The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group rooted in Jackson County that fights for air quality, might soon take to the airwaves via its own educational, community radio station.

Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, believes a local radio station would provide the entire environmental community in Western North Carolina with its own forum, plus open educational and networking opportunities for those involved. A range of community-oriented programs by other nonprofits could be included, and local musicians featured, Friedman said. A more complete vision of the future community radio station still must be hammered out, he said.

In a newsletter announcement last week to The Canary Coalition’s members, Friedman noted: “The organization’s leaders view this an opportunity to bring the public educational and advocacy mission of the Canary Coalition to a new level of effectiveness. This will be a radio station that offers programming found nowhere else, delivering in-depth coverage of environmental issues and news.” 

Friedman added that in his view, the environmental and social progress community has little voice in a world of corporate-owned mass media.

“Important events, demonstrations, public hearings, discussions, debates and informational forums are often ignored by the conventional media or relegated to small back page, one-time articles that may even miss the point entirely. Even public radio stations have been less than forthcoming with covering the news and events organized by local nonprofits,” he wrote.

There are, at rough count, at least 34 environmental organizations based in WNC. If The Canary Coalition successfully launches its radio station, it could open the region’s airwaves to issues that are of interest to other nonprofits as well, empowering the grassroots movement in WNC as never before.

That’s because The Canary Coalition’s radio station wouldn’t be a dinky, low-powered station with a broadcast reach of a measly two blocks or so.

The Federal Communications Commission has given The Canary Coalition the OK for a full-powered FM station. Regional radio experts say the station could potentially broadcast to a three-state audience, depending on where the transmitter is placed. The radio station would be based in Dillsboro, frequency 95.3 FM (for two decades where listeners in WNC have found public radio WCQS, see accompanying story).

 

Tentative plans

“We view this as an opportunity to provide that voice for the environmental community,” Friedman said one day last week in a cell phone interview as he headed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a protest against a pipeline that would connect oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.

In an application filed with the FCC, The Canary Coalition promised to “coordinate with local educational institutions, community health, environmental, social and cultural organizations and the business community on developing programming for the station. In addition, it will broadcast cultural programming including musical content relevant to the population of the service area, as well as local news, public affairs programming and public service announcements.”

Friedman, a Bronx native, is a fixture in the WNC environmental movement. Friedman studied political science at Hunter College, and has been a grassroots activist since the late 1960s. Friedman, a Sylva resident, ran unsuccessfully — twice — against Democrat Rep. Phil Haire for the right to represent Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood counties in the state House.

He is unapologetically liberal, even perhaps something of a radical, at least by many mountain residents’ standards. He was arrested twice for protesting Duke Energy’s Cliffside coal plant, once in front of the governor’s mansion and once in front of Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte.

If the FCC issues a construction permit (Western Carolina University wants to wrest the frequency away from the nonprofit, see accompanying article), Friedman and The Canary Coalition would have a three-year window to study what programming to offer, and how to get the radio station actually up and running.

SEE ALSO: University fights environmental group for rights to radio frequency

Larry Nestler, who chairs the nonprofit’s board, said he believes a radio station could serve both as a source of revenue for The Canary Coalition, and “as a way of getting the word out on soliciting help on getting clean air.”

Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, which operates the low-powered MAIN-FM 103.5, said in his group’s case the Internet Service Provider side of MAIN subsidizes the radio station. The technical staff essentially has done double duty for the ISP and the station, Bowen said.

The Canary Coalition has even shallower pockets than MAIN. This would be noncommercial radio — minus paid advertisements — so listener contributions and grants would most likely have to sustain the operation in Dillsboro, Bowen said.

SEE ALSO: Asheville public radio’s reach threatened by new FM station

 

What it would take

The Prometheus Radio Project, a national group promoting community-based radio, estimates that a “minimalist” studio can cost only $4,000 (not including furniture), depending on how much equipment is donated. A high-end studio, however, can cost as much as $100,000.

Friedman estimated it would cost about $50,000 to buy the needed equipment, hire some staff and get the radio station started. In a recent newsletter, he urged members to consider supporting the effort with cash donations.

Friedman told the nonprofit’s members that “if and when we overcome this challenge (from WCU) and gain the FCC license, we look forward to a new era when The Canary Coalition can serve the community in a new and spectacular manner, broadcasting news and information about air quality, climate change, new developments in the renewable energy and efficiency economy transformation. News of the Fukishima catastrophe and other nuclear accidents will not be blacked out in our region, on this station. Listeners will learn about the realities of hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking). There will be no corporate tampering with this news. The facts will be presented, discussed and debated.”

