Everyone who has seen and toured Jackson County’s new public library knows that it’s beautiful, but now the state has put an official stamp on that fact.

The library recently won the Outstanding Facility Award for new libraries larger than 26,000 square feet presented by the N.C. Public Libraries Directors Association.

Library patrons last week said they weren’t the least surprised to hear the facility was a state winner when it comes to beauty, functionality and technology.

“I love this library,” said Karen Wall, who was working on her laptop in the reference section one day last week. She was seated in a comfortable chair at a desk near huge windows affording a bird’s eye view of the Plott-Balsams mountain range.

SEE ALSO: New Jackson library a self-fulfilling prophecy

Wall described herself as a grateful library user. She is a voracious reader, one of those people who have two or more books going at a time. Fiction, nonfiction, it matters not just so long as the books involved are captivating.

“There’s a joy for me to be able to come here,” Wall said, gesturing toward the view.

That sentiment holds true for Becky Foxx of Sylva, too. Foxx’s one complaint is that the books aren’t as clearly labeled, by topics, as they were in the old library on Main Street. She was searching near the audio section for spiritual and self-help books, which were located several shelves from where Foxx actually was hunting. With 5,500 linear feet of shelving capacity — over one-mile of shelving if stretched out end to end — Foxx was finding navigation at the new county library a bit of a challenge.

That one irritant aside, Foxx loves her library. Like Wall, she said it was well worth every penny spent despite some grumbling over the price tag in certain quarters.

Jackson County’s library towers over Sylva — 107 steps up from Main Street — attached to the back of the historic courthouse complex. The new library cost $8 million, a project that also included renovating the historic courthouse as an auditorium and community meeting space.

The Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. The cost per square foot was $282, including construction, landscaping, site improvements, architect and consultant fees and the furniture and equipment.

The librarian accept the facilities award last month in Greensboro where she presented a PowerPoint slideshow about the building at a showcase of the state awards given for facilities, programs, staff development and service innovation.

McMillan, Pazdan, Smith Architecture designed the library for Jackson County.

If there’s been one major challenge for Jackson County’s new library, it’s been parking. There just isn’t enough space on the 2.8-acre site, at least close-by, to meet demand.

There are only 73 parking spaces on top of the hill. To save those spots for library visitors, employees park in a lot down below and hoof it up the hill either from a small parking lot on Keener Street or from Mark Watson Park. The county recently improved a trail up leading the back side of the hill from Mark Watson Park and added a handrail to make the route more friendly.

Learning the craft

In a classic case of the student becoming the teacher, Brock Martin signed up for his first blacksmithing class at the Jackson County Green Energy Park and began apprenticing soon after.

That was four years ago.

Now, he has been teaching classes at the park for a little more than year.

“I was always interested in it,” Martin said.

However, he did not quite know how to get started or if anyone really lived as a blacksmith anymore. After a high school teacher introduced him to a group of medieval re-enactors, he began seeking out more information about the art.

Martin, 23, blacksmiths as often as he can, teaching classes or creating custom pieces for sale. A resident of Hickory, near Asheville, he makes maille jewelry and armor, among other things.

Creating something from metal can be a long process.

Students start with a metal rod, which they regularly heat to up to 2,300˚F.

The progression of the heat turns the metal from yellow to dark brown to blue to black to red.

“Once it gets red, you can really start getting it to do what you want it to do,” said Martin.

Then, they begin working the metal with all variety of hammers — ones with flat, square heads, ones with spherical heads and ones with wedges heads. Each makes a different impression on the metal, works it in a different way and can be used to make a myriad of objects. It all hinges on the angle of the metal versus the angle of the hammer’s blow.

“It’s a misconception that you have to be strong,” Martin said.

Depending on the project, shaping and perfecting an inch-long piece of metal can take more than an hour. The rod must be reheated to make it more malleable, but students must watch that thinner portions don’t get too hot. Steel begins to melt at 2,500˚F.

To temper the heat, they must immerse the thin and more easily warmed part of the rod in water so they can continue to heat thicker portions of it.

