Voters in Jackson County will get to decide next year whether to allow alcohol sales countywide.
Four of the county’s five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News this week they would support an alcohol referendum. The commissioners have not publicly discussed the issue yet, nor formally voted to put the measure on the ballot, but have confirmed their intention to do so.
“To me personally, alcohol sales mean nothing at all,” said Debnam, the driving force on the board behind the upcoming referendum. “But we’re going to give the people a choice.”
Still to be decided is whether the vote will be held in conjunction with the May primary or during November’s general election.
In Western North Carolina, only Buncombe and Clay counties currently allow alcohol sales countywide. Henderson County residents will vote on the issue in the May primary.
Chairman Jack Debnam, and Commissioners Doug Cody, Charles Elders and Mark Jones said they would support the referendum. Joe Cowan did not return a phone message before press time seeking comment.
“We live in a democracy,” Cody said simply, on why he is throwing his support behind the referendum.
Currently, Sylva and Dillsboro have a corner on the market when it comes to alcohol. Given the long trek down twisty, narrow roads from Cashiers, its not surprising residents and businesses there are among the most eager to usher in countywide alcohol.
“I think it would be super for the economy of the Cashiers area,” said Sally Eason, owner of Canyon Kitchen restaurant at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire.
Restaurants could expect to see a boost to their bottom line — as will waitresses who get tipped based on a percentage of the bill — if alcohol hits the menus.
Diners will not only spend more, but will be more likely to go out in the first place, Eason said.
Now, people who want a glass of wine or a pint with their meal might opt to stay home and knock back a few while grilling out on the deck instead. But the absence of beer and wine from grocery store shelves is probably most irritating to those who don’t live close to Sylva — and even more so to second-home owners and vacationers bowled over by the concept of a dry county.
“A lot of our guests are from Atlanta, Charlotte or Knoxville. They have been a little a surprised at that. It is a turn off,” said George Ware, owner of The Chalet Inn bed and breakfast in Whittier.
Although Ware said he personally wouldn’t start serving up Mimosas with breakfast even if legally allowed to, Ware does believe a countywide vote is a good idea.
“I am happy to hear it is being considered. I think people should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Ware said.
A nod by voters to alcohol sales countywide could bring profound changes to Cullowhee, in particular. Western Carolina University lacks the typical array of bars and restaurants found in most college towns. But that’s because Cullowhee is not actually a town, and thus is dry like the rest of the county.
Curt Collins, who went to WCU and is now owner of Avant Garden, a community-based farm and event venue in Cullowhee, said alcohol is needed to spur economic development around campus, making Cullowhee a more vibrant community, and help create the college town other university’s take for granted.
“It would create a better atmosphere for new businesses and existing business who serve food and have entertainment,” Collins said. “There is so much evidence to show that will increase the local economy. It will create new business opportunities, and those will put people to work, and increase people moving their money around.”
To solve the problem of no alcohol, Former Chancellor John Bardo crafted a complex plan. He wanted the tiny nearby town of Forest Hills to first legalize alcohol sales and then expand its town limits to include parts of campus, hopefully paving the way for a vibrant college scene to spring up. He also wanted the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the sports stadium to be part of Forest Hills, so alcohol could be sold at events there as well.
Those plans have foundered with Bardo’s leaving, but are still percolating behind the scenes.
Countywide legal alcohol sales would likely make the issue moot, however.
Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Bakery & Café on “The Catwalk” near the center of WCU, said she strongly supports a referendum. But, ironically, she isn’t sure that she could, even if the referendum passes, legally sell alcoholic beverages at the popular Cullowhee establishment because the university owns the building.
“But it’s the right thing to let people vote on it,” Evans said.
Fears of chain restaurants flooding into Cullowhee if alcoholic beverage sales become legalized in the county are legitimate concerns for such buy-local proponents as Adam Bigelow. The recent WCU graduate and member of CuRvE, a group working to revitalize old Cullowhee, said that there were similar fears about Sylva when the sale of mixed drinks were legalized.
“But that really didn’t happen,” Bigelow said. “But, if they could go to Cullowhee and find a readymade thirsty market, that could be a problem.”
