In what promises to become an increasingly expensive proposition, county taxpayers must now pick up the tab for cleaning up illegal methamphetamine labs.
The federal government notified states in February that it would no longer pay for such clean ups, which involve dangerous, potentially explosive, chemicals and toxic residue. The state covered the cost for a while, but after spending about $165,000 to clean up some 50 labs in North Carolina in the past six months, the state has spent all it wants to and will now place the burden on counties.
More than 230 meth labs were discovered and destroyed in North Carolina last year; Jackson County destroys between one and nine of the illegal labs a year.
Jackson County this week got stuck with its first meth-lab bill.
In this case, the bill was estimated to come to just $1,500, but that’s because the meth lab deputies busted was a particularly primitive operation. Some cleanups downstate of “superlabs” have cost as much as $20,000, according to news reports.
The lab operators were using a makeshift method recently developed called “shake-and-bake,” said Lt. Shannon Queen of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, in which the ingredients are mixed in soda bottles. This can pose great potential dangers, because the shaken chemicals are highly volatile.
During a discussion at a Jackson County meeting this week, Commissioner Doug Cody worried aloud about the possibility of a “huge cleanup” in the future, and the potential cost to a county unprepared for such a financial blow. Queen said that law enforcement and prosecutors routinely seek restitution, but “as the saying goes, you really can’t get blood from a turnip.”
In other words, getting money out of convicted drug dealers could prove an uphill battle for local governments.
Queen said deputies received an anonymous tip late last week that resulted in the bust. Following the lead, they set up surveillance at the bottom of Greens Creek Road on July 29, and discovered Keisha Leigh Maki, 25, of Granite Falls, and Billy Ray Davis, 54 of Waynesville, according to a news release from the sheriff’s department.
The couple was hunkered in the weeded area near where Greens Creek goes into a culvert and crosses under U.S. 441. Queen told commissioners this week that the two were using creek water as part of their meth-cooking cooling process.
Whenever local officers breakup a meth lab, a hazardous-materials mitigation team must come and remove the chemicals involved, and everyone involved — officers and suspects — go through decontamination.
Maki and Davis were both charged with manufacturing methamphetamine, trafficking, possessing precursors for methamphetamine, conspiring to manufacture methamphetamine and possession of drug paraphernalia. Both were being held early this week under $100,000 bonds. Their first court date on the charges was scheduled for Aug. 16.
It’s a typical late afternoon weekday in Hollifield Jewelers on Main Street in Sylva, with four or five customers in the store at one time.
Busy — just the way owner Steve Dennis likes it. But that busyness, the marks of lifeblood in both a store and any downtown district, is posing some problems in Jackson County’s largest town.
Parking — and as difficult an issue as that can be anywhere in any Western North Carolina municipality, there’s an added element of danger to Sylva’s Main Street that is missing in neighboring Waynesville, Bryson City and Franklin.
The diagonal parking on Main Street, with its two lanes of one-way traffic, requires a leap of faith, especially when driving a small car parked beside, say, an SUV for example.
When it’s time to leave, that’s when the fun begins: Back out blindly and hope another vehicle in the process doesn’t smash you in the rear. Or ask a passenger to risk their physical wellbeing by standing in the road to ensure your safety — but not theirs — while backing the car.
Police Chief Davis Woodard doesn’t like the lay-out one little bit. He figures there’s a smashup about once every two weeks. Given the situation, the chief said it’s somewhat inexplicable why there aren’t fender-benders, or worse, 50 or more times a day.
“If you just stand there and watch, it’s amazing there aren’t more,” Woodard said.
The problem isn’t a simple one to solve, though town leaders are trying to sort out what best to do. Commissioner Ray Lewis has suggested angling the parking spaces more deeply, as is done in Franklin. That means, however, losing some 20 to 25 percent of parking on Main Street, according to what Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower has learned from the state Department of Transportation.
“We can’t afford that,” said Holly Hooper, co-owner of Black Rock Outdoor Company. “It is hard to back out, but we just can’t lose any more spaces.”