 

Why this frequency?

In 2007, in a relatively rare event, the FCC accepted applications from community groups across the nation seeking full power, noncommercial radio licenses. A second round of applications took place last year.

There were a limited number of these new FCC licenses to go around — only in areas with open bandwidth on the radio dial, and only for nonprofit, community radio stations.

The idea was to open up the airwaves to non-corporate interests and encourage citizen access and community participation, said Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville.

Bowen, a nationally known advocate for local ownership of media infrastructure, was on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Bowen’s group already operates MAIN-FM 103.5, a low-powered FM radio station that bills itself as “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” and is based in Asheville.

As Bowen followed the FCC’s release of new frequencies, he discovered there indeed would be one in the mountains, but not in Asheville — it was being issued in Dillsboro.

“We didn’t qualify, because we are Asheville-based,” Bowen said. “But I immediately thought of The Canary Coalition. This was a golden opportunity, and there are folks (including MAIN) who have the experience to help them.”

He called Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, and the idea of Canary Coalition radio was born.

Jackson County commissioners are leaning toward the May primary for putting alcohol on the ballot rather than waiting until the general election next November.

County Attorney Jay Coward briefed Jackson County commissioners this week on the nuts and bolts of a referendum, one that will decide whether the sale of alcoholic beverages is legal throughout the county. If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.

Four of the five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News three weeks ago of their intent to hold a countywide alcohol vote, but had yet to discuss the issue in public at a commissioners meeting until this week.

Commissioners will eventually have to formally vote to put the issue on the ballot, directing the Jackson County Board of Elections to stage the election in conjunction with the May primary. Coward indicated that the necessary timeframe doesn’t require the board’s commitment for some time to come, until about February. At that point, commissioners must sort out which — or all — of various options they will allow voters to consider. Beer and wine only? Only in restaurants or to-go from gas stations and grocery stores, too? What about mixed drinks, or a liquor store?

Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam has indicated he’s interested in seeing voters decide on countywide beer and wine sales, plus decide on whether to open an ABC store in Cashiers. The only ABC store now in Jackson County is located in Sylva.

Asked about the genesis of a possible alcohol referendum, Debnam emphasized that “personally, I don’t care … I don’t drink.” But, Debnam said he strongly believes that people should be given a choice.

With its fast-food restaurants, box stores, gas stations and occasional backups of traffic, there’s not much that can be described as quaint about N.C. 107 in Sylva.

Except, perhaps, for Bryson’s Farm Supply, where Randy Hooper and wife, Debbie, sell such items as feed and seeds, hoes, bee-hive frames, and other rural must-haves to local farmers and gardeners.

Hooper, on this day — as always — characteristically attired in bib overalls, has worked at Bryson’s Farm Supply since the late 1970s. By then, he said, the highway was already four lanes. But Debbie remembers the road being just two lanes when helping her father build the store.

Today, this main business drag of N.C. 107 is five lanes. And, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation, it needs to be wider still to accommodate future traffic projections — a plan that in fact could lead to the state potentially paving right over this Jackson County landmark, as well as forcing many other “relocations” along the road.

The Hoopers have recently added a line of organic and naturally grown foods to their traditional feed and seed selection at Bryson’s Farm Supply. They are tapping into the burgeoning Jackson County segment of residents who frequent the farmers market, and who often drive more than an hour to Asheville to shop at whole-foods oriented grocery stores such as Earth Fare and Greenlife Grocery.

But their main clientele remains older and more traditional, and the traffic issues on N.C. 107 have created some problems for Bryson’s Farm Supply. While this might make big-city move-ins incredulous, the number of cars now using this highway is flat-out frightening to many of an older generation, Hooper said.

“What helped us out was about two or three years ago, a red light was put in,” Hooper said as he nodded toward the stoplight positioned on the busy highway directly in front of his store. “A lot of the older people were intimidated on this road.”

Jackson County resident Sara Hatton, busy shopping at Bryson’s Farm Supply, remembers when N.C. 107 was a two-lane road.

“When we got Wal-Mart in, that’s when it got really hectic,” Hatton said, adding that she does not, however, believe the transportation department needs to build a bypass to ease congestion as the agency also proposed.