Still, overall, Bigelow supports the concept of legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County as part of building the community’s economy.
Collins said it would just be more convenient if people didn’t have to drive to Sylva to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.
“Students want to be able to walk or ride their bikes to the bar,” Collins said. It would be safer and reduce possible drunk driving between Sylva and Cullowhee by students.
Meanwhile, however, Haley Milner, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, gets a lot of customers filtering down the road from Western College University. And on weekends, live bands clearly cater to that college crowd.
If new restaurants and bars opened in Cullowhee, Milner could lose some of that business, but said she would still support countywide alcohol sales. Besides, Soul Infusion might just move closer to campus.
“There is also the possibility that we could move out there ourselves,” Milner said.
Milner said her food is the top draw for clients, not beer and wine, but alcohol sales are important to the bottom line. And giving up that piece of revenue is a strike against moving to Cullowhee without it.
Although Sylva establishments might lose a little business if other restaurants serving alcohol cropped up around the county, the town of Sylva likewise would lose some of its ABC revenue.
The town runs the only liquor store in the county right now. Debnam said he would like to see a liquor store in Cashiers, another measure that would have to be included on the ballot and approved by voters.
“Obviously it would impact us greatly. We wouldn’t have the monopoly we have right now,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “If that’s what the commissioners want to do and what the people of Jackson County want to do, that is their total prerogative.”
Sylva’s ABC store netted $360,000 last year. The town split the proceeds with the county. Of the town’s share, a portion is reserved for the police department and the swimming pool, but the majority — about $130,000 a year — goes straight into the general budget to spend on whatever town leaders please.
Putting an ABC store in Cashiers might hurt Sylva’s sales some. But doing so would at least keep more of the money from liquor sales in Jackson County.
And Commissioner Mark Jones believes the amount gained could be substantial.
As it stands now, he said, Highlands in Macon County and Transylvania County capture a share of the Cashiers market, as does neighboring Georgia, draining both sales tax revenue and ABC profits away from Jackson. And many second-home owners have likely gotten in the habit of buying in their home state or town before they come to the mountains.
Jones is also bothered by what he considers the unfairness of certain private clubs in the area being able to legally sell alcohol while other establishments cannot. There are loopholes in the law for private clubs or restaurants tied to a golf course, development or resort.
Several in Cashiers have capitalized on the arrangement, but they still have to buy their liquor from the lone ABC store in Sylva, logging weekly trips down the mountain to get their stock.
“It is a two hour roundtrip, and you are putting that on top of the cost of the product,”
Ultimately, it’s simply up to the county’s just more than 40,000 residents to decide, the commissioners interviewed said, and to argue the pros and cons of their decision.
“Nobody can tell me the last time Jackson County had an opportunity to vote on the issue,” Jones said. “It’s only fair to put it out to the people.”
Commissioner Elders, arguably the most traditional member of the board, said he expects some backlash to his and the board’s decision from more conservative members of the community. But, like Jones, he said that he believes it’s important that citizens be allowed to make a decision.
“The fairest way of doing anything is to put it out there,” said Elders, who owns and manages a gasoline station near Whittier on U.S. 23/74. “And let the people decide.”
It might sound simple enough, but a vote over alcohol sales isn’t a plain yes or no question. At least not to the state of North Carolina.
Voters in Jackson County may face an arsenal of questions as they wade through exactly what form of imbibing should be allowed and where. Beer, wine, liquor — or all of the above? At grocery stores and gas stations, or only sit-down restaurants? And what about a liquor store?
“If they do everything at one time, it could be a very lengthy ballot,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.
County voters will face a separate question for each type of alcohol and each way it could be sold.
Most towns that allow alcohol sales have warmed up to the idea gradually: first putting beer and wine to the test, later opening an ABC store for the public, but only recently voting in the sale of liquor drinks by bars and restaurants.
The mix of what’s allowed and what’s not can take many forms.
Dillsboro, for example, allows only beer and wine and only at restaurants. No mixed drinks, and no over-the-counter sales by gas stations or grocery stores.
