News Headlines

Sylva has a new town manager. Paige Roberson, 25, was promoted last week by the town board to the top leadership position.

Roberson has clearly impressed the town after stepping in to a part-time job as the director of the Downtown Sylva Association last summer.

Mayor Maurice Moody said that he believes Roberson will do an outstanding job for the town.

“I think she’s very well qualified — she’s a smart young lady,” Moody said. “The entire board is satisfied with this selection.”

Roberson, who last year graduated from Western Carolina University’s master in public affairs program, grew up in Sylva. Her mother was a long-time elementary teacher at Cullowhee Valley. Her father inherited the family’s hardware store, Roberson’s Supply, which was started by her grandfather. The family closed the store upon learning Lowe’s was coming to town. It had already been struggling since Walmart had opened, and the family decided surviving in Lowe’s shadow would be near impossible.

Roberson has a fierce appreciation for small businesses. Helping the business community of Sylva is going to be one of her passions.

Roberson hopes to bring a long-range approach to all of the town’s affairs. Lately, the town has been managed from year to year, without enough attention to where it is headed.

“We need to take a long-term approach to everything — projects, budgeting, ordinances,” Roberson said, identifying that as the town’s biggest challenge. “You have to plan with foresight. I think part of that comes from living here as long as I have. I think I am able to see the long term. ”

Moody said Roberson’s ties to Sylva “give her a leg up.” That, however, was not the deciding factor in her selection, he said.

“She does have a relationship with the community, but I think qualifications are more important than being local, though being a local individual does help.”

For her part, Roberson described herself as excited to be serving her hometown, although she admits she never thought when pursuing a career in public policy she would find herself at the head of her own hometown.

“I’m eager to do it,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel apprehension about her lack of experience because the town has other veteran department heads.

The former town manager, Adrienne Isenhower, was forced to resign in September of last year after just a couple of years on the job. The town had brought in an interim town manager, Mike Morgan, who had recently retired from a long tenure as the town manager of Weaverville. Morgan was able to step in quickly to the role, but was commuting from Weaverville and was not interested in the job on a permanent basis.

Roberson will attend county and city manager training for eight months through the N.C. School of Government, one week a month, starting in September. During that time Morgan will continue as a consultant to the town to help bridge the gap.

Before taking a fulltime position with Sylva, Roberson worked in the Jackson County Planning Department.

Roberson went to undergraduate school at N.C. State, where she majored in economics. She planned to go to law school, with the intention of going into public policy. But during college, she interned three summers for N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, in the General Assembly in Raleigh, and decided not to go to law school but instead get her masters in public affairs. She went through the two-year masters program in public policy and public affairs at WCU.

Her final semester, she was involved in the Cashiers comprehensive community planning project as an intern for the Jackson County planning department. In a case of opportune timing, she graduated just as the town was looking for a part-time director for the Downtown Sylva Association. The DSA had just been brought under the auspices of the town, and she was given a part-time job with the county planning department and worked for both the town and county.

In short order, however, the town promoted her to the role of assistant to the town manager and made her fulltime, before eventually selecting her as its new manager.

Roberson, in addition to her town manager’s duties, will continue in dual roles as Main Street director and head of economic development for the town.

“As a manager I hope to be proactive, fair, and consistent,” Roberson said. “By doing this and keeping the future in mind I will be able to serve Sylva effectively. I’m honored to be hired for this position. I love this community. I feel that my community knowledge and experiences being raised here will give me a good starting point.”

In the two years since the Dillsboro Dam was torn down, the Tuckasegee River has become home to a growing number of aquatic species, from mussels to insects to fish, as natural river habitat has been restored.

“We’re certainly glad that it’s gone,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Mark Cantrell said last week. “The response was immediate.”

Duke Energy demolished the 12-foot high, 310-foot long dam in February 2010 as environmental mitigation for several other larger dams it operates in the region. Jackson County battled for seven years to keep the dam. It wanted to make the dam a centerpiece of a new public park and promenade, complete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. Plus, the county argued the dam was historically important to the community.

Duke, however, succeeded in removing the small and ancient dam as compensation for using the Tuck in its lucrative hydropower operations, which net the utility millions annually.

