “membership” at JJ’s.
“It was nice. I didn’t have to drive all the way to Sylva,” Taylor said.
Still, Taylor, a Christian, doesn’t drink a lot herself. She kind of likes Jackson being a dry county with only limited places where you can get alcohol.
“I guess they didn’t want liquor stores on every corner,” Taylor said approvingly.
But in Cashiers, so-called clubs have proliferated so widely that to stay competitive Mica’s Restaurant & Pub offers lifetime membership at the bargain rate of just $1.
McElroy, in abidance with state regulations, has a stack of file drawers behind the counter reminiscent of the old card catalogs. The drawers are crammed with hundreds of membership cards, a visual testimony to the pent up demand for alcohol in this “dry” county.
McElroy sells beer and wine from a to-go shop, plus has a restaurant with a bar. His loophole? The establishment is affiliated with a country club golf course.
McElroy keeps his membership files handy should a state ABC officer pop in and ask to review them. Theoretically, ABC officers could walk into his bar and ask patrons to prove that they’re members. But no worries: If they don’t have their $1 lifetime membership card on them, a driver’s license will suffice as long as McElroy can go to his files and produce the records.
Other sports clubs in the area go the equestrian route to meet the requirement: providing equine boarding and training, plus on-site dining, lodging and meeting space and host horse trials and other events sanctioned or endorsed by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
Or, like JJ’s, they have two or more tennis courts. Or, short of tennis, an 18-hole golf course.
Those unable to pay for expensive equestrian facilities, tennis courts or golf courses still find ways to accommodate their thirsty clientele. Four restaurants in Cashiers and Glenville currently have active brown-bagging permits, the state’s ABC database of permit holders shows.
The law ended up like it did — messy — because businesses in historically dry areas such as greater Jackson County were seeking the revenue boosts alcohol sales could bring.
“Trying to get a county to vote 20 years ago is a lot different than it is today,” said Mike Herring, administrator for the ABC Commission. “Businesses who needed permits for economic development knew if they tried to go the vote route, they might not have a positive result.”
That resulted in “spot permits” being written and shepherded through the General Assembly by state legislators who were responsive to constituent demands. How responsive? Put it this way — the ABC Commission relies on a 25-page report to break down, county by county, who can legally do what.
“Every county is different,” Herring said, describing the report as a roadmap “that has grown over the years.”
Longtime state Sen. Robert C. Carpenter of Franklin, who represented the state’s western most counties from 1988 to 2004, wasn’t a soft touch for businesses looking to sell alcoholic beverages. An unapologetically conservative Republican and devout Christian, Carpenter disapproved of the end-run, as he saw it, that businesses were taking around the state’s ABC law.
“They never came to me, because they knew where I stood,” the 87-year-old said, who died this weekend two days after being interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News for this story. “It needs to be reformed. I remember when I was first elected a bill came up in Bryson City (for a business to sell alcohol). I called up the senate minority leader and told him, ‘We don’t need more liquor sold.’ He took it on, and he killed it.”
Times change, politicians move on — in Carpenter’s wake, a slew of local bills would indeed pass that blew open the door to legal alcoholic beverage sales in “dry” areas.
Luckily for local ABC boards, however, the politics of alcohol are removed from the requirements of overseeing sales in a county. That’s just fine with Veronica Nicholas, who has served on the board for about a decade.
Sylva’s Board of Commissioners appoints the three-member ABC board, though the town splits revenue from the ABC store 50-50 with the county. The amount collected by the town could drop if, as Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam proposes, the referendum includes an ABC store for Cashiers — and it passes.
Still, Nicholas said, she believes “any time to take anything to the voters, I think it is a good thing.”
Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.
Even in dry counties, country clubs, golf courses, inns, bars and even gas stations can use one of several exceptions in the state ABC laws to serve alcohol.
• Historic ABC establishment
• Special ABC area
• Tourism ABC establishment
• Tourism resort
• Recreation district
• Residential private club
• Interstate interchange economic development zones
• National historic district
• Permits based on existing permits
• Sports club
Jackson County commissioners are considering whether to renovate the former Southern Lumber Co. building to get the county out of paying rent elsewhere for office space.
The county purchased the property and the 34,633-square-foot building on Skyland Drive in 2008. Architect Odell Thompson was asked to develop options for transforming the structure into county offices, and came up with what he termed a very rough, ballpark cost estimate of $1.325 million. He went over possible options this week during a work session with commissioners.
One of the most costly items are a skylight and solar tubes, at about $150,000 — but without natural lighting added, the building would be a depressing, dark hole for county employees working there, Thompson said. Sprinklers or a firewall and required additions, also ups the price, he said.
