News that Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan won’t run for re-election this year has set the stage for a high-profile Democratic primary showdown between two well-known Democrats, Vicki Greene and former board Chairman Stacy Buchanan.

Greene had let her intentions be clearly known months ago that she would pursue the seat. Buchanan was something of a surprise, however, when he showed up at the county election office Monday — at the same time as Greene no less — to file for the race on the opening day of candidate registration.

Complicating the race is a bid by local builder Cliff Gregg, who Monday started the petition process necessary for unaffiliated candidates in North Carolina.

To run in November, Gregg must get the signatures of 4 percent of Jackson County voters, or roughly 1,400 names.

A second Jackson commissioner’s seat is up for election this year as well, the seat held by Democrat Mark Jones, who is expected to seek re-election.

So far, no Republicans have stepped up to run for either of the two commission seats.

GOP Chair Ralph Slaughter said Monday that he is hunting for members of his party to challenge for both seats. Candidate registration began this week and runs through the end of the month.

“I’ve talked to two or three people, but I’ve not had anyone agree to file. Talking and filing are two separate things,” Slaughter said, adding that he believes there might — emphasis on might — be a GOP candidate to vie for Cowan’s seat.

He was even less optimistic about finding anyone in the GOP to challenge Jones.

“Everyone has encouraged me to run, but I’m too old,” the 72-year-old Cashiers resident said.

The absence of Republicans is somewhat surprising given their success in the 2010 election. Following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

Jones first ran and won election in 2006. Jones, a Democrat, defeated challenger Nathan Moss in the Democratic primary. He then beat Republican challenger Geoff Higginbotham to win his seat.

Greene, though new to active political campaigning, has been a visible figure in Jackson County and the region for years through her work as assistant director of the Southwestern Commission overseeing government initiatives in the six western counties, a position she recently retired from. Greene cited her nearly four decades of work with various local, state and federal agencies, saying she believed that her extensive experience would serve the county well.

Buchanan would like to pick back up where he left off six years ago.

“I wanted to be able to finish a lot of things that we started,” Buchanan said in explanation, such as helping work on infrastructure that would attract new businesses to Jackson County.

Buchanan resigned in the middle of a term in March 2005 after six years on the board of commissioners. Buchanan, at the time, cited his acceptance of a position as assistant head football coach and co-offensive coordinator at Smoky Mountain High School, and an inability to split time between his school and public service career. Buchanan now works for America’s Home Place, a turnkey homebuilding company.

Buchanan said he believes the county, through local and higher educational efforts, has prepared a great workforce but now more jobs must be created. He pointed to small startup companies that would support the work of larger companies based in nearby cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Spartanburg, S.C.

He emphasized on Monday that he believes Democrats on the board can work with Republicans. When Buchanan was a commissioner, Democrats ruled. That all changed in the last election when an Independent, Jack Debnam, won the chairman’s position and two Republicans took seats.

“I don’t see that there would be any problem working together,” Buchanan said of the conservative board members now in office. “I think we all have the best interests of Jackson County at heart.”

Like her rival, Greene pinpointed economic development as the primary issue in the race for commissioner, indicating water needs in the Cashiers area would be one area she’d want to work on improving. Other job creation efforts are also needed, she said.

Greene said that she does support current commissioners’ recent decision to hire outside consultants to help develop an economic plan.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Jackson County to reconvene an economic development board.

Interestingly, Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly due to lack of results. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid loans and generally questionable lending practices.

Pity the poor visitors trying to find their ways to Cherokee if the N.C. Department of Transportation heeds requests of local leaders in Haywood and Jackson counties when it comes to directional signs.

First, Jackson County wanted a “This way Cherokee” sign added in Haywood County that would bring visitors past their own doorstep en route to Cherokee rather than through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19.

More recently, in what smacks of tongue-in-cheek retaliation — though Maggie Valley officials might be perfectly serious, given that small town’s current economic woes — Haywood County sent an official request that the DOT install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would helpfully inform travelers from the Atlanta area they can actually reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

Amusing, perhaps, but here’s the time-travel differences for motorists: Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes fewer than 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Possible? Yes. Circuitous? Definitely.

“That’s crazy,” said John Marsh of Decatur, Ga., after listening to a CliffsNotes version of the now three-month old sign squabble. Marsh was in Dillsboro this past weekend with a friend on one of his frequent visits to this area.

“That probably seems funny to everybody to talk about, but it isn’t if you don’t know this area and how to get around. It’s confusing,” he said.

Theresa Brady, visiting the area for the first time from her home in northern Virginia, said she relies on GPS information and highway directional signs to guide her travels.

Brady was at the Huddle House in Dillsboro with friends. They’d stopped to eat on their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I don’t know what all that’s about, but it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Signs should tell you the safest and fastest” route.

Her traveling companion, Jane Langley, agreed, saying she’d found navigating Western North Carolina difficult enough without the potential added burden of directional sign games.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Langley said.

 

Dillsboro reacts  

Shop owners in Dillsboro seem sympathetic toward Maggie Valley’s economic struggle to survive following the latest round of death convulsions by the theme park Ghost Town in the Sky. Dillsboro experienced something similar when Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 2008 moved its headquarters to Bryson City and cut train routes to the small town.

Interestingly or ironically or both, railroad owner Al Harper was heavily invested in the most recent failed attempt to revive Ghost Town. One could even say Harper broke the hearts of two small WNC towns.

Be that as it may, however, the Dillsboro shop owners didn’t particularly care for the potential confusion visitors to the region would experience if the DOT pandered to Haywood County and Maggie Valley’s for an alternative sign leading Cherokee travelers the long-way around.