Brother and sister Larry Crawford and Ruth Shuler, both avid members of the Jackson County Genealogical Society, remember further back than most — they can easily picture the days when there was just one small general store along this now busy stretch of highway.

“It was in Lovesfield,” Crawford said, and then explained that Lovesfield is after Love Hill. And that would be at the stop sign to Wal-Mart, which is across the highway from the Love Family Cemetery, which is behind Sonic Drive In — you always can count on genealogical folks to know their local place names, and history.

“The only (other) commercial development was the pole yard,” Shuler, who, like her brother, is intimately familiar with Jackson County’s roads from years of school bus driving.

The pole yard, she said, was located about where Cody’s Express Hot Spot is found at the intersection of N.C. 107 and Cope Creek Road. It was simply a place where poles — perhaps the phone company’s, Shuler isn’t sure — were cached.

Other than that, the area that now serves as the busiest section of Sylva was once simply a residential section of town, she said.

That’s hard to believe these days, given the hot debate about what best to do about N.C. 107.

Nearly every town has one — a five-lane road lined with fast-food stores, gas stations and grocery stores — and most sport a few. But those, it turns out, may have been a bit of a mistake.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has kicked five-lane roads to the curb in favor of landscaped medians. Throw in some sidewalks and street trees, and there’s an uncanny resemblance to the boulevard design lobbied for by new urbanists and smart growth advocates over the years — although the DOT’s version is decidedly larger and more utilitarian.

Despite a paradigm shift dating back at least a decade, the design is still being embraced by the mainstream, particularly in the mountains where there are few examples of boulevards.

“Part of that is a trickle down from Raleigh,” said Wade Walker, an engineer and transportation planner with the Charlotte firm Fuss and O’Neill. “The DOT central office has basically admitted it is going to take time for this thinking and philosophy to trickle down into the individual districts. It is like turning around an air craft carrier. You can’t do it overnight.”

When Derrick Lewis started working for the DOT road design unit in 1997, everyone was still designing five-lane roads for nearly every application.

“It was the standard at one time to be five lanes,” Lewis said.

By the end of the decade, however, five-lane roads were on the way out.

“It was probably more of a project by project decision at first and at some point it made a swing in the other direction,” Lewis said.

At first, medians cropped up only along part of a road, with a combination of a middle-turn lane and a landscaped middle, much like the Old Asheville Highway in Waynesville; it was designed in the late 1990s when the five-lane design was beginning to fall out of favor.

Now, medians are the standard for commercial roads.

Lewis said he was an early convert to medians.

“I was one of the ones trying to get people trying to think about putting a median in,” Lewis said.

He oversaw feasibility studies for makeovers of N.C. 107 in Sylva and South Main in Waynesville — and both have proposed medians.

The DOT hasn’t necessarily embraced medians for their aesthetics, but for their ability to move more traffic without adding more lanes every couple decades.

Traffic moves faster with a median. Without cars darting in and out of parking lots across lanes of oncoming traffic motorists aren’t as brake-happy.

“You feel like they are about to cut out in front of you,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT division for the 10 westernmost counties. “Once you start getting congestion, and you have one person that has to come to a stop to make a turning maneuver, it creates an accordion effect, or slinky effect. That stop leads to congestion all down the stream.”

Businesses are often the opponents to medians, however, fearing they would lose prospective customers cut-off from making left turns into their parking lots. And so the DOT acquiesced by installing that middle-turn lane.

“In the past they just kowtowed too much to adjacent property owners,” Waynesville Town Planner Paul Benson said.

Far from being newfangled, boulevards historically were the design of choice for the flagship artery of a city, moving high volumes of traffic through town, yet flanked by high dollar commercial real estate.

“It is basically reinventing an old idea,” said Scott Curry, an urban designer and planner with the Lawrence Group, one of the state’s most well-known and progressive planning firms based in Davidson. “Boulevards are one piece of rediscovering design that is more oriented toward the pedestrian.”

So where did the DOT go wrong all those years?

“For many years, street designers and transportation engineers have been preoccupied with the volume and speed of cars only,” said Curry. “The car became the singular focus of what people planned and designed for.”

Enter the boulevard.

“When it is done effectively it is a good compromise between accommodating through moving traffic and local traffic and pedestrians,” Curry said.

