The Sylva town board has trimmed the green energy features from its new police department project and boosted the proposed cost to more than $1 million.
The town originally budgeted $786,500 for the construction. The lowest bid, however, came in nearly $100,000 higher, forcing the town to decided whether to downsize the project or increase the amount of it’s willing to spend.
The warm weather and sunshine brings a flurry of people to Waynesville’s downtown to enjoy the local fare — but it can also mean the beginning of busking season.
While Asheville is an epicenter for busking — slang for performing on the sidewalk in hopes of earning a few bucks from passersby — the phenomenon is fairly rare in downtown Waynesville. But every so often, someone will plop themselves down on a bench or take up a position along Main Street’s sidewalk and start crooning. For the most part, they are simply playing for fun.
“If they are just playing to play and it’s not causing a disturbance for somebody else, then we see no need (to address it),” said Waynesville Police Lt. Brian Beck.
But, if they decided to set out an instrument case, hat, jar or receptacle — or otherwise hint even slightly that donations are welcome — performers must have consent from the town.
In Waynesville, busking comes under the category of begging, which is banned per town ordinance. Performers used to have to receive express permission from the mayor himself to perform, but now what is needed is a permit. Buskers must fill out information with the planning and zoning office, which takes only a few minutes. Then, they would receive a permit from the town tax office at a cost of $25.
No permits have been issued for quite a while, however.
“I have not issued a permit for somebody playing an instrument since gosh, I don’t know when,” said James Robertson, the town tax collector.
That could be the reason why there have not been many, if any, problems during the past few years. However, in years prior, there were some issues — particularly with intoxicated individuals performing.
Enforcement is more report-based than anything else. The police will not stop just because they see someone performing. However, if the performer is noticeably causing problems or someone calls to complain, the police will respond.
“If a disturbance is taking place, we have to address it,” Beck said.
Like Waynesville, Sylva is not exactly hopping with buskers either, although the occassional college students from WCU have been known to play their guitar on benches.
“We don’t really have a glut of street performers here,” said Chris Cooper, a member of the Jackson County instrumental fusion band Noonday Sun. “It could just be early in the season.”
At most, Cooper said, he has only ever seen a couple of street performers, including a ukulele player and a saxophonist.
Sylva has stricter guidelines for performing on the town’s main roads. They must appear before the town board to request permission to play for donations.
However, buskers can play at festivals and the farmers market without any sort of permit or pre-approval.
Most businesses would not mind a little entertainment outside their doorstep.
“It is pretty OK with most of the shops around here,” Cooper said.
But town codes that prevent buskers from putting out a collection hat in Waynesville and Sylva could be part of the reason performers don’t take to the street in greater numbers.
Asheville has become a haven for buskers partially because it has no permitting process. Indeed, the vibrant and diverse busking scene is part of the city’s character.
Only performers who incorporate fire into their act are required to obtain a permit for safety reasons. That allows the fire department to keep tabs on them.
When walking downtown, it is difficult to turn a corner and not see at least one person busking. However, merchants irritated by buskers can legally ask them to move along.
“A business owner does have the right to ask them to leave if they are impeding business,” said Diane Ruggiero, superintendent of Cultural Arts in Asheville.
In general, though, business owners enjoy and welcome busking outside their doorstep.
“I think that that is one of the reasons that it works here. The business owners are receptive to it,” Ruggiero said. “A lot of them have good relationships with performers.”
And, although a few problems arise here and there, the system mostly works harmoniously.
Performers cannot stay in one place all day, pass a hat or sell merchandise. But, they can set out a hat or can or guitar case — a silent signal for donations. One thing that Ruggiero has tried to teach passersby is to ignore bad buskers.
Some people will give an ill-sounding musician or otherwise deficient performer money with the caveat that he or she stop or use the funds to take lessons. This doesn’t work, Ruggiero said. It only encourages them to continue.
“All you’ve done is given that bad musician a dollar,” Ruggiero said.
The advent of alcohol in Cullowhee is fueling efforts to implement some kind of land-use plan to guide growth in the community around Western Carolina University.
Some speculate that development could be fast and furious in Cullowhee in the wake of last week’s vote that paved the way for bars and convenience stores to peddle booze in the once dry reaches of Jackson County.
“There’s going to be tremendous growth, and Cullowhee is already the fastest-growing township in Jackson County,” said Vincent Gendusa, a recent graduate of Western Carolina University. “That growth needs to be thought out. But, it’s going to be very hard to keep up.”
Cullowhee grew 47 percent between the 2000 U.S. Census and the 2010 U.S. Census. Those numbers, coupled with the results of the alcohol referendum, led Gendusa and other concerned Cullowhee residents to gather this week to discuss the possibility of community-based planning.
“We must be pragmatic and incremental,” County Planner Gerald Green cautioned the group. “I want our effort to be the right way and the correct way and to have the support of the community.”
Cullowhee is not its own town, and in the absence of a county ordinance regulating commercial development, Cullowhee has no way of ensuring commercial growth is in keeping with its character.
Jackson County has precedent, however, for enacting spot land-use plans for specific areas of the county, namely in Cashiers and the U.S. 441 Gateway area.
Green cited the Cashiers plan, created in 2003, as a possible model for Cullowhee.
Community-based planning was accepted in Cashiers, Green said, because there was a “well-formed commercial area with people who were interested in protecting property values.”
Doing the same in Cullowhee will mean gathering the signatures of one-third of the property owners who would be in the planning district. The designated zoning area would have to be at least 640 acres and be made up of at least 10 separate tracts of land. Most of the meeting held this week centered on deciding in a rough fashion which parts of the Cullowhee community ought to be considered.
Jim Calderbank, a Cullowhee property owner who lives in Waynesville, suggested the group consider for inclusion old Cullowhee, Forest Hills and some residential areas that might want to be included.