Beginning blacksmithing classes are offered about once a month at the Jackson County Green Energy Park. The park is part of a county government initiative to use the old Dillsboro landfill gases as well as promote sustainability and various educational opportunities.

The beginner classes are “very gradual” compared to the intermediate level, Martin said.

Students move from station to station, trying to master individual skills before they tackle the end goal of actually creating something.

The class sizes are generally small, making them more hands on. At a recent intermediate class, three people independently worked on projects as Martin moved from workstation to workstation, offering help and tips.

Although the class was only their first or second attempt, the three burgeoning blacksmiths have all spent time working with their hands.

Todd Sagy, 48, diligently worked on a metal toilet paper holder. As a welder, metal work is second nature, but blacksmith permits more creativity.

Blacksmithing allows him to “take something that’s nothing and make something out of it,” Sagy said.

There is a fine line between working the metal too much and not enough, said Jesse Johnson, a 22-year-old construction worker.

Johnson spent much of his time twisting the small steel rods, with which he worked, to craft a necklace holder for his girl friend’s birthday.

“It’s not that bad, really, if you are used to working with tools,” Johnson said. “Mostly, it’s just a lot of fun.”

After taking his first class, Jesse got his twin brother Josh to join in as well. Both said they had been interested in learning to blacksmith for a while but actually decided to take a class after their mother took a glassblowing class at the energy park.

Counties and towns in the region are sparring over a highway sign that points the way to Cherokee, each hoping to capture a share of the 3.5 million annual visitors en route to the tribe’s casino by bringing that traffic past their own doorstep.

There are two routes to Cherokee — something any tourist could figure out using the Internet or an in-car GPS unit. However, only one route has a highway directional sign pointing the way to Cherokee, namely the route through Maggie Valley.

Jackson County officials are urging the North Carolina Department of Transportation to post a second highway sign letting travelers know they don’t have to get off the highway and head through Maggie but can continue on past Waynesville and Sylva to reach Cherokee as well.

Jackson sees itself as the big winner from such a sign but has appealed to Waynesville to join it in its request.

“We thought Waynesville might also be the beneficiary of that (sign),” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

Currently, Cherokee-bound tourists coming off Interstate 40 are funneled toward Maggie on U.S. 19 just before they get to Waynesville.

Waynesville leaders discussed the issue at their town board meeting last week but postponed a decision until next year.

Neither Town Manager Lee Galloway nor Mayor Gavin Brown had spoken with officials in Maggie Valley about their take on the matter. However, at least one board member is against siding with Jackson County over Maggie Valley.

“I don’t feel like we should go against our own,” said board member Gary Caldwell.

As for Maggie Valley, officials said they had not heard about or had only heard tell of the possible signage.

Tim Barth, Maggie Valley’s town manager, said he was not aware that Jackson County had reached out to Waynesville looking for support. However, he said he would oppose such a sign.

“We would prefer that they come through Maggie Valley,” Barth said.

If the sign was erected, Maggie Valley would likely see fewer people driving down its main drag – which could further harm tourist businesses that are already struggling.

“Obviously, less people would be coming through the town then, and we depend on people coming through the town,” Barth said.

People traveling to Cherokee sometimes stop at restaurants or stores along the way, which is the main reason why Jackson County wants the sign — to cash in on some of those travelers’ checks.

“Our whole goal was to increase traffic (to the county),” Wooten said.


Which way?

For leaders in Cherokee and within the Eastern Band, having two routes to the reservation is about keeping customers happy.

“It’s important for our customers to have a choice,” said Robert Jumper, the tribe’s travel and tourism manager. “We want people to be able to come, in their most comfortable way, to Cherokee.”

If visitors are not happy with a particular route, they might not come back, said Jumper, who expressed support for the sign. He added that the additional route, which runs past Waynesville, would benefit both Haywood and Jackson counties.

When people call the Cherokee visitor center, they are directed through Maggie Valley or Jackson County based on their driving preferences.

