Golden LEAF, a nonprofit formed from the tobacco settlement lawsuit that gives grants to economically distressed or rural communities, chose Swain County to take part in the Community Assistance Initiative, which awards communities up to $2 million to tackle two or three persistent problems.
After almost a year, Swain leaders and residents were able to narrow its list of community improvement projects to four. The nonprofit then picked three of them to fund and decided how much money to dedicate to each. Golden LEAF tries to limit the projects because the nonprofit wants its funding to make an impact.
“What you don’t want to do is spread money so thin that it gives everybody a chance to fail,” said Dan Gerlach, president of Golden LEAF.
Once reviewing the grant applications for each project Swain County submitted, Golden LEAF gave money to buy technology for fourth- through eighth-graders, for a high technology training center, and to contribute to the replacement of Bryson City’s water and sewer infrastructure.
During the new few years, Golden LEAF employees will monitor each of the projects and look at benchmarks to see how the foundation’s investment has affected the community.
Swain County High School students already have individual laptops to use at school or at home for schoolwork purposes, but the school system wants to expand that to lower grades as well. Swain County Schools received $827,000 to provide some type of digital device, perhaps a laptop or tablet, to students in fourth through eighth grade.
When technology is introduced into a classroom, the students become “more engaged and more on task with things,” said Swain County Superintendent Sam Pattillo.
There is no deadline for when the students will get their hands on a digital device. The school system has 36 months to use the money, and it is being cautious about implementation.
“We want to do it right from the start,” Pattillo said.
Teachers in those grades will have input on what type and brand of device the school system will buy and also go through training so they are very familiar with the devices before students get hold of them. As for the children though, Pattillo doesn’t expect them to need as much preparation.
“Kids really take off on this,” he said.
School leaders have not decided whether it will allow the younger students to take their devices home with them, though the schools have not had problems in the past with students breaking them.
“The only ones that were broken were the ones parents came in and said they accidentally dropped,” Pattillo said.
Once the school system does start using digital devices in the classroom, Golden LEAF will track the progress of students using already available metrics gathered by schools for state records.
“The goal over time is to see gains in student achievement,” Gerlach said.
Parts of Bryson City’s water and sewer system are more than 90 years old.
Although replacing the entire system would cost about $1.2 million — the amount the project application requested — Golden LEAF only allocated $300,000 to it.
Bryson City has a vibrant downtown and the money toward the water and sewer infrastructure will help it stay that way, Gerlach said, but Golden LEAF can’t fund everything fully.
It is a start, however, and Bryson City Town Manager Larry Callicutt said that the town board could decide to put some of its own money into the project as well. Just earlier this year, the board of aldermen voted to raise taxes by 2 cent to 35 cents per $100 of property value. The reason cited for the increase was the town’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.
It is unclear as of yet how far the $300,000 will stretch or what specifically it will pay for.
“My guess is we will probably stick to the water side,” Callicutt said, referencing water pipes that need replacing.
The Bryson City Board of Aldermen must first hire an engineering company to review the system before picking what to fix.
To track the impact of its investment, Golden LEAF will look at how many businesses benefit from the replaced part of the system and if new businesses move in and hook up to the new infrastructure.
The final project to garner support from Golden LEAF is for a high technology training center. The center will provide people with the technical skills necessary to work in mechatronics, a mixture of technology, electronics and mechanical engineering.
More and more companies in the region are becoming automated, but the workforce doesn’t have enough people trained to take those jobs, which include troubleshooting problems and operating the machines.
“We’ve worked closely with area manufacturers to identify the skills their employees need to fill a labor gap their seeing,” said Thomas Brooks, vice president for instruction and student services at Southwestern Community College.
SCC has partnered with Swain County to setup the new training program in the county’s newly built Swain County Regional Business Education and Training Center. It will use the $859,780 allocated from Golden LEAF to furnish the center with automated and robotic lab equipment as well as pay personnel required to teach the courses. SCC will hire at least one fulltime instructor and likely two part-time teachers.
The amount of money SCC received from Golden LEAF for this single program is greater than its annual equipment allocation from the state, which is expected to cover 70 programs, Brooks said.
Without help from Golden LEAF, “It would have been much more difficult and taken a much longer time to do this,” he said.
SCC will offer certificate and associates degree programs to adults, a mechatronics certificate pathway for high school student and additional occupational training for people already employed within the industry. The college has work for the last year in conjunction with Swain County Schools and high tech manufacturing companies in the region to craft the course curriculum and requirements.
“We have already laid the foundation,” Brooks said.
Because of all the preplanning, the program will kick off relatively soon, with the continued education track expected to start in March and the certificate and degree programs beginning next August.
While tourism is the biggest business in the region, Swain County needs to ensure that it does not rely solely on that industry to make it prosperous, Gerlach said.
“You need some kind of diversification to make sure your county is well able to sustain,” he said.
Providing unique training could also keep residents in the county who might otherwise move away to find work and possibly bring in new residents.
Golden LEAF will see if the high tech training center leads to increased jobs at industries such as Consolidated Metco, which already employs 370 people in the county, and whether people trained at the center get jobs.