Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.
“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”
The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”
At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.
Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.
Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.
Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.
“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.
The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.
It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.
“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.
“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.
Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”
“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”
Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.
Jackson County’s new public library in Sylva kicked off in grand style, with dozens of people on hand to celebrate the grand opening on Saturday.
The library complex and the renovated courthouse cost $8 million, with the Friends of the Library raising another $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library.
The achievement, said Doug Cody, vice chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, stands as a visible symbol on the hill above Sylva as a “credit to the spirit of this community.”
Former Commissioner William Shelton, who played a critical role in helping keep the library in Sylva’s downtown area and in approving the needed funding, shied from taking much of the credit.
“It was a privilege to me to be at the right place at the right time,” Shelton said.
Shelton posited the courthouse and new library complex as a symbol of something wonderful, a place where “history, our culture and our quest for knowledge” merge.
The Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, The old courtroom was converted into an approximately 2,500-square-foot auditorium available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.
A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.
REACH of Jackson County continues to struggle financially, but fears this winter that the agency might actually shut down now seem unlikely.
The “village,” a transitional-housing complex for women escaping domestic violence, was bleeding dollars from the nonprofit organization. The complex has since been taken over by Mountain Projects, and that has certainly helped REACH’s financial outlook, said REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer.
But even more importantly, she said, REACH is a leaner, meaner, anti-domestic violence fighting machine … or something like that, anyway.
“Sometimes a crisis can get you to rethink, and I think this has put us in a place where we will be even more efficient and effective,” Roberts-Fer said.
The near financial meltdown has taken its toll, however. The projected budget for REACH this fiscal year is $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. And the staff is down, too, with nine positions slashed: half of the people who once worked for the nonprofit are gone.
What’s left, Roberts-Fer said, is the core, essential duty that rightfully belongs to an agency such as this: the ability to help victims of domestic violence during times of crisis.
The hotline is manned, the money-raising thrift shop is open, and the workers remaining for the agency are being cross-trained to handle a multitude of services. The days of specializing are over, Roberts-Fer said, and so are nice-but-not-essential services, such as long-term counseling for victims. That’s being farmed out into the community when there’s a need.
The continued viability of the nonprofit hinges on two critical points: continued grant money from a dollars-strapped state, and the ability of REACH to ride out a four- to five-month expected delay in receiving that funding. These days, North Carolina is slow to put the checks in the mail, and agencies that desire solvency have learned to stash money or use lines of credit from banks to ride out the drought that begins with each new fiscal year.
REACH, however, has no piggy bank, and no real bank that is willing to extend credit — the agency went into foreclosure proceedings with the village, subsequently missing payroll twice and even seeing the water cut off for nonpayment of bills. REACH isn’t exactly the kind of customer most banks will open their vaults to.
Money woes or not, the need for the nonprofit’s services are great; however, during fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.
Finance Director Janice Mason said the thrift shop isn’t making much money, but that it is holding its own. One positive sign is that donations are up, she said.
Roberts-Fer has warned her staff that she cannot guarantee all the hard times are over, or even that the agency might not again miss payroll. Still, she remains optimistic.
“Progress towards stability has been slow, but there is definite progress,” Roberts-Fer said.
A REACH of Jackson County fundraiser is set for Saturday, June 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley. Tickets are $75 per person. The evening includes dinner, drinks, dancing and gaming, with a special appearance by the Gamelan Ensemble. 828.631.4488 ext. 207.
The Cashiers Recreation Center is back on track following a unanimous vote this week by Jackson County commissioners to move forward with the $8 million project.
Commissioners voted to use money from the county’s fund balance instead of taking out a loan, and to hire a professional cost estimator to figure out the bottom-line price tag.
Current estimates are based on blueprints that have been on the shelf since 2006. If anything, given the crash of the construction market since then, Jackson County can anticipate a probable improvement on the original guesstimates.
The county already has spent about $3 million on the project in the past five years getting a site ready. County Manager Chuck Wooten said a fire-pump station is still needed to ensure future sprinklers have the water to operate. But otherwise, he said, the county is about ready to go through a punch (or to-do list) for that part of the project.