Although vehicles traverse fewer road miles on the route through Maggie Valley, the low speed limits and a windy, two-lane road makes the scenic drive longer than expected, including a rather lengthy dead zone for cell phone users.

“The most direct route, of course, is through Maggie,” said Teresa Smith, head of the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce. “Obviously, it’s a straight shot (to Cherokee), and a majority of our businesses are on this main thoroughfare.”

However, the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway through Jackson County is generally the quickest route, a divided-highway with a faster flow of traffic, but drivers miss out on the views when going over Soco Gap in Maggie.

Jackson County has applied for a similar sign in the past, but nothing happened.

While the DOT has indicated that it would be possible to place a second sign near the existing one at Exit 103 on the by-pass, it is still unknown whether it will actually happen, Wooten said.

Hoping to sway the transportation department, the county has applied to others for support. Representatives from Cherokee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have signed their names to letters that indicate their support for the new sign.

“We feel that giving the motoring public an additional option of four-lane travel will provide better flow of traffic and enhance safety on both routes to Cherokee,” reads the letter signed by Jumper; Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band; Jason Lambert, the tribe’s executive director of economic development; and Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

The letter also states that the route through Jackson County provides drivers with a “direct, unimpeded” road to Cherokee.

A similar letter written by Jack Debnam, Chairman of the Jackson County commission, states that the expressway route offers an alternative that is easy for any type of vehicle to travel, during any type of weather.

Smith admitted that ice and snow have made the trip over Soco Gap hazardous on occasion but said that the road is nowhere near impassable.

“Vehicles have traveled it for years,” Smith said. “It’s not like it’s impossible. It’s not like it’s dangerous.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, declined to comment on the topic until she could meet with other members of the tourism board.

Christmas tree farming is nothing new in Western North Carolina thanks to the perfect climate, perfect soil and preponderance of mountainsides — terrain that leaves farmers with few options for cultivating crops suited to slopes. Tree farms run the gamut, from a dirt farmer plunking down a half-acre of trees on the hill behind his house to massive wholesale tree dealers with thousands of acres in production.

Tom and Myra Sawyer of the Glenville community in southern Jackson County, however, have taken the traditional WNC Christmas tree farm and turned that concept on its ear. The Sawyers transformed their chose-and-cut tree farm into a little slice of the North Pole, complete with a visiting Santa and a cadre of elves.

In doing so, the couple has tapped into the growing agri-tourism niche. Plus they’ve provided scores of their Glenville and Cashiers neighbors with sorely needed seasonal employment. Up to 50 people work on the farm this time of year — not counting those employed through their wreath-making shop, year-round tree farm operation and the four retail Christmas tree lots they operate in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. It also doesn’t take into account the large number of family members Tom and Myra Sawyer also provide jobs for. Or the burgeoning wedding-destination sideline they’ve recently started.

Tom Sawyer, in a quiet way in a remote section of the region, is putting a whole lot of folks to work.


Elves abound in Glenville

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm & Elf Village is simply not like anything else you find in the region. There are Christmas trees for the choosing, a Christmas-themed shop, rides on horse-drawn wagons, an elf village and a whole lot of “elves.” Thousands of people make the curvy, challenging drive here each season, Sawyer said, from as far away as Atlanta and Upstate South Carolina.

The story, as Tom Sawyer relates it, is that Santa Claus sometime in the 1940s crashed his sleigh in Glenville. The elves opted to stay in this location, hence the elf village that resulted. (It wasn’t clear how this many elves — scores of them, in fact — could have squeezed onto that small sleigh with Santa, but facts shouldn’t stand in the way of a good story.)

There is a small elf chapel, an elf outhouse, an elf naughty-time out-hut and much, much more. Once Sawyer, a former certified public accountant from Florida who started growing trees here in 1982, gets an idea you’d better watch out. Because what he conceptualizes he makes happen.

The youngest child of older parents, Sawyer said that in many ways he grew up more as a little adult than an actual kid.