“The whole thing sounds pretty silly,” said Travis Berning, a potter and co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in Dillsboro. “That’s kind of a long way around to go through Haywood — (the sign) needs to show the most direct route.”

That, however, is exactly the contention of Maggie Valley leaders when it comes to Jackson County’s request for a second sign on their turf. In Haywood, the route to Cherokee through Maggie is shorter than the one through Jackson County, prompting Maggie to rebuke Jackson’s sign request there.

But, Renae Spears, a Bryson City resident who has the Kitchen Shop on the main drag in Dillsboro, pointed out that the road to Cherokee through Maggie is curvy and narrow.

“Obviously, from Dillsboro to Cherokee it is four lanes, which is the quickest and safest way to get there,” Spears said. “And if I direct anyone to Cherokee, that’s exactly the way I send them.”

And while she was on the subject of which way to Cherokee, Spears added that when headed west from Asheville she prefers to use four-lane highway if going to the reservation. Not, she said, U.S. 19’s mainly two-lane route via Maggie Valley to Cherokee.

“It’s not as safe or direct,” Spears said in explanation.  

This raging sign dispute started simply enough, when Jackson County governmental and tourism leader were reviewing state data and discovered the county’s visitation numbers were below par when compared with neighboring communities. That led to a flurry of activity intended to pump up those visitation stats.

Not surprisingly, Jackson County decided it needed a cut of the 3.5 million visitors who make their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino each year. The tribe supports Jackson County’s request.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said last week he was astounded that what seemed such a simple request had snowballed into a multi-town, multi-county, even regional dispute.

“I had no idea it would cause such a stir,” Wooten said.

Wooten added he’d recently told Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown that if he had known about the ensuing uproar to come, he’d never have written to Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway asking for the town’s backing on a new directional sign. Wooten did not say, however, that the county would have backed one iota away from making the request directly to DOT.

A group tasked with helping Jackson County leaders decide whether to merge two separate tourism entities or possibly hike the room tax is dominated by people who work in the lodging industry.

Four out of the six members currently appointed to study the controversial issues are from within the lodging industry.

“We’ll be asking them for their opinions,” County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam responded when questioned on what, exactly, commissioners hope to gain from forming the subcommittee.

Merrily Teasley, owner of the Balsam Mountain Inn and one of the subcommittee members, noted that the group hasn’t met yet and so she wasn’t prepared to discuss specific issues. The lodging owner did emphasize, however, that she believes “tourism dollars are very important to Jackson County” in general.

The 3 percent room tax raised $440,000 in Jackson County in 2010. That money underwrites county tourism promotions. Tourism marketing efforts funded by the room tax are intended to bolster the entire tourism sector of the county, not just increase lodging.

John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Co. in Sylva and a member of the town’s Downtown Sylva Association, said there’s no doubt that most tourism dollars enter the county via hotels and motels. Still, excluding other business interests from such an important-to-everyone economic topic isn’t a good idea, he said.

“The opportunity for other voices” should have been entertained when forming a tourism subcommittee group, Bubacz said.

“I just think other industries should have the chance to be represented,” he said.

 

A tangled web of like interests

Two of the six committee members both work at the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. One is Commissioner Mark Jones, and the other is his boss at the inn, Clifford Meads. Jones defended the makeup and membership of the tourism subcommittee, saying one “might just be surprised” by the objectivity of the lodging industry to, for instance, recommend if needed a higher room tax than is now levied.

The room tax is paid by tourists, not by the lodging entities themselves, but lodging entities have come out against an increase fearing it would deter tourists from staying in Jackson.

Asked about the criteria for picking committee members, Jones cited geographic location (an attempt to have all parts of the county represented) and marketing and promotion skills and experience.

Jones, in addition to working in the lodging industry, is chairman of Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association. As a result, Jones has found himself wearing two hats as the tourism debate has played out.

At county commissioner meetings, Jones would literally get up and leave his commissioners’ seat to address his colleagues at a central podium wearing his other hat as Cashiers’ tourism leader. Specifically, Jones has defended Cashiers amid discussions of whether a single tourism entity would serve the county better than two separate ones.

Not surprisingly, the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association has vigorously resisted the idea of merging with the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association. Cashiers’ tourism agency traditionally has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. That could change with the recent retirement of longtime director Sue Bumgarner, who drew criticism for not sharing marketing strategy or advertising campaigns.

Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Association. No one from greater Jackson County, however, sits on the Cashiers board.

 

One county, one tourism board?

Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten have advocated for a single tourism entity, with both men saying that would allow for the development of a countywide strategic advertising plan and eliminate duplication of certain overhead.

Wooten said late last week that he plans on recommending the subcommittee designation take place with a little more formality and discussion than was the case during commissioners’ Feb. 6 meeting. Jones simply announced the people he had selected and did not identify them or their affiliations until queried by the news media following the meeting.

Wooten said he would suggest the matter be listed as an agenda item for the upcoming Feb. 20 commission board meeting.

 

Who’s been appointed?

A taskforce appointed by Jackson County commissioners are expected to examine whether county tourism efforts should be merged and possible look at a room-tax increase.

This new tourism subcommittee is made up of commissioners Jack Debnam and Mark Jones, plus Merrily Teasley, Balsam Mountain Inn; Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn; Vic Patel, Best Western River Escape Inn And Suites; and Robert Jumper, tourism manager for Cherokee Travel and Promotion and chair of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority. One more, as yet publicly unnamed member, will be asked to join, too, county officials said.

A domestic violence and sexual assault agency serving victims of abuse in Jackson County abruptly shut its doors last week after more than three decades in operation.