Cashiers’ recreation center has been a sore point for that community, which is isolated by virtue of geography. The residents in that area shoulder the bulk of Jackson County’s tax base, but often complain of seeing little return for their dollars.
The project hit environmental snags (the site is in the protected headwaters of the Chatooga River), which triggered correspondingly higher costs. The county had to pay an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with the regulatory demands.
The project almost hit another potential roadblock when Chairman Jack Debnam shied at designating the fund balance as the source of funding. He said he wanted more time to study whether the county might be better off taking out a loan. With Wooten saying commissioners couldn’t move forward at this time without detailing where they’d get the money from, and a motion from Commissioner Mark Jones, a resident of Cashiers, already on the table, Debnam voted “yes,” too.
Jackson County commissioners this week voted unanimously to keep Chuck Wooten on for at least another year as county manager. Wooten will receive an annual base salary of $120,747.96, plus benefits.
County commissioners asked Wooten in January to serve as interim manager for six months or so. He retired Jan. 1 from Western Carolina University after three decades as vice chancellor for administration and finance. He once worked as county manager for Iredell County.
Since coming on as county manager, Wooten has successfully guided a new board of commissioners — three of the five members were elected last November — through a budget, among other tasks.
Wooten indicated he doesn’t plan to make a second career as manager, though Chairman Jack Debnam joked about persuading Wooten to stay on for four more years. The contract is open-ended, which County Attorney Jay Coward said was standard for this type of agreement. Wooten serves at the pleasure of the board. For his part, Wooten is obligated to give 30-days notice if he opts to resign.
Kenneth Westmoreland was Jackson County’s manager until Wooten came aboard. Westmoreland was either pressured to leave (his version) or left of his own volition, but in the end the result was the same: the three newest commissioners, Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody, wanted a change, and Westmoreland was soon gone after the election.
Westmoreland had served as Jackson County manager for almost a decade. His actions as the county’s top leader became a campaign issue, particularly the implementation of a new pay-scale system that was targeted as too generous to long-time employees like himself.
No actual decision was made, but County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week that they have $95,176 set aside in the budget if they want to give the money, as requested, to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.
The money would go toward fixing up a steam engine the railroad bought that is currently sitting in Maine. In February, the privately owned business asked for $817,176 in the form of a loan and a grant from Jackson County. A few weeks later, the railroad amended that request to ask for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.
Now the loan part is gone, and the railroad just wants cold, hard cash from Jackson County.
That’s because if the railroad did get a loan from the county, it might well be forced to immediately pay back another federal loan because of an agreed upon debt-equity ratio, Wooten said.
Businessman Al Harper owns the railroad. Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of the railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, the railroad did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.
With the steam engine, Harper is promising to run service out of Dillsboro two to three days per week in June, July and August, and three to four days out of the week in October.
Additionally, the railroad promises during November and December for the popular Polar Express to originate out of the tourism-dependent town.
“If there is sufficient passenger demand then (the) number of days could be increased,” Wooten noted. “There will also be trips on the steam engine originating out of Bryson City with a stopover in Dillsboro.”
Swain County and the Swain County Travel and Tourism Authority each have already kicked in $25,000, for a total of $50,000, to the railroad.
A decision by commissioners in Jackson County won’t be made until the steam engine is physically located in Western North Carolina from Maine, Wooten said.
Set high on a mountaintop above Sylva, the historic courthouse has long been a focal point in this Jackson County town, attracting droves of visitors and professional and amateur photographers alike.
And with a just-finished retooling and addition of a new, 22,000-square-foot library annex to the original courthouse, many here believe this stately structure will play an increasingly important role in Jackson County’s economic future.
“It’s going to be huge, a huge draw,” said Mary Otto Selzer, a former investment banker who helped lead a drive by the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library to raise $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. “It is going to be a destination.”
Selzer said tourists, even before the opening, have been showing up and asking questions.
“The (courthouse/library annex) has tremendous presence in Sylva,” Selzer said of the moths-to-the-flame pattern visitors are already displaying. “Location, location, location.”