The group ultimately agreed that any plan would start with WCU, with its 540-acre land mass.
“Use the university as the core and go out in tentacles,” said Roy Osborn, another Cullowhee resident and member of a homegrown Cullowhee revitalization group.
Ultimately, it was decided that Green, with help from Osborn, would rough out a potential designated area.
After the meeting, farmer and Cullowhee resident Curt Collins said that he believes the sell of alcoholic beverages will mean more good for the community than bad.
“I think that it will increase the economic vitality and increase the need for greater community participation in Cullowhee — and I think those are both good things,” Collins said, adding that it will be hard to stay ahead of the growth now that alcohol has been voted in.
“It is going to be slow,” Collins said of the prospect of instituting community-based zoning. “We may have businesses who take advantage of that and outpace us.”
On one hand, the new ability to sell alcohol could fuel local, independent-type restaurants — on the other, it could bring the proliferation of chain restaurants, said Mary Jean Herzog. The chair of the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE), a community group dedicated to revitalizing and beautifying Cullowhee, said the potential for businesses to sell. She hopes zoning can be implemented ahead of the curve.
“This could be the most beautiful college town in the country,” Herzog said, citing the great natural beauty of the area.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the county commissioners and a Cullowhee resident, doesn’t believe growth in Cullowhee will explode as a result of the referendum vote, at least not immediately.
“I think we’ll have some places selling beer,” he said in an interview. “But as far as bars, there’s no one there — who would support them in the off-season? I don’t see a big spurt happening.”
That said, Debnam also believes that the county and community does need to get a handle on growth in Cullowhee in the form of community-based planning or something similar.
“I think that’s something we are going to have to look at, whether it’s a business district or if Cullowhee decides to incorporate,” Debnam said.
Vicki Greene, an incoming county commissioner, said she believes this is a critical time for the Cullowhee community. While she believes there may be “a short timeframe for folks to get ready,” movement on the issue is promising.
“The community is taking the lead,” she said. “And in the long term, that is the most effective way of instituting planning efforts.”
Greene, who attended last week’s meeting, won the Democratic primary for commissioner and given the lack of opposition for the seat in the general November election is poised to become a commissioner in December. None of the current commissioners attended the meeting.
But, it appears county commissioners would be willing to consider a land-use plan for Cullowhee if that’s what people there want.
Commissioner Doug Cody said he think there will be “a natural evolution of this thing as it goes on.”
Cody said the important thing is that the Cullowhee community is in the driver’s seat during the process.
“At some point and time, people will want planning. And we’re all for letting people decide — we’re not for ramming anything down anyone’s throat,” Cody said.
The sale of alcoholic beverages, he said, “will help the Cullowhee revitalization effort. I think five years down the road we’ll look back and see this as a very good thing for the county.”
For his part, Commissioner Charles Elders said that he hasn’t yet given thought to whether some form of growth controls are needed in Cullowhee, though he does believe it will become a topic of discussion for commissioners.
Joe Cowan, who did not run for re-election, said that the zoning plan for Cashiers has worked well, and that it is possible something similar could be done for Cullowhee.
Commissioner Mark Jones did not return phone messages requesting comment.
A spot land-use plan was passed in 2003 to govern commercial development in Cashiers, making Jackson one of the first, and still to this day one of the only, counties in WNC to have land-use planning outside town limits.
Cashiers has two districts: a “village central” and a general commercial zone. The Jackson County Board of Commissioners created the five-member Cashiers Area Community Planning Council, which is tasked with reviewing and overseeing development guidelines in concert with the county planning board. The council also votes on requests for conditional uses and variances in Cashiers.
The plan set growth regulations, such as building set backs, lighting and sign standards. The only type of development that was banned outright was cell phone towers in the Village Center district.
When Annie’s Naturally Bakery closed down last November, among those mourning the loss of the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva was Annie’s faithful Charles King.
Without a new owner, the fate of the long-time Main Street institution seemed uncertain.
“Annie’s closing left a void that needed to be filled,” King said. So eventually, fans of the bakery and café decided to take matters into their own hands.
King can now count himself among a group of local investors who helped reopen Annie’s under the new name of Mainstreet Bakery and Café. King, who retired from working in the banking industry, knew a good bet when he saw it.
He’s one of 10 people who live in Jackson, including a couple with seasonal homes here, who have invested money into getting Mainstreet Bakery and Café open. The bakery opened its doors two weeks ago.
“At the end of the day it’s about the people. And this is an investment in the community as well,” King said over a grilled cheese sandwich this week during a late lunch at the Mainstreet Bakery.
The bakery is now under the ownership and management of two former Annie’s employees, Heather and Chad Kindy. Heather was the retail manager of the store, and Chad did a local wholesale bakery delivery route.
“I’ve known Heather and Chad for six years,” King said. “And I know they are hard workers and that they are willing to put in what’s needed to succeed.”
Heather and Chad said there’s been a learning curve to going from employees to owners, however.
“We’ve definitely learned a lot real fast,” 30-year-old Chad said. “About the flow of the kitchen and what people really want.”
The bakery features pastries, bagels, simple breakfast sandwiches and lunches made up of homemade soups, salads and sandwiches.
Everyone who invested in Mainstreet Bakery and Café were loyal regulars — people the Kindys already knew and who loved the place, Chad said.
The decision to buy was made abruptly, with no prior discussion, the day before Annie’s closed.
“We sat down at the house and Chad and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” 29-year-old Heather said. “We didn’t even have to say what we were talking about — we knew.”
One of their first moves was to seek out Frank Lockwood, a professor of entrepreneurship at Western Carolina University, for advice. Lockwood had been one of Chad’s professors.
With Lockwood’s help, they crunched the numbers and put together a full-fledged business plan. They realized they didn’t have the money to get up and running on their own, however.