“I guess I’m now reliving my childhood somehow that I never had,” Sawyer said, gesturing toward the elf village.

From the looks of it, the entire community is doing the same. Take Debra Adams, dressed in her elf costume greeting people as they arrive at the farm. Adams’ two nieces also work at Sawyer’s Christmas extravaganza, one doing face painting, the other storytelling.

Adams is a professional photographer who made the move here from Mississippi to be with her sister and nieces.

“I came up, and decided to move the business here,” Adams said. “In the meantime, this is really helping pay for Christmas. (The Sawyers) have really helped with jobs in this area during these slow periods.”

That makes Sawyer very happy.

“We’ve been able to put a lot of people to work,” Sawyer said. “It’s pretty amazing. Especially in this recession, it brings tears to your eyes the people who call and need jobs  — there’s just no economy here this time of year.”

Until recently, Sawyer kept a herd of reindeer on the farm. For a variety of natural reasons, he said, the herd dwindled out. Sawyer wants to restart the reindeer portion of his business, but a state quarantine on importing the animal has prevented that from happening to date.

Reindeer didn’t just attract additional visitors. A few years ago, Sawyer took a cell call from his daughter, who reported a really huge animal was hanging out on the 80-acre farm. It turned out that one of the reintroduced elk from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had made its way from Cataloochee Valley in Haywood County all the way to Glenville. Apparently missing the camaraderie of fellow hoofed beasts during its wanderings, it took up residence with Sawyer’s reindeer.

Rangers came, and with some difficulty, captured the elk and took it back home.

Visitors, particularly the youngest ones but adults, too, seem to enjoy this not-like-any-other Christmas tree farm.

“It’s very nice,” said Michael Atkins, who was at the Sawyers’ farm on Saturday picking out a Christmas tree with his wife, Suitlana. The couple live on Big Ridge in Glenville for eight months of the year, and the rest of the time they stay in sunny Florida.


Getting there

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm and & Elf Village is open through Dec. 24, and is located at 240 Chimney Pond Road in Glenville, off N.C. 107 on the way to Cashiers from Sylva. There are ample signs in the community to help you locate the farm once you get to the area, or call 828.743.5456 or 800.662.7008.

An expected rubberstamp by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to build a new auditorium and gym at Smoky Mountain High School took a brief — but wild while the ride lasted — turn this week.

Commissioners have already expressed support for the $10.5 million project and by all indications, were poised to sign off this week on a $500,000 architectural contract.

Commissioner Doug Cody instead suggested that the county’s leaders give consideration to an even grander concept. Cody said he’d been waking up early in the mornings lately stewing over. Cody suggested combining the gym and auditorium into a multi-purpose arena that could host events with the potential to draw tourists.

“I’m asking the indulgence of the school board and my fellow commissioners here to explore that option,” Cody said. “A high school play isn’t going to fill your hotels, it is not going to fill your restaurants.” But, an events arena might, he said.

Cody’s suggestion received the welcome of a bottle fly landing on a newly baked cake. School board members, sitting in the audience with county school administrators, assumed their best blank expressions, but some unhappy murmurs erupted.

Commissioner Joe Cowan spoke out against the idea, saying that chorus, band and theater students deserve their own fine arts center just as much as athletes deserve a gym.

“We’ve got a plan here that’s been in the making for 35 years. It looks good; it’s what the school board says that they want,” Cowan said.

When everything shook down, commissioners simply voted 5-0 to approve the construction designs as originally presented by educators. Cody ultimately joined in the vote to approve the design contract.

“You know when you’re whipped,” a visibly frustrated Cody said.

Cody wasn’t left totally high and dry on his proposal. Fellow GOP party member Commissioner Charles Elders did attempt to place girders under his sinking colleague, asking forcefully but somewhat obscurely: “This is a bad economy … when are we going to bounce out of it, and who is going to pay for it?”

In an interview after the meeting, School Board member Elizabeth Cooper emphasized to The Smoky Mountain News that her board’s members did deeply appreciate the county chipping-in the required funds. Her fellow board member, Ali Laird-Large, said she was “ecstatic” that the project can now move forward.