Besides, both business owners — Hollifield and Hooper — believe the problem needs to first be sorted out at a different starting point: by slowing down speeders on Main Street.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hooper said.
“It’s like they are on I-40,” Hollifield said.
Combine those speeders with motorists jostling for position, shifting from right lane to left, and shoppers backing cars out into traffic or circling endlessly around town looking for parking … oh yes, don’t forget the jaywalkers, and delivery trucks stopping to unload — that’s downtown Sylva in a nutshell these days.
But there’s also a vibrancy to the downtown, a special quality that Sylva needs to be careful not to lose, said visitors Madeline Crawford and Marti MacMillan, who both live near Clayton, Ga. The two women were returning to their vehicle after an afternoon of shopping in Sylva, their arms burdened with shopping bags.
Take away downtown parking and force people to walk any distance to shop, and you can kill a downtown and kiss much of the business goodbye, MacMillan said.
“It really hurts a town if you take away the quaintness. Then you might as well go to a mall,” the Rabun Gap resident said, emphasizing that she, for one, wouldn’t hike from a distant parking lot to shop the downtown area.
One other, quicker fix the town is leaning toward implementing: marking off the parking spaces at the back ends, as well as the sides, to eliminate vehicles longer than about 19 feet.
Tom Rodgers of the Caney Fork community drives a big Ford F-250, exactly 20 feet long (he knows that because, being a careful man, he measured before building a garage). He elected one day this week to park in a nearby parking lot and walk across Main Street to Vance Hardware — both because he knows his truck would be difficult for motorists in smaller cars to see around if he used a street space, and because the back few feet of his truck would jut into traffic. Rodgers wasn’t eager to have a passing car clip the back end.
But not everyone is as thoughtful, or self-considerate of the back end of their vehicles, as Rodgers, so the size-marking of parking spaces on Main Street looks to become a certainty, based on recent meetings of the town’s commission board.
Chief Woodard is also getting ready to interview, then hire, a foot-patrol officer for the downtown, something Sylva has lacked since the late Officer Joe Frigo (fondly dubbed “Officer Friendly” by Sylva residents) retired in December 2003.
The new Officer Friendly will be tasked with enforcing Sylva’s relatively recent rule forbidding merchants and their workers from parking in the prime spaces downtown, and generally providing an official reminder for motoring civility in the downtown area.
When Mike Schoonover was 10 years old, he had a transformative experience. It wasn’t a religious conversion per se. There was no epiphany-inducing encounter with a sports hero. But there was a cathedral of sky and a 10,000-foot high playing field, and there was born a fledgling devotion to the skies that has lasted five decades.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” says Schoonover, who lives in Waynesville.
He’s sitting in the tiny office of the one-runway Jackson County Airport, an unassuming room with faux-wood paneling and the single air conditioner in the small hangar, whirring against the staunch July heat.
He recounted tagging along in the cockpit during a sales call with a family friend who sold used airplanes.
Now he owns his own airplane, a 2006 Maule M4-180V — a throwback, he says, to the earlier days of small-scale flying, and earlier this month he and his 13-year-old grandson, Sam Bolduc, achieved the complicated feat of touching it down in all 48 contiguous states.
They did it in six days. The plane averages around 110 miles per hour, so even a cursory encounter with a map and a calculator will tell you it means essentially constant flying.
And Schoonover did much more than a cursory encounter.
“It was so over-planned and, you know, I flew this thing on paper over and over, four or five times — what altitudes will I fly at, what headings,” says Schoonover.
He’s a self-described type-A man, the kind of person who finds precision relaxing. When he says the trip was highly planned, his claims are genuine.
He planned the routes, of course, and the particulars of the plane. But he also made survival plans, mapped out locations where the plane was most likely to go down without radio contact and then researched and packed a survival kit for the eventuality.
He worked out which foods they could take in the tiny, two-seater plane. They subsisted mainly on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and bananas. Apparently, they’re lower on the choke-hazard scale. Because, says Schoonover, you can’t just pull over a plane to do the Heimlich maneuver.