There’s a novel solution afoot for traffic woes on Sylva’s commercial thoroughfare: widen the road so much it obliterates most of the businesses.

“You certainly wouldn’t have a traffic problem on 107 if you took out 80 businesses,” said Sarah Graham, a community transportation planner with the Southwestern Development Commission.

Yet that’s the top option in a study of how to fix N.C. 107 recently completed by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Of course, bulldozing businesses wasn’t the goal, but rather an accidental side-effect of all the lanes along with a 30-foot medians the DOT says will be needed one day to allay congestion.

The massive widening contained in the DOT’s study has been summarily rejected by elected leaders in Sylva, and at the county level.

“Nobody liked it,” Graham said.

Joel Setzer, head of the DOT Division for the 10-western counties, can understand why. It’s not exactly the vision people in the community had in mind, Setzer said, citing comments he heard at a public input meeting during the feasibility study.

“Folks said they wanted to see 107 operate more as a Main Street commercial district and be improved within the existing footprint,” Setzer said.

But 107 also has to move a high volume of traffic.

“For it to be both will be a difficult thing to pull off,” Setzer said.

In hopes of finding a middle ground, Graham has applied for a grant to hire an independent consultant to do a new feasibility study. Graham believes a solution for 107 is within reach if the community thinks outside the box.

“We’ve all been to areas with roads similar to 107 but that function better, look nicer, are safer to drive on, but are equally as full of businesses,” Graham said.

It will take a whole bag of tricks to solve 107 traffic woes, she said, ticking off a list of catch phrases common in traffic planning circles: access management, traffic calming, intersection redesigns, turning nodes, rear-access drives and shared entrances.

“We might just need to look at it one block at a time and look at fixes that are real specific to each area and what it can handle,” Graham said.

Graham hopes a do-over of the DOT’s feasibility study will come up with such suggestions.

Setzer said these micro-fixes might work for a while, but would be temporary Band-Aids.

“We can do a little bit here and a little bit there,” Setzer said. But “after some time we are going to run out of tricks.”

Jason Kiminker, a Sylva businessman and advocate with the Smart Roads Alliance, disagreed.

“I think the correct solution is going to be surgery. A very precise surgery. Not a bomb that is dropped on the road,” Kiminker said.

Setzer countered that the feasibility study is far from a final road plan.

“If this project goes into design, we would be looking at finding ways to avoid these impacts,” Setzer said.

Setzer said there is wiggle room in the lane width and the width of the median, which is a whopping 30-feet in the feasibility study.

But the community also has to figure out how much congestion they are willing to tolerate.

“Is congestion out there today an acceptable level? Can we live with more or do we need less congestion?” Setzer said.

Kiminker questions the so-called congestion, and considers the future traffic estimates predicted by DOT a flawed premise.

“They can forecast whatever they want then say 107 won’t be able to carry it,” Kiminker said.

 

What about the bypass?

Percolating at the edge of the debate over 107 is the looming question of whether to build a new bypass around the commercial stretch. Once known as the Southern Loop and now deemed the 107 Connector, the bypass would plow virgin countryside to skirt the business district, giving through commuters a direct route to U.S. 23-74.

Opponents to the bypass clamored for the DOT to instead fix 107 traffic congestion without building a new road.

County commissioners and town board members also called for examining fixes to 107 first.

So the DOT sanctioned the feasibility study, and like Setzer predicted, it concluded 107 would have to be much, much wider to handle future traffic on its own, without the aid of a bypass.

“I intuitively knew it would be very disruptive but I wanted to have people take a professional look at it,” Setzer said. “Everybody said fix 107, but the devil is always in the details as to what it would take to fix 107.”

Graham said even with a bypass, however, future 107 traffic woes won’t be resolved.

“The studies show the connector will relieve some traffic on 107 but not enough to solve our problems,” Graham said.

Setzer agreed.

“I have been an advocate for both projects. Fixing 107 and also offering an alternative to 107,” Setzer said.

Kiminker fears the DOT is using fear mongering to steer the public toward supporting a bypass.

“They are showing you all the worst possible scenarios,” Kiminker said of the feasibility study.

Kiminker said there are “much more palatable, much less expensive and more low impact” options, but the DOT had an ulterior motive.

“The entire point of the study was not to see how 107 was improved, it was about showing that the connector was needed,” Kiminker said. “We haven’t been fooled — this feasibility study can be shelved in the garbage can where it deserves to go.”