REACH of Jackson County has been plagued for two years by an on-going funding crisis, but the sudden closure came amid questions about internal accounting irregularities.

The director and finance director were fired and seven other employees put on furlough.

This leaves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Jackson County without a local agency to turn to. They now must rely on help from neighboring counties. 911 calls from victims are being rerouted to Macon County.

“No client will go unserved — none,” said Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County. “We are providing room in the shelter, court advocacy, whatever an individual or family from Jackson County needs, we will provide.”

The domestic violence agencies from neighboring Swain and Haywood counties have pledged help as well, including Swain/Qualla SAFE and REACH of Haywood County.

Lisa Barker, the director of SAFE in Swain County, cautioned, however, that Jackson County’s leaders must figure out some other means, long-term, of helping victims living in the community — these small nonprofits all have limited resources and shallow purses, the very crux of the problem that ultimately destroyed REACH of Jackson County.

“It is very important that each county have the services available in that county,” Barker said. She noted that it places additional hardships on victims, who are already in crisis, if they are forced to seek assistance instead of finding help readily available within their home communities.

Children are often caught in the middle of domestic violence. Four-dozen children were among those housed in 2010 in the domestic violence shelter run by REACH of Jackson County.

 

Shutdown came rapidly

Board members of REACH of Jackson County aren’t saying much. In fact, all they’ll say about the matter is contained in a written statement released early Monday by board Treasurer Tommy Dennison.

“Due to uncertainty regarding our financial issues, REACH of Jackson County had to close on Feb. 9,” it stated in part. “We are very saddened that this has occurred but it was the only way we could fully understand the situation. This was a very difficult decision for the board to make.”

The budget for REACH this fiscal year was approximately $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. Grants made up most of the budget, but the agency had other sources of revenue, too. Jackson County has been giving REACH $35,000 for operational expenses on an annual basis since 2007.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said he was informed that an auditor is reviewing REACH’s accounting records, and that board members had expressed confusion over the true situation of the agency’s finances.

Here’s what happened: On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 9, there was a REACH board meeting. Later, REACH Board President Rich Peoples came to the agency’s offices just off N.C. 107 and fired REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer and Finance Director Janice Mason. He furloughed the other employees.

In an extensive interview just after she was fired, Roberts-Fer detailed the events leading up to the terminations. While the agency has been through financial struggles, she said there were adequate funds to keep it running. At the time of the interview, it was not yet clear that the REACH board would totally shutdown the agency.

“I don’t see why, after all we have done, that they would give up now,” Roberts-Fer said. “With or without me, that’s not the point — there are too many women depending on them.”

 

Payroll tax problems

REACH eked out a day-to-day existence. The agency had no piggy bank, and no real bank that was willing to extend credit — REACH was turned down twice when it sought loans. The agency missed payroll at least twice and had its water cut off once for nonpayment of bills.

The financial straw breaking the camel’s back, however, seems to have come when board members learned that REACH owed $47,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. REACH had failed to pay three quarters worth of payroll taxes last year. The amount owed included fines and penalties as well.

Roberts-Fer said there was nothing sinister involved. Partly, the finance director, Janice Mason, didn’t realize she was supposed to remit payroll taxes regularly, according to Roberts-Fer. But, cash flow problems clearly played a major role.

“Her only goal was to keep the agency going. What she was doing was paying when she got the money. But, it kept getting further and further behind, and basically, she didn’t have the money,” Roberts-Fer said.

The IRS showed up. A deal was worked out. REACH would pay $700 to $1,000 a month, Roberts-Fer said, with the expectation that the fines and penalties probably would be waived once the taxes were paid.

“Once I got the information, I shared … with the board and let them know we were in contact with the IRS,” Roberts-Fer said, adding that she went without her own paychecks in November and December to try and help the agency recover financially.

This wasn’t the first accounting issue at REACH.

Mason also failed to properly deposit retirement plan contributions into two employees’ accounts on several occasions, Roberts-Fer said. When employees elect to have part of their take-home pay withheld and put into a retirement plan, the money is supposed to be deposited regularly.

That money was paid back, but the amount of interest involved remain points of contention with the employee and former employee involved, she said.

The motivation again seemed to be plugging cash-flow shortfalls to keep the agency going.

“(The finance director) had been for years charged with paying the bills with no money. She inherited a system; she worked within it,” Roberts-Fer said.

New guidelines were put in place to standardize and regularize the agency’s methods of doing business, she said.

“Everybody makes mistakes. For an organization, the question is, do you respond to the problem? We did,” Roberts-Fer said.

 

REACH’s financial problems longstanding

The financial woes of REACH of Jackson County weren’t a mystery. Exactly one year ago this week, Roberts-Fer warned that the financial situation was so bleak the nonprofit faced the possibility of shutting down.

Before Roberts-Fer took over three years ago, REACH had opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse back in 2001. It was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village, no matter how skillfully operated and managed, would never actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The only income to offset the expenses was rent from the tenants, and even if fully rented, it would not pay the mortgages and expenses. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

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

Roberts-Fer said REACH of Jackson County also had been overspending during those years, including dipping into, and ultimately depleting, emergency financial reserves.

Even the agency’s thrift shop had been barely breaking even.

Adding to the difficulties were sky-high insurance payments on the agency’s emergency shelter after Bonnie Woodring, who was seeking protection from an abusive husband, was gunned down by John Raymond “Woody” Woodring in September 2006. He shot her inside the shelter after muscling his way in. Woodring later killed himself.

Additional security measures at the shelter were added in the wake of the shooting, another expense for REACH.

But perhaps most critically, at least when it came to the agency’s financial wellbeing, grants and other funding streams REACH relied upon have virtually dried up. Macon County’s VanHarlingen said her agency also has faced increasing financial constraints because of the overall economic climate.

