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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.

A new National Park Service report shows that more than 14.5 million visitors spent $299 million along the Blue Ridge Parkway and in surrounding communities in 2010. That spending supported more than 4,008 jobs.

Under the same economic model, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park claims its 9 million visitors spent over $818 million in the gateway communities surrounding the Park, with 11,367 local jobs were supported by Park visitor spending.

"The people and the business owners in communities near national parks have always known their economic value," said Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis. "The Blue Ridge Parkway is clean, green fuel for the engine that drives our local economy."

The figures are included in an overall total of $12 billion spent by 281 million visitors in 394 national parks and nearby communities, which are reported in an annual, peer-reviewed, visitor spending analysis conducted by a Michigan State University professor for the National Park Service.

Most of the spending and jobs is related to lodging, food, and beverage service (52 percent) followed by other retail (29 percent); entertainment and amusements (10 percent); gas and local transportation (7 percent); and groceries (2 percent).

To download the report visit www.nature.nps.gov/socialscience/products.cfm#MGM and click on Economic Benefits to Local Communities from National Park Visitation and Payroll, 2010.

People once again lined up at the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville last week, but this time they weren't waiting for hours to see Santa Claus. Instead, they were looking for a belated Christmas gift — a job.

The mall was the site of the largest job fair in the mountains, boasting more than 1,200 open positions. About 2,000 people showed up for the event, most of them members of the 10 percent of unemployed residents of North Carolina.

An older gentleman in a grey three-piece suit looked overwhelmed as he surveyed the seemingly never-ending rows of employers and possible employees that filled a vast majority of the mall.

Barbara Darby, who helped run the event put on by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Coalition, said she was not surprised by the turnout.

SEE ALSO: Stuck in a rut: Too few jobs coming on line 

"We are well aware of the large numbers looking for work," said Darby, a member of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board.

People traveled from all around Western North Carolina — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Yancey, Madison, Polk — in search of a job or a better opportunity.

"There are really no county lines when it comes to finding jobs," said Mark Clasby, executive director of Haywood County's Economic Development Commission. "People will really commute where the jobs are."

About 15 percent of Haywood County residents travel outside the county to work, Clasby said, and at least 3,000 people commute into Haywood County for work.

The dismal job market has forced some unemployed individuals to move.

During the past year, Tonya Turner, 40, packed up her belongings and moved from Haywood County to a place in Mars Hill with her son. She is looking for "a new start," she said.

Turner has been jobless for a year and has applied for more than 20 jobs during that time. She is looking for a position as a receptionist or in medical billing and has experience as an administrative employee.


The Potential Hires

While many participants put a face and a name on WNC's more than 8 percent unemployment rate, a number of people with current jobs attended the fair looking for better benefits or for a second or third job to help pay their bills. Some proactively applied for positions, knowing they might soon receive a pink slip.

"It's time to find me something better," said Josh Grooms, a 23-year-old Canton resident.

Grooms works for a roofing company in Fletcher, near Asheville, but the benefits do not include health insurance — a costly bill to foot on one's own.

He was hopeful, however, that he would find a new job at the fair.

"They have plenty of decent jobs out here," Grooms said.

There was no age, social class or race that predominated the fair. Quickly glancing around, anyone could spot a teenager or young 20-something as well as people well into their 50s and 60s. The dress code ranged from jeans, T-shirts and boots to suits and ties.

Terry Gant — one of the baseball hat, T-shirt and jeans people — said he was looking for "anything."

The Haywood County resident is a former employee of Volvo Construction Equipment.

The Volvo plant in Asheville closed in March 2010 and shifted its operations to some of the company's other manufacturing facilities around the world.

The move left Gant and 227 other people without jobs. Gant, 46, said he hasn't worked since.

"I am just ready to get back to work," he said.

Gant has not been sitting on the sidelines waiting, however. He went back to community college and will soon have his associate's degree in industrial systems technology. The degree, plus his welding and electrical experience, will make Gant much more marketable and increase his chances of getting a job.

Like Gant, Darren and Melinda Sims, also causalities of the Volvo plant closure, decided to return to school. The out-of-work couple from Fairview won't graduate until next year but knowing the trouble they will likely face, wanted to get a head start on the job search. Darren, 41, wants to finds a job in industrial systems, and Melinda, 40, is looking for an administrative position.


A noble effort

On the outskirts of the melee at the mall were applicants such as Ken Childers from the Whittier area in Jackson County, who was filling out packets and reading information collected along the employment trail.

Childers worked at a steel mill for 27 years before starting his own trucking company in 2005 — just two years before the recession began. He was not able to sustain his business as diesel prices skyrocketed up to $4.75 a gallon in 2007.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, nonprofit research group, marked the start of the recession as December 2007. And although the group declared the downturn over as of June 2009, the U.S. is still beset with high unemployment rates and fears of a double-dip recession.

"It's tough out there," said Childers, 55. "You almost have to have two jobs today."

Similar to many fair attendees, Childers is looking for anything he can get. He is even willing to move from his family's 100-year-old farm for a job.

Childers was somewhat pessimistic about the prospect of finding something at the fair, saying there's a "lot of people for them to choose from."


The Employers

Many area businesses are wary of the economy and are only adding one or two jobs at a time.

"I think businesses are very cautious," Clasby said. But, "The economy is slowly improving overall."

With such slow growth, the addition of 35 jobs at Sonoco Plastics in Waynesville is considered a boom. In the past, that number would have been considered low.

"That is kind of a big number all of the sudden," Clasby said. "That's not the norm unfortunately."

Sonoco, which makes plastic trays for frozen food dinners, was among the more than 80 employers at the job fair.

"We are excited to be growing," said Vanessa Crouch, human resources manager at the Waynesville plant. "It's an employer's market right now."

Because the country is still experiencing high rates of unemployment and few companies hiring, employers can be more selective with whom they hire.

Sonoco received 175 applications for seven recently filled positions, Crouch said. The company is hiring only a handful of new employees at a time so as not overload itself with trainees, she said.

Among the open positions are supervisory staff, quality technicians, maintenance personnel and packers.

Amidst the many Asheville area employees at the jobs fair was Mission Health, a healthcare provider with centers throughout WNC, including Angel Medical Center in Franklin.

As of the early afternoon, Gloria Perry, a hiring specialist with Mission Health, said "easily 300" people has already visited their table.