That’s when the idea for “locavesting” was hatched, the concept of pulling a group of local people together who have both the money and desire to invest in the community. There is something of a national movement in locavesting, with the bible of the movement being Amy Cortese’s book Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It.
Though other businesses in the region have certainly benefited from local investor dollars, Mainstreet Bakery and Café appears to be the first full-fledged attempt to put locavesting into action.
“We didn’t do a pubic announcement that we were looking for investors,” Heather said. “We had a group of advisors and we contacted people through that. Those people wanted to get us up and going.”
Being an investor doesn’t give those involved the right to have a say in the day-to-day operations of Main Street Bakery and Café.
“It’s not like they are buying a stake in the business and have that say in the daily business,” Heather said. “But Chad and I are very open to suggestions.”
Chad said the couple is already seeing areas to tweak at Mainstreet Bakery and Cafe. They want to do more vegan things, for instance, plus they’d like to add a line of diabetic-friendly items.
For now, the Sylva community is just glad to have its bakery back.
Linda Smalley ventured in with sons Cooper, who got a bagel, and Henry, who selected a cinnamon roll, on their way to Kung Fu practice.
“I love to have a bakery on Main Street,” Smalley said. “The (boys) love coming in to some place like this.”
The idea of a restaurant and a commons area where students could meet and eat sounds like a good one to Angie Stanley, a student in Southwestern Community College’s medical respiratory program.
“That really would be nice,” the Sylva resident said. “A lot of people have to leave campus to eat lunch.”
When Stanley packs her lunch, which she often does when there won’t be time to leave campus between classes, she’s forced to eat in a classroom somewhere. That’s because there’s few gathering places for students to congregate.
SCC leaders want to change that by building a central quad, typical of most university campuses, but less so for community colleges. A quad is in the works as part of the new $8 million Burrell Building under construction. It will house a new bookstore plus additional academic and administrative space. It is scheduled to open in August.
But to fully flush out the concept of the quad, SCC hopes to add a commons area to the plan that could serve as a gathering point.
Campus leaders have asked Jackson County commissioners for $580,000 to build a commons area, along with an on-campus restaurant, said SCC President Donald Tomas.
“This would be an extension of the Burrell building, right in the center of campus,” Tomas said.
That sounded good to electrical engineering major Kenny Pleskach.
“I bring my own lunch probably 95 percent of the time, but yeah it would be a cool thing to have a place to eat your lunch,” Pleskatch said, adding that he currently hangs out in one of several gazebos sprinkled about campus.
Money for a quad, but not a commons area and restaurant, is included in the $8 million cost of the Burrell building.
Janet Burnette, a vice president at the college, said the college would lease out the restaurant space to a restaurant entity such as Subway or something similar.
Student questionnaires and surveys have consistently shown food service — or lack thereof — is their top concern on campus, said Delos Monteith, SCC’s institutional research and planning officer.
“We did 10 focus groups and asked students if they could change one thing about SCC what would that be. Overwhelmingly they said food service,” Monteith said.
A commons area combined with the quad would also give the university a central gathering space it currently lacks, Tomas said.
Burnette said if the school does not get the money requested from commissioners it would do “a very scaled back version” of the plan. Drawings and schematics for a full version are being compiled now.
The $580,000 from commissioners would be paired with $580,000 from the state to build the enclosed commons area and restaurant, as well as a few other building items around campus, Tomas said.
County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said that he wished commissioners had known about the capital building needs a bit earlier in the county budget process.
Tomas said that hadn’t occurred because the school had not known until recently that it would have access to state dollars for such a project.
“This spring the state gave us some flexibility on this one-time deal,” Tomas said. “The timing seems right if the monies are there — this project would enhance the campus tremendously.”
The total $1.16 million project would include other construction items as well.
• Renovate another building located in the quad area, the Founders Building, which is the oldest building on campus.
• Add 10 hair stations to the cosmetology department located in the Founders Building.
“It needs some upgrading,” Tomas said of the early 1960s-era building.
SCC received $304,500 in capital funds this year from Jackson County and is asking for a total of $677,000 for the next fiscal year — with the $580,000 earmarked for the special projects.
Sylva has a new town manager. Paige Roberson, 25, was promoted last week by the town board to the top leadership position.
Roberson has clearly impressed the town after stepping in to a part-time job as the director of the Downtown Sylva Association last summer.
Mayor Maurice Moody said that he believes Roberson will do an outstanding job for the town.
“I think she’s very well qualified — she’s a smart young lady,” Moody said. “The entire board is satisfied with this selection.”
Roberson, who last year graduated from Western Carolina University’s master in public affairs program, grew up in Sylva. Her mother was a long-time elementary teacher at Cullowhee Valley. Her father inherited the family’s hardware store, Roberson’s Supply, which was started by her grandfather. The family closed the store upon learning Lowe’s was coming to town. It had already been struggling since Walmart had opened, and the family decided surviving in Lowe’s shadow would be near impossible.
Roberson has a fierce appreciation for small businesses. Helping the business community of Sylva is going to be one of her passions.
Roberson hopes to bring a long-range approach to all of the town’s affairs. Lately, the town has been managed from year to year, without enough attention to where it is headed.
“We need to take a long-term approach to everything — projects, budgeting, ordinances,” Roberson said, identifying that as the town’s biggest challenge. “You have to plan with foresight. I think part of that comes from living here as long as I have. I think I am able to see the long term. ”
Moody said Roberson’s ties to Sylva “give her a leg up.” That, however, was not the deciding factor in her selection, he said.
“She does have a relationship with the community, but I think qualifications are more important than being local, though being a local individual does help.”
For her part, Roberson described herself as excited to be serving her hometown, although she admits she never thought when pursuing a career in public policy she would find herself at the head of her own hometown.
“I’m eager to do it,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel apprehension about her lack of experience because the town has other veteran department heads.