Still, at about $70 a square foot (plus additional money for such items as the fire protection and redoing the exterior), renovating the building still comes in cheaper than building something from scratch. That, Thompson said in a response to a query by County Manager Chuck Wooten, would come in at $175 to $200 a square foot.
“The question is, do we want to utilize this particular space for this particular purpose?” Wooten said. “I think this would be a good use for this particular space.”
In a similar move, Haywood County commissioners last year bought an abandoned Wal-Mart and are converting it into an office complex for the Department of Social Services and Health Department. The cost was cheaper than replacing the antiquated, crumbling facilities with a new building.
Renting office space is costing Jackson County $40,000 annually. The rental lease involved comes up for renewal in May of next year, providing fuel to the discussion. Additionally, Wooten said, more space is needed by several of the agencies housed by the county, including the cooperative extension service (a demonstration kitchen is included in the drawings made by Thompson, per the state agency’s request, plus office space).
The federal Farm Service Agency, currently in the federal building in Bryson City but formerly housed in Jackson County, also would like to return to this county, Wooten said.
That agency would pay rent for the needed 1,610 square feet.
Another county owned building, this one vacant, is posing its own set of problems.
Commissioners were told that the rock building in Mark Watson Park is not worth saving, with Wooten explaining there “are some real issues with water drainage.” Jackson County was eyeing the building as a possible site for a new 911 emergency dispatch office, using $1.4 million available through dollars collected through 911 fees for phones.
The dispatch office is currently using the old grand jury room in the Jackson County Administration Building. About 7,000 square feet is needed, Wooten said.
One option would be to put up a metal building with an attractive façade on the same site where the old rock building currently sits. Also, at Commissioner Doug Cody’s suggestion, the county will look at whether part of the Southern Lumber building now eyed for renovation could also house 911.
Additionally, commissioners agreed to list on the county’s website three potentially commercial pieces of properties, and sell them if possible:
• 1.5 acres on West Main Street and Wilkes Cresent appraised at $185,000.
• 1.5 acres in Whittier, the Clearwood property, appraised at $39,000.
• Just less than 1.5 acres beside Sylva Plaza, the old steakhouse property, bought originally as a site for a new public library. The library was built instead alongside the historic courthouse. The property was appraised for $250,000, Wooten said, adding there has been interest from a potential buyer for the property.
Jackson County could save on rent and overhead if the following offices were consildated into a single county building. The old Southern Lumber Co. is being eyed for that purpose.
• Drivers license office (already there): 994 square feet
• Veterans Services: 520 square feet
• N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: 2,799 square feet
• Soil and Water Conservation District: 2,130 square feet
• Housing: 863 square feet
• Board of Elections: 3,693 square feet
Chuck Wooten’s wings are still clipped as Jackson County’s manager, at least for now, but it looks like he’ll get big-boy hiring and firing powers soon.
Commissioners this week failed to act on Wooten’s request that he no longer bring all personnel decisions before them for approval, but pledged to revisit it soon.
Most county managers in the state have the power to hire and fire county employees. And until recently, Jackson’s manager did as well.
But when three new county commissioners swept into office, they pulled that power away from the county manger. At the time Ken Westmoreland, who left the post the next day, although there are still conflicting stories on whether he was made to leave by the new commissioners or left voluntarily.
Their rationale for overseeing hiring themselves was to ensure vacant positions really needed filling.
When Wooten came on board as a stopgap replacement for Westmoreland, he warned commissioners in January that the decision was posing a problem, mainly in clogging up the process of effective county government.
So they backed off part of that mandate, allowing department heads who are primarily state funded — such as social services and the health department, for example — to use their own discretion. They also said Wooten could make decisions when positions were contracted or grant funded.
Jackson County commissioners did, however, retain oversight for county positions paid for purely with county money.
Wooten is no longer the “interim” county manager, however, and is at the helm in a permanent capacity. The request to have full hiring and firing authority would seem to reflect Wooten’s growing comfort level in the post and with commissioners. And, the commissioners comfort level with him.
Queried after the meeting this week, the board of commissioners seemed united in wanting to grant Wooten full manager powers, but a couple said they had timing concerns — as in being kept informed on decisions being made, and when they would learn about hires.
“We’re just concerned about the time frame, that’s all,” Commissioner Mark Jones said.
— By Quintin Ellison
Western Carolina University and the Cullowhee area could prove the decisive battleground in the coming debate about whether alcohol sales should be legal countywide in Jackson, and not just confined to the towns of Sylva and Dillsboro.
