Arts + Entertainment

This November, Sylva residents will elect three commissioners, deciding who will control the majority on that five-member board. All three incumbents are running for re-election, plus two challengers.

In the next four years, it’s likely that Sylva’s chosen leaders will help decide what should be done, if anything, to the main commercial and commuter artery of N.C. 107. They might pick a new town manager, if a permanent one hasn’t been selected before then by the current board.

In other words, this selection of board members could have ramifications for Jackson County’s largest town for years, if not decades, to come.

N.C. 107, a busy stretch of highway south of town that has in the last decade or so seen the addition of a Super Walmart and a Lowe’s Home Improvement, has proven controversial in Jackson County. The N.C. Department of Transportation has proposed massive widening, which could displace many businesses, or possibly building a by-pass around it, which could level a number of homes out in the county.

A bypass between N.C. 107 and U.S. 74 doesn’t much seem to excite anyone running for town council. Most expressed worries that such a bypass could divert traffic not only around town, but also away from the town’s businesses. But something, each agreed, probably needs to be done to alleviate the growing traffic problem on N.C. 107.

A new town manager is also in the headlights for Sylva. The town board forced former Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower to resign in September. The commissioners, citing personnel laws, did not make clear their reasons for demanding the resignation.

Dan Schaeffer, the town’s public works director, is serving as a stopgap manager.


Commissioners, pick three

John Bubazc, 44, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Company

Bubazc is running as a candidate because he wants to provide voters “a moderate, flexible, informed decision maker.”

He also wants to help the town of Sylva work with Dillsboro to redirect thru trucks around the two towns, unless the truckers have business in the downtowns. Too many concrete trucks and delivery trucks heading for Walmart or the university or elsewhere are thundering through, he said.

“It’s really dangerous with cars having to back out into traffic,” Bubazc said.

Bubazc said his overall solution to N.C. 107 hasn’t been settled on, because there’s a committee made up of various stakeholders studying the issue now. “Why would we ignore their recommendation?” he said rhetorically.

Bubazc, a member of the Downtown Sylva Association board, wants the group to become 100-percent funded again, and for the DSA board to hire and oversee its own director. This does not necessarily negate the need for a town economic development director, who was hired recently in a dual role overseeing DSA, he said. Until then, DSA had its own director, which is what Bubazc is pushing for again.

The coffee roasting company owner has clear ideas about the type of individual he’d like to see hired as the town’s manager: “Someone who is experienced, who knows how to deal with groups of people and who is good at interagency communications, and who is sensible enough to work in a small town.”


Harold Hensley, 74, retired maintenance supervisor for Jackson County Schools

Hensley had served on the board previously, but narrowly lost his seat in the last election in 2009. He found his way back on the board last year, however, after being appointed to replace the outgoing Sarah Graham, who resigned after moving out of the town limits.

“I think, really and truly, that I have tried my best to be a voice for all of the people of Sylva,” Hensley said, adding that there are ongoing town projects such as additional sidewalks and the police department’s move to the old library he’d like to see through.

“I think there are some good things going on,” he said.

Hensley believes that the solution to N.C. 107 traffic problems lies, at least in part, with undoing “the bottleneck” that exists at an intersection where hospital and other business traffic dumps into the highway.

“That’s where the traffic backs up at,” he said, adding that in such sour economic times he doesn’t believe Jackson County will get millions of dollars to fix the problem — the solutions must be smaller, such as relieving the pressure at the intersection.

Hensley, too, knows the type person he wants to see as the town’s new manager. They need the necessary qualifications, and people skills, too, he said.

“I would look strongly at some local person, if you get the (proper) qualifications,” Hensley said.


Ray Lewis, 68, retired Sylva police officer

If reelected, Lewis will serve his third four-year term as a town board member. He said the actual job of commissioner “isn’t really a political thing, but I’ve always been interested in politics — and if I can help the people out, that’s what I want to do.”

Lewis is the only member of the town board to flatly support building some new roadway to alleviate traffic pressure on N.C. 107. But his idea echoes one made by SmartRoad proponents in Sylva a few years ago. That of building, or in many ways connecting existing roads, to create a “service road” running behind businesses along the highway, giving some relief to traffic congestion, Lewis said.