The former town manager, Adrienne Isenhower, was forced to resign in September of last year after just a couple of years on the job. The town had brought in an interim town manager, Mike Morgan, who had recently retired from a long tenure as the town manager of Weaverville. Morgan was able to step in quickly to the role, but was commuting from Weaverville and was not interested in the job on a permanent basis.
Roberson will attend county and city manager training for eight months through the N.C. School of Government, one week a month, starting in September. During that time Morgan will continue as a consultant to the town to help bridge the gap.
Before taking a fulltime position with Sylva, Roberson worked in the Jackson County Planning Department.
Roberson went to undergraduate school at N.C. State, where she majored in economics. She planned to go to law school, with the intention of going into public policy. But during college, she interned three summers for N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, in the General Assembly in Raleigh, and decided not to go to law school but instead get her masters in public affairs. She went through the two-year masters program in public policy and public affairs at WCU.
Her final semester, she was involved in the Cashiers comprehensive community planning project as an intern for the Jackson County planning department. In a case of opportune timing, she graduated just as the town was looking for a part-time director for the Downtown Sylva Association. The DSA had just been brought under the auspices of the town, and she was given a part-time job with the county planning department and worked for both the town and county.
In short order, however, the town promoted her to the role of assistant to the town manager and made her fulltime, before eventually selecting her as its new manager.
Roberson, in addition to her town manager’s duties, will continue in dual roles as Main Street director and head of economic development for the town.
“As a manager I hope to be proactive, fair, and consistent,” Roberson said. “By doing this and keeping the future in mind I will be able to serve Sylva effectively. I’m honored to be hired for this position. I love this community. I feel that my community knowledge and experiences being raised here will give me a good starting point.”
Most things in life start out small — acorns grow into oak trees, babies are reared into adulthood, small patches of green spread until they eventually cover the mountains each spring.
The latter is the focus of Jackson County’s annual festival Greening Up the Mountains, an event that has seen a lot of growth itself.
What started as a small Earth Day event has now grown to the largest festival in Jackson County. Attendance at the former mostly locals event has swelled to 10,000 to 12,000 each year during its 15-year existence.
“It’s kind of neat that it started as a little Earth Day parade in downtown Sylva,” said Emily Elders, an event coordinator. “It’s grown exponentially every year.”
The Greening Up the Mountains festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 28 on Main and Mill Streets in historic downtown Sylva. The Downtown Sylva Association organizes the event, which celebrates the local economy, sustainability and traditional heritage crafts.
More than 200 vendors from all over the county — nonprofits, for-profits and others groups — will set up along the two streets, handing out pamphlets of information and peddling their handmade wares.
“It’s a really good time to shop for incredible unique Mother’s Day or Fathers Day (gifts),” Elders said.
Even though the festival only lasts one day, the event offers for businesses and groups in Jackson County chance for greater exposure that last for years.
As a business owner, Matthew Turlington said the festival is a chance to broaden his customer base.
“You hope that it brings your standard customers and new customers,” said Turlington, owner of Penumbra Gallery and Studio.
The event draws new potential clients and more emails for their list-serves. This year, the downtown association will survey vendors and local businesses to get a concrete idea of how the local economy benefits from the festival.
“For me, that is the best part. The impact lasts,” Elders said. “It’s really been a lot of economic benefit, not just for the downtown.”
It’s also an opportunity for visitors to experience the best things about Jackson County all at once. As a Jackson County resident, Turlington said his favorite aspect of the festival is its incorporation of Appalachian history, from clogging to singing, and the young performance groups.
“I have always enjoyed the local young talent,” Turlington said.
Two music stages will feature Jackson County bands and heritage dancers. Between bands, multicultural dancers, such as Mexican Folkloric Dancers, Cherokee traditional dancers, the Liberty Baptist Men’s Choir and the Eternity Dance troupe, will perform.
“(The bands are) a pretty good mix this year too,” Elders said.
The traditional bluegrass and Americana bands will be on hand as well as folk and jam bands.
A third stage will be set up specifically for children’s enjoyment, along with the annual Youth Talent Show. Children’s activities include storytelling, face painting, an inflatable slide, the recycled materials Superhero Costume Contest and volunteer projects. This year’s event will also include a 5K run.
Greening Up the Mountains starts at 10 a.m. and concludes at 4 p.m. on April 28 on Main and Mill Streets in historic downtown Sylva. www.downtownsylva.org.
The Smoky Mountain Stage in the Suntrust Parking Lot
• 10-11 a.m.: Tennessee Jed An Asheville-based bluegrass band with a bit of a rock feel.
• 11:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: Marshall Ballew A Sylva native and folk/Americana musician.
• 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Sugar Barnes & Dave Magill A duo with an old-fashioned blues sound.
• 1:45-2:45 p.m.: Moolah Temple Men’s Auxiliary A mix of electronic, lo-fi and choral music.
• 3-4 p.m.: Dan River Drifters A fast-paced bluegrass band based in Sylva.
Tuckaseigee Stage at Bridge Park Pavilion
• 10-10:45 a.m.: The Suite C: An acoustic folk/indie band from Alabama.
• 11-11:45 a.m.: John-Luke Carter A singer-songwriter from Sylva.
• Noon-12:45 p.m.: PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) A Cullowhee-based reggae/jam band.
• 1-1:45 p.m.: Total War A Sylva-based indie/rock group.
• 2-2:45 p.m.: The Freight Hoppers A popular Bryson City-based old-time string band.
• 3-4 p.m.: Noonday Sun.
