Western Carolina University’s next chancellor is David Belcher, a classically trained pianist who is currently a top administrator at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Belcher, 53, will start his appointment July 1. His base salary will be $275,000. Belcher was one of three candidates recommended to UNC system President Tom Ross by the university’s 16-member selection committee. The UNC board of governors last week signed off on Ross’ pick of Belcher, a Barnwell, S.C., native.
The names of the competing candidates were not disclosed.
“David Belcher brings to the task more than two decades of academic and leadership experience at highly respected public universities,” Ross said in a nomination speech streamed live via video from Chapel Hill to WCU. “At each step along the way, he has proven himself to be an energetic and effective leader who encourages strategic thinking, promotes collaboration and inclusiveness, and makes student success a university-wide responsibility.”
Ross said he was convinced Belcher has “the right mix of experience, skills and passion” needed in WCU’s next chancellor.
Belcher will replace John Bardo, who, with nearly 16-years as WCU’s chancellor, put a distinctive personal stamp on the university and the surrounding community.
Bardo leaves an “enduring and permanent legacy,” said Steve Warren, chairman of the WCU board of trustees.
Enrollment at WCU went from 6,500 to 9,400 during Bardo’s tenure; buildings —14 — were built or renovated. These include five new residence halls, a dining hall, a campus recreation center, the Fine and Performing Arts Center and a high-tech Center for Applied Technology.
Additionally, however, Belcher inherits a university facing at least $8.6 million in budget cuts from the state, probably more; and a possible leadership vacuum as six or so of the university’s top administrators — provost and finance chief, among others — have left or retired. Even WCU’s marching band director, Bob Buckner, is leaving after this year.
Joan MacNeill, a member of WCU’s board of trustees, said all three candidates submitted for Ross’ consideration would have been excellent choices to fill the university’s top post.
“We had an impressive group to choose from,” she said.
Brad Ulrich, a trumpet professor at WCU, wasn’t much interested in attending the chancellor-naming ceremony last week. He was busy, and there didn’t seem much point to his being there. Then Ulrich heard a rumor: the new chancellor was a classically trained musician. And, a top-drawer one, at that — Belcher went to the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, one of the finest institutions of its kind in the U.S.
“With this kind of leadership, the arts could really explode in this area,” Ulrich said, who is helping lead a push to turn WCU into the first ‘All-Steinway School’ in the University of North Carolina system.
Institutions with this designation use only pianos designed by Steinway & Sons, and such an effort requires WCU to replace 50 or so pianos in the school of music. Since Belcher is a pianist, Ulrich said he hoped and expected the new chancellor would appreciate efforts to bring what many consider the finest-crafted pianos in the world to Cullowhee.
Like Ulrich, Will Peebles, director of the school of music, and Bruce Frazier, who teaches commercial and electronic music, expressed optimism that the arts at WCU and in the community might receive even stronger support. Both men watched the video stream from Chapel Hill after, like Ulrich, learning a musician would become their new boss.
“I’m very excited about the possibility of having someone who is sensitive to the arts, and of the very important role it plays in the community,” Frazier said afterwards, adding he was even more excited about what Belcher’s appointment might mean for WCU’s music students.
And, within minutes of the announcement, word had indeed spread through the music department, and the students seemed suitably impressed by the news.
“I didn’t really know if it would go more toward (supporting) the football program,” said Nicole Segers, a tenor saxophone player from Lexington.
Segers explained she had been concerned that UNC administrative leaders, and the university’s board of trustees, would search for a chancellor with skills to specifically build WCU’s football program, which hasn’t experienced a winning season since 2005.
“I think it is good news,” added Ethan Dyer, a baritone saxophone player from Gastonia, of Belcher’s background in the arts. “Even though Bardo really supported the marching band, the music department seemed overshadowed.”
For his part, however, Belcher said he is a chancellor for “everybody,” and not just a spokesman for the arts.
He emphasized the importance of supporting the football team at WCU, because, he said, that’s a large part of the college experience for students and the community.
This isn’t the easiest time to be a real estate agent in Jackson and Macon counties, not with the crippled housing market and a customer base that is, in most cases, hard pressed to find the dollars to buy new homes.
Nowhere is it tougher than the upscale communities of Cashiers and Highlands, a market catering to second- and third-home owners. Here, where houses just a few years ago routinely sold in the millions, the bottom has fallen out.
Terry Potts isn’t complaining. But, as the owner of four separate real estate offices in Highlands alone, Potts perhaps is experiencing even greater pain than most agents.