"It breaks your heart sometimes," said Perry, whose husband is actually unemployed. "Everybody's so desperate."

As of Monday, the Mission Hospital website listed 197 available full-time and part-time positions at its various facilities in Western North Carolina — a testament to the health care field as one of the largest and fastest growing sectors of the economy. The medical group's biggest need is certified nursing assistants, Perry said, later adding that she had met many displaced or soon-to-be-certified nursing assistants at the fair.


October 2011 unemployment rates

Haywood County 8.6 percent

Jackson County 8 percent

Macon County 9.6 percent

Swain County 12 percent

Source: N.C. Employment Security Commission. October is the most recent month for which data is available.

At Carolina Readiness Supply in Waynesville you can buy freeze-dried macaroni and cheese by the 20-ounce can and a solar oven in which to warm it.

You can get a woven bracelet in a variety of fashionable colors that converts into handy lengths of cord. Then, in theory at least, you are prepared for almost anything: making simple repairs to your backpack, starting a fire with a friction bow or fashioning a ladder for an elaborate escape from some futureristic prison.

You can buy emergency kits that contain quick-assemble shelter and his-her hygiene necessities, water purification systems, lanterns of every type and variety, and 50 pounds of pinto beans packed for 25 years safe storage. You can outfit an entire library of books on survival subjects, from square-foot gardening to “Bug Out: A Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophe.”

At Carolina Readiness Supply, you can —just as the store name promises — get ready. For what exactly? Take your pick: Armageddon, if you choose; or just the winter’s inevitable big, electric-ending and roads-closing snowstorm.

“Will you be ready when the lights go out?” serves as the slogan of Carolina Readiness Supply, owned by Bill and Jan Sterrett. It’s a question that many in the region, and the nation, are now trying to answer.

There is a word in our modern lexicon for the Bill and Jan Sterretts of the world. They are dubbed “preppers.” These are people who have been made uneasy, for a variety of reasons, and who believe they need to prepare for potential huge changes: A terrorist attack, a devastating plague, a national technology failure or, perhaps, biological warfare.

Some preppers store enough food, water and supplies to last a month or two; others have much bigger plans and fears. They want to survive in whatever new reality would follow a societal collapse. They see prepping as an insurance policy of sorts: protection for themselves and their families in the event of major catastrophe — a catastrophe they hope never strikes. But if it does, they plan on being ready.

On the most extreme end, there are people in this region busy building and supplying bunkers. But the problem with bunker-builders, at least for the reporter writing on these topics, is that these are folks who aren’t particularly eager to clue others into their whereabouts and actual identities. After all, if there’s a huge crisis, you don’t exactly want to be the only place in the area identified as bunker-safe and food-ready.

 

Self-reliance is the goal

Bill Sterrett is a familiar figure in Haywood County. He retired in January 2007 as chief deputy for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department.

Sterrett does not strike an observer as the hysterical type. He speaks only after due consideration, and so softly that, in a conversation, you soon find yourself murmuring questions in return and leaning forward to hear his answers.

Sterrett described himself as a man who has a deep interest in the traditional ways of doing for oneself and one’s family, and of simple living in general.

The economy started derailing not long after Sterrett’s retirement from law enforcement. Sterrett, like many in the U.S., looked to his investments and wondered what best to do. He had considered divesting himself of property, and of buying and working a small farm, but given ever-increasing financial restraints that dream seemed an ever more remote possibility.

“I wanted to learn the old ways, and to be self reliant,” Sterrett said in explanation. “But the economy sometimes dictates what you can and cannot do. I grew concerned about the value of paper money in the bank, and felt that it would be better to convert our cash dollars into commodities.”

That led to the idea of Carolina Readiness Supply. But his wife, Jan, wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic participant in her husband’s plans, at least not initially.

“I’m like, ‘OK, whatever,’” she said. “I told him, ‘Go ahead, do what you want.’”

Then Jan Sterrett read One Second After by Montreat College Professor William R. Forstchen, a book she now sells by the hundreds to others off the bookshelves of Carolina Readiness Supply. This apocalyptic novel, a New York Times bestseller, tells the story of a man struggling to save his family and his small town in Western North Carolina after an electromagnetic pulse sends America into a post-modern version of the Dark Ages.

After that frightening, eye-opening read, Jan Sterrett was ready to get ready, too. For what, she wasn’t exactly sure, but ready Jan Sterrett planned on being. Her husband no longer sounded a solo tune; One Second After resulted in a harmonious husband-wife duet.

“I knew we had to do something,” Jan Sterrett said. “We had to.”

Jan Sterrett, in turn, sent the book to her trauma-surgeon son, who lives in Pheonix, after he asked skeptical questions about his parents’ plans post-Dad’s retirement.

“He called back after reading it and told me, ‘Now I understand,’” Jan Sterrett said, adding that her son and his medical partners are now, too, “getting ready.”

 

‘Preppers’

Troy Leatherwood might not be the exact textbook definition of a prepper, but he’s a fellow with an abiding interest in living off the land. His family did just that for six generations on their property in Jonathan Valley in Haywood County. The 56-year-old licensed contractor has subsequently made a professional living elsewhere, including selling real estate in Balsam Preserve. His brother, John, still farms the family land.

Together, the brothers want to convert part of the family spread into a subdivision for others interested in living off the land — a prepping place, if you will, for preppers.

The Leatherwoods, Troy Leatherwood said, want to form a community of like-minded individuals. People who want to learn the old ways through classes on topics such as blacksmithing, gardening and so on.

Leatherwood’s idea was rooted in observations from the Internet. He noted that a particular survival blog was receiving an amazing amount of weekly “hits,” and that “a lot of the stuff on there was what mountain people grew up with.”

A light-bulb moment, of sorts, occurred.

“We should sell and market what we know,” Troy Leatherwood told his brother, and fill an obvious and growing business niche. Make some money and help some people at the same time, he said.

John Leatherwood was agreeable. The brothers are now using 16 acres of their family’s land, divided into 10 lots. They plan on having irrigated raised beds for gardening, plus other homesteading-oriented amenities. They’ve planted fruit trees, and move-ins can help and learn on the family’s currently operating, neighboring farm, Troy Leatherwood said.

The Leatherwoods plan to work on the property over the winter. They are accepting applications now, however.