Triple Threat Kids’ Stage in Poteet Park
• 10-11:30 a.m.: Mountain Youth Talent Show
• 11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Triple Threat Performing Arts
• 12:45-1:15 p.m.: Junior Appalachian Musicians
• 1:30-2 p.m.: Sylva Children’s Theater
• 2:15-2:45 p.m.: Lions Gate Kung Fu Academy
• 3-3:30 p.m.: Burning Ones (The Father’s House of Prayer)
• 3:30-4 p.m.: White Dragon Martial Arts
When Dr. Bob Adams walked into a hospital-wide meeting of Jackson County doctors in early January, he believed he had finally mustered the critical mass to demand action, action that so far had been elusive despite a year of working internally to bring change.
But, he made a fatal miscalculation. The message doctors would ultimately send up the chain that night to the WestCare board of directors would be rejected.
Some doctors had become disillusioned with the Charlotte-based management firm that had been at the helm of the MedWest venture since its inception two years ago. They voted 31 to 3 to ask the board of directors to go to Mission Hospital, hear what it had to say and consider whether it would be a better partner.
It’s rare for the majority of doctors at a hospital to make a formal and pointed request to their board of directors. The issue had been escalating for months by then, and as the community would later learn, had not yet reached its climax.
A core group of concerned doctors began meeting in early 2010, discussing their perception of problems at Harris, which was struggling financially and had lost 10 percent of its inpatient business to Mission. Initially, they took their issues up directly with MedWest CEO Mike Poore. Unsatisfied, however, they opened a line of communication with the hospital board of directors, sitting down with key members in one-on-one meetings.
By summer, however, the airing of concerns became a standing topic at the monthly meetings of all the Harris’ physicians, marked by a heated exchange or two with Poore before the roomful of doctors.
Eventually, Poore knighted the core group of concerned doctors with an official title — the “kitchen cabinet” committee — in an apparent attempt to address the issues.
Meanwhile, doctors ramped up their line of communication with the hospital board, a rather brazen move to go over Poore’s head.
“We go in and sit down and talk and start expressing our concerns directly to the board,” said Dr. Randy Savell, a long-time gastroenterologist at Harris. “They were surprised. They suggested they had no idea how things were.”
The meetings with the board continued for several weeks, and while the board members were willing listeners, the doctors couldn’t spur them to take action.
“We never got anywhere, but they were being very surprised and shocked and concerned,” Savell said.
Some in the core group oscillated between caring about the management structure and just going back to doing what they did best: caring for patients.
“After a while, you get worn out. You get tired of fighting,” said Dr. Earl Haddock, a pulmonologist at Harris.
Two of the doctors in the “kitchen cabinet” had been on the hospital board themselves but had resigned earlier that year after growing disenchanted.
“The thing that struck me is nobody asks questions,” Dr. Waverly Green said of why he resigned from the board. “If it was a place where there would be honest discussion and be about the future of the hospital, I am happy to be a part of that. but I am not going to sit in a room and rubber stamp things that to me make no sense.”
The group of concerned doctors decided to take matters into their own hands. In December, some of them drove to Asheville for a behind-the-scenes meeting with the CEO of Mission, Ron Paulus. It was a renegade move, unauthorized by the rest of the medical community at large, but they liked what they heard.
So in early January, they called a meeting of all the doctors under WestCare and asked them to take a stand. Discussion dragged on for more than an hour.
Getting out of the MedWest partnership wasn’t an easy proposition. There was an escape clause built in at the three-year mark, but it could only be exercised by a three-fourths majority of the MedWest board, which was comprised equally of seven members each from WestCare — comprised of Harris and Swain hospitals — and Haywood Regional.
But, there was a little-known loophole. A clause in the MedWest contract allowed either side to pull out if the financial viability of one of the partners was at risk. It just so happened there was bad financial trouble brewing next door in Haywood. The Haywood hospital was running so low on cash, word on the street was it might not be able to make payroll.
To solve the short-term cash flow crunch, Haywood had gone up the chain to Carolinas for an emergency loan. Harris, however, was being asked to co-sign for the loan, putting its own revenue stream on the hook should Haywood default.
In realty, Harris would never be asked to cough up the money. Haywood’s revenue stream — about $100 million annually — along with all its equipment and its hospital building were also on the hook as collateral and would be tapped first before Harris would ever have to ante up. Essentially, there was more than $250 million guaranteeing a $10 million loan.
But, Carolinas was outside its comfort zone. This marked the first time it had ever loaned money to any of the 34 hospitals it manages. So it wanted the kitchen sink as collateral.
The Jackson doctors theorized the financial straits at Haywood were grave enough to exploit the loophole and engage in talks with Mission.
Little did the doctors know, however, that the WestCare board faced a grave choice — co-sign the loan to help bail out Haywood or comply with their own doctors’ request to meet with Mission. Doing both, it turned out, would not be an option. There was a catch to the loan with Carolinas. As long as MedWest owed Carolinas, the hospitals were prohibited from negotiating with a new partner.
Business-wise, it made sense. Carolinas didn’t want to prop up MedWest only to have it walk away still owing money. But to the unhappy physicians, it played out like a game of Mousetrap — and they were the ones sitting under the cage.
The WestCare board ultimately had faith in the MedWest venture and co-signed Haywood’s loan.
“We believe the future is bright for all three hospitals, even though the challenges are many. It is time to look forward, assuring the full potential of MedWest-Haywood, MedWest-Harris and MedWest-Swain is realized,” the MedWest board said in a statement this week. “Is this a short-term process? No, it is not. It will take months of hard work. But, we are confident in the expertise of our medical staffs and in the skill and dedication of all our employees.”
The doctors, however, felt ignored in their pleas to consider other options.
“We said ‘We aren’t telling you to dump Carolinas.’ We are just saying go talk to Mission and see if we made the best choice,” said Dr. Waverly Green, a pulmonologist at Harris. “Two days later, they signed documents that tied us up even tighter to Carolinas. That told me the board didn’t want input from the medical staff.”
One of the board members, Bob Carpenter, resigned from the board a few days later in a show of solidarity with the doctors.