The towns of Highlands and Franklin for years allowed wine, but not beer.
Meanwhile, Waynesville opened a liquor store for the public in 1967, but more than 40 years passed before you could buy a liquor drink at a bar or restaurant.
There are two ways to get an alcohol referendum on the ballot. One is a petition from 35 percent of the registered voters, a highly ambitious prospect.
The other is a vote by county commissioners to place it on the ballot.
The state Department of Transportation has agreed to pay 80 percent of the cost for a quarter-mile of sidewalks in old Cullowhee if Jackson County will chip in $9,000, or 20 percent of the overall price tag.
The DOT is building a new bridge over the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee, a short distance upstream from the existing bridge. As part of the project, the road would be rebuilt from Central Drive to about the area of the Cullowhee Café, according to County Planner Gerald Green.
While the project calls for bike lanes and sidewalks on the bridge, it did not originally include sidewalks along the rest of the new road section.
But Green told commissioners this week that DOT has agreed to put them in if the county would share a portion of the cost.
Rick Bennett, owner of Cullowhee Real Estate and a member of CuRvE, a community group working to revitalize the area, urged commissioners to help with the sidewalks.
“We think the sidewalks are a phenomenal idea,” he said, adding that the new bridge would “change the face of Cullowhee.”
He cited the low matching cost as generous “in these economic times.”
CuRvE has piggybacked on the bridge replacement to advance the idea of a riverfront park in Cullowhee. If built, the park would be multi-use, and likely include picnic tables, public beach access to the river and a boat launch. The bridge replacement, if designed properly, could facilitate the park, which in turn could jumpstart revitalization in Old Cullowhee.
Jackson commissioners, at Commissioners Mark Jones’ request, delayed a vote until fellow board member Joe Cowan could be present. The board is scheduled to make its decision at the August meeting. If commissioners do vote to pay for a portion of the sidewalks as requested, Green indicated the money would come out of next year’s fiscal year budget.
A vote of approval, County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners, would serve as “a commitment that in the future the commission would provide the funds.”
Construction is scheduled for April 2013.
In the do-you-remember, they-were-right-after-all category, the enormous popularity of Jackson County’s new library has meant finding parking at the renovated courthouse and library addition can sometimes prove a real pain.
So much so, Assistant Librarian Liz Gregg has taken to parking off the hill and walking to work, even while wearing dress shoes and slogging through wet grass. A minor inconvenience for her, she said, that frees up one additional parking space nearer the building for library patrons.
“Besides, I’m here for eight-plus hours. I need that exercise,” Gregg reasoned.
The only real problem for Gregg and others who are willing to walk to the library? The stairs from Mark Watson Park, one of the major sources of extra parking that is located below the courthouse on the backside of the hill, are not in very good shape.
“The steps are kind of crumbly,” Gregg said.
Enter the board of county commissioners, which is now considering what best it should do. County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners last month that to officially reopen the stairs from Mark Watson Park “we’ll have to put in a railing, and assess other possible repairs.”
That assessment is under way.
Also expected to help ease the parking strain is a continuing slowdown in construction work. Those final fixes that always seem to surface with a new project should continue to diminish, meaning fewer workers’ trucks and more patron parking, said head Librarian Dottie Brunette.
Air conditioning has been an ongoing problem, as have lightening strikes and simple electric surges that knock out the computer circuit boards, requiring workmen’s services.
“We’re the highest point on the hill,” Brunette said. “It’s like I’ve told people, we’ve got Lady Justice on top of the courthouse with her arm up in the air just beckoning for it.”
One day, for undetermined reasons, each punch of an elevator button triggered the security gates to sound. That made for an interesting work atmosphere, the librarian said.
But overall, the opening has been gone smoothly, Brunette said. The new library celebrated its grand opening last month. It was forced to shutdown entirely for one day after a waterline break, but otherwise, the library has been open for business when promised.
In all, 402 brand new library cards have been issued, and the library (including the grand opening celebration and subsequent programs) had 8,184 visitors in 20 days — an average daily attendance of 409 people. That compares with average daily attendance of 300 to 350 in the old library on Main Street.