Setzer said the public wanted a feasibility study, and that’s what they got. He can’t help the findings.

“We had input from the general public, we had input from advocacy groups and input from local government that said they would like us to look and see at fixing 107 before relieving congestion through other means,” Setzer said.

Setzer welcomes a second feasibility study by an independent firm should the grant come through, as well as the continued dialogue it is bound to bring about.

Of course, talk is cheap. The price tag for the full-blown widening outlined in the DOT’s feasibility study is $103 million. And it’s nowhere on the horizon, at least according to the DOT’s long-range road building list.

Nonetheless, it’s not a moment to soon to start crafting a design the community can get behind, Graham said.

“At least the town and county would be armed with a plan so as funds came available to do some road improvements they would have defined what their problems were and solutions were on more of a micro level,” Graham said.

If given a blank canvas, no road engineer today would build a road that looks or functions like 107. Constraints posed by commercial development flanking the corridor certainly makes it harder to fix, she said.

“So it is working backwards a little bit, but there is no time like the present. I don’t think it is hopeless,” Graham said.

Waynesville and Sylva are at a crossroads, ones that will irrevocably shape the character of their communities.

Both towns are clamoring for a makeover of their commercial avenues — South Main Street in Waynesville and N.C. 107 in Sylva — but neither likes the plans that the N.C. Department of Transportation came up with.

Instead, both communities want to do their own street plans, drawing from new urbanist philosophies that use street design as a springboard for creating vibrant and lively shopping districts where not only cars but people feel at home.

But traffic is a fact of life, and whether the communities can marry the needs of the thoroughfares with their lofty visions remains to be seen.

 

Read more:

Waynesville primed for makeover of South Main

Fast for cars or pleasing for people? Tug of war rages over 107

The advent of the boulevard, the death of the five-lane

A look in the rearview at N.C. 107

When Dale McElroy plunked down $100,000 to expand Mica’s Restaurant & Pub in southern Jackson County last year, he was banking on the status quo staying the status quo: a dry county remaining dry.

McElroy, like other savvy business owners in the area, have used numerous loopholes in the state ABC law to legally sell alcoholic beverages in “dry” Jackson County. McElroy can legally sell alcohol as a semi-private club.

At Mica’s, patrons are knocking back plenty of beer, wine and even liquor. McElroy is counting on that continuing — it’s how he plans to pay for his new outdoor deck, fire pit and remodeled dining room.

McElroy also sells beer and wine from a small to-go shop adjacent to the restaurant. To keep it legal, he sells lifetime memberships for $1 and piggybacks on the golf course and country club to help qualify for the status as a private club.

It’s the beer and wine sales from that shop that help subsidize his restaurant.

But take away the corner on the market he currently enjoys, and suddenly his investment doesn’t look very rosy.

That’s the case, too, for Jacqueline and Joel Smilack, who spent what she described as “a lot” to build two, full-sized asphalt tennis courts. That transformed JJ’s Eatery along N.C. 107 in the Glenville community into a sports club, legally entitled to sell alcohol.

McElroy, for one, doesn’t mince words. If the sale of booze becomes legal for every business — not just the ones such as his and JJ’s that invested big bucks to earn the right to sell alcoholic beverages — then he’ll be forced to shut his doors. The upfront investment has been too great to suddenly have to compete with every Tom, Dick and Harry who owns a service station or restaurant in the Cashiers area being allowed in the game.

The way it works now is that each week, McElroy must call in his order to Sylva’s ABC store detailing the amounts and types of liquor he needs, wait until they call back and say it’s ready, then go pick up the filled order.

So, he must be happy that Jackson County Chairman Jack Debnam wants a vote, too, on opening an ABC store in Cashiers? Wouldn’t that be convenient?

Well, no, as a matter of fact, he’s not happy at the news.

“I’d rather spend $1,000 a week to go down to Sylva than $300 to go into Cashiers,” McElroy said.

In other words, he’s making money because of the exclusivity and inconvenience of the situation as it stands now. The referendum passes, “and I wouldn’t continue running this place,” McElroy said flatly.

It’s midday on a weekday, and the bar is hopping at Sapphire Brewing Company near Cashiers.

Jackson County, technically, is “dry,” with the sale of alcoholic beverages limited to the town limits of Sylva and Dillsboro. The truth, however, is a far different matter — businesses all over the county are selling beer, wine and mixed drinks, and they are doing so legally and by the letter of the state’s ABC law.