“The bottom line is our hospital is in serious shape, and our trustees need to be looking at alternatives,” Carpenter said. “The community needs to keep pressure on the board to seek alternatives and do the right thing for this community.”
It turns out Harris was not merely hamstrung by Haywood’s loan. Harris was beholden to Carolinas for its own financial security as well. Carolinas had pulled strings to help Harris out of a pinch over an outstanding $15 million loan with BB&T, dating back to hospital construction projects a decade ago. Under terms of the loan, BB&T required Harris to have 75 days cash on hand.
Last year, Harris wasn’t able to maintain that balance and dipped below the cash-on-hand threshold that BB&T required. Carolinas tapped its relationships in banking circles, essentially putting in a good word for Harris, and convinced BB&T to temporarily relax its cash-on-hand requirement.
Harris currently has 56 days of cash-on-hand instead of the mandated 75. If Harris sent Carolinas packing, it could jeopardize the leniency BB&T had extended on the loan terms.
The door had been closed on any escape hatch Harris may have had, Savell said.
To be clear, the concerned doctors don’t believe in a conspiracy by Carolinas to make the hospitals financially dependent as a way of keeping MedWest intact. Adams thinks Carolinas just wasn’t paying close enough attention to the day-to-day operations, which after all is the expertise Carolinas was supposed to be providing in exchange for its management fee.
“They would never have allowed them to spend what they spent at Haywood without having the resources to back it up,” Adams said. “They would never have allowed Harris to be run in the ground even if that was a planned maneuver because it created a huge backlash. You don’t poison the components.”
John Young, a vice-president for Carolinas’ western hospitals, said that Carolinas doesn’t tell MedWest what to do — it’s the other way around.
“We work for the local boards. We have no control mechanism,” Young said.
It’s rare to find physicians and hospital management in lockstep on everything. Now, however, the WestCare board must find a way to rebuild the fractured relationship with physicians.
“For every member of the medical staff that has talked to the board, to walk away feeling like nothing was going to be done was a difficult thing for us,” said Dr. Earl Haddock, a cardiologist at Harris.
It marked a departure from an amicable relationship the Jackson medical community had always had with its board of trustees.
“There was never any adversarial relationship. It was collaborative across the spectrum. We all worked together for the same goals. I think the thing that has been particularly uncomfortable for the medical community in these last two to three years is that relationship no longer applies,” Adams said.
A saying by a patriarch of the Harris medical community has been reverberating in Jackson County for nearly 40 years, handed down through practices and still preached to new recruits today.
“Sylva is where you can practice contemporary medicine in the old-fashioned style,” so the saying goes. It was coined by Bill Aldis, an internal medicine specialist who came to Harris in the mid-1970s.
Aldis was part of a dynamic trio of upstart internal medicine specialists who sought out Sylva after medical school as a place to make their mark, perhaps even a social experiment of sorts. Their mission: to take a rural hospital with a smattering of primary doctors and see how far they could take it.
“They were at John Hopkins together and decided they were going to find a place where they could make an impact,” said Dr. Joe Hurt, a retired pathologist who came to Harris in 1978. Hurt came partly because he was impressed by the three young internists who had thrown themselves headlong into building up a rural medical institution.
“There was a tremendous amount of potential,” Hurt said.
The energy was infectious. Each new specialist who came on board joined the recruiting crusade, putting their best foot forward as a medical community to build up their own ranks in partnership with the hospital.
“A lot of the recruiting parties and events were actually held at my house,” Hurt said. “Some of the contracts between partners were worked out at my house.”
In the decade from 1975 to 1985, the number of doctors practicing in Jackson County more than doubled, bringing in the county’s first orthopedists, pathologists, radiologists and surgeons. More by fate than design, the community attracted a certain breed of physician — those who didn’t care about the lack of a country club or golf course, Hurt said.
Those early efforts set Harris on a track that still persists.
“Harris has had a long-standing tradition of attracting very good physicians. Part of the attraction was for a small hospital, this had an exceptional medical staff. Well-trained physicians, very community-oriented. There was a rapport between the physicians and community that didn’t exist elsewhere. The hospital just had a very good reputation,” Green said.
There’s one thing both sides in the debate agree on: keep going to your local hospital.
“In terms of the services, we can and should provide in our local hospitals, we are as good as anyone in the country,” the MedWest board of directors said in a statement this week.
Undermining Harris is indeed the last thing those speaking out want to do.
“There are those who felt the community deserved to know. Hopefully, there will be enough of a outcry to have an impact,” Savell said.
But, the 2,000 employees of MedWest in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties have surely felt the sting of the negative publicity during the past week.
“I care for every single patient with every ounce of my being,” said Heather Sheppard, a nurse at Harris and director of ICU. “I stand by the care that we deliver to every single patient at Harris.”
In Haywood County, a letter was signed by 29 doctors this week reinforcing their strength and resolve to provide excellent health care.
“We believe and have substantial data to corroborate that the care at Haywood hospital is, like the care at Harris hospital, something the community can take great pride in,” the letter states.
Dr. Joe Hurt, a retired pathologist at Harris, said going public was clearly a last resort for Adams after months of working through internal channels that got him nowhere.
“I don’t think any of them wished ill against the hospital,” said Hurt.
Savell agreed that’s not what this struggle is about.
“Good care is still there. Good people are still there,” Savell said.
Even those who have publicly stood beside Adams plan to stick with Harris to the end.
“I love what I do. I love the patients. I love the hospital, and by golly, we provide excellent care, and we want to get back to that,” Haddock added.
When the Med-West venture was coined two years ago, the premise was an easy sell. Together the hospitals would be stronger than going it alone.