“In most cases, property has been selling for about half the tax value,” Potts said of the market in Highlands, adding that what has sold are, generally, bank foreclosures.
“I think that’s why they put it off,” Potts said. “And I do think the values are going to drop a good bit — if they truly use values of (properties) that have sold.”
“It” would be the property revaluations, now scheduled to take place in both Jackson and Macon counties in 2013. Countywide appraisals were last conducted in Jackson in 2008 and Macon in 2007, at practically the peak of the housing boom in Western North Carolina.
Macon County commissioners decided to postpone its revaluation from 2011 to 2013; and Jackson County recently opted to push its back one-year from 2012 to 2013. State law mandates revaluation takes place at least every eight years; both counties had been on four-year cycles.
In both counties, the tax assessors predicted difficulties with calculating true market value when little property has sold. Bobby McMahan, Jackson County’s tax assessor, recently told commissioners one township with 4,000 parcels had just three property sales in three years — hardly enough to establish a baseline.
McMahan wanted commissioners to delay Jackson County’s revaluation until 2015. This would have meant, however, that taxpayers would continue paying taxes for several additional years on what are now hyper-assessed properties. Some residents, particularly those living in southern Jackson County, cried foul — and not just over the possibility of shouldering an unfairly large tax burden, but about the overall level of services the Cashiers area receives back.
“The emotional irritation is that there is a miniscule percentage coming back to southern Jackson County and these townships,” said Phillip Rogers, who lives near Cashiers in the Hamburg Township.
“I’m personally contributing property taxes on two houses … I don’t mind paying the taxes as much as I mind not getting a return on services,” Rogers said.
But even if property values are lowered, it’s unlikely to provide residents such as Rogers tax relief, as he knows. In light of falling property values, Jackson and Macon counties would have to raise the tax rate if they want to bring in the same amount of money.
“That’s true,” agreed interim Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten of the options facing local leaders. “In order to be revenue neutral there would have to be an increase.”
Wooten estimated that staying revenue neutral in Jackson County would require a tax-rate increase of the current 28 cents per $100 valuation to the mid-30s.
The largest drop in property values, not surprisingly, is expected in the Glenville and Cashiers area — the same areas where they had risen so rapidly over the first part of the decade.
Norman West, a longtime real-estate agent, primarily works in Cullowhee, the fastest growing part of the county population-wise, according to the 2010 Census.
Even so, things aren’t good, West said, “but we tend to be a little more insulated than some other communities” because of Western Carolina University.
West said what Jackson County has yet to truly contend with is the crash of high-end developments — granted, many lots in such developments already have been through foreclosure, but he believes there are many more to come. The fallout from the Great Recession isn’t over.
“These are uncharted waters,” West said.
Jack Debnam, a real-estate agent who serves as chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged local leaders have been placed in an unenviable position.
To offset the lower property values when revaluation starts in 2013, they will either have to raise taxes or cut county services.
Commissioners might face that dilemma sooner than 2013, however. The county already faces a budget shortfall. Wooten has asked each department to cut 5 percent from their budgets in the coming fiscal year.
There is every likelihood state leaders will shift portions of the $2.4 billion budget deficit they are facing downhill to local governments. After that, there’s nowhere downhill to go — again, local leaders are left to slash services or raise taxes.
“We just don’t know where the state’s going to put us,” Debnam said.
In Macon County, Bob Holt, a Franklin resident and real-estate instructor for Southwestern Community College, said during the first quarter of this year, sale prices were running at 63 percent of the assessed value. He expects to see values drop after this evaluation.
Richard Lightner, Macon County’s tax assessor, said his office could ask commissioners to delay the revaluation again, up to 2015, but that he doesn’t plan to do that.
“I think we need to adjust to where reality is right now,” Lightner said. “The whole premise of doing a revaluation is to equalize the market values.”
Lightner said the lower- and median-priced homes are generally stable — it’s the high end, speculative markets that are down.
While some counties bring in a specialized appraisal firm to conduct the revaluation, others do it in-house with their own staff. Macon County has done theirs in-house in the past, but Jackson is contemplating bringing the reval in-house for the first time.
Lightner said Jackson is likely to “have a difficult time” if it does. Macon is well along in the revaluation process — some 30 percent of property values are done. Jackson is just starting.
Additionally, Macon has experience doing revaluations in-house; Jackson County does not.
“They’re starting from scratch right now,” Lightner said. “I wouldn’t want to do one like that.”
If Jackson commissioners insist on sticking to its target of 2013, Lightner said he expects Jackson County tax-office staff will be unable to make as many on-site evaluations as Macon County, and instead will be forced to rely more on computer-generated assessments.