Troy Leatherwood emphasizes that he isn’t a doomsayer. But he believes even harder times could come to the U.S., and that it would be foolhardy for people not to prepare, not to be ready.

“I call it being smart enough to realize that there are real dangers out there,” he said, adding that more and more technology means an ever-increasing risk of dangers.

 

Demand is huge

The demand for goods sold at Carolina Readiness Supply seems to be increasing. Jan and Bill Sterrett moved recently from a previous location on Depot Street because they outgrew the space.

From the looks of it, they might soon outgrow the floor space of this newer store, too. The Sterretts would like to add a line of woodstoves to their offerings, and possibly other readiness supplies as well.

Jan Sterrett said that to her knowledge, there’s not another store in the Southeast quite like Carolina Readiness Supply. And the growing customer base seems to confirm that — a guestbook used to build an email network for the store indicates people coming to shop here are from across the region. But they also hail from other neighboring states: Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia.

The Sterretts are clearly enjoying their new line of work. Bill Sterrett said they are learning, too, through researching new products and determining how best to use them. It isn’t exactly the small farm he once dreamed of working, but Carolina Readiness Supply, Bill Sterrett said, is fulfilling a dream that he never quite before knew existed.

 

What it takes to prep for disaster

Here’s how much food an average family of four would need to last a year.

Wheat    175 lbs

Flour    20 lbs

Quinoa    30 lbs

Rolled Oats    50 lbs

White Rice    80 lbs

Pearled Barley    5 lbs

Spaghetti or Macaroni    40 lbs

Dry Beans    45 lbs

Dry Soy Beans    2 lbs

Dry Split Peas    2 lbs

Dry Lentils    2 lbs

Dry Soup Mix    7 lbs

Peanut Butter    1 qt

Almond Butter    1 qt

Nonfat Dry Milk    14 lbs

Granulated Sugar    40 lbs

Molasses    1 lb

Honey    3 lbs

Beef Gelatin    1 lb

Salt    8 lbs

Dry Yeast    0.5 lbs

Source: Good Earth Health Food store

During the past decade, Haywood County’s economy has seen some ups — but mostly downs.

A presentation given at the recent Haywood County Economic Development Commission meeting offers a glimpse of how the county fared before and during the recession. The decade worth of numbers presented shows drastic declines in employment and growth but little or no rebound since.

Research economist Tom Tveidt, of SYNEVA Economics in Asheville, was commissioned to do an economic trends study for Old Town Bank based in Waynesville. The study is now being shared with the community.

Sectors impacted the most by the recession were construction, manufacturing and wholesale trade. The number of construction jobs declined 34 percent during the recession, and demand for second-homes in the mountains withered. Wholesale trade and manufacturing slid by 37 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

On the bright side, manufacturing and wholesale industries have begun growing once again though have yet to bounce back completely.

Total employment in the county tumbled from almost 27,000 jobs in 2008 to about 24,850 in 2009. Employment numbers have continued to fluctuate during the past couple year but never reached more than 25,600 jobs.

The sustained decline in job opportunities may have affected Haywood County’s population numbers as well.

“That explains the people leaving,” said Kevin Ensley, a member of the Economic Development Commission after seeing the decline in jobs. Ensley is also a Haywood County Commissioner.

Haywood County residents have a little extra room compared to a couple years ago.

Its population saw a decline of a little more than 200 people in 2010, bucking an almost two decade long trend of population increases. Last year’s drop in population was the county’s first decline since 1990.

Despite the recent drop, Haywood County’s population grew by 4,802 people during the first decade of this century, and the county is ranked 55th in the state for growth.

County residents are also getting older though.

As a popular location for retirees and second homebuyers, Haywood County has historically had an aging demographic. But, in 2010, the majority of resident were reportedly in their 50s or 60s, compared to just 10 years ago when most were in their 40s and 50s.

County governments receive state and federal funding based on their projected economic and population growth. The predictions are based on past growth, such as the number of building permits issued.

Prior to 2008, the county issued an average of 32 building permits each month. That number dropped to 13 after 2008.

Haywood County has benefited monetarily from estimated growth projections in the past.

“We get over ranked” and receive additional money because the number of second homebuyers who either purchase or build homes in the county, Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said.

 

2000-2010 Population

Increased 4,802 or 8.6%

2010 population decreased 217

First decline since 1990

Total employment from 2008 to 2009

Almost 27,000 down to 24,850

Average building permits per-month

Pre 2008: 32; Post 2008: 13

It’s anybody’s guess when the Imperial Hotel in Canton will open.

The deadline for finishing renovations to the hotel, owned by outgoing Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, has continually been pushed back. The initial opening date in May turned into July, then August, with the latest target now sometime in December.

“There is just very little left to do,” said Smathers, who expects to finish renovating the hotel by the first or second week in December. “It’s just taken time, but it’s an old building.”

The renovations have been progressing in fits and starts during the past decade. Piles of bricks and other tell-tale signs of construction have been a mainstay in the yard of the downtown property for years now.

This time, however, completion really is just around the corner. If Smathers doesn’t create 15 jobs in the renovated hotel by this time next year, he will have to repay a $90,000 state grant for the project from the N.C. Rural Center.

Smathers himself will only create one of the required 15 jobs directly, however. An independent restaurant leasing space from Smathers inside the hotel will create the other 14 jobs required under the grant.

Smathers must repay a portion of the grant for each job not created.

Plans for a restaurant inside the hotel have taken a turn last week, however, with one restaurateur stepping back and another stepping in. Originally, Greg Petty, owner of the Canton Lunch Box, was going to open a restaurant in the Imperial Hotel. He expected to open this summer and even closed his other restaurant to focus his efforts on the new location.

“We closed our Canton Lunch Box in anticipation of getting this place opening on Aug. 1,” Petty said. That’s after previously touting a June opening.

Petty said the prolonged renovations were not the main reason he opted out of the Imperial locale. He said he was still planning to open the restaurant when he was approached by Sid Truesdale, who wanted to buy him out.

Truesdale said he was looking for an opportunity locally.

The goal for opening a restaurant in the hotel is New Year’s Eve, said Truesdale, calling the timeline “pretty aggressive.”

The restaurant, called Sid’s on Main, will offer “a little bit of everything,” such as steak and soups, Truesdale said.