But even with the copious preparations, things went far better than even the pilot himself expected. He blocked out 12 to 14 days for the trip, breaking it up into 48 1.5-hour flights. That’s another fun fact gleaned from his background research — it takes about 1.5 hours to fly from one state to another, pretty much regardless of size.
He got the idea in the doldrums of winter, one of those intricate daydreams that carry us through the gray expanse of winter days.
But Schoonover’s fantasy crossed the portal from dream to idea, from idea to reality. He doesn’t think they’ve set any records doing it, but that part is a little murky, because he couldn’t really find any record of someone else actually doing it. He’s pretty sure people must do things like this all the time. But maybe, like him, they didn’t exactly look for any record books to put it in.
Record breaking or simply noteworthy, it was an exhausting and expensive proposition. Schoonover was the plane’s sole pilot for all 5,951 nautical miles of the journey, and he relieved himself of more than $3,000 on fuel alone.
“I knew it was one of those things that was once in a lifetime, but at a certain level is hard to justify,” said Schoonover. Overall, the trip cost around $4,000. “But to say that we’d done something like this and to have the experience and have it documented and share it with people and family and stuff, I could justify it one time.”
Hearing him recount the tale, too, it’s clear that one unexpected benefit was worth four grand.
“My grandson loved it. He got into more than I would expect. He became more than a passenger, he was truly a copilot,” says Schoonover. He has 11 grandkids, but this particular 13-year-old seemed the right age. So when he was planning the trip, he called his daughter in Cary.
Would Sam like to come?
And just like Schoonover’s own inaugural ride into the clouds, he hopes his grandson will remember this voyage as the moment his love of aviation began.
“I know he will because I watched and I saw how he got into it. If you ever have that deal where you can see somebody with a passion, see that passion begin,” says Schoonover, the joy on his face replacing the end of his sentence. That is what he saw kindled in his grandson.
Over the course of the trip, they burned 600 gallons of fuel, flew more than 59 hours and made friends at small airports in every quadrant of the country. They passed over three major disasters and countless acres of untouched natural beauty.
Would he do it again? In a heartbeat, says Schoonover.
“You know, did you ever have a family event, something where you wanted it to be perfect and you hoped it would be perfect, but things aren’t perfect?” he asks, as he pushes the small plane, it’s green stripe gleaming in the sun, out for another jaunt into the crisp summer sky. “Well, this was.”
Alcohol has historically been slow to come to the mountains — much slower than the rest of the state.
Only two counties in Western North Carolina allow alcohol sales outside town limits.
Statewide, 60 counties allow some form of alcohol sales, even if just beer and wine, throughout the county. Of those, most date back to 1933 — the year prohibition ended. Across the state, dozens of counties and towns held votes in April 1933 to usher in alcohol.
In the mountains, Buncombe County, along with Asheville and Black Mountain, jumped on the post-prohibition bandwagon, as did Hickory.
But the rest of rural WNC stayed dry. Decades would pass before towns warmed up to the idea, voters here and there voting in beer and wine, then later ABC stores, and eventually, in recent years, liquor drinks at bars and restaurants.
Counties, however, remained steadfast. Politics at the county level still bent to the agrarian voting block, likely more conservative and traditional in their ways, compared to more liberal town dwellers. And the business lobby was absent, satisfied with alcohol at the town level where the stores and restaurants were all located anyway.
With one exception: a rash of alcohol votes after WWII. In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, a dozen or more mountain counties — Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain among them — held alcohol referendums. All failed and have not been revisited since.
Some towns, driven by business interests, were formed with alcohol as their goal, such as ski resort towns like Seven Devils, Sugar Mountain and Beech Mountain. Maggie Valley’s push to become a town in the late 1970s was inextricably wrapped up in wanting alcohol for its tourist trade. Town limits were narrowly drawn to take in the roadside strip of restaurants and motels, paving the way for alcohol for its commercial district.