Like Hensley, Lewis would like to see a local person hired as the town’s new manager. Someone, he explained, who knows, understands and cares about the community.


Christine Matheson, 52, owner of a gift shop in Cherokee

Matheson, like Hensley, gained her seat on the board via an appointment. The former assistant district attorney stepped in when Mayor Maurice Moody was elected, leaving a commission seat vacant.

“I feel like I’ve made a contribution to the town for the last two years, but I feel like there’s still more to do,” Matheson said. “I love Sylva. It is my home and my heritage.”

Matheson, like Hensley, wants to help see the new police department built, which will require extensive work to the county’s old public library on Main Street. And she wants to help mold the DSA and town relationship.

“That relationship is growing and defining itself,” Matheson said. “We are meshing two entities.”

Matheson is serving on the committee studying what best to do to “fix” N.C. 107.

“I think the committee needs to do its work,” she said, adding that there’s seemingly no clear solution that won’t adversely impact someone.

Matheson wants a town manager who is willing to learn, who has good communication and management skills, is personable and who isn’t afraid to not know something because they are willing to learn and research to find answers. Most importantly, it must be “someone who loves the community” and is willing to be part of the community, Matheson said.


Lynda Sossoman, 64, owner of Radio Shack in Sylva and Cashiers

Sossoman isn’t a newcomer to the town politics — she served a four-year term on the town board in the late 1990s. Sossoman said several people in the community have asked her to run again.

“I really care about my community, and I want to give back to it,” said Sossoman, who is an active volunteer in Jackson County.

Owning a business on N.C. 107 has given her a unique perspective on the problem of what to do to ease congestion.

“I’ve thought about that a lot — the road just doesn’t have very far to grow,” she said.

Perhaps a traffic circle at the intersection where Radio Shack is could help, Sossoman said, who worries that a connector could pull business away from downtown.

Sossoman is deeply concerned about downtown. Radio Shack used to be located there, and she helped form the group that evolved into DSA.

“I want to make sure the downtown stays strong,” Sossoman said, adding that she wants a continuation of downtown events, though she also gave a strong nod to extending the strength of the downtown outside of its traditional limits.

Concerning a town manager, Sossoman wants someone with an education, the proper qualifications and who “is able to communicate with everybody in the community, and with the town board.”

“Occupy Sylva” on Saturday looked and sounded a lot like a Democratic-party function, but with a twist. The message wasn’t necessarily about voting Democratic, though speakers, particularly political office holders, certainly worked that wish into speeches when their moments came to grab the microphone.

The bigger message, and what seemed to have motivated the more than 60 people gathered on Main Street Sylva more than party politics, was about stopping corporate greed, creating jobs and not limiting wealth to a privileged few in a nation with such vast resources at its command.

This was Sylva’s contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. The leaderless movement started one month ago in New York City, with protests spreading nationwide and beyond. Occupy Sylva, Occupy Asheville, Occupy Seattle … even Occupy Helsinki, Occupy Rome, Occupy Berlin and Occupy London.

Sylva’s occupiers waved mostly homemade signs at passing traffic, receiving either toots of horns in support or blank looks from motorists as they swung their cars by the water fountain that fronts Main Street where the protesters gathered.

The signs read, “Corporations are not people,” “Get money out of politics,” “No more predatory capitalism,” “Jobs not cuts.”

No tent city emerged in Sylva as in other Occupy events — after about an hour, everyone wandered off, many to area restaurants to grab a bite to eat before heading to their homes. No clashes with police occurred, either. In fact, if there were any Sylva officers keeping an eye on this group, they were deep, deep undercover — there wasn’t a blue uniform in sight.

While small-town civility ruled this particular Occupy event, the people who gathered were clearly serious in their intentions: They were one voice in demanding that change, real change, must take place.

“We are not a poor country. Our money is just in the wrong place,” said Marsha Crites, who attended the event.

Kurt Lewis, a member of the Young Democrats at Smoky Mountain High School, was somewhat disappointed that few people in his age group showed up. He held a sign that read, “Wall Street is America’s largest casino.”

“They need to care now instead of caring later, before it is too late,” the 17 year old said of his fellow teens.

This being Jackson County, where a preponderance of WNC’s literati call home, poems were of course read, too. Ben Bridgers, retired from attorney work this year, said he’s turned to writing as a means to funnel his growing frustrations with what’s taking place nationally.