The renovation project was about 80 percent complete in June, according to a progress report submitted to the Rural Center as a requirement of the grant. The main items remaining were painting the interior and installing a sprinkler system, bathroom fixtures, HVAC units and lighting fixtures, according to the report.

Now, the sprinkler system has been installed, as well as the light fixtures. However, workers are still inspecting the hotel’s pipes and finishing several outdoor decks or walkways, among other things.

Smathers purchased the property in 1983 with several others. During the next 15 years or so, he bought out his partners and began renovating the historic building.

The mayor said he did not know “off the top of my head” how much he has spent on the project during the last decade. However, he said the final stages of the project should cost about $180,000.

Smathers, through the Haywood County government, has obtained a two-part grant from the N.C. Rural Center to renovate the Imperial Hotel. The center awarded Smathers a $25,000 pre-development grant for architectural and engineering plans and a $90,000 grant for construction.

Smathers had to match the grant with an equal level of spending. As of Nov. 10, the remaining grant funds totaled about $4,000.

To meet the terms of the grants, the hotel must create 15 new jobs — 14 in the restaurant and one in the hotel — before November 2012 or repay part of the grant.

Canton residents and business owners said the hotel will have a positive impact on the community but are wondering how much longer they will have to wait.

“Anything that brings people downtown will help businesses,” said Julie Spivey, an area resident. “It’s taking longer than anyone expected,” she added.

Charles Rathbone, owner of Sign World WNC, said he would like to see the hotel and restaurant open for the upcoming holiday season.

“There is a lot of anticipation waiting for the opening day,” Rathbone said.

Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center has reached a critical crossroads on the eve of its 100-year mark. It’s headed toward financial insolvency, and the only thing that can save it now is a bold and aggressive makeover aimed at reclaiming dwindling guest numbers.

The Methodist institution and Haywood County landmark has struggled to stay relevant in a changing world. Lake Junaluska found itself suddenly marooned — caught off guard and with no lifeboat in sight — as the audience for its mainstay church conferences and theological retreats aged.

Meanwhile, its outdated facilities failed to keep up with the tastes and expectations of guests it could have otherwise courted to make up for the lost numbers.

Failure to change course is certain death. But the road to recovery is marked by a modicum of risk — taking on debt in order to bail itself out.

The Smoky Mountain News had a candid and open conversation with the man hired to turn the ship around, Lake Junaluska’s new executive director Jack Ewing.

SMN: So just what is Lake Junaluska’s financial status?

Jack Ewing: “The bottom line is in the last six years we have balanced our budget only once, and I am sorry to say in all probability we will end 2011 with a deficit budget as well.”

Losses have ranged from $200,000 to $400,000 a year recently out of a nearly $9 million budget. Reserves have made up the difference, but those reserves are running out, down to around $2 million.

Meanwhile, guests continue to decline. And subsidies from the Methodist church have been taken away, making the situation even worse.

Why is the conference center losing money?

The Lake has seen a 17 percent decline in overnight stays since 2007. Overnight stays are the conference center’s main source of revenue, and more than 90 percent of its hotel guests are part of a group conference or retreat held on the groups.

“We are heavily dependent on groups for revenue. It is not good for us to be heavily dependent on group business because our group business is declining. Here is another unfortunate truth about group business. A majority of our groups book two to three years in advance. The projection for 2012 is worse than the projection for 2011.”

Is there a clear road back to financial solvency?

“You might look at this and say, ‘It is bleak. You may as well shut the doors.’ It is bleak until you stand on the balcony of the Terrace Hotel and say, ‘This is unbelievable.’ The potential is great. Once we have lodging, food and meeting space that meets or exceeds our guests’ expectations, it will be so easy to sell Lake Junaluska. But, it is going to take some money. We’ve got to find some money to make it happen.”

What solution have you and the board of directors decided on?

“The world is changing. What people want is changing, and what people are willing to pay for is changing, and therefore Lake Junaluska will have to change as well. The first major challenge we have is the condition of our dining, lodging and meeting space are not of the standard that will sustain our traditional guest base nor attract a broader guest base.”

What do you mean by a larger guest base?

“We have to figure out how to optimize our leisure vacation business, because who would not want to come and stay at Lake Junaluska. We are open to people to come off the street and say ‘Can I stay at your hotel?’ They don’t have to be United Methodist, they don’t have to be part of a group. Our lodging facilities are open for people to stay.”

With an annual occupancy rate of only 26 percent, revenue simply isn’t covering the overhead of keeping the facilities open. The Lake has to increase its guest numbers, and that means tapping the vacation market and going after secular conference business.

Why didn’t the administration take action to right the ship sooner?

“It is always easy in retrospect to look at things and say ‘Why didn’t we figure this out earlier?’ I think it is a combination of several factors.” In a sense, the Lake was hit by a perfect storm that is obvious in hindsight but perhaps not so much at the time.

The traditional audience for church conferences and retreats is aging. Meanwhile, the Lake put off make-overs to guest rooms and failed to keep its facilities modern and as a result couldn’t attract new business to make up for what it was losing.

Were you hired as the turnaround guy?

In short, yes, Ewing said.

“I didn’t know the details of the challenge, but I knew the challenge.”

He took over as director of Lake Junaluska in January following the 11-year tenure of former director Jimmy Carr.

Ewing comes from a background in college education, serving as the president of two Methodist colleges during 16 years. He equates his role now with his role at Dakota Wesleyan University, where there hadn’t been a balanced budget in 10 years and a sense of hopelessness had set in before Ewing arrived.

“It is amazing how a sense of hope helps both the employees of and organization and the supporters of an organization. I am trying to give hope. It is not a pie in the sky hope, it is real.”

Lake Junaluska was dealt a major blow four years ago when the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church began phasing out $1 million in annual subsidies for operations. How is that going?

“Hear me loud and clear: we are exceedingly grateful for the funding the church has provided us. The church has made it possible for us to remain in business.”

The loss of that funding, however, was major.

“That is a huge challenge for us going forward. It is the crisis that helps us to focus our efforts and energy going forward.”

Why are fewer groups booking conferences at Lake Junaluska?

Part of the problem is the traditional demographic that attended Methodist conferences.

“United Methodists are aging and are not being replaced by younger people attending events. They are either dying or they are not physically capable of coming. We are going to have a very focused effort on trying to attract children, youth and their parents.

How do we get those young people to come to Lake Junaluska?