Graham remains the only totally dry county — not even the town of Robbinsville has legalized alcohol sales. Yancey was in the same boat until last year, when Burnsville voted in alcohol sales.
Clay County, another tiny county with only one town to speak of, broke the mold in 2009. The county leapfrogged past the still-dry county seat of Hayesville and voted in alcohol at the county level.
It’s the only mountain county besides Buncombe to have alcohol, and the only one in WNC to have a successful alcohol referendum since 1933.
Jackson isn’t alone in its foray toward an alcohol vote. Henderson County commissioners just last week decided to put alcohol to a vote of the people there next year during the May primary.
Whether you’re a college student in Cullowhee or a socialite in Cashiers, stocking up on beer, wine and spirits requires a trip into town — a trip most would apparently rather not make.
A majority of Jackson County residents support countywide alcohol sales, according to a telephone poll of 600 registered voters.
The alcohol question was one of 20 on local politics and issues posed to a random sample of Jackson County’s voting public last summer in a joint public affairs project by the WCU Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News.
The poll showed 56 percent of voters in Jackson County support alcohol sales countywide compared to 39 percent against it.
Only 5 percent of those polled were undecided, a very small number compared to most other questions.
The poll revealed some trends about who favors countywide alcohol sales the most.
• Cashiers residents are more likely to support it than Sylva residents.
• Those with a college degree are more likely to support it. Among those with college degrees, 66 percent were in favor compared to 47 percent of those with less than a college degree.
• Men are stronger supporters of countywide alcohol, with 65 percent of men compared to 54 percent of women supporting the measure.
• Liberals were more supportive, with 72 percent of self-described liberals in favor of countywide alcohol compared to 50 percent among self-described conservatives.
• Younger people support the idea more.
Voters in Jackson County will get to decide next year whether to allow alcohol sales countywide.
Four of the county’s five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News this week they would support an alcohol referendum. The commissioners have not publicly discussed the issue yet, nor formally voted to put the measure on the ballot, but have confirmed their intention to do so.
“To me personally, alcohol sales mean nothing at all,” said Debnam, the driving force on the board behind the upcoming referendum. “But we’re going to give the people a choice.”
Still to be decided is whether the vote will be held in conjunction with the May primary or during November’s general election.
In Western North Carolina, only Buncombe and Clay counties currently allow alcohol sales countywide. Henderson County residents will vote on the issue in the May primary.
Chairman Jack Debnam, and Commissioners Doug Cody, Charles Elders and Mark Jones said they would support the referendum. Joe Cowan did not return a phone message before press time seeking comment.
“We live in a democracy,” Cody said simply, on why he is throwing his support behind the referendum.
Currently, Sylva and Dillsboro have a corner on the market when it comes to alcohol. Given the long trek down twisty, narrow roads from Cashiers, its not surprising residents and businesses there are among the most eager to usher in countywide alcohol.
“I think it would be super for the economy of the Cashiers area,” said Sally Eason, owner of Canyon Kitchen restaurant at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire.
Restaurants could expect to see a boost to their bottom line — as will waitresses who get tipped based on a percentage of the bill — if alcohol hits the menus.
Diners will not only spend more, but will be more likely to go out in the first place, Eason said.
Now, people who want a glass of wine or a pint with their meal might opt to stay home and knock back a few while grilling out on the deck instead. But the absence of beer and wine from grocery store shelves is probably most irritating to those who don’t live close to Sylva — and even more so to second-home owners and vacationers bowled over by the concept of a dry county.
“A lot of our guests are from Atlanta, Charlotte or Knoxville. They have been a little a surprised at that. It is a turn off,” said George Ware, owner of The Chalet Inn bed and breakfast in Whittier.
Although Ware said he personally wouldn’t start serving up Mimosas with breakfast even if legally allowed to, Ware does believe a countywide vote is a good idea.
“I am happy to hear it is being considered. I think people should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Ware said.
A nod by voters to alcohol sales countywide could bring profound changes to Cullowhee, in particular. Western Carolina University lacks the typical array of bars and restaurants found in most college towns. But that’s because Cullowhee is not actually a town, and thus is dry like the rest of the county.