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Bridgers told the crowd, before reading aloud a few poems that spoke to why he believes this country is in trouble.

The Occupy Sylva event looked quite a bit like the left’s version of the Tea Party movement, though the speeches and political aims couldn’t be more different.

Political junkie Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches political science, noticed and enjoyed that irony, too. He turned out to observe the nation’s latest grassroots movement at work in small town WNC.

“It’s very interesting,” Cooper said. “Both (groups) are saying they are fed up, but they have such radically different solutions.”

Efforts are well under way in both Sylva and Franklin to build dog parks, places where folks’ canine companions can run off-leash in safely fenced, assigned areas.

If the two communities do build dog parks, they’ll be joining their neighbors to the east: the town of Waynesville already has two fenced romping grounds for dogs along Richland Creek Greenway. The town of Highlands in Macon County also has a half-acre dog park, complete with a five-foot-tall fence. Highlands is roughly a 40-minute drive from Franklin, however, putting it out of reach for regular use by Franklin’s dog owners.

Friends of the Greenway in Franklin has been talking about building a dog park for about six months, according to Doris Munday, a member of the nonprofit support arm for the greenway along the Little Tennessee River. Her dog “uses the mountains” as its dog park, Munday said, but that hasn’t blinded her from seeing the needs of others.

Dog owners, if their pooches are leashed and they cleanup waste deposited by their animals, can use the nearly five-mile paved greenway path in Franklin. But the dogs are not allowed off-leash along the popular trail, where upwards of 20,000 people a month can be found during the summer months. Munday said there have been some problems with “neighborhood dogs” trotting about the greenway unleashed and uninvited and apparently illiterate, too; these rowdy dogs are brazen in ignoring rules about leashes and cleanup that are posted along Franklin’s greenway.

Plans this week call for the Friends group to check in with the Macon County Board of Commissioners to make sure the county doesn’t have any objections to a dog park.

In this case, asking permission seemed optimal to begging forgiveness: Munday said no one is exactly sure whether commissioners’ permission is needed for the project to move forward, but that the group decided it seemed proper to find out.

Assuming everyone is OK with the idea, private funds would be solicited to purchase fencing. The hope is to enclose the dog park this winter. Later, if people want to donate more money, the dog park could be enhanced with additional doggie attractions, Munday said.

Some dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs. Other parks even offer such amenities as dog-agility courses. One standard feature, which would be included if a dog park is built in Franklin, are baggie dispensers so that dog owners can easily cleanup any canine deposits.

Other than the upfront cost of fencing, maintenance on dog parks is relatively minor. In Waynesville, the Haywood Animal Welfare Association buys non-toxic flea control and volunteers regularly sprinkle it on the grass.

In Jackson County, an ad hoc group of dog owners in Sylva requested via a letter sent to the county that they be allowed to use a portion of Mark Watson Park on West Main Street. The Sylva Dog Park Advocates noted in the letter, sent to county officials last month, that it believes a dog park would be “a low cost yet high benefit” addition to Jackson County.

The letter is signed by Stacy Knotts, who serves as a town council member but isn’t acting in that official capacity on this particular project.

She wrote that the group of dog owners believes 10-acre Mark Watson Park, a county-owned facility, would be the best place for a dog park because it is centrally located in Sylva on the county’s (unfinished) greenway; there is open space in the park; there are already pet-owner education classes and the “Bark in the Park” festival taking place in Mark Watson, and such a park would encourage Jackson County’s residents “from letting pets run free on the ball fields, particularly the newly designed fields in the park.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten said the request is being reviewed.

Voices from the American Land — along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore — presented the Every Breath Sings Mountains event at the Jackson County Public Library on Sept. 23.

The speakers, music and readings drew a packed house to the new library. The entire event was also recorded, and the video is both entertaining and thoughtful.

For those who couldn’t make it, organizers videotaped the entire event. Here are the links, in the proper chronological order.

Part 1: Music by Ian Moore Song and Dance Bluegrass Ensemble, introductions, speaker Matt Tooni
Part 2: Music, speakers George Frizell and William Shelton
Part 3: Thomas Raine Crowe reads from new book; Barbara Duncan speaks and sings; Brent Martin speaks
Part 4: Robert Johnson speaks; Panel Discussion begins with Keith Flynn, George Ellison, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, Charles Frazier
Part 5: Panel Discussion continues
Part 6: Panel Discussion is completed; Music by Ian Moore & Co.; Credits


Here is some information about some of the writers and community members who took part in and organized the event:

• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.

• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.

Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.

You know economic times are tough when the business that helps other businesses thrive shuts its doors, too.

The Mountain BizWorks office in Sylva, which serves would-be entrepreneurs and other small business owners in the state’s seven westernmost counties, will close next June.

Shaw Canale, executive director of the group, emphasized this is “a pause” by the group, not a full stop or retrenchment. Mountain BizWorks, headquartered in Asheville, has maintained a physical presence via the Sylva office in the westernmost counties for more than a decade.

“We need to figure out, how do we deliver what we need to deliver into very rural communities?” Canale said. “What’s the real impact we are having, and how do we measure that?”

Bottom line, financial issues forced the closure. The decision to close the Sylva office was made “carefully and systematically,” Canale said. “This very difficult decision was made to ensure that in time Mountain BizWorks can achieve a level of self-sufficiency that will assure that we remain financially healthy.”

One full-time staffer and one part-time staffer, as well as workshop leaders and business coaches hired on a contract basis, will lose jobs as a result of the shutdown in Sylva.

Resource specialist Sheryl Rudd is the part-time staffer at Mountain BizWorks. She and her husband, Dieter Kuhn, started Heinzelmannchen Brewery eight years ago with the help from the nonprofit where Rudd now works. She said Kuhn went through an eight-week course provided by the nonprofit to help determine whether a craft brewery could be successful in Sylva. Kuhn developed a business plan and figured out how to market the product he wanted to produce.

“It was critical,” Rudd said, “to deciding is this going to work, is it not going to work.”

Rudd and Kuhn also relied on Mountain BizWorks for a loan that, coupled with personal funding and investor dollars, allowed them to launch Heinzelmannchen Brewery. Rudd worries whether future entrepreneurs in the area will be able to find similar support in years to come.

Rudd said as the economy soured and grant dollars became increasingly difficult to attain, Mountain BizWorks found itself competing for an ever-smaller pot of money with organizations that provide food, clothing and utility-payment help.

“Of course if it comes down to helping small businesses or feeding someone, you are going to choose to feed someone,” Rudd said, adding that such an obvious need, however, does not mean small-business owners don’t deserve help.

The loss of Mountain BizWork’s local presence also worries and saddens Annie Ritota, who with husband, Joe, owns Annie’s Naturally Bakery in Sylva. The wholesale side of the bakery is based in Asheville.

The Ritotas turned to Mountain BizWorks for help about four years ago. The business, founded in 1999 in the couple’s garage, had grown into a success story “but we’d sort of lost our focus,” Annie Ritota said.

“They helped right our ship and get it turned in the correct direction,” she said. “We were at a place where we weren’t sure where we were going.”

Mountain BizWorks helped the bakery reduce the line of products offered, plus helped resolve cash flow and bookkeeping issues. Ritota said after that positive experience, she often recommends new business owners avail themselves of the nonprofit’s expertise.

Now, Mountain BizWorks has similar anxieties regarding its own purpose and focus. “We are not getting the type impact we want to see,” Canale said. “We want to do things in a much more thoughtful, durable way.”

“There are times when the best decision to make is to stop doing what you’re doing and to give yourself a clear space for reconsidering what to do,” she said. “That’s the situation we’re in now  — the answer is not to try harder and do more, but to stop and think and be sure that whatever we do next is right and that we can support and sustain our work.”

Canale said there is definitely a huge and growing interest in agriculture options in the western counties, as well as across Western North Carolina. Agriculture might well provide at least one area where Mountain BizWorks can continue to serve this section of the region.

Rudd said 35 people attended a workshop recently in Sylva, hosted by Mountain BizWorks, on forest-farm products.

The group is working on a three-year ag-biz pilot project to determine whether, and how, Mountain BizWorks would be helpful to small family farms in Western North Carolina.

Sylva leaders this week demanded their town manager resign, just more than two years after she was hired.

“This was not my decision,” Adrienne Isenhower, now Sylva’s former town manager, told The Smoky Mountain News on Tuesday.