Duke’s contention that the river would be better off environmentally without the Dillsboro dam does seem to have come true, according to Cantrell.

“What we’re seeing now is the rebirth of that section of river and a confirmation of the decision to remove it. There’s no question about it — if you are an angler, boater, fish or bug, the Tuckasegee River is better with the Dillsboro Dam removed,” he said.

Jackson County trout fisherman Craig Green said that he supported the removal of the dam and has been happy to see the river return to its natural free-flowing state.

“Recovery is a strange word — it wasn’t that things were bad, but clearly the dam removal has enhanced the flow for the fish to move back and forth,” said Green, who is a past president of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River.

A tourist attraction

Cantrell described the physical shape of the former river as coming back in “a really impressive” manner.

The dam had turned a nearly mile-long stretch of the river behind it into a slow-moving backwater. The backwater was 310 feet wide — the same width as the dam — but the natural river bed is just 50 or so feet wide.

To Mark Singleton, a paddler in Sylva, the removal of the dam “was like unwrapping a big old Christmas present.” He couldn’t wait to see what the river’s natural contour would be like once it returned to its true form.

With the dam gone, boaters discovered a natural rock ledge below the surface where the dam used to be. The ledge doesn’t deter experienced kayakers, he said, but it is a bit too challenging for beginning boaters to use, so most bypass that section.

“It doesn’t get paddled a lot,” said Singleton, the director of American Whitewater, a national paddling and river advocacy group based in Sylva.

As part of the mitigation, Duke Energy was required to build a public river access just upstream from the former dam site. On one side of the river, there is a parking area, restrooms and a boat put-in. On the other side is a more primitive parking lot used mainly by fishermen.

James Jackson, owner of Tuckasegee Outfitters, said the removal of the dam and the subsequent growth in visitors coming to raft has been measureable. He estimated yearly business growth of 10 to 15 percent in terms of visitation.

“I think it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jackson County,” Jackson said of rafting on the Tuckasegee.

The recovery to date

By removing Dillsboro Dam, river species that had vacated the mile-long backwater behind the dam have now returned.

“One of a dam’s great impacts on a river is changing the area behind it from a free-flowing river to a reservoir, typically unsuitable habitat for most native stream species,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said the dam acted as a barrier for a number of fish species, some that needed to go upriver to spawn. The sluggish water previously held behind the dam also acted as a barrier to certain fish, he said.

Twice a year in 2008, 2010 and 2011, biologists such as Cantrell monitored fish and other aquatic life, providing a before-and-after picture of how dam removal affected the river, especially at the site of the former backwater.

A species considered foremost during dam removal discussions was the Appalachian elktoe, a federally endangered mussel found only in Western North Carolina and a sliver of East Tennessee. The elktoe did not exist in the pooled-up backwater behind the dam, but monitoring has now found more than 140 elktoe mussels in the stretch, a sign the previously bisected population will reconnect, strengthening its long-term viability.

Before removal, the reservoir area was home to a diminished variety of macroinvertebrates. These insects, crayfish, and other animals without backbones form much of the life in a stream ecosystem. Just more than a year after the removal, macroinvertebrate diversity had increased, on par with sites upstream and downstream of the reservoir site. Among macroinvertebrates, biologists often pay special attention to mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, which tend to be sensitive to water quality and are indicators of stream health.

Following removal, the diversity of these three insect groups increased dramatically in the former reservoir area — from a monitoring low of only two types in October 2008 to a high of 40 in May 2011. Using macroinvertebrate numbers and diversity as a measure of stream health, their return lifted this stretch of river from a “poor” quality rating in 2008 to a “good” ranking in May 2011.

“It all seems to be right on track,” Cantrell said.

As expected, fish diversity has responded somewhat more slowly to the dam removal, though biologists have noted the fish community is shifting to one typical of a Western North Carolina river, and the number of fish species dependent on flowing water is increasing. Additionally, in May 2011, biologists found an olive darter, a species of conservation concern for state and federal biologists, upstream of the dam site for the first time. The discovery could mean the fish took advantage of the dam’s removal to expand its range into upstream habitat.

Biologists also made an encouraging discovery downstream of the dam site. For several days in 2008 and 2009, biologists scoured the river downstream of the dam searching for mussels. They uncovered 1,137 Appalachian elktoes, which were all systematically tagged and moved upstream, away from potential harm from the demolition.