Ikran Mohamed, hurrying to class one day last week, said that when it comes to whether she believes the sale of alcoholic beverages would hurt or help Cullowhee and student life in general at Western Carolina University, she might be speaking while under the influence of the history paper she was carrying to class.
Her paper was on the history of drug addiction and trafficking in the U.S., including alcohol — and Mohamed’s findings weren’t positive. Only a light drinker herself, the Charlotte native said she believes (at least this morning, the paper in hand and fresh on her mind) that it might well be best if the sale of alcoholic beverages remains confined to neighboring Sylva.
“If it’s closer to campus, it’s easier to get,” the rising junior said, adding that she has particular concerns about underage drinking escalating on campus if beer and wine could be purchased at package stores, bars and restaurants in Cullowhee.
Next year, Jackson County voters will get to decide on the issue of countywide alcohol sales. Only two counties in the mountains, Buncombe and Clay, currently allow the sale of beer, wine or liquor outside town limits. Henderson County voters, like Jackson residents, get to vote on the issue next year.
A majority of Jackson County commissioners confirmed last week that they plan to put the question to voters on the ballot next year, either during the May primary or the November election.
The area of the county most likely to experience profound changes if the referendum passes is Cullowhee. Before his retirement earlier this summer, then Chancellor John Bardo pushed for the neighboring Village of Forest Hills to annex part of campus, vote in the sale of alcoholic beverages, and help him create an actual college town where students could find more to do at night than get a tattoo.
Because these days, unless they head up the road to Sylva, a tattoo parlor is about the only thing open near campus past 9 p.m.
“Exactly — that’s it,” said Philip Price, a nursing student from Raleigh and a rising junior. “But I don’t really care. I’m not too much of a drinker.”
Neither is Perry Fotopoulos, an environmental health major with a concentration in pre-med, who hails from nearby Franklin. In fact, Fotopoulos doesn’t drink at all. But he believes that it’s unrealistic to think most students won’t drink, because most do — “and it would be a little safer” if they didn’t have to drive to imbibe at a bar, Fotopoulos said.
That’s important to Eileen Calvert, too, who for the last 15 years or so has been busy giving students and faculty at WCU haircuts at her Cullowhee salon, Hairport.
“It’s ridiculous they don’t have beer here,” Calvert said, who lived for a time in Athens, Ga., where there is an active and vibrant campus nightlife for students at the University of Georgia to experience. “And, it’s inconvenient you can’t buy it here. There would be a lot less leaving this community to party if there were beer, and it would keep money here in our own town.”
In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.
The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.
More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.
Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.
In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.
The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.
During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”
In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.
Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.
The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.
Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.
Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.
It’s a typical late afternoon weekday in Hollifield Jewelers on Main Street in Sylva, with four or five customers in the store at one time.
Busy — just the way owner Steve Dennis likes it. But that busyness, the marks of lifeblood in both a store and any downtown district, is posing some problems in Jackson County’s largest town.
Parking — and as difficult an issue as that can be anywhere in any Western North Carolina municipality, there’s an added element of danger to Sylva’s Main Street that is missing in neighboring Waynesville, Bryson City and Franklin.
The diagonal parking on Main Street, with its two lanes of one-way traffic, requires a leap of faith, especially when driving a small car parked beside, say, an SUV for example.
When it’s time to leave, that’s when the fun begins: Back out blindly and hope another vehicle in the process doesn’t smash you in the rear. Or ask a passenger to risk their physical wellbeing by standing in the road to ensure your safety — but not theirs — while backing the car.
Police Chief Davis Woodard doesn’t like the lay-out one little bit. He figures there’s a smashup about once every two weeks. Given the situation, the chief said it’s somewhat inexplicable why there aren’t fender-benders, or worse, 50 or more times a day.
“If you just stand there and watch, it’s amazing there aren’t more,” Woodard said.
The problem isn’t a simple one to solve, though town leaders are trying to sort out what best to do. Commissioner Ray Lewis has suggested angling the parking spaces more deeply, as is done in Franklin. That means, however, losing some 20 to 25 percent of parking on Main Street, according to what Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower has learned from the state Department of Transportation.
“We can’t afford that,” said Holly Hooper, co-owner of Black Rock Outdoor Company. “It is hard to back out, but we just can’t lose any more spaces.”
Besides, both business owners — Hollifield and Hooper — believe the problem needs to first be sorted out at a different starting point: by slowing down speeders on Main Street.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hooper said.
“It’s like they are on I-40,” Hollifield said.
Combine those speeders with motorists jostling for position, shifting from right lane to left, and shoppers backing cars out into traffic or circling endlessly around town looking for parking … oh yes, don’t forget the jaywalkers, and delivery trucks stopping to unload — that’s downtown Sylva in a nutshell these days.