“It is difficult for everybody,” she said.

In response to the financial crisis, Roberts-Fer had cut the number of employees at the agency and streamlined programs to barebones levels: operating an emergency shelter, offering legal advocacy and maintaining a hotline.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten raised the possibility of combining some elements of the individual agencies in the region to offset costs. But, VanHarlingen cautioned that immediate shelter and help needed to be available in individual communities. At one time REACH of Macon County was an extension of the Jackson County agency.

“When we were the Macon outreach for Jackson County, that meant sometimes transporting a client over Cowee on a snowy night,” she said.

The need for help in Jackson County, REACH or no REACH, isn’t likely to disappear.

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.

Wooten described the need as critical and said he expects REACH’s demise to be a topic of discussion at the Feb. 20 Jackson County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Whittier’s $5 million wastewater treatment plant could be facing eventual financial insolvency, saddled with too much overhead and too few customers to make operation viable.

The sewer plant, in hindsight, was overbuilt for growth and development that failed to materialize along the U.S. 441 corridor in Jackson County that leads to Cherokee. Ten years later, the plant with a capacity to treat 200,000 gallons is handling a mere 8,000 gallons with just 36 customers.

There’s only enough money to keep operating, as-is, for two more years. Then it’s decision time for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. TWSA, formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, is the reluctant manager of Whittier’s treatment plant, a role the authority inherited. Stakeholders such as Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also must make funding decisions when current payments and savings run dry. And, Jackson County would like to see Swain start helping out after learning that most of the customers are actually residents of that county.

“This could be a little touchy,” Joe Cline, executive director of TWSA, told Jackson commissioners recently. “But, the majority of this system lies in Swain County. And they’ve never been asked to participate.”

“Looks like we should be sending someone a bill,” Commissioner Doug Cody noted.

The plant was built with grant funding, including a nest egg to subsidize operations until the customer base grew. Jackson County and the tribe struck an agreement to pitch in during the initial start-up years.

Jackson County has kicked $300,000 into the plant. It relies on the facility to handle wastewater from nearby Smokey Mountain Elementary School.

The tribe originally bought into the plant concept, to the tune of $100,000 a year for three years, in hopes of using the facility to serve a recreation complex and golf course. Cherokee, which owes one remaining $100,000 payment, ended up taking care of its own wastewater needs from the complex and golf course, arguably getting little out of its investment but making good on its promise.

The Whittier Wastewater Treatment Plant has 25 residential and 11 commercial customers. It has added just a single three-bedroom house to the customer rolls since the plant came online just more than 10 years ago. The customers served by Whittier’s wastewater treatment plant chip-in a total of $20,000 a year to the cost of operating the plant, which comes to about $180,000 annually.

It processes so little sewer that its systems have trouble functioning at times.

“We have to haul sludge to the plant when school is out to keep it operating properly,” Cline said.

Before the sewer plant was built, projections showed 40 customers had an interest in tapping in to it. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in individually owned septic systems.

“If the projections were correct, then at the end of two years, TWSA would have been able to take over and break even, debt free, with operating revenues to pay the costs of going forward. Problem is, the projections haven’t come true,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten told county commissioners recently.

Wooten emphasized that he would like to see TWSA retain its role with the plant, which is technically under the management of the Whittier Sanitary District. That group has been the target of sharp criticisms for lack of accurate recordkeeping and failures to submit timely audits to the state as required.

Still, Wooten maintained, the plant “is an asset, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a waiting game, it’s waiting on the development. But the plant will allow the development to take place.”

As of this week, Jackson County had not officially contacted Swain County about helping to offset costs at the Whittier wastewater treatment plant.

 

Such a big plant to serve so few: how the Whittier Wastewater Plant came to be

Just more than 10 years ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor leading into Cherokee.

Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the Tuckasegee River. The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away, both eventually finished and now open. Under the guidance of the Southwestern Development Commission, these stakeholders came together and built the Whittier Wastewater Plant.

The Haywood Board of Commissioners agreed to put its John Hancock on a letter asking the N.C. Department of Transportation to post an additional “This way to Cherokee” sign near Dillsboro.

The letter is a classic case of turn-about being fair play. Jackson County previously touched off a firestorm when it asked for a sign in Haywood County directing Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep, hoping to divert traffic from the Maggie Valley route its way.

“Traffic is the livelihood of Maggie Valley,” said Commissioner Mike Sorrells “As we all know, that particular area is struggling.”

So in a rebuttal of sorts, Haywood leaders are asking for a sign in Jackson that would direct tourists to Cherokee back through Haywood County.

Specifically, Haywood’s letter asks DOT to consider placing a sign on U.S. 441 in Dillsboro to catch travelers coming up from the Atlanta area. The new signage would inform motorists that they can also reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley, although it is considerably longer than simply continuing on U.S. 441 to Cherokee.

Haywood County leaders stated that they are willing to share the expense of the new sign pointing Haywood’s way.

Because DOT’s safety and travel time survey’s do not favor one route over the other, Haywood County officials say there is no reason to post alternative signage directing Cherokee traffic through Jackson County instead of Maggie Valley.

“I don’t necessarily oppose it, but it’s not necessary,” said Chairman Mark Swanger.

However, Jackson County leaders say that two-lane U.S. 19 can be treacherous for large vehicle drivers and during the winter months.

Cece Hipps, president of the Greater Haywood County Chamber of Commerce; Teresa Smith, executive director of the Maggie Valley chamber; and Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism and Development Authority have already signed the letter.