The $8.6 million facility opened Tuesday, with the grand opening set for Saturday, June 11.
Down at the base of the mountain from the courthouse/library annex is the Hooper House, another renovated structure in Sylva. Interestingly, in 1999, during one of the many attempts to figure out how to accommodate the county’s need for a new library, county leaders decide to tear down the historic house down. They were trying to find room for expanding the old library next door, but opposition to the destruction prevailed. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce now has its home in the Hooper House.
On this day, Linda Worley is manning the chamber desk. She is unabashedly excited about the renovations to the county’s historic courthouse, visible through the window over her shoulder as she talked.
“I tell every tourist who comes in here about it,” said Worley, a Kentucky native who married a local boy and ended up in his hometown via a protracted spell in Florida. Like Selzer, she believes the economic potential of the renovated courthouse and addition of a library annex for Jackson County will prove significant.
“It is just magnificent — such a draw,” Worley said, turning as she spoke to admire the building towering above.
Great attention was paid architecturally to the restoration and design of the old courthouse.
Macmillan, Pazdan & Smith, the architectural firm hired to oversee the project, used historic records to return the Jackson County Courthouse to near its original state. The building was gutted during a renovation in the 1970s, and almost no original features remained. The Madison County Courthouse, which by contrast retained its original character, served as a model.
C.J. Harris, a prominent industrialist and wealthy Sylva businessman, bankrolled the $50,000 project in 1914 in return for the county seat being moved from Webster to Sylva. He also used the Madison County Courthouse as his inspiration.
Newly returned to its former glory, the Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, and includes an approximately 2,500-square-foot courtroom available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.
A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.
The importance of community continues being melded into the new structure as well. Along with a continuity of design — which Selzer accurately describes as virtually “seamless” — endless efforts are being taken to weave ties to residents. June Smith, president of the Friends of the Library group, is in charge of one of those initiatives: “Jackson County Collects,” exhibits of the community, will be prominently highlighted in a built-in display area. For the opening, Jackson County resident Dot Conner’s apron collection has garnered the coveted spot.
The Friends’ successful fundraising campaign caught the attention of other groups in the region looking for methods of raising money during these tough economic times. Betty Screven, who is in charge of publicity for the group, said the keys were planning and leadership.
“This was a professionally run campaign, even though none of us had (significant) fundraising experiences,” Screven said.
Originally, commissioners asked for $1.5 million to be raised. Then the number went to $1.6 million. Ultimately, as previously mentioned, the group brought in $1.8 million. Money left over will go toward a library endowment fund to help pay for future needs.
To Screven, the most important contributions were in many ways the smallest gestures made — she chokes up as she remembers the day she was working at the Friends of the Library’s used bookstore on Main Street, and a little girl came in, accompanied by her father, clutching a $1 bill.
“This was her allowance for the week — she came in, and said she wanted to give her $1, because someone else would then give a match of $1, too,” Screven said. “This library is truly for everybody in the county.”
That match was critical to the success of the campaign, and came about as the result of a $250,000 State Employees’ Credit Union matching grant.
“It was very inspirational to people,” Screven said, adding the grant came with the condition the building had to be 90 percent completed, which helped add concrete deadlines to the project.
A core group of about five people saw the project through, with endless help from others, said Screven, a former public-relations employee for two decades for a national bank. The official fundraising effort began in May 2008.
“It has been practically a full-time job for the core people,” said Screven, who after questioning by her sister estimated she was putting about 35 hours a week into the project.
The Friends group used the services of professional fundraisers for a few months to get the feel and structure in place, then took over without them.
“We put the right people in the right jobs,” Screven said.
“The past and the future of our county are visible on the hill.”
— Sue Ellen Bridgers, Jackson County resident and writer, the state’s former poet laureate
“It represents the history of Jackson County. It represents the glory and beauty of learning. It represents the literary heritage of the world. The other thing it represents is the absolute freedom to anyone who wants to come and enjoy what has become theirs.”