But there’s also a vibrancy to the downtown, a special quality that Sylva needs to be careful not to lose, said visitors Madeline Crawford and Marti MacMillan, who both live near Clayton, Ga. The two women were returning to their vehicle after an afternoon of shopping in Sylva, their arms burdened with shopping bags.
Take away downtown parking and force people to walk any distance to shop, and you can kill a downtown and kiss much of the business goodbye, MacMillan said.
“It really hurts a town if you take away the quaintness. Then you might as well go to a mall,” the Rabun Gap resident said, emphasizing that she, for one, wouldn’t hike from a distant parking lot to shop the downtown area.
One other, quicker fix the town is leaning toward implementing: marking off the parking spaces at the back ends, as well as the sides, to eliminate vehicles longer than about 19 feet.
Tom Rodgers of the Caney Fork community drives a big Ford F-250, exactly 20 feet long (he knows that because, being a careful man, he measured before building a garage). He elected one day this week to park in a nearby parking lot and walk across Main Street to Vance Hardware — both because he knows his truck would be difficult for motorists in smaller cars to see around if he used a street space, and because the back few feet of his truck would jut into traffic. Rodgers wasn’t eager to have a passing car clip the back end.
But not everyone is as thoughtful, or self-considerate of the back end of their vehicles, as Rodgers, so the size-marking of parking spaces on Main Street looks to become a certainty, based on recent meetings of the town’s commission board.
Chief Woodard is also getting ready to interview, then hire, a foot-patrol officer for the downtown, something Sylva has lacked since the late Officer Joe Frigo (fondly dubbed “Officer Friendly” by Sylva residents) retired in December 2003.
The new Officer Friendly will be tasked with enforcing Sylva’s relatively recent rule forbidding merchants and their workers from parking in the prime spaces downtown, and generally providing an official reminder for motoring civility in the downtown area.
When Mike Schoonover was 10 years old, he had a transformative experience. It wasn’t a religious conversion per se. There was no epiphany-inducing encounter with a sports hero. But there was a cathedral of sky and a 10,000-foot high playing field, and there was born a fledgling devotion to the skies that has lasted five decades.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” says Schoonover, who lives in Waynesville.
He’s sitting in the tiny office of the one-runway Jackson County Airport, an unassuming room with faux-wood paneling and the single air conditioner in the small hangar, whirring against the staunch July heat.
He recounted tagging along in the cockpit during a sales call with a family friend who sold used airplanes.
Now he owns his own airplane, a 2006 Maule M4-180V — a throwback, he says, to the earlier days of small-scale flying, and earlier this month he and his 13-year-old grandson, Sam Bolduc, achieved the complicated feat of touching it down in all 48 contiguous states.
They did it in six days. The plane averages around 110 miles per hour, so even a cursory encounter with a map and a calculator will tell you it means essentially constant flying.
And Schoonover did much more than a cursory encounter.
“It was so over-planned and, you know, I flew this thing on paper over and over, four or five times — what altitudes will I fly at, what headings,” says Schoonover.
He’s a self-described type-A man, the kind of person who finds precision relaxing. When he says the trip was highly planned, his claims are genuine.
He planned the routes, of course, and the particulars of the plane. But he also made survival plans, mapped out locations where the plane was most likely to go down without radio contact and then researched and packed a survival kit for the eventuality.
He worked out which foods they could take in the tiny, two-seater plane. They subsisted mainly on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and bananas. Apparently, they’re lower on the choke-hazard scale. Because, says Schoonover, you can’t just pull over a plane to do the Heimlich maneuver.
But even with the copious preparations, things went far better than even the pilot himself expected. He blocked out 12 to 14 days for the trip, breaking it up into 48 1.5-hour flights. That’s another fun fact gleaned from his background research — it takes about 1.5 hours to fly from one state to another, pretty much regardless of size.
He got the idea in the doldrums of winter, one of those intricate daydreams that carry us through the gray expanse of winter days.
But Schoonover’s fantasy crossed the portal from dream to idea, from idea to reality. He doesn’t think they’ve set any records doing it, but that part is a little murky, because he couldn’t really find any record of someone else actually doing it. He’s pretty sure people must do things like this all the time. But maybe, like him, they didn’t exactly look for any record books to put it in.
Record breaking or simply noteworthy, it was an exhausting and expensive proposition. Schoonover was the plane’s sole pilot for all 5,951 nautical miles of the journey, and he relieved himself of more than $3,000 on fuel alone.