Jackson County’s subdivision ordinance is destined for more tweaking by the planning board.

The planning board spent several months revising the county’s four-year-old subdivision ordinance before sending the recommended changes along to county commissioners for approval this week. Commissioners promptly sent the revised ordinance back to the planning board for more review, but not before some speakers expressed their vehement displeasure with the proposed changes. Others said during a public hearing that they, however, believed commissioners were on the right track to “streamline” the rules.

Not all the commissioners are convinced the ordinance needs changing.

“This puts the developer first, and the potential homeowner and environment second,” Commissioner Joe Cowan said, adding that he hated “to see this watered down with one fell swoop.”

While some of the proposed changes are more favorable to developers, others are more strict. Other changes are aimed at simplifying the language, such as stipulating that road building follows state standards instead of dictating those standards verbatim, as done in the current ordinance. Cullowhee resident Roy Osborn said some of the changes make sense but cautioned that he believes Planner Gerald Green’s expressed desire to “balance the needs of developers, future subdivision property owners, the environment and the citizens of Jackson County” is mistaken in its emphasis: leave out the developers, Osborn said, and the planner’s got it about right.

“This structure better prioritizes ‘needs’ from the global to the individual perspective,” he said.

Additionally, Osborn suggested adding language requiring engineers and land surveyors to provide “rigorous cost estimates” of surety bond amounts. This, he said, would help ensure that planned roads are completed if the developer defaults. He also said that if initially approved design thresholds are exceeded, such as increased slope or lessened roadway width, then a “certified roadway design professional” should be involved in a variance review.

But, Roger Clapp of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River said with just a few adjustments, he could support the proposed ordinance changes.

“It is rural mountain roads that supply mud to the streams, first and foremost,” Clapp told commissioners.

And, in fact, he said, the ordinance changes proposed by Green and the planning board would largely help the environment. They would do that by reducing the footprints of roads — which would only have to be 14-feet wide instead of 18 feet.

“A smaller footprint means less construction work, thus it’s cheaper. And also less impact, which is good for the environment,” Clapp said.

On the other hand, Clapp said his conservation group would like to see the maximum slope for roads stay at 18 instead of 20 percent and an added stipulation for road maintenance agreements for small subdivisions.

“With that said, the Watershed Authority supports the bill because it does provide a step forward in environmental protection,” Clapp said.

Commissioners offered little input on the changes, but Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam questioned why the county planner is the only one with authority to enforce the regulations and suggested giving additional county staff that authority as well.

Prospective buyers of an AM radio station in Sylva could land a $289,000 loan from the Jackson County economic development fund in exchange for creating 11 jobs.

Jackson County commissioners already approved $179,000 of the loan and are poised to approve the remainder next week — if the county can figure out reasonable collateral should the radio station default. The money will primarily be used to purchase the radio license from its current owner, but since a radio station license is not very tangible, the county is hesitant about how it would serve as collateral for the loan.

Jackson County Attorney Jay Coward suggested another option: Jackson County’s name could be included as a co-license holder when filing for the frequency from the Federal Communications Commission.

“If not we would certainly have to rethink it,” Coward said of the loan.

The radio station, currently owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., went dead in August. Its owners cited a lack of revenue. Jackson County resident Roy Burnette, who once worked for WRGC and other local AM radio stations in the region, wants to get the station back on the air.  

Burnette says the new radio station would broadcast at 5,000 watts, reaching from Canton to Topton in Cherokee County, and that he would create 11 jobs.

By comparison, WCQS, the National Public Radio station based in Asheville, employees 12 fulltime and four part-time employees, said executive director Jody Evans on Tuesday.

Commissioners appear partly driven by a desire to bring back the local AM radio station in addition to the jobs themselves. Commissioner Doug Cody said he believes WRGC represents more than simply job creation, from instilling community pride to broadcasting emergency weather information.

“It is a service to the entire county,” Cody said.