It is going to require us to think differently. The playground built 35 years ago may not be the right playground for children today.” The same for other athletic and recreation facilities.

Where will you pick up extra business if Methodist conference attendance is dropping?

“We are going to have to attract some secular business.”

Lake Junaluska plans to heavily market itself as an ideal retreat and conference venue to the non-profit world.

But the Lake also hopes to pick up business from individual guests who just want to come on vacation to Lake Junaluska. Right now, only 10 percent of guests staying at the lake are simply vacationers unconnected to a conference or group. That has to increase for the operations viable.

What does Lake Junaluska have going for it as a conference and retreat center, or vacation destination for that matter?

“What makes Lake Junaluska so spectacular are the outdoors spaces. The lake is by far our greatest asset. We have got to take care of it, we have got to invest in it. We have to make sure we are protecting our shore and our water quality. All our renovated facilities on the lake need to engage with the lake.”

How much will renovations and new facilities cost?

About $20 to $30 million. But it’s sizably less than a master plan for the lake created three years ago, with a price tag of twice that amount.

What role will fundraising play?

“I think we can raise half of that money. There’s a lot of people who have money who want to give it to Lake Junaluska, they just don’t know it yet.

“Because of the incredible experience people have had at Lake Junaluska over the years, when we tell the story and give specific examples of how a gift can impact the future of Lake Junaluska, they will want to give.

“It is really beautiful when you can sit down and say, ‘Here is what we are trying to accomplish’ and connect with the need all of us have to be a part of something significant beyond ourselves. They are ready to give but they want to know what we are going to do.”

Where will the rest of the money come from?

“We are going to have to borrow some money in order to make this happen.”

Ewing hopes to take out a traditional loan from a financial institution, but as for collateral, that “is an existing question we would have to look at.”

The lake has undeveloped land it could put up for collateral rather than the facility they are taking out a construction loan for. To pay back the loan, the Lake will need to net more each year than it spends on operations — not only erase its deficit but actually create a positive balance sheet — to make the loan payments.

The lake only has $2.5 million in current debt.

What if the extra business you are banking on doesn’t materialize after taking on the debt?

“Who has ever been successful in their lives from an entrepreneurial perspective if they haven’t taken the risk?”

But in this case, Ewing sees the risk as almost nil.

“We have confidence this will happen.”

Stuart Auditorium is old as Lake Junaluska itself, originally little more than a canvas roof over a tent frame, holding the very first Methodist sermons when the institution was founded in the early 1900s. What will become of this large lakeshore venue?

“When Stuart was built in 1913 it was not intended to last for two centuries.”

It isn’t big enough — it seats 2,000 but really the Lake needs a venue for closer to 3,000. It has exorbitant heating and cooling costs. It doesn’t meet modern audio-visual standards. In short, it might be torn down, although complete overhaul isn’t out of the question.

“Stuart is a place people love. While I strongly desire us to have a facility that meets our need going forward, if it can be done by preserving the current facility, great. But what is most important is to have a forward-looking building.”

Whatever is built back in Stuart’s place will have the same signature look of a giant revival tent.

“If we replace it, people will know it is Stuart Auditorium. It would be a newer version, a 21st century building that meets our space needs going forward. Stuart will be the signature building going forward for the next 100 years.”

What else could face the wrecking ball?

The Harrell Center falls dismally short as the primary meeting space on the grounds and fails to accommodate the needs of groups coming to the Lake. A new Harrell Center will be outfitted with flexible meeting space and will tie in with the new Stuart Auditorium next door — as well as integrate with the underutilized lake shore.

A new Harrell Center would be able to host a 400-person banquet. The largest banquet space on the grounds now is 150.

Jones Cafeteria is also on the short list, but like Stuart, could be fixed with a major, major renovation instead of complete tear down.

What about the Terrace?

Ewing called the Terrace an unfortunate example of the “architecture du jour” syndrome. It looked great in the 1970s — but the fleeting look didn’t last.

The Terrace needs façade work to make it more attractive from the outside, new furnishings in all the guest rooms, and complete gutting of the guest room bathrooms.

It is terribly dated. Most hotels update their rooms every five to seven years. It’s never been done at the Terrace since it opened in 1977, and people aren’t getting the value of what they are paying now, Ewing said. A major interior renovation is in the cards.

Any plans for the Lambuth?

Ewing wants to transform the stately inn into a “grand hotel experience.”

“I like to think about it being Greenbrier like. People will want to come to Lake Junaluska to stay at Lambuth Inn.”

Renovations will make it into a luxury hotel, although not with the luxury price tag.

What’s the time line?

Everything must be finished in five years. The Terrace will likely come first, then the Harrell Center, then Stuart, then the Lambuth.

How did you decide what needed fixing most?

“How do we strategically invest in things that will be revenue producing? We cannot be spending money on things that will not have a return on investment.”

A strategic planning committee in concert with the board of directors for the lake developed the master plan for what had to be done. Also, a facility audit of every building at Lake Junaluska was prepared by an outside firm with the help of a local architect.

What will you do about the deficits until the Lake’s new image and facilities start to bring in increased revenue?

The Lake will balance its budget starting in 2012. It has to come up with at least half a million to do so — enough to cover the $200,000 to $300,000 operational deficit it has been running and to cover the last $250,000 in subsidies from the church that will be phased out next year.

“Everybody on the staff has been challenged to think of ways to optimize revenue and control expenses.”

If demand doesn’t justify keeping all the buildings open, why not shut some down?

“We have the same number of facilities open today as we had 10 years ago. We may have to in the short-term ‘right size’ the organization before we can grow bigger and grow stronger. We may have to shut down some buildings.”

In fact, the Lake has been shutting down the Lambuth Inn – and occasionally even the Terrace – during slow weeks in the winter for a few years already.

“It is not new. We are just trying to be a little bit more strategic in the way that we do that. But it isn’t what we want to do long term.”

Has Lake Junaluska considered offering alcohol to appeal to a broader market and younger demographic? Or at least allowing it under special use permits?

“There is nothing in this plan about serving alcohol to attract groups from the outside. There are plenty of groups that would love to come that do not expect or need to have alcohol. We are planning this future with a clear understanding and commitment of Lake Junaluska as a place that does not include alcohol.”

Besides, the property deeds that govern facilities at Lake Junaluska ban alcohol.