Nowhere is this relatively unrestricted flow of booze in an ostensibly “dry” area more evident than in the southern part of the county, “on the mountain” around the Cashiers area where droves of well-heeled retirees and seasonal residents flock each summer and fall.

“There are so many loopholes,” said Amber Powell, one of two bartenders needed this hot day at Sapphire Brewing Company to keep up with the brisk demand for cold, on-tap beer. “Honestly, the law’s not very fair — it should be all businesses, or none.”

Uniformity just might be on the horizon, if Jackson voters next year approve a referendum for the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages. Four of the county’s five commissioners say they will put the question to a public countywide vote, either in the May primary or the 2012 November general election.

 

A law of exceptions

For now, businesses outside of Sylva and Dillsboro wanting to take advantage of Jackson County’s big thirst have encountered few problems finding ways to capitalize on the numerous exceptions in North Carolina’s alcohol laws.

But working legally within the state’s ABC system can entail meeting some fairly odd requirements. Whether it’s building tennis courts to qualify as a sports club or proving historic entitlement, there’s dozens of loopholes — but they can be complicated to understand and expensive to implement.

Take one such exception — for a “tourism ABC establishment” — as an illustrative example of the apparent tailor-made nature of most of these right-to-sell booze exceptions. Restaurants or hotels within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are allowed to serve alcohol — a handy exception if you happen to be the Balsam Mountain Inn in the Balsam community of Jackson County, or a similarly situated establishment, but not much use otherwise.

Far more common, especially in Cashiers, is the golf-course exemption.

Sapphire Brewing Company has a public golf course, so under the law, anyone age 21 or older can stride right up to the bar and order a drink, the bartender explained.

“These are adults who want to sit and have a beer,” Powell said. “It’s not like these are underage kids.”

Donald Irvine, busy eating a BLT sandwich at the bar and washing it down with a cold brew, was one of the patrons there last week. He retired in 2005 and now travels regularly from his fulltime home in Tampa, Fla., to the second home he built in Cashiers. Irvine believes North Carolina’s ABC laws are a mishmash of confusion, and that Jackson County would be better off just passing countywide alcohol.

“I can just put up a tennis net and say, ‘I’m a sports club’ and sell alcohol,” he said in wonderment.

 

Selling memberships

Well, it’s not quite that easy, but it’s close — if you’ve got the cash to back the dream. In the Glenville community outside of Cashiers alongside N.C. 107, JJ’s Eatery qualifies as a sports club. Owners Jacqueline and Joel Smilack built two regulation-size tennis courts, and now they are running a bar and restaurant, BP gasoline station and a package store.

Never mind that JJ’s tennis courts are up a weedy, relatively unused-looking dirt road and out of sight — they are in fact used, they do in fact qualify the couple to legally sell alcoholic beverages, and the Smilacks are doing a brisk business indeed serving thirsty lake-goers and Glenville residents unwilling to hoof it off the mountain to buy beer.

To meet the state’s requirements for a sports club, the Smilacks charge $5 for a weekly membership or $50 for a year, with tennis court rentals extra at $15 an hour. Or, for the tennis lover in their midst, there’s a $75 annual membership option with unlimited court time.

Provide a name, address, date of birth and driver’s license number, sign on the line and you, too, can buy whatever you’d like to drink from JJ’s — the membership fee is automatically included in the prices of the alcoholic beverages you buy.

“That was the requirement from ABC to do what we do here,” Jacqueline Smilack said of the sports-club designation. “We don’t make the rules, we just have to abide by them.”

Heidi Taylor, who stopped into JJ’s last week to get a cool six-pack before heading out for a hot day on the lake, moved to Glenville just last year.

It was her first experience with a dry county, and at first she thought it meant exactly that. But she quickly learned the lay of the land.

“It is really not that much of a problem to buy alcohol,” Taylor said, easily ticking off half a dozen places where you can buy it, either to go or from a bar.

She personally made the $50 investment for an annual “membership” at JJ’s.

“It was nice. I didn’t have to drive all the way to Sylva,” Taylor said.

Still, Taylor, a Christian, doesn’t drink a lot herself. She kind of likes Jackson being a dry county with only limited places where you can get alcohol.

“I guess they didn’t want liquor stores on every corner,” Taylor said approvingly.