Jackson County will not actually become any sort of “partner” in the radio station, even if the county does end up as a co-license holder, Chairman Jack Debnam said.

Maybe, maybe not: The idea has yet to be researched and vetted, Debnam said, adding that it would be Coward’s job to ferret out such answers before commissioners’ actually vote on the final piece of the loan next week.

Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, described the potential for public-private license arrangement between the county and the station as unusual. Bowen said that he wasn’t immediately aware of legal barriers that would prevent such an occurrence.

“But whether it would be a good investment, one would really have to know more about the market and the assets involved,” Bowen said.

When asked about the likelihood of the AM radio station surviving in today’s advertising landscape, Jackson County commissioners said they were relying on the financial projections provided by the prospective radio owner.

— From staff reports

Running a small hotel in Western North Carolina isn’t the easiest way to make a living, particularly not in these penny-pinching times when prospective customers want a full range of amenities and a rock-bottom room price.

“It is hard for small businesses like this,” said Sneha Amin, who owns and manages the 22-unit Economy Inn in downtown Sylva. “People are not wanting to spend anything, because they don’t have anything.”

A plan is in the works to increase the tax on overnight lodging in Jackson County from 3 percent to 6 percent, as high as state law allows. The prospect has left Amin and other hotel owners in the area — large and small — on edge, worried that such an increase could further drive away the ever-dwindling number of visitors they depend on for survival.

But proponents say the room tax is needed to offset a decline in tourism revenue in Jackson County.  The increase will mean more money to market Jackson County as a destination, which in turn should increase tourism. That’s something supporters say Jackson County sorely needs as overnight stays are still off by 12 percent in Jackson compared to 2006.

Alleghany County, which is increasing its room tax from 3 to 6 percent this year as well, has experienced similar ups and downs, according to Alleghany County Manager Don Adams. Like Jackson, Alleghany hopes the extra money from the tax increase — which means more money at its disposal for tourism marketing — will turn the tide.

Most of the protests in Jackson County have come from the Cashiers and Glenville area, where posh inns, golf course resorts and B&Bs cater to a well-heeled, but increasingly frugal, crowd.

But the fear of hardship to come via any increase is the same in Sylva. A block or so from the Amin’s hotel at the Blue Ridge Inn, far from the Cashiers area, Pete Patel is equally worried. Patel and his wife have owned and operated the 33-unit hotel for eight years.

“The summer was OK, but the winter is going to be tough,” Patel said, adding that he hopes commissioners won’t move forward with plans to hike the tax.

Those fears might be overstated.

Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce, said she hasn’t noticed any particular decline in Franklin’s hotel stays since that town went from a 3 to 6 percent room tax. While Macon County’s base room tax rate is only 3 percent, the town of Franklin tacked on an additional 3 percent in the town limits.

“They seem to do all right,” Harbuck said.

The story is the same in Henderson County, which a year-and-a-half ago raised its room tax from 4 to 5 percent. Karen Baker, spokesperson for the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, said that the tourism group has not seen a visible decrease in room stays since the increase.

“There are always two sides whenever there is an increase in a tax, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt occupancy,” Baker said.

Hotel owners in Jackson County beg to differ.

Raise the room tax, and it might drive tourists away and cost the county jobs, Amin and the other hotel owners said. Amin said she’s finding it difficult enough to earn the required $8,000 or more each month needed to pay the hotel’s bills.

Larger hotels are also feeling the dour economy’s tight squeeze.

“We hope that our county commissioners will hear our concerns and ease our fears,” said Megan Orr, director of sales for Best Western Plus River Escape Inn & Suites in Dillsboro. “Prospective customers make informed choices and will see and feel the difference of our higher taxes compared to our neighbors.”


How Jackson’s room tax stacks up

Two-thirds of the state has a higher room tax rate than Jackson County. With a tax of only 3 percent, Jackson is one of only 33 counties with a rate that low.