Both Harris and Haywood hospitals had witnessed a troubling loss of patients to Mission — a loss so troubling in fact neither hospital could afford to continue as it was. They faced a cold, hard reality: turn the course, and fast, or they would be faced with financial insolvency.
Indeed, both hospitals hoped the MedWest joint venture would shore up the erosion of patients to Mission. Both, however, seemed to have different ideas of how that would play out on the ground.
Was there enough business for both to stay the size they were, or would one ultimately evolve into the big kid on the block under the MedWest umbrella — and if so, who?
Before the merger, and even now, Haywood and Harris competed very little. Fewer than 5 percent of patients from Jackson migrated to neighboring Haywood or vice-versa.
But with the future of their medical community on the line, 1 percent here and there suddenly seemed to matter quite a lot.
While the call by some Jackson doctors to withdraw from MedWest seems like a shot across the bow to their neighbors in Haywood, Jackson doctors said they didn’t intend it that way. They aren’t questioning the quality or caliber of health care at Haywood’s hospital or by Haywood doctors. Instead, it seems desperation amidst a shifting health care landscape has seized the day.
Next week: Read more about the specific concerns raised by Jackson doctors, an analysis of hospital market share, a snap shot of finances, and philosophical view points on the MedWest venture.
Four long-time physicians in Jackson County are leaving C.J. Harris hospital after becoming disenchanted with the direction of MedWest — and even more so with Carolinas HealthCare System, a giant network of 34 hospitals that MedWest is affiliated with.
Dr. Bob Adams, a hospitalist who is leaving Harris after 36 years, fears Carolinas plans to build up Haywood as a flagship to compete with Mission. He didn’t like where that would lead.
“Harris devolves and Haywood grows,” Adams postulated. “They are playing the corporate practice of medicine. I don’t want to be a pawn in somebody else’s power struggle and be used as a widget in a big business’ plan for their benefit.”
The president of Harris, Steve Heatherly, laments the loss of the four doctors — and the circumstances.
“It is unusual in the history of this organization to have physicians leave because they were not satisfied with the strategic direction,” Heatherly said.
Making matters worse, another seven doctors in the Jackson-Swain medical community have either already left or plan to leave — for a total loss of 11.
“It is unusual to have that level of turn over,” Heatherly said, even though only four of the 11 actually chalk up their departure to “dissatisfaction with the hospital.”
Lessening the blow somewhat, seven new doctors are moving to Jackson and Swain in coming months. They had already been recruited and were intended to bolster the physician ranks.
Now, however, the hospital will see a net loss instead of gain and a gap in a few key specialties.
Dozens of doctors, of course, aren’t going anywhere.
“We must not forget that we still have an extremely skilled and dedicated medical staff of nearly 230 physicians who are choosing to stay in our communities and work in our hospitals to take care of our patients,” Dr. Robin Matthews, an ob-gyn in Haywood County who chairs the Physician Leadership Council of MedWest.
Many of the 2,000 employees of MedWest have rallied to their hospitals’ defense during the past week.
“The hard decision is to stay here and fight for this place to succeed,” said Dr. Casey Prenger, the medical director of the hospitalist group at Harris. “We believe in our hospital and our community, and it is our privilege and honor to take care of you.”
There are huge challenges, however, facing Heatherly and MedWest: hold MedWest together, turn the corner financially, recapture market share from Mission, quell the doctor uprising, and recruit new doctors to fill the holes.
For the group of Jackson County doctors who went public with their concerns last week, the decision wasn’t an easy one nor was it taken lightly.
“They aren’t trying to hurt anything. They are trying to fix something,” said Dr. Gilbert Robinson, an anesthesiologist at Harris for 10 years.
Even those who spoke out aren’t certain now was the right time, or if it will do any good.
But, the ball was in Adams’ court. When he decided to go public, the core group who had been fighting alongside him during the past year to bring about change internally weren’t going to leave him on a limb by himself, so they reached out and grabbed on as well.
“I decided I wanted to let the community know what was happening to their hospital. The only thing that is going to change is if the community starts standing up for itself to Carolinas and the WestCare board,” said Dr. Waverly Green, a pulmonologist at Harris who is leaving as well.
Adams hopes the issues he raised aren’t construed as a parting shot or chalked up to sour grapes.
“They are portraying those of us who had concerns and discomfort about where we are as being disgruntled and outliers,” Adams said.
But in fact, hospital administration has gone out of its way to praise Adams and the others who are leaving.
“It is regrettable. They will be missed in this community. They are outstanding physicians who have provided years of service to this community,” Heatherly said.
Even doctors in neighboring Haywood, who rightfully have reason to be miffed by Adams’ shot across the bow at MedWest-Haywood, have been complimentary.
“He is a great doctor and wonderful human being. I just happen to disagree with them completely,” said Dr. Marvin Brauer, chief of staff at MedWest-Haywood and a hospitalist like Adams.
While Adams will soon be gone, others who support him will still practice at Harris and will continue carrying the torch to fix perceived problems.
Some of them are even on Harris’ payroll. Technically, the entity they are speaking out against writes their paychecks, putting them in an uncomfortable position at best, a vulnerable one at worst. Normally, few doctors would be willing to take a career gamble like that.
The difference at Harris likely comes down to their new president, Steve Heatherly. Heatherly has been with Harris since the 1990s, part of that time as a physician liaison and serving in a variety of vice president roles and as chief operating officer.
In hopes of quelling dissension among Jackson doctors, Heatherly was promoted two months ago as the president of Harris. It gave Jackson doctors one of their own at the helm — rather than the previous hierarchy where they answered to a single CEO for the entire MedWest venture, Mike Poore, who they were acutely aware hailed from Haywood and still had his base office there.
Jackson doctors have hope that Heatherly will help right the ship.
“I believe Steve is at the place he needs to be to help turn WestCare around, due to his experience and background and skill set. I don’t know of anyone else that would be better at this point in time,” said Bob Carpenter, a former MedWest board member from Sylva who resigned in January over the same issues troubling the doctors.