“I knew it was one of those things that was once in a lifetime, but at a certain level is hard to justify,” said Schoonover. Overall, the trip cost around $4,000. “But to say that we’d done something like this and to have the experience and have it documented and share it with people and family and stuff, I could justify it one time.”
Hearing him recount the tale, too, it’s clear that one unexpected benefit was worth four grand.
“My grandson loved it. He got into more than I would expect. He became more than a passenger, he was truly a copilot,” says Schoonover. He has 11 grandkids, but this particular 13-year-old seemed the right age. So when he was planning the trip, he called his daughter in Cary.
Would Sam like to come?
And just like Schoonover’s own inaugural ride into the clouds, he hopes his grandson will remember this voyage as the moment his love of aviation began.
“I know he will because I watched and I saw how he got into it. If you ever have that deal where you can see somebody with a passion, see that passion begin,” says Schoonover, the joy on his face replacing the end of his sentence. That is what he saw kindled in his grandson.
Over the course of the trip, they burned 600 gallons of fuel, flew more than 59 hours and made friends at small airports in every quadrant of the country. They passed over three major disasters and countless acres of untouched natural beauty.
Would he do it again? In a heartbeat, says Schoonover.
“You know, did you ever have a family event, something where you wanted it to be perfect and you hoped it would be perfect, but things aren’t perfect?” he asks, as he pushes the small plane, it’s green stripe gleaming in the sun, out for another jaunt into the crisp summer sky. “Well, this was.”
Alcohol has historically been slow to come to the mountains — much slower than the rest of the state.
Only two counties in Western North Carolina allow alcohol sales outside town limits.
Statewide, 60 counties allow some form of alcohol sales, even if just beer and wine, throughout the county. Of those, most date back to 1933 — the year prohibition ended. Across the state, dozens of counties and towns held votes in April 1933 to usher in alcohol.
In the mountains, Buncombe County, along with Asheville and Black Mountain, jumped on the post-prohibition bandwagon, as did Hickory.
But the rest of rural WNC stayed dry. Decades would pass before towns warmed up to the idea, voters here and there voting in beer and wine, then later ABC stores, and eventually, in recent years, liquor drinks at bars and restaurants.
Counties, however, remained steadfast. Politics at the county level still bent to the agrarian voting block, likely more conservative and traditional in their ways, compared to more liberal town dwellers. And the business lobby was absent, satisfied with alcohol at the town level where the stores and restaurants were all located anyway.
With one exception: a rash of alcohol votes after WWII. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, a dozen or more mountain counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain among them — held alcohol referendums. All failed and have not been revisited since.
Some towns, driven by business interests, were formed with alcohol as their goal, such as ski resort towns like Seven Devils, Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain. Maggie Valley’s push to become a town in the late 1970s was inextricably wrapped up in wanting alcohol for its tourist trade. Town limits were narrowly drawn to take in the roadside strip of restaurants and motels, paving the way for alcohol for its commercial district.
Graham remains the only totally dry county — not even the town of Robbinsville has legalized alcohol sales. Yancey was in the same boat until last year, when Burnsville voted in alcohol sales.
Clay County, another tiny county with only one town to speak of, broke the mold in 2009. The county leapfrogged past the still-dry county seat of Hayesville and voted in alcohol at the county level.
It’s the only mountain county besides Buncombe to have alcohol, and the only one in WNC to have a successful alcohol referendum since 1933.
Jackson isn’t alone in its foray toward an alcohol vote. Henderson County commissioners just last week decided to put alcohol to a vote of the people there next year during the May primary.
Whether you’re a college student in Cullowhee or a socialite in Cashiers, stocking up on beer, wine and spirits requires a trip into town — a trip most would apparently rather not make.
A majority of Jackson County residents support countywide alcohol sales, according to a telephone poll of 600 registered voters.
The alcohol question was one of 20 on local politics and issues posed to a random sample of Jackson County’s voting public last summer in a joint public affairs project by the WCU Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News.
The poll showed 56 percent of voters in Jackson County support alcohol sales countywide compared to 39 percent against it.
Only 5 percent of those polled were undecided, a very small number compared to most other questions.
The poll revealed some trends about who favors countywide alcohol sales the most.
• Cashiers residents are more likely to support it than Sylva residents.
• Those with a college degree are more likely to support it. Among those with college degrees, 66 percent were in favor compared to 47 percent of those with less than a college degree.
• Men are stronger supporters of countywide alcohol, with 65 percent of men compared to 54 percent of women supporting the measure.
• Liberals were more supportive, with 72 percent of self-described liberals in favor of countywide alcohol compared to 50 percent among self-described conservatives.
• Younger people support the idea more.