Jackson County leaders are debating whether to take the room tax rate to 6 percent — a rate share by roughly 30 other counties. Here’s some of the other rates in Western North Carolina:

• 3 percent: Jackson, Swain, Macon, Clay, Graham, Mitchell, Yancey

• 4 percent: Haywood, Buncombe, Transylvania, Cherokee

• 5 percent: Henderson, Madison, McDowell

• 6 percent: Town of Franklin, Watauga

It’s not too late for Jackson County leaders to go back to the drawing board on a state bill that consolidates the county’s two separate tourism agencies.

Commissioners have found themselves in the hot seat over a bill that would do away with the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association and instead merge it with a single countywide entity. Cashiers tourism leaders have decried the plan. They argue that Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with its own funding stream — to cater to its own unique visitor demographic apart from the county as a whole.

Those who support a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication that currently exists and putting the money to wiser use.

The idea to merge the Cashiers tourism agency with the greater Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association was embedded in a bill to raise the room tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 6 percent. Raising the room tax was the chief objective of the bill and was supported by the majority of commissioners. But the origin of other parts of the bill is murky and has been blamed in part on a legislative mix up.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, appeared before the Jackson County commissioners this week to let them know the bill can be changed if they don’t like it. Haire even took the prerogative to bring a new, marked-up version of the bill that would undo the changes made by the previous bill passed this summer.

That seemed to irk at least one commissioner, who asked Haire why he would bother drafting changes to the bill before commissioners officially decided whether they wanted any changes. Commissioner Doug Cody was confused how the bill had been preemptively rewritten.

“Who is the author of this?” Cody asked Haire of the new version.

Haire said he took the initiative to revise the bill based on feedback he’d gotten. Feedback from whom, Cody wondered.

“I didn’t realize we were doing an opinion survey of what changes we want to see,” Cody said.

“If you don’t like it, we will throw it in the waste paper basket,” Haire said of the new version.

It became clear that in Cody’s eye, Haire had jumped the gun with new language before the majority of commissioners reached a consensus on what to do.

“I think this needs some work,” Cody said.

County Manager Chuck Wooten portrayed it as a miscommunication. Wooten said he passed along the concerns raised at the last commissioners meeting over some aspects of the bill. Haire perhaps thought the concerns were universally shared by the commissioners when in fact the only commissioner vocalizing any concerns has been Commissioner Mark Jones, who works in the Cashiers tourism industry and sits on the Cashiers tourism board.

“I believe Mr. Jones is the only one that spoke up as having these concerns,” said Wooten.

Commissioner Charles Elders said commissioners need to decide collectively how, if at all, the bill that passed should be changed.

“We need to get our thoughts and recommendations together of what we would like to see,” Elders said.

Haire said he intended the new language to simply be a “starting point.”

While commissioners said Haire was premature in penning a new bill, Haire’s point was clear. The bill can be changed — and that lands the ball and all its political repercussions squarely back in the commissioners’ court.

Until now, the county had blamed at least part of the controversy on an unintentional hiccup in the legislative process: the bill that ultimately passed in Raleigh was not what the county initially asked for.

Haire didn’t intentionally set out to introduce and get passed a different bill than what county leaders wanted. The county failed to make its request in time last spring. By the time they asked Haire for a bill to increase the room tax from 3 to 6 percent, the deadline for introducing new bills had passed. So Haire looked around for a similar bill to piggyback on. He found one from Alleghany County, which was also looking to raise its room tax, and tagged Jackson County’s name onto it as well.

But in the process, the language didn’t come out quite right, Haire said.

Commissioners had partly disowned themselves from some of the controversial parts of the bill — instead directing blame at a bureaucratic system of lawmaking.

But, Haire now says it is no problem to change it — putting commissioners on the spot to either stand behind the bill in its current form or tell Haire how they want it changed.

“I hope we can get it the way we eventually want it,” Haire told commissioners helpfully.

Haire did explain that the state’s travel and tourism branch wants to bring uniformity to the myriad of tourism bills for each county in the state, and there is pressure to use similar policies and language, he said.

Commissioners plan to take the issue up in January.