Isenhower resigned Monday following a town board meeting, which included a closed session.

“I did submit my resignation, because they asked me to,” she said.

Some town board members initially told the public she had resigned for “personal reasons,” but Isenhower told The Smoky Mountain News she “wanted to clear the air.”

The board hired Isenhower to replace former Manager Jay Denton, who was fired in September 2008. Isenhower was a planner for the city of Lenoir. She has a master’s degree in public administration from Appalachian State University.

Town board members were split 3-2 on the vote to hire her.

Town Commissioners Harold Hensley and Ray Lewis voted against hiring Isenhower, saying she lacked the experience necessary for the job, particularly in managing a budget. Neither Hensley nor Lewis had wanted to fire Denton in the first place. Town Commissioner Danny Allen, while he wasn’t on the board at the time, came out publicly against firing Denton and hiring Isenhower.

Hensley on Tuesday didn’t want to elaborate on reasons why Isenhower was asked to resign, or who exactly on the board wanted her to resign.

Instead, the commissioner said he wanted to make it clear that he “never had any problems whatsoever with Adrienne.”

“I wouldn’t want to say anything bad in the world about her — she did whatever was asked,” Hensley said, then declined again to comment on which of the commissioners demanded the town manager’s resignation, and whether he was among them.

While Hensley, Lewis and Allen hold the majority control on the board right now, Hensley and Lewis are up for election this fall.

Mayor Maurice Moody described Isenhower as a competent town manager. He said he doesn’t believe that she will have difficulty finding another job in municipal government. Moody said Isenhower’s recent job evaluation, overall, was “fair and pretty good, really.” The five town commissioners and the mayor evaluated Isenhower just a few weeks ago.

“I did not know it was coming at this particular time,” Moody said, adding that he was not among those who asked her to resign.

“I had a different opinion on the type job she was doing than some on the board,” the mayor said, adding that he thought the 28-year-old manger had “made some progress” since she’d been hired in spring 2009.

Dan Schaeffer, the town’s public works director, is serving as a stopgap manager until an interim can be hired, Moody said. The board will then seek a permanent replacement for Isenhower. She made $61,581 annually.

After Sept. 11, the nation gave millions in donations to support recovery. America’s kids, meanwhile, gave in the way that schoolchildren do best: they made posters. In the days following the attack, posters and banners pledging moral support and offering encouragement poured into Ground Zero from schools across the country and around the world. At the time, they made their way to St. Paul’s Chapel, a tiny Episcopal church across from the World Trade Center that served as an impromptu triage and relief center in the days that followed.

Now, recreations of those same banners have found a temporary home at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, where they hang as a memorial to the tragedy of 10 years ago.

The exhibition, called “We All Remember 911,” is the brainchild of Jackson County resident Rick “Sharky” Gorton, a visual artist and photographer.

Ten years ago, Gorton was on a tour around the decimated Ground Zero was drawn to the little church that is Manhattan’s oldest public building in continuous use and once boasted George Washington as a member.

He was allowed to photograph the banners and signs, which hung from the balconies in the church.

When the anniversary of the attacks rolled around, Gorton thought there would be no better way to remember than to replicate the heartfelt sentiments of the nation’s children, many now adults.

Gorton, however, didn’t want to settle for just photographs, when the banners themselves were the most impactful. So he reproduced the banners from the photographs, which proved to be a complicated process.

Because Gorton was allowed to shoot only from the center of the church’s ground floor, with no strobe or flash, the perspective on the banners, hanging 20 feet aloft, was askew. The colors were off. The shadows were unclear. But with a lot of time and some technological wizardry, the photos were corrected to near-exact replicas of the banners in St. Paul’s.

They were then sent to a printing company in Durham that transferred the images to linen and sent them to City Lights, where they hang today.

But Gorton wanted Jackson County to be part of the remembrance, too. So a second set of banners was printed, and they’re being sewn into a massive remembrance quilt that will be signed by community members at a special ceremony 2 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.

Gorton chose a quilt as the local component because it combined the region’s culture with the nation’s sentiment.

“What better than a quilt to represent our area? We’re the craft area of North Carolina. This is our trade and our skill,” said Gorton.