“Before we ever moved up here, there were folks for various reasons and from various points of view who felt that the parking would be more limited than we would like it to be,” Brunette said.
There are two actual parking lots at the library, plus some additional spaces right out front and down off the hill.
Supporters of the courthouse site wanted a library within walking distance of downtown. Putting it there on the hill overlooking Sylva, they said, would avoid sprawl and help keep the downtown area vibrant, and give the iconic but vacant historic courthouse a community purpose.
From the get-go, however, the community and the then board of commissioners knew the site wouldn’t be perfect. There is no room for future expansion. The road winding up the courthouse hill is steep and narrow. And, of course, there is that lack of parking.
A group who wanted the library built at the Jackson Plaza touted the two-acre tract on the outskirts of town as being easier to work with, and pointed at the time to its ample parking as one highlight that should be considered.
Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said he was as surprised as anyone to learn that his name would be included on a bronze plaque destined to hang on the newly renovated courthouse and library complex. So was his fellow board member, Charles Elders, who noted last week that frankly it seemed kind of peculiar, even a tad inappropriate, to him.
That’s because during last November’s campaigns, the two Republicans and Jack Debnam, an Independent-but-conservative candidate for commission chairman, were rather free in their criticisms about expenses connected with the $8 million renovation of the old courthouse and construction of a new library annex in Sylva.
Cody was careful to note that he didn’t actually campaign directly against the new library — which, in fact, he didn’t, but he frequently questioned the cost.
Debnam said he truly couldn’t care less whether there’s a plaque or not — the library belongs to the citizens of Jackson County, he said, not to government officials.
“I don’t even know why we have to get into this self-glorification,” Debnam said.
Be that as it may, how then did it happen that two boards of commissioners are destined to have their names listed on the bronze plaque? It will list eight individuals from two Jackson County commission boards, an odd merging of the very men who waged war in one of the most bitter political battles this community can remember.
When it was done, Democrats William Shelton, Tom Massie and Brian McMahan were gone; Elders, Cody and Debnam were in.
Democrats Mark Jones and Joe Cowan are twice designated on the future plaque, because they were and are seated on both the former and current boards. The two men were not up for election last November.
“Nothing is simple in life when it comes to local politics,” County Manager Chuck Wooten wrote Architect Donnie Love in an email dated Jan. 24, which he made available to The Smoky Mountain News. “I suspect with a new board in place when the library opens they will also want to have a presence on the plaque. I’ll talk to the chairman and let you know.”
This followed a query by Love about who should make the plaque, and whether the new county manager was “comfortable with the wording, spelling etc.”
Well, no, it turned out he wasn’t. Wooten, in addition to adding the extra commissioners, removed former County Manager Ken Westmoreland’s name. It should be pointed out that he did not add his own name, either. Wooten said he simply didn’t like the idea of having a county manager, any county manager, on the plaque.
The changes did not cost the county any taxpayer money, Wooten said.
Dottie Brunette, head librarian in Jackson County, declined to comment on the library plaque, or on public speculations she was offered a Faustian deal: agree to the names being added, or risk losing library funding. Wooten flatly denied such a conversation took place.
He was, however, clearly sensitive about talk in the community concerning the plaque leading up to the library’s grand opening. The day before, on June 10, Wooten again emailed Love, querying him about the not-yet-delivered plaque:
“Could you determine when he anticipates delivery or should I pursue ordering the plaque from someone else? I’m having a temporary sign printed for this weekend to head off rumors about excluding the prior board of commissioners from a permanent sign. You know how local politics can be.”
Mary Selzer, who helped head a fundraising campaign for Friends of the Library, said Shelton, Massie and Jones were “the three commissioners who had the vision, and who got the project approved and funded, working with then County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland.
“Without their commitments and hard work, the courthouse would still be standing empty, and we would still be having discussion about where to put a library in Jackson County.”
Massie and Shelton declined to comment.
The cost to the county — and ultimately the taxpayers — for the new library complex was approximately $7.1 million. The total project budget was more than $8.6 million, but the Friends raised the $1.5 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment plus an additional $300,000 to cover campaign-fundraising expenses and to expand the library’s collection.