Sixty-five runners started and finished the first Assault on Black Rock Trail Race at Sylva’s Pinnacle Park on March 19, raising more than $1,400 for the Community Table soup kitchen.
The 8.3-mile course boasts a 2,700-foot elevation gain and forced participants to use hands and feet to scramble to the craggy pinnacle atop Black Rock. Organizers hope the first-time event – which is basically uphill the first half and downhill on the way back, with the last half-mile of uphill featuring a ridiculously steep climb – will catch on in trail racing circles.
“I am very pleased with the turnout, although I am sure the good weather helped,” said race organizer Brian Barwatt. “… The thought that 65 people stood on the summit of Black Rock on Saturday (not including my volunteers) is awesome because I have been up there about a dozen times in the past couple years and have only seen three people on the trail up to Black Rock.”
Participants traveled from as far away as Atlanta and Raleigh.
The top three men and women finishers were:
(1) Chad Hallyburton, age 42 of Sylva, with a time of 1:31:17
(2) Andrew Benton, age 20 of Hickory, with a time of 1:33:12
(3) Sean Botzenhart, age 18 of Cullowhee, with a time of 1:35:19
(1) (11th overall) Ginny Hotze, age 50 of Asheville, with a time of 1:46:42
(2) (14th overall) Hannah McLeod, age 15 of Waynesville, with a time of 1:51:53
(3) (16th overall) Brenda Holcomb, age 38 of Cullowhee, with a time of 1:56:42
Not to say they told you so, but the truth is … they did.
Construction of a wider bridge to span the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County was abruptly postponed this month after Indian burials were discovered. This frankly seemed to surprise only the state Department of Transportation, which had disregarded arguments made by nearby residents and former landowners that it keep bulldozers and such out of the archaeologically rich area.
Keep the project scaled down, the opponents argued. Even though a wider bridge has been planned for more than a decade, initially the state said it would build a new bridge in the same footprint as the old one, leaving the archaeological site untouched. Plans were altered in 2007, however, resulting not only in a much larger footprint, but also shifting the bridge over to sit on top of the site.
Cherrie Moses, whose family owned the land for 120 years, has been a vocal advocate for protecting the archaeological site in a field along the banks of the river. Moses has a long history of tussling over the issue with the state.
“It is an expansive area, which covers many acres near the Tuckasegee River. If work is done almost anywhere in our valley you’re very likely to discover most anything, including burials,” Moses said.
The DOT was supposed to go out to bid on the work in August but has delayed it until March 2012 to allow more time for an archeaological excavation of the site before building over the top of it.
“Protecting the important historical findings we have uncovered during the course of this excavation is vital to preserving the cultural resources of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and local citizens, as well as all citizens of North Carolina,” said Matt Wilkerson, an archaeologist for the transportation department. “We are prepared to take whatever measure is necessary to proceed with the utmost caution.”
The site was recommended for excavation based on previous archaeological discoveries in the area, although they found more than they bargained for. During the course of the excavation, crews found evidence of burials and at least two prehistoric houses, indicated by distinct patterns of post holes that show the outline of where walls stood.
The excavation was halted last fall because of these discoveries, as well as the onset of cold temperatures. The state said it plans to resume excavation of the site in the next few weeks.
Moses also expressed concern about where unearthed artifacts will go.
“It was my mother’s dream that any artifacts and burials be turned over to the Cherokee Museum including those items which were removed in the 1960s without any written permission from my mother or father. These unique treasures, no matter how small, should remain here within these mountains. They should not be taken to the State Repository where they will never be viewed by anyone from our area,” Moses said.
The $4.2 million will widen the bridge from 20 feet to 50 feet with three lanes, shoulders and a sidewalk to reduce maintenance costs, improve safety and reduce congestion.
The new Jackson County Public Library Complex is located at 310 Keener Street in the renovated and expanded historic courthouse at the west end of Main Street in downtown Sylva.
Construction on the complex is scheduled to be completed sometime in April, 2011. It is anticipated that it will open to the public in May or June.
The hours of operation will be determined based on the amount of funding available from Jackson County.
There was strong public sentiment to keep the library in downtown Sylva. The historic courthouse was an unused building in downtown. It was decided that the best alternative for saving the courthouse was to incorporate it into the new JCPL Complex. This allows us to honor one of the most recognized symbols of Jackson County by making it part of one of the most important institutions – the public library.