“Regarding the health and well-being of the Tuckasegee River, removing Dillsboro Dam has been a success,” said Hugh Barwick, Duke Energy biologist who managed the dam removal and biological monitoring. “The removal was a positive step in improving aquatic life in the Tuckasegee River in the vicinity of the former dam and reservoir.”

Tee Coker and his company recently learned firsthand something they probably already suspected about creating brands and taglines for towns. Forget about pleasing everyone: it can be an insurmountable challenge to please anyone at all when it comes to developing exactly the right slogan for a community.

“It turned out a tagline wasn’t something Highlands either wanted or needed,” Coker said, perhaps reminded about Coca-Cola and its legendary public-relations disaster with “new Coke.”

Coker and his marketing consultant company, Arnette, Muldrow & Associates, were trying to convince Highlands’ leaders that the town had an upgraded image and needed a new slogan to match. Coker’s masterpiece — “Simply Stunning” — was destined for the same dustbin of history as new Coke, however.

Coker didn’t take the rejection personally, it should be noted. That’s just part of the job when your profession is developing taglines or slogans.

“It’s fun to do this for the most part,” Coker said. “But, it’s certainly challenging.”

Coker said that each community the company works with has its own personalities involved and various motivations at play for developing taglines. That can make reaching consensus difficult.

In Western North Carolina, quite a few communities have adopted a brand and slogan. Maggie Valley is “Can you come out and play?” Franklin is “Discover us.” Macon County is “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life.”

The challenge is coming up with a slogan or motto that highlights a community’s assets and creates an identity to distinguish it from other places. That can be difficult because everyone here, more or less, plays off our mountain locale.

In Haywood County, the tourism agency uses “See yourself in the Smokies.” Neighboring Cherokee is “Meet me in the Smokies.”

In local communities, the task of picking taglines has been taken up by marketing professionals, town officials, residents and wide assortments of tourism-oriented committees.


Community pride

In Western North Carolina, logos and slogans reflect the heritage, history and image of the region’s towns.

Big cities use big dollars to brand and create taglines. New York is “The city that never sleeps.” Chicago is the “Windy City.” Virginia is for lovers. Las Vegas is “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Austin is “Keep Austin weird.”

But, branding and taglines are not just for the big cities of the world. When any city, county or state adopts a tagline, slogan or motto, it’s pitching that destination as a place to visit, live or work.

“We wanted something understated and unique to Highlands,” said Ron Shaffner, design committee chairman for the Highlands Small Town Main Street Program. “‘Simply Stunning’ sounded like something that relates to weddings or diamonds — and that’s not Highlands. We felt ‘Simply Stunning’ might become ‘Simply Cliché’ after 10 years or so.”

Arnette, Muldrow & Associates led a series of roundtables in Highlands during two days in February. While the “Simply Stunning” slogan is a no-go, the design committee has pretty much settled on a suitably understated logo: an image of a tree simply baring the town’s name, “Highlands, North Carolina.”

“It turns out Highlands doesn’t really have to market itself aggressively so it isn’t that shocking that they don’t want a tagline. Highlands is a special case in many ways — there’s not really any other analogous communities in the Southeast,” Coker said.

The logo is simple and small enough to fit on a lapel pin or to go on letterheads or even on the sides of town vehicles.

The town might use its elevation — 4,118 feet — in branding efforts too, he said. The Highlands Chamber of Commerce already capitalizes on that claim to fame as the basis for its distinguishing slogan “Above it all.”


A changing community

“The tough thing about it is trying to make a tagline that is all things to all people,” said Matt Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

Cherokee, as much as any community in WNC, is in transition. For decades the Cherokee Indian Reservation marketed itself as a family destination for cultural events. That’s still true, but now you also have Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and such specialty niches as trout fishing on the Oconaluftee River.

Pegg said a good slogan must reflect the myriad nature of the offerings in a community such as Cherokee but not be so generic as to be useless.