— Dr. John Bunn, Co-chairman of the Friends of the Library Fundraising Committee
“The public library was one of my reasons for choosing Sylva as my home in 1986. Our local area is filled with people I like to call ‘frequent readers’ because their wallets include a card for each unique library system. All of us frequent readers are eager to use the new Jackson County Public Library as a research source, a place to browse quality novels, attend community events, learn about regional history, and enjoy the revitalized courthouse complex. The public library has come such a long way. My hat’s off to all the library staff and friends.”
— Dianne Lindgren, library director, Holt Library at Southwestern Community College
“I think it’s an inspirational project that’s kind of taken on even more meaning as the project has proceeded. It’s a great example of what can happen when a community gets behind a project like that.”
— William Shelton, farmer and former Jackson County commissioner, who played a critical role in keeping the library downtown
“I was so happy when the county commissioners decided to renovate the courthouse and build an addition for the library. I knew it would be a huge asset to the town of Sylva, since the courthouse is such an icon for the town. But it also showed a lot of foresight for Jackson County, which will be elevated by the addition of not just a new library (which would raise the quality of county services a notch no matter where they located it), but one that is so unique and special in nature. The combination of modern library amenities with the historic preservation of the old county courthouse shows a local commitment to education, culture, history, and community. I feel so fortunate to live in a community that can embrace the unique, rather than shy away from it. Jackson County is special that way, even though we sometimes struggle.”
— Sarah Graham, former Town of Sylva commissioner, now employed by the Southwestern Development Commission
“‘Going to the library’ always meant an event to me, starting back when I was a toddler. It was even more exciting when the event came to us on wheels as the bookmobile. As an adult I learned that the library could be a meeting place for special events and programs ... and, on ARF days, you could even go home with furry little four-legged reading companions. But now, taking in all the splendor of the courthouse complex, I think going to the library will be a cultural experience, as well as a literary experience.”
— Rose Garrett, former staff writer at The Sylva Herald and now public information officer for Southwestern Community College
“The courthouse is for me the symbol of Jackson County. It defines Sylva now as it did when I was growing up (and when I was born in the old hospital located only a few hundred yards up the hill from the courthouse). It has gone through changes, from red brick to white, from a line of trees in front to a landscaped hillside, but it is still “the courthouse.” Whenever I see someone standing in (literally “in”) Main Street of Sylva trying to frame the building and, as one architectural guide noted, that cascade of steps, I’m reminded of how special it is.”
— George Frizzell, university archivist for Western Carolina University
“My mother, who’s the reason I’m a librarian, is hugging herself somewhere.”
— Jackson County Librarian Dotty Brunette
A discussion about the future of Pinnacle Park outside Sylva will be held at 9 a.m. Saturday, June 4, followed by a short hike from the Fisher Creek trailhead.
The 1,100 acre tract once served as Sylva’s source of drinking water and has now been preserved.
Those interested in the hiking and biking potential of the park, as well as those who use the park for birding, wildlife and native plant activities, are encouraged to attend, and future volunteer opportunities will be discussed. Information from the discussion will help the town of Sylva and the Pinnacle Park Foundation determine future park needs.
The Jackson County Greenways Project is organizing the event in honor of National Trails Day.
Living in Cashiers has certain perks: There is a beautiful lake to play on, gorgeous homes to live in and lovely vistas to enjoy. There also are nice restaurants, great gift shops and even an upscale Ingles grocery store that is the envy of residents in the much larger town of Sylva, who are afforded considerably fewer shopping selections at their smaller, scaled-down version.
But there’s a price to pay for living in Cashiers, both literally — because of high land prices — and figuratively. You’ve got to drive “off the mountain,” as the locals here say, for most shopping and to enjoy other amenities — and to work out.
Unless, that is, you’re made of sterner stuff than most. Which Rebecca Smith must certainly be — because she tries to swim for exercise three times a week (during the warmer months) in nearby Lake Glenville.
Smith, however, said she’d welcome a recreation center, and hopes Jackson County commissioners follow through on building it. Not so much for her personal use, but for the kids who live in the community, and for the younger people here in general. Friday at 1:30 p.m., the commission board will hold a meeting at the Cashiers library to discuss the possibility. Smith noted down the time and place. She’s going to try to be there.