Members of the community initially suggested the idea of incorporating a new library into the historic courthouse. In October, 2007, the Jackson County Commissioners voted to incorporate a new expanded library into the 1914 historic building and the surrounding grounds.
The ground floor will house the Genealogical Society, the Historical Association’s museum, a Conference Room, a vending area and built-in display cabinets. The second floor will feature the former courtroom as a multi-purpose Community Room with seating for over 150, the Arts Council’s office and a catering area.
Work began on the renovation and the construction in May 2009, almost two years ago.
The budget for the new complex is approximately $8.6 million. The County Commissioners asked the community to raise $1.5 million of this budgeted amount. The remaining $7.1 million is being paid by the county.
As of the end of February, 2011 the community has raised over $1.8 million. This includes $100,000 pledged to cover all the costs associated with the fundraising efforts.
The current library will be closed for approximately one month in order to facilitate the move up the hill. During this time the public will not have access to the library building, its collection and its computers. We apologize to all our customers who will be inconvenienced during this time particularly all of the students who regularly use the library after school.
The building and grounds belong to Jackson County. The furniture, fixtures, equipment and media materials belong to the Fontana Regional Library.
The building belongs to Jackson County. The county officials will determine its future use.
There will be a significant increase from the 16 spaces at the current library. There are additional parking spaces in the immediate vicinity along Keener Street adjacent to Bicentennial Park. Once the facility has been completed it is expected to be included on the regular route of Jackson County Transit.
The library staff will move over 40,000 items to the new facility. Approximately 24,000 new media items - books, DVDs, books on CD, and Playaways have been ordered - including 18,000 items for adults and 6,000 items for our young people.
There will be 16 in the computer lab, four in teen area, both upstairs, and eight in the children’s area, downstairs. These are public access computers. There will also be several laptops and netbooks available for checkout for use in the library.
The library will create a lifelong learning experience with its expanded collection, increased number of computers, and broader offering of programs. Customers will have the resources they need to explore topics of personal interest, access databases for reliable information, use computers to – check e-mails, find and fill out a government form, write resumes, compile a business plan for a new business, complete a homework assignment or compose a poem. Individuals can sit and enjoy the company of others or find a quiet spot to read and reflect. There will be something for everyone.
The Children’s Area, across from the main circulation desk, will be alive with materials, colors, displays, and programs focusing on early learning skills. There will also be a spacious storytime room with a big screen TV and a colorful floor. It will be the largest public space on the first floor of the new building.
On the second floor of the new addition there is an area designed by and dedicated to serving teens. There will be four computers, booths for use when working on group projects and WiFi throughout the complex. And, for the first time, there will be programs geared to teens.
There are a number of spaces available for the community to reserve for use. The Conference Room will seat 12 – 14, the Community Room, a multi-purpose room, will seat between 100 – 150 people. The Atrium, and the outdoor terrace and courtyard can also be reserved for special events.
Smaller spaces, which will not require reservations, will be available. There are three group study rooms which will seat eight people, two tutor rooms which are designed to accommodate two people, as well as comfortable seating, tables and chairs throughout the new addition.
To reserve space at the complex call the library to make a reservation. To finalize your reservation you will need to come in and complete a “Meeting Space Contract”. This document will outline the terms of the use agreement.
There is no cost to use space within the complex for library programs and community or non-profit groups. For-profit organizations and groups holding private functions, such as business meetings, luncheons, weddings and parties, will be required to pay a fee. The price structure is outlined in the “Meeting Space Contract”.
If the meeting or event is scheduled after hours, a key will be issued to a registered library card holder.
In the Community Room there is a state of the art sound system installed, along with high tech audio visual and computer equipment. The lectern will have built-in computer outlets so that personal computers can be used from the lectern. A portable sound system will be available for individuals and groups to use in other parts of the complex.
The library complex has a catering area where food can be warmed or kept cold before it is served at events throughout the complex.
There will be tables in various sizes which can be configured in a number of different ways. Freestanding chairs will also be available for up to fifty. Tablecloths will not be available.
The Jackson County policy is not to allow alcohol to be served or consumed in any county-owned building.
It is not possible to answer this question at this time. Jackson County, the primary provider of library funding, is in the process of reviewing budget requests. County officials are aware that there will be additional costs associated with operating a facility four times the size of the current library. The county decisions about funding are predicated, in part, on the county’s funding from the state. Additional information will be forthcoming.
Two new positions have been approved and the positions filled – an assistant county librarian and an information technology assistant.
Housekeeping and maintenance of the facility will be provided by Jackson County. Individuals or groups who use the spaces within the facility must follow the guidelines for room usage.