Swain County’s Board of Elections will decide this month whether it is worth several thousand dollars to operate an early voting site in Cherokee again this election year.

The three-member election board all agreed the county might not be able to afford an early voting site in Cherokee this year. However, they disagree on whether low turnout at the site during the 2010 election should be a factor in the decision.

“(Money) is really the only factor,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the three-person board and a Democrat. “I am really hoping that we are able to provide the voting site in Cherokee.”

The board of elections currently doesn’t have the money in its budget to cover the cost of an early voting site in Cherokee, but intend to ask county commissioners for an additional appropriation.

Without the additional location, Cherokee residents will again have to drive to the board of elections office in Bryson City if they want to vote early — a more than 20-minute trek. And, for those living in the far reaches of Cherokee’s Big Cove community, the trip is more like 30 to 40 minutes.

“That is a heck of a drive,” Tyson said.

Election board member Bill Dills said he is in favor of keeping the location in Cherokee as long as it is worth the cost.

“To me, the function of the Board of Elections … is to provide people the opportunity to vote, the way they want to,” he said. “What I want to see is how we can work with those people and get them to take advantage of early vote.”

The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010 and only 226 people used it to vote during that election.

“When you break that down cost wise, it’s not efficient,” said Joan Weeks, director of Swain County’s Board of Elections.

Board of Elections chairman James Fisher echoed a similar sentiment, adding that there is no way to know what the turnout will be this time around.

“We are not against having (early voting) on the reservation or anywhere,” he said. But, “it’s not worthwhile if it’s not used.”

The 2010 election was the first time an early voting site was offered in Cherokee and may need more time to catch on.

Tyson and Dills said they believe more voters will turn out at the early voting site in Cherokee if it is offered again this election.

“Because it was new, a lot of people didn’t know it was there,” Tyson said, adding that the 2010 election did not include a presidential race.

States often see a spike in voter turnout during presidential election years such as this year.

“I think we would see a larger turnout from there,” Tyson said.

However, Dills said that the board did everything it could, including talking to tribal leaders and posting a notice in the tribe’s newspaper, to inform voters about the new site.

“I don’t know what else you could do to make people aware,” Dills said, adding that “a large number” still drove to Bryson City to cast their ballots early.

The cost of holding an election comes from county coffers, namely property taxes. Residents on the Cherokee reservation don’t pay property taxes in Swain County, however, so they don’t directly contributing to the expense.

But the economic benefit — from jobs to tourism — that Swain reaps from the tribe and its massive casino operation far outpaces the about $3,500 outlay the county would pay to staff an early voting site.

The election board plans to meet with Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to ensure that the tribe indeed even wants the early voting site. In 2010, the tribe worked with the election board to provide a suitable site.

Not having a site would “put people at disadvantage,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

Tribal Council member Perry Shell said that the purpose of the Board of Elections is to make it as convenient as possible to vote.

“I think it’s important that people have every opportunity to vote,” said Shell, who represents Big Cove.

Board members emphasized that discussions about this year’s early voting sites have just begun. The county has until March 1 to submit its list of early voting sites to the state. Early voting for the primary begins April 19 and ends May 5.

“We just opened initial conversations about it,” Fisher said. “A whole bunch of this scuttlebutt is much ado about nothing.”

The board decided to place a voting site in Cherokee prior to the 2010 election after an elderly Swain County resident and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made a formal written request.

Early voting has grown steadily in popularity after the state passed a new law in 1990s mandating that the convenient ballot casting be made available to the masses. Before then, it was only an option for the elderly, disabled or those with a qualified excuse that prevented them from getting to the polls on actual Election Day.

 

Going the distance

Of course, Cherokee residents aren’t the only ones in Swain County who face a long haul into Bryson City to take advantage of early voting. People in Alarka and Nantahala have similar distances to drive.

Fisher said he would like to have early voting locations everywhere, but with everybody tightening their budgets it would not be feasible.

John Herrin, a former member of the Swain election board, pointed out that Cherokee is a population center, whereas residents in other parts of the county, despite being a good distance from Bryson City, are more dispersed.

“You have quite a few registered voters in that area,” said Herrin, who helped set up the early voting site in Cherokee in 2010.

Cherokee residents are less likely to come into Bryson City in the regular course of their lives, while residents from rural reaches of the county usually eventually venture to town for groceries or other business.

Although the board has heard that other residents would like additional early voting sites throughout the county, none have made a formal appeal. A community member must make a written request, and the board must vote unanimously to approve a new location.

In addition to deciding whether to keep the Cherokee early voting site, the board is also expected to receive a request for another site near Nantahala. Residents of that area travel about 21 miles, or about 30 minutes, to cast early ballots in Bryson.

Fisher pointed out that people can mail in their ballots.

The decision to add an early voting site is “based on need and funding,” he said. “If (closing the site) would completely inhibit somebody from voting, I would fund it myself.”

The reservation lies partly in both Jackson and Swain counties. Jackson County operates an early voting site in Cherokee for those who live on the Jackson-side of the reservation near the Bingo Hall at a cost of anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the hours and amount of staffing required.

 

Decision pending

The Swain Board of Elections’ next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Board of Elections building off U.S. 19.

 

County-by-county

All counties in North Carolina are required to operate at least one early voting site, the result of a new law passed in the late 1990s aimed at making voting easier and more accessible

Most counties offered just one early voting site initially, but as early voting took off and grew in popularity, some counties have added a second or even third early voting site in response to demand. The cost ranges between $2,000 and $5,000 per site for each county.

Here’s what some counties are doing.

Swain

Swain’s main early voting site is in Bryson City. In 2010, it added a second early voting site in Cherokee at the Birdtown Community Center but is contemplating whether to do so again this year.