He hopes that, in the future, the quilt will be able to travel as part of a broader remembrance of Sept. 11 and its impact. Its first trip, in fact, will be with the current pastor of St. Paul’s, who will take it on a fundraising tour.

Also on display in the exhibit are photos by Gorton of the many patches, badges, hats and other memorabilia sent to Ground Zero by supporters around the world and photos of peace ribbons mailed in by school children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Gorton said he wanted to commemorate the event this way to help people remember both the terrible tragedy and the wonderful response.

He said his own mother worked in the World Trade Center, and though she survived, the memory is still powerful for Gorton.

“It just seriously affected me, watching it on TV and thinking my mother died. All I could do (now) was just thank people the only way I knew how,” said Gorton. “The uniting moment I saw in America was the day those towers came down — a horrific way to have a moment of hope and peace — but I wanted to express what I saw to everyone here.”

The banners are on permanent display at St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan, and the banner replicas can be seen at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. The memorial quilt will be hung there at 2 p.m. on Sept. 11.

WRGC, a local mainstay on the AM radio dial in Sylva for more than five decades, went off the air last week, the latest victim of a sour economy and plummeting advertising revenues.

The static left in the radio station’s wake disappointed many in the Jackson County community, which has long relied on the 680 AM station for weather reports, school updates, local news and such specialties as “tradio,” a popular tell-it-and-sell-it program. WRGC went off the air Aug. 31 without warning. The radio station had about 8,000 daily listeners.

Three part-time workers and one fulltime employee lost their jobs; another fulltime employee was able to transfer elsewhere within Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company, which owns WRGC.


A blow to the community

Terry Fox, owner and operator of a vegetable and fruit stand in Sylva, said over his makeshift lunch of deviled ham and crackers on Saturday that local people don’t much like this kind of drastic change — one day you have a radio station; the next you don’t.

Fox sometimes played the radio station in his store to entertain the largely local clientele who frequent it for peaches, greasy beans, sweet potatoes, local honey and more. In recent years, he’s relied on it less and less. WRGC went to “adult contemporary” programming from the country music and gospel lineup many coming through here particularly enjoy.

He added that in his opinion, the station lost local following, too, after limiting NASCAR programming and changing the tell-it-and-sell-it program’s format.

“People are going to miss it, though,” Fox said of the station’s demise.


What happened

“This incredibly difficult economy has made it impossible for us to secure the local advertising support needed to continue providing Jackson County a full service community radio station,” WRGC’s parent company says in a posting to the radio station’s website.

“While WRGC has successfully maintained a large audience across northern Jackson County and adjacent areas, it has become clear that the station must discontinue operations until the economy improves. With these uncertain times and the fact that our studio/office/transmitter site lease is set to renew at the end of 2011, we did not feel it was prudent to commit any more of our company resource to subsidize the station’s operation.”

Company President/CEO Art Sutton said in a follow-up interview via email that “the economy of Western North Carolina has been hit especially hard, particularly where real estate was such a driver. … I have just concluded that in this new normal, WRGC needs an owner who is from the community, lives in the community, and can give it the attention, time and care only a local owner can.”

Sutton said he has no plans to shutdown his AM and FM radio stations in Franklin, which he described as profitable enterprises. At the peak of revenue (the company bought WRGC in 2002), the Sylva radio station did just 21 percent less in revenue than the two stations combined in Franklin.

“Since 2008, our revenue in Sylva has dropped 40 percent while in Franklin the revenue, despite the economy, grew nearly 10 percent over the same period,” he said. “As in Sylva, all the advertising revenue is generated locally in the station’s county of location.”

Additionally, operating costs are higher in Jackson County than in neighboring Macon County, Sutton said, where the company owns the transmitter site and studios and only needs one tower. In Sylva, by contrast, the Georgia-based company rents space and requires two towers.

Sutton pointed to the specific advertising losses in the past few years of two car dealers and Southern Lumber Company. Revenues also dropped after the local hospital merged with Haywood County and Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College experienced steep state budget cuts, impacting their advertising budgets.

“These were major advertisers for the station,” he wrote.

The Federal Communications Commission won’t let a station remain silent for longer than one year, or its license is cancelled. Sutton hopes to sell the station to a local buyer. But if not, he said he would consider moving WRGC to another market.