The 2007 JCPL Service Priorities and Facilities Plan recommends building two branch libraries of 5,000 square feet each by 2015 to accommodate our growing population.
Individuals wishing to make donations of materials to the library need to discuss this opportunity with the county librarian. Books which are considered highly collectible may be appropriate to place in the library’s Genealogy Room. If the book donations cannot be used in the library, materials will be given to the Friends of the Library Used Book Store to be sold. All the profits from the bookstore benefit the library.
The Friends of the Library Used Book Store will remain at its current location on Main Street in Sylva. The Friends of the Library will maintain a small office in the library complex.
Patrons can go to other libraries within the Fontana Regional Library system. A list will be compiled and shared with the public listing alternative facilities offering public access to the Internet in our area. For people who have their own laptops that are WiFi enabled, there are a number of WiFi hot spots on Main Street in Sylva.
Residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain Counties, residents of the surrounding counties and full-time students may apply for a Fontana Regional Library card. All that is required is a picture ID and something with a local mailing address. Part-time residents may obtain a temporary library card for a yearly price of $25. A child can get a card at birth.
There are numerous cafes and restaurants within walking distance. Vending machines will be available on-site as well.
Food and drink may be brought into the library and may be consumed anywhere except at the public access computers.
The entire complex will be WiFi accessible. Many of the tables and lamps will have plug in outlets in their base. There will be outlets around the walls near the soft seating.
The economy be damned — the burgeoning restaurant scene in Sylva continues to boom, with four eating establishments in this town of just more than 2,400 people expanding, changing hands or soon opening their doors.
“A hard economic time is really the best time to start a business,” said Bernadette Peters, a marketing specialist out of the Atlanta area who’s backing that statement with the re-launch and re-invention of City Lights Café.
Peters and the other restaurant owners have different ideas about how best to thrive in these challenging times: a focus on trendy foods in one restaurant, down-home comfort foods in another. But these restaurateurs have traits in common, too. Out-of-the-box thinking, for one, and a business eye for the many young professionals and older baby boomers now calling Jackson County home.
Recently released 2010 census data shows Jackson County experienced a 21-percent growth rate over the past decade, a population expansion from 33,273 in 2000 to 40,271 today, anchored by the presence of Western Carolina University. Nowhere is that growth more evident than in Sylva and its increasingly lively downtown scene.
This restaurant first opened in 2001, and is located in a farmhouse just off busy N.C. 107. Haley Milner and Tori Walters have purchased Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro on N.C. 107 from Jason and Karin Kimenker. Milner was with Annie’s Naturally Bakery for six years, and has extensive experience working in a variety of Georgia restaurants.
“I’ve always liked Soul Infusion a lot,” Milner said, “and Karin and Jason are good friends. I always wanted to run a restaurant, and the opportunity came up.”
The good soups, wraps and other fare at Soul Infusion that helped build the restaurant’s steady clientele will continue, but a few changes are coming, too: Walters’ family has made a tomato-based barbecue for years that will be featured at the restaurant, plus the couple soon hopes to feature a chalkboard menu ranging from seafood to vegetarian specialties. Also on tap, an outdoor covered stage for local bands.
A celebration/grand opening of Soul Infusion takes place April 9, beginning at 11 a.m.
John Bubacz of Signature Brew Coffee Company, later this month will open a breakfast/lunch café in a small, one-story building across Main Street from the coffee shop.
Bubacz has a history of opening popular eating/coffee-house establishments in Jackson County. This will be at least his fifth, though in a way it’s simply the reinvention of the Underground, Bubacz’s former place on Mill Street (locally called Backstreet) that segued into Signature Brew Coffee Company on Main Street. What didn’t make the address change were the wraps, burritos, sandwiches, salads, juices and smoothies that were once the mainstay at the Underground. That’s where the Breakfast Café comes in — customers will be able to pick up their favorites there, made from local and organic ingredients, from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. The new café will be in a former ice-cream shop.
Peters worked at Bryson City's Cork and Bean (a wine bar and coffee house) a couple of years ago in Swain County. Now she’s in Sylva, intent on bringing City Lights Café back to life.
At one time, Joyce Moore, founder of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Café, ran both establishments successfully on East Jackson Street. She got out of the café business, and retired a year ago from the bookstore after selling it to Chris Wilcox. Moore still owns the two-story building, and in conversations with her, Peters said she soon realized her vision of the café was the same as Moore’s for the original City Lights Cafe.