Curt Collins, who went to WCU and is now owner of Avant Garden, a community-based farm and event venue in Cullowhee, said alcohol is needed to spur economic development around campus, making Cullowhee a more vibrant community, and help create the college town other university’s take for granted.
“It would create a better atmosphere for new businesses and existing business who serve food and have entertainment,” Collins said. “There is so much evidence to show that will increase the local economy. It will create new business opportunities, and those will put people to work, and increase people moving their money around.”
To solve the problem of no alcohol, Former Chancellor John Bardo crafted a complex plan. He wanted the tiny nearby town of Forest Hills to first legalize alcohol sales and then expand its town limits to include parts of campus, hopefully paving the way for a vibrant college scene to spring up. He also wanted the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the sports stadium to be part of Forest Hills, so alcohol could be sold at events there as well.
Those plans have foundered with Bardo’s leaving, but are still percolating behind the scenes.
Countywide legal alcohol sales would likely make the issue moot, however.
Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Bakery & Café on “The Catwalk” near the center of WCU, said she strongly supports a referendum. But, ironically, she isn’t sure that she could, even if the referendum passes, legally sell alcoholic beverages at the popular Cullowhee establishment because the university owns the building.
“But it’s the right thing to let people vote on it,” Evans said.
Fears of chain restaurants flooding into Cullowhee if alcoholic beverage sales become legalized in the county are legitimate concerns for such buy-local proponents as Adam Bigelow. The recent WCU graduate and member of CuRvE, a group working to revitalize old Cullowhee, said that there were similar fears about Sylva when the sale of mixed drinks were legalized.
“But that really didn’t happen,” Bigelow said. “But, if they could go to Cullowhee and find a readymade thirsty market, that could be a problem.”
Still, overall, Bigelow supports the concept of legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County as part of building the community’s economy.
Collins said it would just be more convenient if people didn’t have to drive to Sylva to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.
“Students want to be able to walk or ride their bikes to the bar,” Collins said. It would be safer and reduce possible drunk driving between Sylva and Cullowhee by students.
Meanwhile, however, Haley Milner, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, gets a lot of customers filtering down the road from Western College University. And on weekends, live bands clearly cater to that college crowd.
If new restaurants and bars opened in Cullowhee, Milner could lose some of that business, but said she would still support countywide alcohol sales. Besides, Soul Infusion might just move closer to campus.
“There is also the possibility that we could move out there ourselves,” Milner said.
Milner said her food is the top draw for clients, not beer and wine, but alcohol sales are important to the bottom line. And giving up that piece of revenue is a strike against moving to Cullowhee without it.
Although Sylva establishments might lose a little business if other restaurants serving alcohol cropped up around the county, the town of Sylva likewise would lose some of its ABC revenue.
The town runs the only liquor store in the county right now. Debnam said he would like to see a liquor store in Cashiers, another measure that would have to be included on the ballot and approved by voters.
“Obviously it would impact us greatly. We wouldn’t have the monopoly we have right now,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “If that’s what the commissioners want to do and what the people of Jackson County want to do, that is their total prerogative.”
Sylva’s ABC store netted $360,000 last year. The town split the proceeds with the county. Of the town’s share, a portion is reserved for the police department and the swimming pool, but the majority — about $130,000 a year — goes straight into the general budget to spend on whatever town leaders please.
Putting an ABC store in Cashiers might hurt Sylva’s sales some. But doing so would at least keep more of the money from liquor sales in Jackson County.
And Commissioner Mark Jones believes the amount gained could be substantial.
As it stands now, he said, Highlands in Macon County and Transylvania County capture a share of the Cashiers market, as does neighboring Georgia, draining both sales tax revenue and ABC profits away from Jackson. And many second-home owners have likely gotten in the habit of buying in their home state or town before they come to the mountains.
Jones is also bothered by what he considers the unfairness of certain private clubs in the area being able to legally sell alcohol while other establishments cannot. There are loopholes in the law for private clubs or restaurants tied to a golf course, development or resort.