Smith is a member of the Glenville community club, and on this day, was volunteering at the group’s thrift shop alongside N.C. 107. Her husband is currently the club’s president.
During a recent meeting, Smith said, group members were discussing how best to keep the community’s young people from leaving the area. Take her own grandchildren for example, who went to nearby Blue Ridge School but then “couldn’t wait to get out of here,” she said.
“‘What’s here for us?’ they said. And, that’s true,” Smith conceded.
There are a few options for the recreationally minded when they don’t want to hike or swim in the lake. Cashiers residents can motor over to neighboring Highlands and use the fitness center there; they can drive down to the Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee. Either way, though particularly if heading to Cullowhee, they are dealing with a windy, slow, two-lane road. Depending on where a person lives in Cashiers, it can easily take 30 minutes or more to get there.
There is one more option, and oddly enough, it was exactly what Zac and Jama Koenig were, just that morning, discussing the possibility of doing. The couple was picnicking Saturday in the Village Green with their daughter, Emma, and her friend, Addie. The Village Green is a community park paid for and built by people living in this community.
Even with the park, “unless you are a member of a club, there’s nowhere to do anything,” Jama Koenig said. “There’s nowhere to go to be fit.”
The solution this couple and many other Cashiers residents are forced to settle on? Buying a small “amenities” lot in the Country Club in Sapphire Valley, down around the Jackson-Transylvania county line, so that they can use the facilities.
The fitness club at Sapphire is 3,600 square feet, offering both cardio- and weight-training equipment. There are locker rooms and saunas, and places to play golf and tennis.
Zac Koenig, who runs the family owned Koenig Homebuilders, said the amenities lots generally are priced starting at $2,500. There’s reasons they can’t be built on — no septic, things like that, but buying a lot does allow people to buy their way in to the club.
And, many Cashiers residents are doing exactly that, Jama Koenig said.
Jama and Zac Koenig (he serves on the county’s planning board) represent, in many ways, both ends of a debate that is likely to take place over building a recreation center in Cashiers. A projected $5 million project to serve a selected few in the county, yes, but in a part of the county that is among the most isolated, and which pays the bulk of Jackson’s taxes.
“Our portion of the tax base is huge,” Jana Koenig said. She has no doubt the community needs and deserves a recreation center.
Her husband, however, isn’t so sure, though he’d enjoy having a recreation center nearby.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Zac Koenig said. “Our area does pay most of the taxes, but in the winter, there’s not many people here.”
That’s because Cashiers’ population is dominated by seasonal residency. Many houses stand vacant during cold-weather months, and the numbers of people in the community plummet.
• Approximately 2,500 square feet in size
• Gymnasium for basketball and volleyball
• Eight-foot wide indoor running/walking track
• Fitness equipment area
• Meeting space, kitchen, storage
• Aerobics and dance areas
Source: Jackson County
The three new Jackson commissioners — Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — owe their victory last fall in part to the Cashiers and Glenville communities, where they won by margins of nearly 3 to 1.
Though they won in several other precincts as well, no where was their showing as impressive as it was on the mountain.
The floundering Cashiers recreation center project could be partly to blame for their predecessors’ ousting — although it’s not the only reason. All three were Democrats, and no Democrat on the ballot, from Congress to sheriff, fared very well in Cashiers — though none did quite so poorly as the commissioners.
While the new board of commissioners will surely curry favor with Cashiers-Glenville voters for finally making the recreation center a reality, the stage for success was set — ironically — by the former commissioners despite their dismal approval rating there.
The blueprints, the costly site work to date — and most notably $5 million squirreled away in savings to pay for construction — were left behind on a silver platter for the taking.
Cashiers and Glenville combined have a year-round population of just 3,700, according to the latest census. But there are far more seasonal residents that flood the mountain in the summer. Of the 6,440 homes in the Cashiers-Glenville area, only 25 percent are lived in year-round, according to the census.
Jack Debnam 904
Brian McMahan 513
Doug Cody 1,179
Tom Massie 439
Charles Elders 1,175
William Shelton 453