“I love to create things where community comes together,” Peters said. “This space is perfect. I’m going back to the roots of (City Lights), and marrying the great concepts that Spring Street had.”
Spring Street Café, owned and operated by Emily Elders, closed last fall after about a year in business. Spring Street featured higher-end dining than Peters envisioned — she’s focused on healthy, tasty and quick.
She’s also in the market for employees. Qualifications are simple: “People who like people and like being around food.”
Plans are to open April 4.
In the most innovative category we have Half Past, “home cooking to go … on the go.” Set to open, the owners hope, by the end of this month on N.C. 107 directly across the highway from Soul Infusion. Ernie Sipler has years of experience working as a chef for hotels in the Poconos. He and his wife Joan have lived in the Caney Fork community for 11 years.
Here’s how Half Past will work: You are driving home on N.C. 107 after a grueling, unappreciated day of labor at the newspaper. You’re much too tired to cook, but upon leaving that morning, had chirpily announced you’d be in charge of dinner. What to do? Stop at Half Past, where there will be a full array of food such as beef pot roast with roasted vegetables, chicken parmesan, soups, side dishes, salads, pasta dishes, and baked goods. No indoor seating, this is you-take-it-home catering.
“There seems to be a call for it in this area,” Sipler said, adding the couple has been forced to cover-up the phone number on the store sign because of a barrage of requests they can’t yet fill.
Mountain Projects might take control of the REACH village in Sylva, ensuring the low-income housing would remain available to area residents in need, especially victims of domestic violence.
This does not mean, however, that REACH of Jackson County, an anti-domestic violence agency, will have shed its well-publicized financial woes. The nine-unit village, built in 2001 for $1.1 million through federal and state loans, precipitated a money crisis for REACH because the nonprofit couldn’t meet loan payments.
Even if Mountain Projects saves the village from foreclosure, REACH must come up with between $100,000 and $150,000 to keep operating for several more months until state grants come through (the financial heartbeat of many do-good agencies such as REACH).
North Carolina has taken to doling out grants about four months into each fiscal year, and as a result, agencies that desire solvency have learned to sock-away money. REACH has none in the piggybank. The agency has missed payroll a couple times, and had the water cut off to the village for nonpayment of bills, among other problems.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners this week agreed to send a letter on Mountain Project’s behalf asking for a community service block grant for $600,000.
Mountain Projects is a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties. Patsy Dowling, executive director, said the federal loan agency and REACH asked Mountain Projects to take over the village. Initially, Mountain Projects balked at assuming a loan of $840,074, but with a plan in the works to seek grant money, the agency said OK. The remaining balance of the loan will be paid by the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.
“We are very happy that the county commissioners agreed to partner with Mountain Projects to apply for funds to allow Mountain Projects to take over the village,” said Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH. “Our financial situation does not allow us to continue to maintain the village for the several months it will take for this process to be completed. We will be contacting (the note holders) to discuss possible ways to allow Mountain Projects to take over the project sooner. If no options are available within a few months, REACH will be unable to continue paying to maintain the property.”
In a we-were-really-just-kidding-around reversal, Jackson County commissioners this week decided to delay their previous decision to delay property revaluation.
A draft resolution to push back the countywide appraisal from next year to 2016 was thoughtfully included by county staff in commissioners’ and media’s agenda packets, but was ignored as commissioners by collective consensus shied away.
Commissioner Mark Jones, a Democrat who lives in the Cashiers area, acknowledged he’d gotten plenty of emails and phone calls from constituents on the subject. The market value of high-priced lots and homes are destined to fall in a countywide revaluation. Delaying the reval means the county can continue taxing high-end properties on a book value that is no longer realistic. But going forward with it would shift property tax burden to median-priced properties.
Chairman Jack Debnam, a real-estate agent in real life, said his change of heart was from a conviction the county needed to see the results of revaluations under way in Haywood and Henderson counties before making such a decision.
Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan had recommended the delay. During a prior board meeting, McMahan cited the extreme downturn of the real-estate market and the difficulty of accurately determining market value.
The purpose of a revaluation is to determine fair market value for tax reasons.
For upwardly mobile professionals who are looking for an outdoor lifestyle, scenic mountain beauty and the company of like-minded individuals, Jackson County has proven the perfect fit.
Just-released 2010 census data shows Jackson County emerging over the last decade as the fastest-growing county among the state’s 18 westernmost counties. The county grew from 33,273 people in 2000 to 40,271 last year, an increase of 21 percent.