Concerns with the Jackson County room tax bill

Jackson County commissioners plan to increase the tax on overnight lodging from 3 to 6 percent. Doing so requires permission of the N.C. General Assembly. A special bill to increase the tax was passed in Raleigh earlier this year at the county’s request. The language in the bill calls for other changes to the county’s two tourism agencies as well, including:

• Create a single countywide tourism development authority. Currently, there are two — a Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association and a separate Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association. The Cashiers tourism arm currently gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing.

• Expand how the tourism tax revenue could be spent. Currently, the money generated from the room tax must go solely to tourism marketing and promotions. The new bill would allow money to be spent on “tourism-related activities,” including capital projects. Putting on festivals, building greenways or assisting the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad with the cost of an engine turntable could all be legal uses of the tourism revenue under the new bill.

Laurie Oxford’s department is getting smaller; some of her former co-worker’s offices sit empty.

Oxford, an assistant Spanish professor at Western Carolina University, spoke at a public forum about university cuts Monday on how multi-level reductions have affected the Arts and Sciences department, which has eliminated several faculty positions and all of its Chinese classes.

“Wherever the money is, it’s not in Arts and Sciences,” Oxford said, half-joking.

Losing a person means more than simply having one fewer coworker.

“They mean considerably fewer class choices (and) in general, a much less effective program,” she said.

Oxford warned the audience of more than 200 students, politicians, professors, administrators and other community members that soon other departments will begin to look like the Arts and Sciences if states and universities continue to make sweeping cuts. WCU administrators must cut about $30 million from next year’s budget.

Larger class sizes, higher tuition, fewer course offerings and laid-off faculty members brought the crowd together.

The forum was part of a statewide, student-led “Cuts Hurt” movement that attempts to lay out what the decline in education funding really means. The approved state budget will cut more than $400 million statewide in higher education spending.

The budget cuts passed by the Republican-led General Assembly were “as extreme as they were unnecessary,” said Gov. Bev Perdue, in a video to attendees of the WCU forum.

Perdue vetoed the budget bill earlier this year, but the General Assembly overrode her veto.

“You’ve seen these cuts, and you understand the damage that has been done to the core of North Carolina,” Perdue said.

Like colleges and universities across the country, WCU has faced its own budget crisis and had to raise tuition and make across-the-board cuts in order to balance its budget. Last week, university administrators presented their recommendations for tuition and fee increases to its Board of Trustees. They had originally planned to raise tuition by 17 percent during a four-year period but changed those numbers after meeting with students.

“We heard you, and we went back to the drawing board,” said Sam Miller, vice chancellor of Student Affairs.

Instead, tuition will increase by 13 percent during a five-year period. When combined with fees, the total cost of attendance will increase by almost 7 percent.

“We think that it is still unfortunately higher than we’d like to do,” Miller said, tempering that sentiment by adding that the increase will help balance the budget and maintain academic quality.

Several students spoke during the forum about how tuition increases affect them.

Emily Evans, a single mother and senior at WCU, said she knew that university administrators were doing their best to minimize the impact of the budget cuts but bemoaned the need to increase already high tuition costs.

“When is the last time your Pell Grant went up?” Evans asked.

Students must take out more loans to cover the cost of education. Student loan debt in the U.S. will surpassed the $1 trillion mark this year.

“This is a big problem, not just for students like me,” Evans said.

Some students are forced to put their education on credit cards, which have high interest rates. Fewer students will ultimately graduate as college becomes tougher to afford.

“Anybody in this room could predict that those students aren’t going to finish,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Lawmakers have turned their back on education and that needs to change, he said.

“We have got to turn this state around. It’s going the wrong direction,” Rapp said.

Throughout the event, speakers urged students to register to vote and to create videos of themselves talking about why education is so important to them and how they have been affected by the cuts. The videos will be posted to the “Cuts Hurt” Facebook page.

“People will listen to you,” said Andy Miller, a WCU student and one of the event organizers. “Your voice matters and important, important people are listening.”

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