Several in Cashiers have capitalized on the arrangement, but they still have to buy their liquor from the lone ABC store in Sylva, logging weekly trips down the mountain to get their stock.
“It is a two hour roundtrip, and you are putting that on top of the cost of the product,”
Ultimately, it’s simply up to the county’s just more than 40,000 residents to decide, the commissioners interviewed said, and to argue the pros and cons of their decision.
“Nobody can tell me the last time Jackson County had an opportunity to vote on the issue,” Jones said. “It’s only fair to put it out to the people.”
Commissioner Elders, arguably the most traditional member of the board, said he expects some backlash to his and the board’s decision from more conservative members of the community. But, like Jones, he said that he believes it’s important that citizens be allowed to make a decision.
“The fairest way of doing anything is to put it out there,” said Elders, who owns and manages a gasoline station near Whittier on U.S. 23/74. “And let the people decide.”
It might sound simple enough, but a vote over alcohol sales isn’t a plain yes or no question. At least not to the state of North Carolina.
Voters in Jackson County may face an arsenal of questions as they wade through exactly what form of imbibing should be allowed and where. Beer, wine, liquor — or all of the above? At grocery stores and gas stations, or only sit-down restaurants? And what about a liquor store?
“If they do everything at one time, it could be a very lengthy ballot,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
County voters will face a separate question for each type of alcohol and each way it could be sold.
Most towns that allow alcohol sales have warmed up to the idea gradually: first putting beer and wine to the test, later opening an ABC store for the public, but only recently voting in the sale of liquor drinks by bars and restaurants.
The mix of what’s allowed and what’s not can take many forms.
Dillsboro, for example, allows only beer and wine and only at restaurants. No mixed drinks, and no over-the-counter sales by gas stations or grocery stores.
The towns of Highlands and Franklin for years allowed wine, but not beer.
Meanwhile, Waynesville opened a liquor store for the public in 1967, but more than 40 years passed before you could buy a liquor drink at a bar or restaurant.
There are two ways to get an alcohol referendum on the ballot. One is a petition from 35 percent of the registered voters, a highly ambitious prospect.
The other is a vote by county commissioners to place it on the ballot.
The state Department of Transportation has agreed to pay 80 percent of the cost for a quarter-mile of sidewalks in old Cullowhee if Jackson County will chip in $9,000, or 20 percent of the overall price tag.
The DOT is building a new bridge over the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee, a short distance upstream from the existing bridge. As part of the project, the road would be rebuilt from Central Drive to about the area of the Cullowhee Café, according to County Planner Gerald Green.
While the project calls for bike lanes and sidewalks on the bridge, it did not originally include sidewalks along the rest of the new road section.
But Green told commissioners this week that DOT has agreed to put them in if the county would share a portion of the cost.
Rick Bennett, owner of Cullowhee Real Estate and a member of CuRvE, a community group working to revitalize the area, urged commissioners to help with the sidewalks.
“We think the sidewalks are a phenomenal idea,” he said, adding that the new bridge would “change the face of Cullowhee.”
He cited the low matching cost as generous “in these economic times.”
CuRvE has piggybacked on the bridge replacement to advance the idea of a riverfront park in Cullowhee. If built, the park would be multi-use, and likely include picnic tables, public beach access to the river and a boat launch. The bridge replacement, if designed properly, could facilitate the park, which in turn could jumpstart revitalization in Old Cullowhee.
Jackson commissioners, at Commissioners Mark Jones’ request, delayed a vote until fellow board member Joe Cowan could be present. The board is scheduled to make its decision at the August meeting. If commissioners do vote to pay for a portion of the sidewalks as requested, Green indicated the money would come out of next year’s fiscal year budget.
A vote of approval, County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners, would serve as “a commitment that in the future the commission would provide the funds.”
Construction is scheduled for April 2013.
In the do-you-remember, they-were-right-after-all category, the enormous popularity of Jackson County’s new library has meant finding parking at the renovated courthouse and library addition can sometimes prove a real pain.