It doesn’t take a demographer’s skills to pinpoint where that growth came from, not with the bottom falling out of Western North Carolina’s construction and real-estate sector: the anchor of the county’s economic base has been Western Carolina University. Supporting roles are played by numerous governmental institutions that serve the whole region but have their headquarters in Jackson — such as Southwestern Community College, the N.C. Center for Advancement of Teaching, Southwestern Development Commission, the N.C. Department of Transportation and Smoky Mountain Mental Health.
Teresa Killian Tate, 35, who works in WCU’s office of public relations, is one of the faces of this growing-ever-more-professional Jackson County. She was a police-beat reporter for the Spartanburg Herald Journal in South Carolina when the bug to move to WNC hit.
The Asheville native started coming to the far western counties to take advantage of the Nantahala River. Then she took up mountain biking and was soon riding the trails in Tsali Recreation Area.
“I started thinking, ‘Gosh, some people actually live here — how does that happen?’” Tate said.
Then she heard WCU Chancellor John Bardo’s message that he wanted the children of the mountains to have jobs in the mountains and be able to stay and work in this region. “I was so moved,” Tate said. “It inspired me to want to be a part of this community.”
Others, like Tate, were equally intentional in their selection of Jackson County. Or, to be more accurate, in their selection of WNC — more often than not, Jackson County simply has the jobs available that this career-minded, educated population seems to be searching for. Once here, however, the burgeoning downtown scene in Sylva has kept them entertained, and Asheville is just a hop, skip and a jump away for those needing a taste of big-city life.
Thirty-year-old Taylor Bennett, who lives in Cullowhee and owns a building company, Riverwood Custom Creation, is a 2003 WCU graduate who discovered he wanted to make his home in Jackson County.
The Greensboro native, who received a degree that had a concentration in outdoor leadership, helped a friend start a Dillsboro river company. He shifted to building, and eventually started his own company, which has found a comfortable Jackson County niche in areas such as building “green” and in energy retrofitting. Times have gotten tougher, but for now, Bennett is holding his own in the rough economic climate.
“This is somewhere I’d love to stay,” said Bennett, whose wife also attended WCU.
Bennett touted the growing contingent of “young professionals,” and an increasingly vibrant downtown scene in Sylva, as reasons he loves calling Jackson County home.
These days, Sylva boasts plenty of bars, but also trendy restaurants, and perks such as a bakery, brewery and farmers market.
“Our goal was to get back to the mountains, though not necessarily Jackson County,” said Rose Bauguess, 35, on her move here.
Bauguess is from Clay County, her husband, Greg, from Wilkes County. The couple has two children. She telecommutes for a Raleigh environmental consulting firm; he works at WCU as director of development.
Rose Bauguess has been impressed by the development of Sylva from what she remembers as a child — more “happening,” perhaps, than her hometown of Hayesville, but not exactly what most people would consider hip — to today’s modish downtown.
Another newcomer who helped propel Jackson to the region’s fastest growing county over the past decade is Elizabeth Gillespie, 50, who picked WNC as the place she wanted to live after spending time here seasonally, then ferreted out a job and new career to help enable that dream. Gillespie is highly educated. She brings extensive previous professional experience to the table, including nine years as the vice president and production manager for Granny Gear Productions, a sports marketing and events company. She proved the perfect fit, in turn, as a public communication specialist for the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, where kindergarten through high-school teachers from across the state take advantage of cross-disciplinary classes.
“I love being in a town that is this closely connected to a university,” said Gillespie.
Neighboring Macon County, which relied almost exclusively on home building and real estate to underpin its economy, by comparison saw growth slow drastically. Macon County grew from 29,964 people in 2000 to 33,922 last year, an increase of just more than 13 percent — half the growth rate posted in 2000 for the previous decade, when Jackson County’s neighbor was booming at a 26-percent rate.
“We had a lot of our eggs in one basket, and unfortunately, that was a basket that got dropped,” said Brian McClellan, a financial advisor in Highlands with a doctorate degree from Clemson University who serves as chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.
Bigger is not always better, but when it comes to census data, larger matters: federal and state funding is often directly tied to the population count.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the growth in the county and the fact that our population has now moved beyond 40,000,” said interim County Manager Chuck Wooten, who also lives in Jackson County because of a job with WCU. Wooten in January retired after 30 years as the top finance officer there.
“The university may very well be one of the factors for growth since the Cullowhee township is now our largest township,” Wooten said. “I’m going to ask (Planner) Gerald Green to dig into the census numbers so we can understand where the growth in the county took place.”