“So at this point it is a moot issue. There may be a need for that issue to be evaluated at some point in the future, but it is not part of our planning process.”

Is charging for a grounds pass on the table, rather than allowing free public access to the walking trail, rose walk and gardens, playground and other recreation sites?

“The way I am approaching that is not from the perspective of charging people to come but giving people the opportunity to spend money when they arrive. There is a tremendous opportunity for a place where we are not charging somebody for the experience but giving people an opportunity to get something they want and that will be beneficial for us.”

This means ice cream, coffee, sandwiches and retail — perhaps by vendors but perhaps food ventures run by the lake itself. Ewing envisions a plaza lakeside around the new Stuart Auditorium.

Once you hit the Haywood County line after heading west on Interstate 40 out of Asheville, Western Carolina University is the acknowledged cultural focal point for all the remaining seven counties in this southwestern corner of our great state. We expect vision and smarts from university leaders, the professors and the students it graduates. We expect those same leaders to value the culture and history of this region, and to help us preserve, protect and brag about our assets.

That’s why it is refreshing to see new Chancellor David Belcher re-start a strategic planning process that he hopes will help steer the university as it deals with the new realities of state budget cuts and other financial challenges.

Many in this region take for granted the gem that we have in WCU. All it takes, though, is a roll call in our public schools and community colleges, small businesses, financial institutions, arts communities and the local governments to see the impact of this university. Its graduates are our leaders, particularly in the seven western counties. WCU and this region are inseparable.

I think the university recognizes this special relationship, though some of its leaders have placed a higher value on it than others. As long as these ties remain strong and grow even deeper, both the university and the region will be better off.

•••

Town Public Works Director Fred Baker. Town Planner Paul Benson. Planning board member Ron Reid. Concerned citizens like Bicycle Haywood’s Cecil Yount. Realtor Brian Noland.

That’s a short list of those who think the state Department of Transportation’s initial plan for Waynesville’s South Main Street does not fit what Waynesville needs. We offer our wholehearted support to those who want something better than a four-lane road with a raised median.

By the time this edition of The Smoky Mountain News hits the streets, a community brainstorming session to gather ideas for the road will be in the history books (it was held Sept. 20). But that doesn’t mean those who want something better shouldn’t continue to let those in charge know exactly how they feel.

Those who want to maintain the character of Waynesville while still allowing Wal-Marts and Best Buys are asking for a smaller road — three lanes at most — with roundabouts instead of traffic lights, bike lanes, and trees between the road and the sidewalks. This is the vision laid out in the Waynesville’s comprehensive land-use plan, and it’s one I believe a majority of citizens want.

Many of us who argue for smart growth have been in this situation too many times: disagreeing with DOT and seeking a compromise that is about more than just moving cars quickly from one spot to another. In this case Waynesville has had to spend its own money to hire a traffic consultant in hopes it can convince the state bureaucracy that it knows what is best for its own community. It’s frustrating to be in the same position again and again.

But it’s a good fight, one worth all the time and energy we can give it. When roads are done wrong — Russ Avenue in Waynesville, N.C. 107 in Sylva — the problems linger for many, many years. Getting it right on the front end is critical.

•••

Our cover story last week on Macon County’s Phil Drake and his business success (“Seizing Opportunity,” www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/5066) ran at a time when there is great controversy in this country about how best to nurture the economy and shake the lingering recession.

Drake is a local example of someone taking a small family business and growing it exponentially, taking some lumps along with way but finding his way through problems. Just as important as his business success, though, is the commitment to Macon County and Western North Carolina shown by Drake, his family, and his network of businesses.

The global economy has brought riches to many people and lifted many from poverty to the middle class. At the same, however, it has robbed many communities of the ability to control their own destinies. Decisions made in boardrooms thousands of miles away take jobs from thousands, leaving families and communities to pick up the pieces.

The “buy local, shop local, do business locally” concept can only go so far, but we in this region can help lift ourselves up by pushing it to its limits. It’s easy to shop with the big boys and to buy stuff over the internet, but in most cases it doesn’t do as much to help your neighbor.

Phil Drake is proving that doing business locally when possible can lead to great successes. Whether you’re a consumer or a businessperson, there’s never been a more important time to take that lesson to heart.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

You know economic times are tough when the business that helps other businesses thrive shuts its doors, too.

The Mountain BizWorks office in Sylva, which serves would-be entrepreneurs and other small business owners in the state’s seven westernmost counties, will close next June.

Shaw Canale, executive director of the group, emphasized this is “a pause” by the group, not a full stop or retrenchment. Mountain BizWorks, headquartered in Asheville, has maintained a physical presence via the Sylva office in the westernmost counties for more than a decade.

“We need to figure out, how do we deliver what we need to deliver into very rural communities?” Canale said. “What’s the real impact we are having, and how do we measure that?”

Bottom line, financial issues forced the closure. The decision to close the Sylva office was made “carefully and systematically,” Canale said. “This very difficult decision was made to ensure that in time Mountain BizWorks can achieve a level of self-sufficiency that will assure that we remain financially healthy.”

One full-time staffer and one part-time staffer, as well as workshop leaders and business coaches hired on a contract basis, will lose jobs as a result of the shutdown in Sylva.

Resource specialist Sheryl Rudd is the part-time staffer at Mountain BizWorks. She and her husband, Dieter Kuhn, started Heinzelmannchen Brewery eight years ago with the help from the nonprofit where Rudd now works. She said Kuhn went through an eight-week course provided by the nonprofit to help determine whether a craft brewery could be successful in Sylva. Kuhn developed a business plan and figured out how to market the product he wanted to produce.

“It was critical,” Rudd said, “to deciding is this going to work, is it not going to work.”

Rudd and Kuhn also relied on Mountain BizWorks for a loan that, coupled with personal funding and investor dollars, allowed them to launch Heinzelmannchen Brewery. Rudd worries whether future entrepreneurs in the area will be able to find similar support in years to come.

Rudd said as the economy soured and grant dollars became increasingly difficult to attain, Mountain BizWorks found itself competing for an ever-smaller pot of money with organizations that provide food, clothing and utility-payment help.

“Of course if it comes down to helping small businesses or feeding someone, you are going to choose to feed someone,” Rudd said, adding that such an obvious need, however, does not mean small-business owners don’t deserve help.