But in Cashiers, so-called clubs have proliferated so widely that to stay competitive Mica’s Restaurant & Pub offers lifetime membership at the bargain rate of just $1.

McElroy, in abidance with state regulations, has a stack of file drawers behind the counter reminiscent of the old card catalogs. The drawers are crammed with hundreds of membership cards, a visual testimony to the pent up demand for alcohol in this “dry” county.

McElroy sells beer and wine from a to-go shop, plus has a restaurant with a bar. His loophole? The establishment is affiliated with a country club golf course.

McElroy keeps his membership files handy should a state ABC officer pop in and ask to review them. Theoretically, ABC officers could walk into his bar and ask patrons to prove that they’re members. But no worries: If they don’t have their $1 lifetime membership card on them, a driver’s license will suffice as long as McElroy can go to his files and produce the records.

Other sports clubs in the area go the equestrian route to meet the requirement: providing equine boarding and training, plus on-site dining, lodging and meeting space and host horse trials and other events sanctioned or endorsed by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

Or, like JJ’s, they have two or more tennis courts. Or, short of tennis, an 18-hole golf course.

Those unable to pay for expensive equestrian facilities, tennis courts or golf courses still find ways to accommodate their thirsty clientele. Four restaurants in Cashiers and Glenville currently have active brown-bagging permits, the state’s ABC database of permit holders shows.

 

‘Spot permits’

The law ended up like it did — messy — because businesses in historically dry areas such as greater Jackson County were seeking the revenue boosts alcohol sales could bring.

“Trying to get a county to vote 20 years ago is a lot different than it is today,” said Mike Herring, administrator for the ABC Commission. “Businesses who needed permits for economic development knew if they tried to go the vote route, they might not have a positive result.”

That resulted in “spot permits” being written and shepherded through the General Assembly by state legislators who were responsive to constituent demands. How responsive? Put it this way — the ABC Commission relies on a 25-page report to break down, county by county, who can legally do what.

“Every county is different,” Herring said, describing the report as a roadmap “that has grown over the years.”

Longtime state Sen. Robert C. Carpenter of Franklin, who represented the state’s western most counties from 1988 to 2004, wasn’t a soft touch for businesses looking to sell alcoholic beverages. An unapologetically conservative Republican and devout Christian, Carpenter disapproved of the end-run, as he saw it, that businesses were taking around the state’s ABC law.

“They never came to me, because they knew where I stood,” the 87-year-old said, who died this weekend two days after being interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News for this story. “It needs to be reformed. I remember when I was first elected a bill came up in Bryson City (for a business to sell alcohol). I called up the senate minority leader and told him, ‘We don’t need more liquor sold.’ He took it on, and he killed it.”

Times change, politicians move on — in Carpenter’s wake, a slew of local bills would indeed pass that blew open the door to legal alcoholic beverage sales in “dry” areas.

Luckily for local ABC boards, however, the politics of alcohol are removed from the requirements of overseeing sales in a county. That’s just fine with Veronica Nicholas, who has served on the board for about a decade.

Sylva’s Board of Commissioners appoints the three-member ABC board, though the town splits revenue from the ABC store 50-50 with the county. The amount collected by the town could drop if, as Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam proposes, the referendum includes an ABC store for Cashiers — and it passes.

Still, Nicholas said, she believes “any time to take anything to the voters, I think it is a good thing.”

Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.

 

Loopholes galore

Even in dry counties, country clubs, golf courses, inns, bars and even gas stations can use one of several exceptions in the state ABC laws to serve alcohol.

• Historic ABC establishment

• Special ABC area

• Tourism ABC establishment

• Tourism resort

• Recreation district

• Residential private club

• Interstate interchange economic development zones

• National historic district

• Permits based on existing permits

• Sports club

Jackson County commissioners are considering whether to renovate the former Southern Lumber Co. building to get the county out of paying rent elsewhere for office space.

The county purchased the property and the 34,633-square-foot building on Skyland Drive in 2008. Architect Odell Thompson was asked to develop options for transforming the structure into county offices, and came up with what he termed a very rough, ballpark cost estimate of $1.325 million. He went over possible options this week during a work session with commissioners.

One of the most costly items are a skylight and solar tubes, at about $150,000 — but without natural lighting added, the building would be a depressing, dark hole for county employees working there, Thompson said. Sprinklers or a firewall and required additions, also ups the price, he said.