“We will do that before we lose the license as much as I would hate to see Jackson County lose its only commercial radio station, when all is said and done, a radio station is not a charity. It’s a business that depends on advertising sales, entirely,” he wrote.

WRGC was a family affair

A local buyer just might be a real possibility, however. Radio founder and longtime owner Jimmy Childress owns everything about WRGC except for the license and equipment, which he sold to Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company 10 years ago.

The Childress family owns the property involved.

WRGC’s call letters come from the initials of Childress’ son, Ronnie, who was electrocuted in the 1970s while working on the station’s transmitter.

At 87 years old, Childress laughed when asked if he planned to get back in the radio game, saying bluntly: “I’m too old to fool with it.”

Childress expressed his disappointment that WRGC has gone off the air, but seemed optimistic the day would be saved and the radio would again hit the airwaves. He’s been in discussions with local radio personality Gary Ayers, a Sylva resident, Bryson City native and fixture in Western Carolina University Catamount sports, about Ayers leasing the radio property.

“It would be an excellent buy if he took it,” Childress said, adding that the key to a local radio station is “that you’ve got to know your audience, and try to appeal to a good cross-section of the whole county.”

Ayers early Tuesday confirmed his interest in acquiring WRGC, though he described the negotiations as complicated by two different parties (Childress and Georgia-Caroline Radiocasting) being involved.

“Therein is the interesting scenario,” said Ayers, who owned a radio station in Canton for seven years. If the numbers add up to acquire WRGC, and the necessary local advertising support is evident, then Ayers said he hopes to move forward on the deal.

When Starcast South let WBHN in Bryson City go dead in September 2009 as Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company has done now with WRGC, local residents formed Lighthouse Broadcasting, raised money, bought the station, and changed the format to Southern Gospel/Christian.

WBHN, 1590 AM, signed on again in 2010 in the nick of time — just eighteen hours before to the station’s license was set to expire had it gone past the one-year mark.

The loss of WRGC in Sylva is the latest in a series of changes rattling Jackson County’s airwaves. The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group headquartered in Sylva, won rights to the frequency 95.3 FM over Western Carolina University, when the FCC decided to make it available. By comparison, the Canary Coalition’s station would be full-powered, with a possible three-state range. Avram Friedman, director of the clean-air advocacy group, pictures a radio station largely focused on environmental issues that would open up media access to a variety of the region’s nonprofits.

WCU is appealing the FCC’s decision to give The Canary Coalition the frequency. Regardless of whether WCU or The Canary Coalition ultimately prevails, it will deal a major blow to National Public Radio listners. WCQS, the region’s main NPR station, broadcasts in Haywood and Jackson on 95.3 FM.

Being knocked off the frequency would leave more than 100,000 listeners potentially without public radio in Haywood and Jackson counties. WCQS, based in Asheville, has used the frequency for 20 years. The radio station, however, was not considered “local” when the FCC was assessing who to grant the license to, a requirement of the federal agency.

Terrifying, exciting and kind-of liberating. That’s how Tom Scheve describes the inaugural experience of telling jokes on stage. And usually, he says, you either get it out of your system then and there, or the performance bug gets you.

“We’re trying to develop and encourage people who do it for the first time and try and see who’s going to catch the bug,” says Scheve, which is part of why he’s teamed up with a local comedian who styles himself  Shucky Blue and No Name Sports Pub in Sylva to start an open mic comedy night.

Now, for the budding humorist who doesn’t want to trek to Asheville, there’s a local evening where they can test out their best cracks.

The show is scheduled every Monday night, and beginners to seasoned pros are welcome on the stage, says Scheve. The regular performers, in fact, were one of the biggest factors in the night’s genesis.

“Performers that have been doing it for a while, they want to get on stage every night,” says Scheve, and he’s one of those guys. “I try to perform as much as I can and also build as much stage time as possible for regional performers. And there wasn’t anything close to me on Monday night. The closest one is in Greenville.”

With this new night, he’s hoping to cultivate something of a little comedy scene in Western North Carolina, like the one that gave him his start in Asheville.

That town, he says, now has a pretty vibrant comedy scene, even hosting an annual comedy festival with the appropriately tongue-in-cheek moniker, Laugh Your Asheville Off.

But it started, he says, with a night called Tomato Tuesday, where guests were given tomatoes to throw at a gong when they wanted you of stage.