Selzer added in a delicate step-on-nobody’s toes straddle, “the current board of commissioners did allot money to keep the current level of services at 45 hours.”
Staff, too, was added. The library saw funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000 under the new board of commissioners. The library, Selzer noted, was the only county department that actually received a financial increase.
The delivery date for the new plaque is unknown. So, exactly, is where on the courthouse/library it will hang once it arrives.
William Shelton is off the local community college’s board of trustees after the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, instead appointed Dewayne Elders, Commissioner Charles Elders’ son.
Shelton, a Democrat, was a former Jackson County commissioner who lost his bid last November for re-election — to Elders, a Republican.
Shelton had served as a board of trustee member for Southwestern Community College since 2007.
“It was a pleasure to serve as a trustee, and now it is time for someone else to step in,” Shelton said the morning after the vote, adding he wished the SCC board the “best of luck.”
Elders, before voting, asked stand-in county Attorney David Moore (the usual attorney, Jay Coward wasn’t there) for a legal opinion.
“I don’t think this is a conflict, because I’m not going back to school, but I want to make sure before I vote,” Elders said.
Moore responded that he was not particularly prepared to answer such a question, but that in his best off-the-cuff response it was really up to Elders and the board to make that decision.
Without Elders, the board would have had a split vote, 2-2.
Asked by Chairman Jack Debnam if he wanted to abstain, Elders responded that no, he did not. And he didn’t, instead choosing to vote with Debnam (who nominated Dewayne Elders) and fellow Republican Doug Cody. Debnam is an Independent, but his votes are in line with the Republicans.
Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the law prohibits elected officials from gaining a direct personnel benefit, meaning Elders didn’t violate the state statute.
Democrat Joe Cowan spoke in favor of Shelton, alluding to the former commissioner’s leadership qualities and service. He and Democrat Mark Jones voted against Dewayne Elders.
“I’ve had a number of requests from constituents of mine that the board reappoint (Shelton),” Cowan said.
Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.
“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”
The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”
At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.
Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.
Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.
Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.
“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.
The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.
It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.
“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.
Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.
“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.
Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”
“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”
Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.
Jackson County’s new public library in Sylva kicked off in grand style, with dozens of people on hand to celebrate the grand opening on Saturday.
The library complex and the renovated courthouse cost $8 million, with the Friends of the Library raising another $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library.
The achievement, said Doug Cody, vice chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, stands as a visible symbol on the hill above Sylva as a “credit to the spirit of this community.”
Former Commissioner William Shelton, who played a critical role in helping keep the library in Sylva’s downtown area and in approving the needed funding, shied from taking much of the credit.
“It was a privilege to me to be at the right place at the right time,” Shelton said.
Shelton posited the courthouse and new library complex as a symbol of something wonderful, a place where “history, our culture and our quest for knowledge” merge.
The Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, The old courtroom was converted into an approximately 2,500-square-foot auditorium available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.
A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.
REACH of Jackson County continues to struggle financially, but fears this winter that the agency might actually shut down now seem unlikely.
The “village,” a transitional-housing complex for women escaping domestic violence, was bleeding dollars from the nonprofit organization. The complex has since been taken over by Mountain Projects, and that has certainly helped REACH’s financial outlook, said REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer.
But even more importantly, she said, REACH is a leaner, meaner, anti-domestic violence fighting machine … or something like that, anyway.
“Sometimes a crisis can get you to rethink, and I think this has put us in a place where we will be even more efficient and effective,” Roberts-Fer said.
The near financial meltdown has taken its toll, however. The projected budget for REACH this fiscal year is $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. And the staff is down, too, with nine positions slashed: half of the people who once worked for the nonprofit are gone.
What’s left, Roberts-Fer said, is the core, essential duty that rightfully belongs to an agency such as this: the ability to help victims of domestic violence during times of crisis.
The hotline is manned, the money-raising thrift shop is open, and the workers remaining for the agency are being cross-trained to handle a multitude of services. The days of specializing are over, Roberts-Fer said, and so are nice-but-not-essential services, such as long-term counseling for victims. That’s being farmed out into the community when there’s a need.