The loss of Mountain BizWork’s local presence also worries and saddens Annie Ritota, who with husband, Joe, owns Annie’s Naturally Bakery in Sylva. The wholesale side of the bakery is based in Asheville.

The Ritotas turned to Mountain BizWorks for help about four years ago. The business, founded in 1999 in the couple’s garage, had grown into a success story “but we’d sort of lost our focus,” Annie Ritota said.

“They helped right our ship and get it turned in the correct direction,” she said. “We were at a place where we weren’t sure where we were going.”

Mountain BizWorks helped the bakery reduce the line of products offered, plus helped resolve cash flow and bookkeeping issues. Ritota said after that positive experience, she often recommends new business owners avail themselves of the nonprofit’s expertise.

Now, Mountain BizWorks has similar anxieties regarding its own purpose and focus. “We are not getting the type impact we want to see,” Canale said. “We want to do things in a much more thoughtful, durable way.”

“There are times when the best decision to make is to stop doing what you’re doing and to give yourself a clear space for reconsidering what to do,” she said. “That’s the situation we’re in now  — the answer is not to try harder and do more, but to stop and think and be sure that whatever we do next is right and that we can support and sustain our work.”

Canale said there is definitely a huge and growing interest in agriculture options in the western counties, as well as across Western North Carolina. Agriculture might well provide at least one area where Mountain BizWorks can continue to serve this section of the region.

Rudd said 35 people attended a workshop recently in Sylva, hosted by Mountain BizWorks, on forest-farm products.

The group is working on a three-year ag-biz pilot project to determine whether, and how, Mountain BizWorks would be helpful to small family farms in Western North Carolina.

Phil Drake acknowledges that he has two kinds of enterprises. There are those launched or purchased for strategic business reasons; others he owns to ensure family members in Macon County have places to work.

Drake has a lot of family, and he owns a lot of businesses: some 18 or so under the Drake Enterprises umbrella alone. These include a tax software company, an internet company, a performing arts center and a printing press.

Here’s how Drake and Drake Enterprises work, in what’s virtually a textbook model of a business practice dubbed “vertical integration,” or expanding within the core company’s supply chain of operations:

• Drake Enterprises was responsible for 75 percent of the work at Macon Printing in Franklin. Drake, once alerted to that fact by the shop’s owners, bought the business.

• Drake needed more reliable internet service than was available in WNC, so he joined with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to create BalsamWest FiberNet. The company, headquartered in Sylva, has built 225 miles of underground fiber in Western North Carolina.

• Drake Enterprises had extensive marketing needs; Drake launched PRemiere Marketing in response. PRemiere serves as an in-house marketing service for Drake Enterprises, plus handle advertising and marketing for “outside” companies.

• Drake’s companies use computers extensively. Today he owns TechPlace outlets in both Franklin and Hayesville, specializing in computer and cell-phone sales and repairs.

Not bad for a boy from Franklin whose mother used to come home from work with bloody fingers from making denim jeans for Wrangler at the local factory. These days, Drake owns that place, too — he turned the 56,000-square-foot building into a “Fun Factory” for kids, complete with arcade games and a go-cart track.

 

Buying into the Drake dream

More than 500 people work for Drake. Key employees, those he wants to keep in the company for life, are encouraged to buy stock in Drake Enterprises using money Drake loans them. These employees now own 10 percent of the company.

“I picked employees who are loyal, have the same vision I do, and who don’t have an exit strategy,” Drake said. “I hope to work there until I die; the employees I picked, I hope they’ll work there until they die.”

With that many employees, there are that many people in WNC who owe Drake their comforts and livelihoods. His legion of supporters view Drake as a man who takes care of family and community, pays his dues and debts, and gives proper homage to God.

“He has worked very hard for what he’s got,” said Ronnie Beale, a Franklin native and Democratic county commissioner who owns and operates a construction company in Macon County. “We might differ politically on some things, but Phil has a heart for Macon County and its people.”

Drake would like to branch out of the private sector and serve in Congress. To date, however, his wife has made it clear she’d rather he not. Drake was equally clear in a recent talk in Asheville to area business owners about his intention of honoring her wishes.

Don’t count Drake out of politics too quickly, however. When you examine his history, this is a man who has managed to do pretty much whatever he’s wanted, one way or another. Through sheer perseverance, an uncompromising business intellect and an almost uncanny ability to time his business deals, Drake has prospered, and the extended Drake family has prospered right along with him.

“If I can create a job, make a little money or break even, I’ll do it,” Drake said. “God put me in the right place at the right time, and I really hit a homerun in software. On some of these other businesses, I’ve gotten some singles and some doubles. I’m still out there trying to find that next homerun.”

 

From bankruptcy to wealth

Drake’s rags-to-riches, Horatio Alger Jr.- type tale takes something of an odd turn in 1981, when shortly before the age of 30 he plunged into bankruptcy. Drake, a proponent of small government who has spoken at area Tea Party venues, was forced to rely on food stamps to help feed his family. Today he expresses gratefulness for that particular program of the federal government.

Drake grew up on a farm. He went to Davidson College after graduating from Franklin High School, and then headed into neighboring South Carolina. Drake taught high school math for three years in that state before deciding he couldn’t support a family on take-home pay of $425 a month.

Drake returned to Franklin in 1976 and joined his father in the family tax business. These were the days when taxes were done with pencil and calculator — pre-computer and pre-computer tax programs. Drake said he just knew there had to be a better way of preparing people’s taxes.

Drake bought an IBM computer for $22,385 in 1977 using borrowed money. At his son’s urging, his father mortgaged a piece of property to cover the cost. Drake was confident he could program the new computer — which, in fact, he did. Drake developed an accounting program that he was soon selling to other accountants.

He remembers boasting to his wife, “I’m going to be a millionaire by the time I’m 30.”

There was one problem with Drake’s plan, however. Each year the computer needed updating. The updates required new, expensive computers — not the relatively cheap, internal fixes you’d get today. Drake kept borrowing and buying new, expensive computers.

“I was $100,000 in debt just from buying computers,” he said.

Then he left the state and went to Kansas City for a time to help another company automate its tax service, putting faith in an on-site manager to take care of his business at home.

That didn’t happen. The Internal Revenue Service didn’t get its due in the form of payroll taxes. One day a federal agent informed Drake the IRS planned to padlock the family’s office door and seize their business equipment if the government didn’t get its money.