Yes, it sounds pretty brutal. But Scheve says it was exactly what he was looking for.

Sylva’s evening of laughter may not be quite as caustic, but do expect it to be unexpected.

“This is an open mic, which means no promises, no expectations and it’ll be basically whoever decides to show up that night,” says Scheve. But he kind-of likes it that way, and the impromptu nature of an open mic offers benefits to performers and patrons alike, he says.

For the novices, it can be a try-before-you-buy experience. Not sure if you can hack comedy with a live audience? Then try it on stage for one minute, two minutes. It’s an open mic, so no one will commit you to a longer, more daunting time slot.

For the comedy consumer, variety is the selling point of nights like this.

“It’s just really fun because you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Scheve. “If you really hate it, if you wait a few minutes, somebody else is going to be on stage.”

In addition to being a performer, Scheve also writes the Asheville Disclaimer, a satirical column in the weekly Mountain Xpress. Plus, he has experience running shows. He’s at the helm of a similar comedy evening on Wednesdays in Asheville.

And part of making them a success, he knows, is having a good venue on board.

No Name was perfect in that sense. It was actually looking for some help with a comedy evening, and with some assistance from the sometimes-reliable Craigslist, got matched up with Scheve.

Though it’s only been on its feet for a mere two weeks, Scheve hopes that just the night’s existence will entice closet comedians onto the stage, giving them a community where they can hone and cultivate their skills.

“I want it to be a vehicle that kind-of nurtures and develops a little comedy scene west of Asheville,” says Scheve. “The people that want to perform comedy are out there, and they’ve been thinking about it and looking for a chance. I‘m hoping that they’ll come out and give it a try.”


What: No Name Comedy Night

Where: No Name Pub, 1070 Skyland Drive, Sylva

When: 8 p.m. every Monday

What else: Call 828.216.2331 for more information

Hampered by a leash law that keeps their canine friends at heel, an ad hoc group of Sylva residents hope to find a place — a puppy park — where dogs can just be dogs, enjoying various doggie things.

In an informal, grassroots sort of get-together that took place one evening last week at City Lights Café, seven Sylva dog owners envisioned a fenced dog park where Rover could run unfettered, chasing a Frisbee or tennis ball, playing nicely with all the other dogs. No cats, of course, would be allowed. Rowdy dogs would be banned.

This field of dreams looks a lot like the dog parks found in Haywood County. Waynesville leaders set aside two fenced areas along the Richland Creek Greenway for dogs and their owners. The parks come complete with baggie dispensers so people can more easily cleanup after their dogs.

“We need an off-leash dog area,” said Stacy Knotts, a Sylva dog owner and town commissioner who emphasized that this, however, was not a town project.

And for good reason: A couple of years ago, Sylva’s town council erupted in fierce debate over whether dogs should be allowed in the then new Bridge Park, a small green space adjacent to downtown with a covered pavilion for holding concerts and community events. The fur flew as council members accused each other of voting to suit various canine agendas.

With that bitter history serving as a backdrop, Knotts said that the group’s hope is to convince county commissioners to let dog owners use one of Jackson County’s parks, with private money, perhaps, paying for needed fencing. Mark Watson Park, located near town, emerged as a clear favorite of the group, but any county park where they’d find an official welcome would be fine, they agreed.

Keith DeLancey, a local therapist with three dogs of his own, agreed to serve as point person on the project. The united effort to develop a dog park grew out of an email exchange between DeLancey and Knotts. DeLancey and his dogs have visited and played in Waynesville’s dog parks, and he proclaimed them “very nice” indeed.

There was discussion about the possibility of having an agility area at this fantasy future Sylva dog-park. Pat Thomas suggested keeping costs down by using bamboo, an idea gleaned from the Internet. She has some on her property that might serve such a purpose.

DeLancey said rough estimates show building 6-foot tall fencing for a half-acre area would cost just more than $600.

The first step will be to discuss the possibilities with the county’s recreation department, Knotts said, and then, later, ask for county commissioners’ support.

“We have a lot to do before we get to that point,” Knotts said.  

A Facebook site for the group, to garner more support from local dog owners, will be built. The group also plans to start a petition drive — a “would you use a dog park” type questionnaire — too.

Page 27 of 42

This Must Be the Place

Reading Room

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