What could the census data mean for Jackson County? Wooten said he hopes to soon understand the unexpected growth and ensuing effects better, but for now: “Obviously, I would anticipate that with the additional growth would come some additional revenues like increased sales tax, etc.,” he said. “But, it could also generate more demands for services so net gain may not be significant.”
Mark Jamison, a resident of Webster, fears Jackson County might lose its identity because of the growth.
“If communities don’t define who they want to be, they let other people and other forces define them and try to catch that wave and ride it wherever it takes them,” Jamison said. “We don’t want to turn our county into nothing but gated developments or a university town.”
The election for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners might have wrapped up last fall, but the war of words didn’t end then.
Last month, newly elected Chairman Jack Debnam wrote to unseated Commissioner Tom Massie’s employer, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, complaining that Massie had possibly abused his position and power while a commissioner. Massie is the mountain field representative for the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which is within that state department.
Richard Rogers, executive director of the Trust Fund, said Monday his agency “did not take any action” regarding Debnam’s complaint about Massie “because the complaint was not associated (with) a CWMTF project and CWMTF has no regulatory authority regarding development or land disturbance.”
Debnam wrote state authorities at the apparent behest of developer and trailer park owner Wayne Smith of Jackson County. Smith complained of being harassed by state authorities because of Massie.
The developer contributed at least $650 and provided billboard space to Debnam’s campaign, according to records on file at the Jackson County Board of Elections.
The N.C. Division of Land Resources determined Smith opened a 4.5-acre mining operation without the required state permit at the intersection of Skyland Drive and Parris Branch, records show. A notice of violation was issued Nov. 2, which happened to fall on the same day as the election.
Smith has been repeatedly cited by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources for sediment control violations, most recently in 2005, when he was assessed a $37,500 penalty, according to records.
Debnam, who ran as an independent but received GOP backing and financial support, declined to discuss the e-mail he wrote on Smith’s behalf.
Massie also declined an opportunity to comment. A Democrat, he lost his commission seat in November.
“A resident of Jackson County contacted me after the first of the year about an issue that he feels may be an abuse of an appointed position on the Mountain Resources Commission,” Debnam e-mailed Coleen Sullins on Feb. 2, the apparent start of the ensuing e-mail battle.
The N.C. Mountain Resources Commission is tasked with making recommendations at the local, state and federal level on how to best protect this region’s natural resources. Massie was appointed to the board by then state Speaker of the House Joe Hackney, a Democrat, in December 2009; Massie’s term on the board continues through Aug. 31, 2013.
Sullins, who works for the state Division of Water Quality, forwarded the e-mail to Jim Simons, who is the director of the N.C. Division of Land Resources, and Richard Rogers, executive director of the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund. For his part, Debnam included two county employees on the email: Planner Gerald Green and Land Development Administrator Tony Elders. Those men are tasked with working with local developers such as Smith on behalf of the county.
“It appears that Mr. Tom Massie has let his personal opinions and contacts come into play whenever Mr. Wayne Smith or one of his companies becomes involved in any grading projects in Jackson County,” Debnam wrote. “Mr. Massie seems to exert this pressure thru Mr. Gray Hauser with NC-DENR and Linda Cable, former planning director for Jackson County. Mr. Hauser and his department have been repeatedly contacted by Mr. Massie over the past several years to inspect one of Mr. Smith’s projects, to the point of embarrassment to the Jackson County Planning and Erosion Control inspectors. … No one in Jackson County government thinks that Mr. Smith is in violation of that (mining) act or any other ordinances. It is at the point that Mr. Smith has contacted me in my position as chairman of the Jackson County Commissioners to ask for assistance in resolving this matter.”
Massie, not surprisingly, wasn’t happy to learn about the email.
“I look forward to your apology,” he wrote Debnam not long afterwards.
“Jack,” Massie also wrote, “after giving your e-mail additional consideration, I am extremely disappointed that you chose to lend your name and elected position to give added weight to these reputed allegations without making any attempt to check to see if they were factual or to call me personally and ask if I were involved. These allegations are extremely hurtful to all the parties accused and cast dispersions about each individual’s integrity and motivations. I strongly resent this attempt to impugn my character and integrity!
“Forwarding these mistruths to legislators and division supervisors are temporarily harmful to my professional reputation, but the truth will prevail when the facts are investigated. Those same facts will be harmful to your integrity. I am appalled that you did not even invest the time to try to substantiate these outlandish charges. The allegations about me are dangerously close to defamation of character. I would not have thought you capable of such distortion. … You will find that you, in your position as chair of the board of commissioners, have been used to further a personal grudge against me and other innocent parties.”