Still, at about $70 a square foot (plus additional money for such items as the fire protection and redoing the exterior), renovating the building still comes in cheaper than building something from scratch. That, Thompson said in a response to a query by County Manager Chuck Wooten, would come in at $175 to $200 a square foot.

“The question is, do we want to utilize this particular space for this particular purpose?” Wooten said. “I think this would be a good use for this particular space.”

In a similar move, Haywood County commissioners last year bought an abandoned Wal-Mart and are converting it into an office complex for the Department of Social Services and Health Department. The cost was cheaper than replacing the antiquated, crumbling facilities with a new building.

Renting office space is costing Jackson County $40,000 annually. The rental lease involved comes up for renewal in May of next year, providing fuel to the discussion. Additionally, Wooten said, more space is needed by several of the agencies housed by the county, including the cooperative extension service (a demonstration kitchen is included in the drawings made by Thompson, per the state agency’s request, plus office space).

The federal Farm Service Agency, currently in the federal building in Bryson City but formerly housed in Jackson County, also would like to return to this county, Wooten said.

That agency would pay rent for the needed 1,610 square feet.

Another county owned building, this one vacant, is posing its own set of problems.

Commissioners were told that the rock building in Mark Watson Park is not worth saving, with Wooten explaining there “are some real issues with water drainage.” Jackson County was eyeing the building as a possible site for a new 911 emergency dispatch office, using $1.4 million available through dollars collected through 911 fees for phones.

The dispatch office is currently using the old grand jury room in the Jackson County Administration Building. About 7,000 square feet is needed, Wooten said.

One option would be to put up a metal building with an attractive façade on the same site where the old rock building currently sits. Also, at Commissioner Doug Cody’s suggestion, the county will look at whether part of the Southern Lumber building now eyed for renovation could also house 911.

Additionally, commissioners agreed to list on the county’s website three potentially commercial pieces of properties, and sell them if possible:

• 1.5 acres on West Main Street and Wilkes Cresent appraised at $185,000.

• 1.5 acres in Whittier, the Clearwood property, appraised at $39,000.

• Just less than 1.5 acres beside Sylva Plaza, the old steakhouse property, bought originally as a site for a new public library. The library was built instead alongside the historic courthouse. The property was appraised for $250,000, Wooten said, adding there has been interest from a potential buyer for the property.

 

Rent or own?

Jackson County could save on rent and overhead if the following offices were consildated into a single county building. The old Southern Lumber Co. is being eyed for that purpose.

• Drivers license office (already there): 994 square feet

• Veterans Services: 520 square feet

• N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: 2,799 square feet

• Soil and Water Conservation District: 2,130 square feet

• Housing: 863 square feet

• Board of Elections: 3,693 square feet

Chuck Wooten’s wings are still clipped as Jackson County’s manager, at least for now, but it looks like he’ll get big-boy hiring and firing powers soon.

Commissioners this week failed to act on Wooten’s request that he no longer bring all personnel decisions before them for approval, but pledged to revisit it soon.

Most county managers in the state have the power to hire and fire county employees. And until recently, Jackson’s manager did as well.

But when three new county commissioners swept into office, they pulled that power away from the county manger. At the time Ken Westmoreland, who left the post the next day, although there are still conflicting stories on whether he was made to leave by the new commissioners or left voluntarily.

Their rationale for overseeing hiring themselves was to ensure vacant positions really needed filling.

When Wooten came on board as a stopgap replacement for Westmoreland, he warned commissioners in January that the decision was posing a problem, mainly in clogging up the process of effective county government.

So they backed off part of that mandate, allowing department heads who are primarily state funded — such as social services and the health department, for example — to use their own discretion. They also said Wooten could make decisions when positions were contracted or grant funded.

Jackson County commissioners did, however, retain oversight for county positions paid for purely with county money.

Wooten is no longer the “interim” county manager, however, and is at the helm in a permanent capacity. The request to have full hiring and firing authority would seem to reflect Wooten’s growing comfort level in the post and with commissioners. And, the commissioners comfort level with him.

Queried after the meeting this week, the board of commissioners seemed united in wanting to grant Wooten full manager powers, but a couple said they had timing concerns — as in being kept informed on decisions being made, and when they would learn about hires.

“We’re just concerned about the time frame, that’s all,” Commissioner Mark Jones said.

— By Quintin Ellison

Page 68 of 106
Go to top