Macon

Macon County has a single early voting site in Franklin. However, election officials are considering adding a site in the Highlands area this year.

Haywood

Haywood’s main early voting site is in Waynesville, with a second site in Canton every two years during state and federal elections.

Jackson

Jackson County has a main early voting site in Sylva but has also run sites in Cullowhee, Cashiers, Scotts Creek and Cherokee. It has not decided where or how many sites it will open this year.

Jackson County commissioners this week formally attempted to put the kibosh on 83-year-old Marie Leatherwood’s pattern of outbursts, picketing and general garrulity during meetings.

During a meeting last month, Leatherwood was told she could no longer display signs during county board meetings, as she has done regularly over the past two years. She was instead ordered to hold them in the hall outside.

Monday, commissioners passed a resolution that backed off a total sign ban. They decided to allow Leatherwood and others, if they wish, to hold signs in the meeting room after all. But, only if they don’t hold them so as to create distractions. And, if they insist on standing in the manner Leatherwood seems to prefer, sign demonstrators must position themselves along a back wall rather than the front of the meeting room where arguably they pose a distraction to commissioners and the audience.

In return, Chairman Jack Debnam promised to try to encourage speakers to speak up and avail themselves of microphones. Leatherwood, along with others attending, have complained they couldn’t clearly hear county business as it’s being conducted.

“Every commissioner is committed to … making the decisions we believe are in the best interest of the county,” Debnam said. “At the same time, we acknowledge that there will be citizens who have a differing opinion on certain topics and wish to present their point of view. The fact that everyone can express their opinion without fear of retribution or intimidation is the foundation for our free speech.”

Leatherwood heeded neither Debnam’s fine oratory nor the sign and microphone concessions. She appeared more emboldened by the attention than not and was certainly neither subdued nor chastised. Instead of submitting meekly to the yoke of authority, Leatherwood for the remainder of the meeting challenged commissioners and county administrators to speak louder while they were attempting to speak. Leatherwood stood up during the meeting and distributed handwritten notes to members of the news media about free speech rights. She fussed through a laundry list of displeasures to County Manager Chuck Wooten and Attorney Jay Coward as commissioners attempted to transition from a public to a closed session.

Leatherwood, during her rightful three minutes at the podium given each citizen who desires that bully pulpit, sent Wooten meekly trotting after drinking water. Giving an ever-so-slight, discreet cough, Leatherwood explained to commissioners that her allergies were hindering her ability to speak. Wooten’s ministrations came in the form of a small bottle of water retrieved from an adjacent room. He visibly broke the bottle-cap seal in public before handing Leatherwood the water.

Revived by a sip, Leatherwood recovered from her allergy issues and devoted her three-minute address to the board vigorously defending her rights to hold signs in the boardroom.

“The burden of proof is on the board and Mr. Coward, who will prattle about a Louisiana Supreme Court case about holding up signs at meetings,” she said in part in a heated defense of her perceived free speech rights.

Supporters of Jackson County’s revolving loan program describe the financial give-outs as a tool in the county’s economic toolbelt, a boost to deserving businesses that can’t receive critical, even lifesaving, financial help through banks.

But five defaults since 1993 when the loans started, out of a total of nine loans, raises serious questions about the program.

It’s been awfully easy — too easy, county leaders admit — for businesses in Jackson County to get loans without providing adequate collateral should the company go under.

Jackson has flat-out lost $525,000 since starting the program because of businesses folding. Another $420,000 is on the line, with the exact losses depending how much the county can recoup from selling off collateral.

“It is not just a gift or a grant,” said Jackson County Chairman Jack Debnam, who has strongly advocated for stiffer loan restrictions. “If it is a grant, call it a grant. If it’s a loan, certain criteria should be met.”

The revolving loan fund is nowhere close to being tapped out. Despite having $820,000 in outstanding loans, there is another $756,000 in the kitty.

Revolving loans are generally considered high risk, used to help start-ups or struggling businesses with an injection of capital when banks won’t. But those needing that help most are generally the least able to afford payback. That has certainly been Jackson County’s experience.

How loose has Jackson County’s definition of collateral been? The worst-case example involves QC Apparel. When the company recently went belly up after years of protracted sinking, Jackson County found itself the proud possessor of $5,000 worth of sewing machines.

Board minutes from August 2006 show the board of commissioners at the time agreed to let the textile manufacturer, which made such goods as pillowcases and bed-in-a-bag materials, off the hook. In a restructuring of the company’s loan, commissioners voted to release the house of QC’s owner Clemmy Queen as collateral in favor of the company’s equipment.

Now the county is about to sell these used machines at what will inevitably prove less — a lot less — than the money owed, according to Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

QC Apparel owes Jackson County a total of $426,000 in loan money and back rent for space at the now county-owned former Tuckasegee Mills building. Given the estimated $5,000 value of the sewing machines, the county is left with a large difference to write off.

The latest company to default on its revolving loan with the county is Metrostat, a small Internet service provider. The company announced it would close three months ago and could not pay back some $250,000 in outstanding loans it owed the county and town of Sylva.

Metrostat had put up fiber optic lines as collateral, and the county and town are in process of selling off those fiber lines— but they won’t recoup the full balance owed on the loan.

The county might also find itself in possession of equipment for making biodiesel due because of a default by Smoky Mountain Biofuels.

But the county hasn’t totally curbed its appetite for non-standard collateral. When making a $289,000 loan to an AM radio station last month, the county agreed in principle to accept the federal license of the radio frequency as the primary collateral backing the loan. Federal regulations prohibit frequencies from being put as collateral, however, so the county is working with the prospective station owner to find a substitute.