Even Adams agreed.
“I think the WestCare board and Steve Heatherly are doing their best to work with medical staff now,” Adams said.
Many doctors — even those who are in near lockstep with Adams’ pointed assessment of the MedWest landscape — wish he had given Heatherly more time to fix things before going public.
Dr. Randy Savell, a gastroenterologist doctor at Harris, said Heatherly faces a difficult future.
“He is between a rock and a hard place,” Savell said.
Heatherly’s boss is technically Carolinas, and he answers to them daily. But, he must also answer to the hospital board of directors, all the while winning the good graces of nurses and doctors by proving he will address their concerns.
Heatherly doesn’t downplay the reality that a hospital lives and dies by its doctors. If the doctors are good, people will get their health care locally.
“That leads to more volume through the hospital, which helps solve the business dilemma,” Heatherly said.
That business dilemma — dire financial straits for both Harris and Haywood — looms large in the debate.
Harris has lost more than 10 percent of its in-patient business to Mission Hospital during the past five years.
As a result, Harris is struggling financially and has been losing money for at least three years. It’s now in its third round of layoffs in four years.
“Our hospitals must confront the fundamental business reality that expenses cannot continue to be greater than revenue,” Heatherly said.
If the financial picture was rosier, the paranoia among Jackson doctors that Carolinas is trying to siphon its patients off to Haywood could simply melt away.
For now, Heatherly is stuck in a Catch 22. Rather than shrink, Harris must find a way to regain the market share lost to Mission.
“No organization can cut its way to prosperity, especially not a hospital, where quality patient care is our business. ‘Thrive-ability’ will happen when more patients come through our doors to see our brilliant doctors and caring staff,” Heatherly said.
Harris’ financial problems are largely because it lost several doctors back in 2006 and 2007, Heatherly said. When patients needed a doctor’s appointment, they were forced to look elsewhere and ended up walking right into the open, waiting arms of Mission in Asheville.
Heatherly, who started at Harris in the 1990s, had taken a hiatus for a few years to work for a physician management firm. When he came back to Harris in ?, job No. 1 was recruiting physicians to fill the void.
“The organization was having trouble recruiting physicians to replenish the supply to the local community, and it created a constrained access,” Heatherly said.
In 2008 and 2009, WestCare brought in 10 new doctors. It also bought out several private practices in order to put existing doctors on the hospital’s payroll — reflective of a national trend by doctors who increasingly prefer to work directly for a hospital rather than run their own private practices.
Those moves came at a financial cost, but Heatherly said the influx of doctors stopped the bleeding of market share. Unfortunately, it hasn’t come back up yet either.
“Now that we’ve had success in rebuilding our medical staff, we need more patients from our local communities using our local hospitals. Only then can we expect more positive financial results,” Heatherly said.
Heatherly’s belief in doctors as a core business strategy for the hospital seems genuine. He stresses it even when discussing other topics, like when the long-awaited renovations to Harris’ emergency room will be re-started.
“As we move forward, we have to assess that we have the right medical staff in place to offer ongoing appropriate access to care, and then those opportunities to evaluate facility expansion will be driven by the ability to generate sustained financial results,” Heatherly said.
Heatherly was speaking off the cuff, not reading from a prepared statement. But, his hospital administrator’s version of Alan Greenspan’s famous Greenspeak can be boiled down this way: doctors must be shored up first, which will bring back patients, which will bring back money.
The shell of a vacant four-story hotel sitting partially finished on Sylva’s main drag for three years is finally going somewhere.
Developers from Greensboro bought the vacant hotel along N.C. 107 for $850,000 and are promising to pump an additional $2 million into completing the project.
The hotel was partially constructed beginning in 2008 and has widely been considered an eyesore. It was supposed to become a Clarion Inn, but the original developers TJ Investments, the father and son team Thomas and John Dowden of Cashiers, went into bankruptcy. Alpharetta Community Bank of Georgia, which foreclosed after the men failed to payoff a $5-million loan, owned the hotel. The newly formed Sylva Hotel Group recently bought the property for $850,000.
Developer Stephen Austin said he and his two partners in the project have settled on a national hotel chain to brand the 78-room hotel, which includes a convention room and space for a restaurant, but added that they aren’t ready to disclose which one.
He said the bargain-basement purchase price made the deal a good venture.
“Sylva is not an extremely deep hotel market,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to have a hotel that is worthy of our business.”
Austin said that the men’s pre-purchase market studies indicated that Sylva hotel occupancy rates run at about 50 percent, lower than the national average of more than 60 percent. Even after figuring that higher vacancy rate into the business plan, Austin said the getting-in price made it a sound investment.
“If you are going to build a new hotel, it helps to get in at a good price,” he said. “We’ll have a total of about $3 million in the project. We’re also excited to be able to take a piece of property and produce something of value, create an asset for the community.”
Austin said he and his partners are hoping to start construction soon and open the new hotel this year.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lives near the hotel, said he is excited that it sold and is going to be finished and used.
Five years ago, the town OK’d an exemption to its building height restrictions, allowing the proposed Clarion Inn to have four stories instead of three. The developers at the time claimed they needed a 75-foot maximum height instead of just 45 feet as mandated by town regulations.
Hensley said he believed the purchase was indicative that the local economy is starting to shake off the recessionary blues.
“I don’t know much about the details, but to me, it’s excellent news that this can move forward and progress,” Hensley said.
Paige Roberson, assistant to the town manager and director of the town’s Main Street program, echoed Hensley’s optimism. She said that at least two other vacant stores in town have seen movement recently. Cope’s Superette, a downtown newsstand that closed in December, is being reopened as an antique store; the crematorium of Moody’s Funeral Home is being repurposed as a doctor’s office.