Drake didn’t have that kind of cash. He instead drove to Asheville, retained an attorney, and filed for bankruptcy.

Time seems to have helped heal the sting of that decision, and there’s clearly balm on the wound from having, Drake emphasized, paid back every dime to every creditor involved. He estimated that took about six years.

Drake described learning some hard lessons during those times. About not using money you don’t have, and about not getting out on a limb and sawing it off behind yourself.

“You know the only thing my wife and I could talk about then? Money. We didn’t have any, and that’s all I could talk about,” Drake said.

He’s self-critical, too, of the 100-hour weeks he once worked, remembering tearfully how one of his three children begged him over the phone, “Daddy, please come home.” Drake described his younger, driven self as “ornery,” a perfectionist who had difficulty letting workers write some of the most basic software code the business needed.

Now, he said, he hires good people and gets out of their way.

“I’m getting easier to work for,” Drake said.

And, he turned to his faith.

“This was a life-changing experience for me,” Drake wrote of the bankruptcy in an article published by the National Christian Foundation, on whose board he serves. “I came to the place where I finally said, ‘God, I’ve messed this up. From now on, I’ll manage your business, and Lord, would you manage mine?’”

The National Christian Foundation is based in Atlanta, Ga. It is the largest Christian grant-making group in the world, self-reporting that it has received more than $4 billion in contributions since 1982 and given more than $2.5 billion in grants to thousands of churches, ministries, and nonprofits. While board members such as Drake are technically elected each year, they are expected to serve for life.

 

An ‘angel’ investor

In a downward spiraling economy that has seen countless businesses go under, Drake has instead thrived — these days he’s emerging as a self-described “angel investor,” a man with enough money at his command to select only those investments that interest him. He likes to buy-in low, on the promise that the sellers will get their money back, and more, if the targeted business turns around. That minimizes his risk, and promotes cooperation to get the invested-in business moving in the right direction.

“We don’t pay more than we can sell it for tomorrow,” Drake said.

Bob Dunn, director of consulting for Mountain BizWorks, said Drake motivates companies he invests money into.

“His deals are tough love, but they have an attainable upside,” Dunn said.

Cecil Groves, a former president of Southwestern Community College who is overseeing BalsamWest for Drake and the Eastern Band, described Drake as a man who reaches business decisions quickly and decisively. Groves also sees Sharon Drake as a true partner of her husband, in every sense of the word, including in the business side of his life. Sharon Drake handled accounting and human resources for Drake Enterprises for two decades.

In addition to an ability to sift through facts and data quickly, Phil Drake has that near perfect pitch when it comes to timing on business deals. He was among the first in the nation to start filing taxes electronically, for example.

Drake is also a stickler for customer service — in January, just as the tax season kicks off, his business gets 14,000 to 15,000 calls a day from customers needing support using his tax software. Drake has call centers in both Sylva and Hayesville.

He expects the support line to be answered in three rings, an eight-second wait on average. This, Drake said, compares to the 45-minute wait time of some competitors.

Ron Haven, a Republican commissioner in Macon County, is an unabashed fan of Drake’s and of the business empire he’s built.

“He could have picked up and moved everything away,” Haven said. “But he’s stayed here instead in Macon County, and helped this community.”

 

Drake’s political future, if there is one

On YouTube there’s a video from an April 16, 2009, Tea Party event in Franklin featuring Drake. He sounds familiar Tea Party themes, such as: “you cannot legislate the poor into prosperity; you cannot borrow your way out of debt;” “If you take the resources from successful companies and reward those that are failing, that’s a picture of our bailout, and that’s unacceptable.”

For the most part, Drake appears on the video reasonably polished and smooth during this minor political foray. But there’s an awkward intellectual straddle when he attempts to pin the U.S. deficit, in large part, directly on abortion, which as a fundamentalist Christian, he strongly opposes.

“We have killed 30 million people who could work today and pay into the social security administration,” he told the crowd.

Drake said though he certainly would love to serve in Congress, he’s not really willing to run.

“I think I’d have some trouble,” Drake said. “I’m somewhere to the right of Jesse Helms. So getting elected might prove tough.”

 

The Drake empire:

• Drake Income Tax and Accounting: founded by Phil Drake’s father in 1954, Drake sold it to employees in 2004 for $1 on the 50th anniversary of the business’ founding.

• Drake Software: Software for accountants and tax preparers. Headquartered in Franklin, with additional call centers in Sylva and Hayesville.

• WPFJ Radio: Commercial AM station, Christian programming, in Franklin. Donated this year to Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, a Christian college. The move will save Drake Enterprises $50,000 a year, Drake said, and the college plans to continue with the same Christian-based music and programs.

• WNCSportsZone: Sports equipment and athletic shoes and apparel. Stores in Franklin and Waynesville.

• Dalton’s Christian Bookstore: Stores in Franklin and Waynesville.

• Macon Printing: A commercial printer in Franklin. Publishes The Real Estate Buyers Guide in five communities.

• PRemiere Marketing: Advertising and marketing agency based in Franklin.

• Franklin Golf Course: Nine-hole public golf course, driving range, pool.

• DNET Internet Services: Dial-up, DSL, wireless, webhosting. Based in Franklin.

• BalsamWest FiberNet: A partner with the Eastern Band in building underground fiber.

• TechPlace: Computer and cell-phone sales and repair, stores in Franklin and Hayesville.

• The Fun Factory: Family entertainment center in Franklin. Includes the Pizza Factory and The Boiler Room Steakhouse in the same building.

• The Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts: 1,500-seat theater in Franklin, with orchestra pit and full staging; 80 events per year.

• EPS Financial: Process banking transactions and debit-card transactions. Based in Easton, Pa.

• GruntWorx: Converts scanned documents into readable and searchable PDFs and can import data into tax software. Originally based in Massachusetts, Drake moved the company to Derry, N.H.

• Stellar Financial: Drake is an investor in this Stroudsburg, Pa., company providing software and integrated management services for nonprofit donors.

• Sylvan Sport: Drake is an investor in a Brevard-based company that builds the “GO,” a camper.

• Galaxy Digital: Drake is an investor in this Asheville company that creates digital campaigns and works on web communications.

• Drake Capital: Drake is a partner in this Matthews-based real-estate acquisition and development company.

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