The continued viability of the nonprofit hinges on two critical points: continued grant money from a dollars-strapped state, and the ability of REACH to ride out a four- to five-month expected delay in receiving that funding. These days, North Carolina is slow to put the checks in the mail, and agencies that desire solvency have learned to stash money or use lines of credit from banks to ride out the drought that begins with each new fiscal year.
REACH, however, has no piggy bank, and no real bank that is willing to extend credit — the agency went into foreclosure proceedings with the village, subsequently missing payroll twice and even seeing the water cut off for nonpayment of bills. REACH isn’t exactly the kind of customer most banks will open their vaults to.
Money woes or not, the need for the nonprofit’s services are great; however, during fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.
Finance Director Janice Mason said the thrift shop isn’t making much money, but that it is holding its own. One positive sign is that donations are up, she said.
Roberts-Fer has warned her staff that she cannot guarantee all the hard times are over, or even that the agency might not again miss payroll. Still, she remains optimistic.
“Progress towards stability has been slow, but there is definite progress,” Roberts-Fer said.
A REACH of Jackson County fundraiser is set for Saturday, June 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley. Tickets are $75 per person. The evening includes dinner, drinks, dancing and gaming, with a special appearance by the Gamelan Ensemble. 828.631.4488 ext. 207.
The Cashiers Recreation Center is back on track following a unanimous vote this week by Jackson County commissioners to move forward with the $8 million project.
Commissioners voted to use money from the county’s fund balance instead of taking out a loan, and to hire a professional cost estimator to figure out the bottom-line price tag.
Current estimates are based on blueprints that have been on the shelf since 2006. If anything, given the crash of the construction market since then, Jackson County can anticipate a probable improvement on the original guesstimates.
The county already has spent about $3 million on the project in the past five years getting a site ready. County Manager Chuck Wooten said a fire-pump station is still needed to ensure future sprinklers have the water to operate. But otherwise, he said, the county is about ready to go through a punch (or to-do list) for that part of the project.
Cashiers’ recreation center has been a sore point for that community, which is isolated by virtue of geography. The residents in that area shoulder the bulk of Jackson County’s tax base, but often complain of seeing little return for their dollars.
The project hit environmental snags (the site is in the protected headwaters of the Chatooga River), which triggered correspondingly higher costs. The county had to pay an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with the regulatory demands.
The project almost hit another potential roadblock when Chairman Jack Debnam shied at designating the fund balance as the source of funding. He said he wanted more time to study whether the county might be better off taking out a loan. With Wooten saying commissioners couldn’t move forward at this time without detailing where they’d get the money from, and a motion from Commissioner Mark Jones, a resident of Cashiers, already on the table, Debnam voted “yes,” too.
Jackson County commissioners this week voted unanimously to keep Chuck Wooten on for at least another year as county manager. Wooten will receive an annual base salary of $120,747.96, plus benefits.
County commissioners asked Wooten in January to serve as interim manager for six months or so. He retired Jan. 1 from Western Carolina University after three decades as vice chancellor for administration and finance. He once worked as county manager for Iredell County.
Since coming on as county manager, Wooten has successfully guided a new board of commissioners — three of the five members were elected last November — through a budget, among other tasks.
Wooten indicated he doesn’t plan to make a second career as manager, though Chairman Jack Debnam joked about persuading Wooten to stay on for four more years. The contract is open-ended, which County Attorney Jay Coward said was standard for this type of agreement. Wooten serves at the pleasure of the board. For his part, Wooten is obligated to give 30-days notice if he opts to resign.
Kenneth Westmoreland was Jackson County’s manager until Wooten came aboard. Westmoreland was either pressured to leave (his version) or left of his own volition, but in the end the result was the same: the three newest commissioners, Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody, wanted a change, and Westmoreland was soon gone after the election.
Westmoreland had served as Jackson County manager for almost a decade. His actions as the county’s top leader became a campaign issue, particularly the implementation of a new pay-scale system that was targeted as too generous to long-time employees like himself.