 

Another county, more revolving loans

Now another local government wants to get in the revolving loan business. Macon County is considering instituting a program of its own, ostensibly to boost the creation and staying power of local businesses. And, just as in Jackson County, leaders there are touting the system as a good method of igniting the engines of economic development. In this weedeater-like two-cylinder economy that once roared at a mighty 10 cylinders (think Ford F-250 pickup truck), any possible forward motion has moths-to-flame attraction for county leaders and business entrepreneurs alike.

“I’m thinking of a business person out there who might want to expand a business, and needs some money to get off the ground,” Macon County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin told fellow board members during a recent meeting. “Banks aren’t interested in such small loans.”

Macon County Attorney Chester Jones, who was ultimately asked to review possible mechanisms for such a county loan program and report back to the board, cautioned prudence.

“You’ve got to structure the deal so that at the end of the day, the deal will be beneficial to the public,” Jones said.

And that’s exactly what’s in question next door in Jackson County: With that outstanding bill to its revolving loan program of just more than $800,000, supporters are hard pressed to easily defend and explain exactly what the public benefit might be.

Commissioner Joe Cowan, the longest serving commissioner on the board, said he believes the issues date to how and why the revolving loan program was conceived: job creation at any price.

“The whole purpose was to create jobs,” Cowan said. “Whether you made money, you didn’t, or even if you lost a little.”

Over time, Cowan said, people involved in the loan program had different views, and proper collateralization fell by the wayside as job production became ever more emphasized. Loans were extended to businesses that were “fixtures in the county and to good people,” the commissioner said, “but somehow we (the county) just let them get money without sufficient collateral. The county bent over backwards to protect job growth.”

Despite the defaults, county taxpayers aren’t directly losing dollars because of the loans. Money to get the revolving loan fund started from grants. Although the revolving loan fund hasn’t been a drain on the county’s tax coffers, the question remains, however, whether it has done the job as promised: to help build and boost economic development in Jackson County.

Debnam touted Sequoyah Fund’s solid track record and methods of extending loans, which requires prior in-depth scrutiny of an applicant’s financial status, as a possible model for Jackson County. This Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ regional loan program has used casino dollars to help provide training and technical assistance to more than 1,000 individuals and extended more than 135 loans totaling almost $4.6 million since 2001.

 

Controversial history

The revolving loan situation in Jackson County verged on the bizarre in 2005. Commissioners’ relationship with the now defunct Economic Development Commission fractured amid questions about who was in charge of the revolving loan program. There were questions about whether favoritism played roles in some of the loan participants receiving unusually generous loan terms.

Ultimately, deputies were ordered to seize EDC financial records, and an auditor was brought in to review the group’s finances. The auditor eventually concluded the records were too spotty to perform a conclusive audit.

“The whole thing was ill-conceived from the beginning,” said Commissioner Doug Cody of the revolving loan program. “It wasn’t handled in a business-type manner.”

Today, there is no EDC in Jackson County, though there have been signs of resurrection by current commissioners — though probably in an entirely different form and unarguably under commissioners’ oversight and control.

The previous board of commissioners had likewise attempted to jumpstart the EDC, but had modeled the new entity, much like the old one, by sharing control with the towns. It wasn’t long before the newly hired EDC director resigned, claiming the entity was floundering because of a lack of clear structure and mission. The entire effort soon fell by the wayside.

Despite the loan program’s history of woes and current financial shortfalls, commissioners said that they support the concept of a county revolving loan program if the controls are tightened.

“I think it has its place,” said Cody, a fiscally conservative Republican.

Cody supported extending two recent loans made by the county, one to Jackson Paper for $250,000 (the Sequoyah Fund kicked in an additional $250,000) and $110,000 to local resident Roy Burnette who wants to get Sylva radio station WRGC back on the air. The station got an additional loan of $179,000 from the county’s separate economic development fund.

To qualify for the revolving loan fund, businesses must create a minimum of three jobs with a threshold of $10,000 for each job created. The economic development fund doesn’t have a specific job-creation threshold.

The loan to Jackson Paper was to rebuild the wood-fired boiler at the recycled paper manufacturing plant. The terms of the revolving loan was for 10 years at a 3.25 percent interest rate. The collateral is a second lien on 47 acres and buildings in downtown Sylva, which Wooten said last week should adequately cover the county’s financial exposure following any possible default.

The interest rate for Jackson Paper is the same rate as proposed by the Sequoyah Fund so that explains why it is higher, Wooten said.

“I suspect we would have loaned at a lower level if it had involved only Jackson County,” he said.

The county opted to give Burnette his loan at 2 percent interest, but the money isn’t being doled out until the county is satisfied with the collateral being offered. A move to put the county on the FCC license along with Burnette failed when the FCC flatly ruled out the idea. Wooten said he believes other collateral will prove satisfactory to the board, as did Cody.

Wooten knows his numbers: before becoming county manager, he worked for three decades as Western Carolina University’s finance officer. The revolving loan, he said, needs “to be a little more businesslike. This is not ‘angel’ funding.”

And when it comes to the collateral that underpins loans, the county really “does not want sewing machines,” Wooten said. “I do think we need to be conservative. But, it is something in our toolbox.”

 

Who got what and when? A history of  Jackson’s revolving loan recipients

• August 1993: Hensley-Dean, $28,090. Paid in full June 2001. Out of business.

• May 1995: Q.C. Apparel, $358,355; owes county $425,901. Loan terms renegotiated seven times. Out of business.

• December 1997: Clearwood LLC: $225,000; owes county $80,104. Out of business.