So much so, Assistant Librarian Liz Gregg has taken to parking off the hill and walking to work, even while wearing dress shoes and slogging through wet grass. A minor inconvenience for her, she said, that frees up one additional parking space nearer the building for library patrons.
“Besides, I’m here for eight-plus hours. I need that exercise,” Gregg reasoned.
The only real problem for Gregg and others who are willing to walk to the library? The stairs from Mark Watson Park, one of the major sources of extra parking that is located below the courthouse on the backside of the hill, are not in very good shape.
“The steps are kind of crumbly,” Gregg said.
Enter the board of county commissioners, which is now considering what best it should do. County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners last month that to officially reopen the stairs from Mark Watson Park “we’ll have to put in a railing, and assess other possible repairs.”
That assessment is under way.
Also expected to help ease the parking strain is a continuing slowdown in construction work. Those final fixes that always seem to surface with a new project should continue to diminish, meaning fewer workers’ trucks and more patron parking, said head Librarian Dottie Brunette.
Air conditioning has been an ongoing problem, as have lightening strikes and simple electric surges that knock out the computer circuit boards, requiring workmen’s services.
“We’re the highest point on the hill,” Brunette said. “It’s like I’ve told people, we’ve got Lady Justice on top of the courthouse with her arm up in the air just beckoning for it.”
One day, for undetermined reasons, each punch of an elevator button triggered the security gates to sound. That made for an interesting work atmosphere, the librarian said.
But overall, the opening has been gone smoothly, Brunette said. The new library celebrated its grand opening last month. It was forced to shutdown entirely for one day after a waterline break, but otherwise, the library has been open for business when promised.
In all, 402 brand new library cards have been issued, and the library (including the grand opening celebration and subsequent programs) had 8,184 visitors in 20 days — an average daily attendance of 409 people. That compares with average daily attendance of 300 to 350 in the old library on Main Street.
“Before we ever moved up here, there were folks for various reasons and from various points of view who felt that the parking would be more limited than we would like it to be,” Brunette said.
There are two actual parking lots at the library, plus some additional spaces right out front and down off the hill.
Supporters of the courthouse site wanted a library within walking distance of downtown. Putting it there on the hill overlooking Sylva, they said, would avoid sprawl and help keep the downtown area vibrant, and give the iconic but vacant historic courthouse a community purpose.
From the get-go, however, the community and the then board of commissioners knew the site wouldn’t be perfect. There is no room for future expansion. The road winding up the courthouse hill is steep and narrow. And, of course, there is that lack of parking.
A group who wanted the library built at the Jackson Plaza touted the two-acre tract on the outskirts of town as being easier to work with, and pointed at the time to its ample parking as one highlight that should be considered.
Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said he was as surprised as anyone to learn that his name would be included on a bronze plaque destined to hang on the newly renovated courthouse and library complex. So was his fellow board member, Charles Elders, who noted last week that frankly it seemed kind of peculiar, even a tad inappropriate, to him.
That’s because during last November’s campaigns, the two Republicans and Jack Debnam, an Independent-but-conservative candidate for commission chairman, were rather free in their criticisms about expenses connected with the $8 million renovation of the old courthouse and construction of a new library annex in Sylva.
Cody was careful to note that he didn’t actually campaign directly against the new library — which, in fact, he didn’t, but he frequently questioned the cost.
Debnam said he truly couldn’t care less whether there’s a plaque or not — the library belongs to the citizens of Jackson County, he said, not to government officials.
“I don’t even know why we have to get into this self-glorification,” Debnam said.
Be that as it may, how then did it happen that two boards of commissioners are destined to have their names listed on the bronze plaque? It will list eight individuals from two Jackson County commission boards, an odd merging of the very men who waged war in one of the most bitter political battles this community can remember.
When it was done, Democrats William Shelton, Tom Massie and Brian McMahan were gone; Elders, Cody and Debnam were in.
Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan are twice designated on the future plaque, because they were and are seated on both the former and current boards. The two men were not up for election last November.
“Nothing is simple in life when it comes to local politics,” County Manager Chuck Wooten wrote Architect Donnie Love in an email dated Jan. 24, which he made available to The Smoky Mountain News. “I suspect with a new board in place when the library opens they will also want to have a presence on the plaque. I’ll talk to the chairman and let you know.”
This followed a query by Love about who should make the plaque, and whether the new county manager was “comfortable with the wording, spelling etc.”
Well, no, it turned out he wasn’t. Wooten, in addition to adding the extra commissioners, removed former County Manager Ken Westmoreland’s name. It should be pointed out that he did not add his own name, either. Wooten said he simply didn’t like the idea of having a county manager, any county manager, on the plaque.
The changes did not cost the county any taxpayer money, Wooten said.
Dottie Brunette, head librarian in Jackson County, declined to comment on the library plaque, or on public speculations she was offered a Faustian deal: agree to the names being added, or risk losing library funding. Wooten flatly denied such a conversation took place.
He was, however, clearly sensitive about talk in the community concerning the plaque leading up to the library’s grand opening. The day before, on June 10, Wooten again emailed Love, querying him about the not-yet-delivered plaque:
“Could you determine when he anticipates delivery or should I pursue ordering the plaque from someone else? I’m having a temporary sign printed for this weekend to head off rumors about excluding the prior board of commissioners from a permanent sign. You know how local politics can be.”
Mary Selzer, who helped head a fundraising campaign for Friends of the Library, said Shelton, Massie and Jones were “the three commissioners who had the vision, and who got the project approved and funded, working with then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland.
“Without their commitments and hard work, the courthouse would still be standing empty, and we would still be having discussion about where to put a library in Jackson County.”
Massie and Shelton declined to comment.
The cost to the county — and ultimately the taxpayers — for the new library complex was approximately $7.1 million. The total project budget was more than $8.6 million, but the Friends raised the $1.5 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment plus an additional $300,000 to cover campaign-fundraising expenses and to expand the library’s collection.
Selzer added in a delicate step-on-nobody’s toes straddle, “the current board of commissioners did allot money to keep the current level of services at 45 hours.”
Staff, too, was added. The library saw funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000 under the new board of commissioners. The library, Selzer noted, was the only county department that actually received a financial increase.
The delivery date for the new plaque is unknown. So, exactly, is where on the courthouse/library it will hang once it arrives.
William Shelton is off the local community college’s board of trustees after the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, instead appointed Dewayne Elders, Commissioner Charles Elders’ son.
Shelton, a Democrat, was a former Jackson County commissioner who lost his bid last November for re-election — to Elders, a Republican.
Shelton had served as a board of trustee member for Southwestern Community College since 2007.
“It was a pleasure to serve as a trustee, and now it is time for someone else to step in,” Shelton said the morning after the vote, adding he wished the SCC board the “best of luck.”
Elders, before voting, asked stand-in county Attorney David Moore (the usual attorney, Jay Coward wasn’t there) for a legal opinion.
“I don’t think this is a conflict, because I’m not going back to school, but I want to make sure before I vote,” Elders said.
Moore responded that he was not particularly prepared to answer such a question, but that in his best off-the-cuff response it was really up to Elders and the board to make that decision.
Without Elders, the board would have had a split vote, 2-2.
Asked by Chairman Jack Debnam if he wanted to abstain, Elders responded that no, he did not. And he didn’t, instead choosing to vote with Debnam (who nominated Dewayne Elders) and fellow Republican Doug Cody. Debnam is an Independent, but his votes are in line with the Republicans.
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the law prohibits elected officials from gaining a direct personnel benefit, meaning Elders didn’t violate the state statute.
Democrat Joe Cowan spoke in favor of Shelton, alluding to the former commissioner’s leadership qualities and service. He and Democrat Mark Jones voted against Dewayne Elders.
“I’ve had a number of requests from constituents of mine that the board reappoint (Shelton),” Cowan said.