• June 1999: Southern Lumber: $218,000; paid in full July 2008. Out of business. County bought property and the owner used some of those proceeds to pay the loan off.

• May 2001: County Collections: $14,000; balance of $12,157 “written off” by commissioners. Out of business.

• August 2002: CMG, later Fraternal Composite Specialties: $325,000; owes county $82,452. They are current on payments though owing that money.

• November 2004: Metrostat Communications: $250,000; owes county $259,228. Out of business. Assets transferred to county and Town of Sylva to sell off, but likely won’t be enough to cover outstanding balance.

• August 2006: Smoky Mountain Biofuels: $148,000; owes county $160,357. Out of business. Assets and collateral still being determined.

• March 2011: Webster Enterprises: $70,000; owes county $71,158.26. Payments deferred until April 25, 2013.

• Current: A pending $110,000 loan to Roy Burnette in Sylva to get local WRGC back on the air. County still trying to determine appropriate collateral.

• Current: A pending $250,000 loan to Jackson Paper for repair work at the Sylva plant. That loan looks certain to move forward.

 

Where Jackson’s loan program started

Jackson County’s revolving loan has its genesis in a 1982 Community Development Block Grant for $750,000, a joint effort with the town of Bryson City. Tuckasegee Mills received $738,500 in a loan, and Jackson County received 50 percent of a payback — $553,973.

Another grant for Jackson County for $291,000 enabled a loan to a business for $285,500. Ultimately, the principal from the two grants totaled $654,750 — a nest egg for the revolving loan fund.

 

The three guiding principles for Jackson’s loan program

• Creation of new job opportunities and the retention of existing jobs … principally for people of low and moderate income.

• To further new business development or expansion within the county.

• To enable private business development that would not take place without loan assistance from the county.

It ain’t easy be green. Nor is it particularly easy for a full-grown man to position himself beside a busy highway and gyrate wildly for hours on end, day after day, in a Statue of Liberty costume.

Bryan Pixa is doing just that, serving both as a dancing human billboard for Liberty Tax Service in Sylva, located on Asheville Highway, and as a living testimony to those basic qualities that helped make America great: if you are going to do a job, do that job and treat your employer right. Earn that paycheck, son.

In the process of living up to America’s beloved work ethic, Pixa might be emerging as the best street entertainer Western North Carolina has ever seen. Surely he’s the most enthusiastic Statue of Liberty anyone in Sylva has ever seen, what with his leg kicks and wiggles, his hippity-hoppity get-down jiving and grinding, never-let-up-for-a-breath dance moves.

“He’s great,” Liberty Tax Service’s front-desk employee, Brittany Grillo, said of Pixa’s Lady Liberty. She is uniquely qualified to critique Pixa’s overall interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, theatrically and artistically speaking.

Grillo, you see, is a retired Sonic restaurant hotdog.

“I love the way he works,” the onetime hotdog said, who admitted she wasn’t as animated in her dramatic role as a life-sized hotdog.

And yes, those hotdogs and Lady Liberties, that human cow who not so long ago waved its hoof somewhat drearily to passing motorists on behalf of Ryan’s restaurant in Sylva — they most certainly do bring in business, Grillo said.

Does seeing a man in a green Statue of Liberty costume suddenly gyrate into view make drivers’ turn the wheel, pull in and get their taxes done? It works, Grillo insisted.

And it’s relatively inexpensive outdoor advertising. In these dour economic times, businesses such as Liberty Tax Service — a franchise within a national storefront tax preparation company — are pulling out the stops to attract new customers. Lady Liberty captures people’s attention and helps with branding.

This is really just basic old-fashioned advertising livened up for a modern audience. Because when you get right down to it, Pixa and his fellow human billboards are reinventions of the old-fashioned sandwich boards.

“I can’t afford it — I wish I could,” said Anita Stephens, who owns Sign Crafters a door or two away from Liberty Tax Service. “It seems to work, and it’s very entertaining. My customers stand at our door and say they could watch him all day.”

It’s not easy money. Passing motorists are generally supportive and appreciative of Pixa, but there is always the occasional jerk in those poor, tired, huddled masses stopped at the signal light before turning onto N.C 107.

“‘I thought it was Lady Liberty, not big fat Liberty,’” Pixa recounted one passerby as shouting.

Not that he can easily hear what’s being said, supportive or ugly. Under the historically accurate seven rays of his crown, hidden behind large dark sunglasses and heavy smears of green face paint, Pixa is sporting ear buds and rocking out to music. It makes the time pass, keeps him entertained and provides a beat to dance to.

Sometimes, when an emotional lift is in order, the music is undiluted reggae. More often he’s indulging a sudden and strong passion for the music of Ben Harper, who mixes blues, folk, soul, reggae and rock.

Pixa loves being a human billboard and he loves working for Liberty Tax Service. But he’s wearing a Statue of Liberty costume for a very serious reason: Pixa wanted to be in Sylva for the imminent birth of his child. His wife is from here, and Pixa had been living six or so hours away working a regular, successful, routine job in Virginia.

The couple lost their first child in 2008, just hours after the baby was born.

“It was a unique situation,” Pixa said. “I needed to do something to get back to Sylva.”

A newspaper help-wanted ad for the position of a living Statue of Liberty caught his attention.

“I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Pixa said.

Pixa is a musician and an oil painter, and sometimes plays harmonica for motorists while working as the Statue of Liberty. Pixa said he sometimes imagines passing mothers and fathers warning their children they’d better get an education or they’ll grow up to be a Statue of Liberty, just like him.

“But I’ve got an education,” Pixa said good-humouredly. “I just needed some steady income. And I’ve ended up with the best job in town.”

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