“And there’s probably not another place you can go from the National Park to all the glitz and glamour of what will be at Harrah’s,” Pegg said, referring to the casino expansion and the new casino entrance under construction. Known as the rotunda, the new entrance that will feature shining five-story trees made of colored glass, with a 75-foot waterfall cascading down the middle and a 140-foot screen wrapping around the walls where choreographed light and surround-sound shows will be projected.

Pegg said committees and marketing professionals helped develop Cherokee’s taglines, including the currently in use “Meet me in the Smokies.”

“If it’s something we can do we try to do it internally, but we’ll certainly bring in groups to help, too,” Pegg said.


Heeding demographics

Until recently, neighboring Swain County like Cherokee played off of its position next to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For several years, Bryson City used “base camp for adventure.” After reviewing visitor demographics, the town opted to change course, however.

Karen Wilmot, executive director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, said that it turned out the most important decision maker when it comes to trips to Swain County is actually 40-year-old women. The “base camp for adventure” was deemed too extreme to attract a wide cross section of visitors, particularly that imaginary 40-year-old woman.

“We do get a lot of younger folks, but we didn’t want to scare off that other demographic by saying we’re too extreme,” Wilmot said, saying she didn’t think most 40-year-old women were looking for freestyle kayaking events or to mountain bike at Tsali Recreation Area, two well known Swain County-based sports possibilities.

“We wanted to think about that armchair adventurer, too,” Wilmot said, saying the tourism agency wanted to include gentler outdoor adventuring such as walking up Deep Creek to see the waterfalls.

In the end, the tagline chosen was open ended: “My Bryson City is …. (you fill in the blank).” The message, and the photo accompanying it, changes according to the publication viewers being targeted — “My Bryson City is dazzling” might accompany an advertisement highlighting autumn color. “My Bryson City is the Dragon” could accompany a photo of a motorcyclist targeting a riding audience.

“It is an easily manipulated yet consistent message,” Wilmot said, adding that an advertising firm helped develop Bryson City’s changing tagline.

“We were all sort of thinking the same things, and we knocked ideas around in a creative meeting then took a couple ideas to the board,” she said.

Bryson City is also an example of how difficult it can be to rid yourself of an old tagline you might have outgrown. For years the town went by “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon,” and in fact, there’s still a sign on old U.S. 19 coming into town boasting this fact. Brad Walker, a former town mayor who’s long been involved in the hotel business in WNC, said that particular tagline of “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” was developed by the tourism agency in Swain County some 10 or 15 years ago.

“We were trying to figure out what the town is. And we decided the biggest thing we are is that we are in the Smokies, and we are the opposite of Gatlinburg,” Walker said.

So “unhurried, unspoiled and uncommon” really meant not Gatlinburg, Walker said.

Asheville, formerly “Altitude affects attitude,” has also undergone a change that reflects the city’s transition and newest image as a center of all-things-hip. Asheville is now “Any way you like it.”

Taglines and identities can be funny things. Some communities — in this case, Bryson City once again — can be downright protective of them. Bryson City recently took issue to the wording on a public art piece being installed on Main Street in Waynesville.

Donations are helping erect a replica of a historic arch that once spanned Waynesville’s main street, proclaiming the town as the “Eastern Entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

That wording was too long for the artistic replica, however, so instead it will bear the words “Gateway to the Smokies.”

Not long after news stories ran about the arch, Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway received a phone call from Bryson City Town Manager Lee Callicutt regarding the wording on the arch. It was a slogan that Bryson City has used on its seal and police department badges for decades.

Callicutt had been directed to pass the concern of the Town of Bryson City onto Waynesville. The concern was duly noted but nothing came out of it.


Deciding around the table

Advertising agencies and companies can spend a fortune writing the right tagline. Small towns don’t have that kind of money. So sometimes they simply borrow.

Macon County’s current tagline, “Enjoy the beauty, discover the life” is a tweaked version of one a small business there was using, said Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce.

Committees are used in Macon County to decide on taglines, saving on dollars and tapping local talent when it comes to defining the exact image to project. Harbuck said that community has had a number of different taglines during the years. The longest running one was “gem capitol of the world,” a play off of the large number of gem mining operations in Macon County. Macon County also has used “Mountain treasures, simple pleasures.”

“We don’t have any scientific ways of coming up with them,” Harbuck said. “A lot of things have just come from us sitting around the table talking.”

That’s been true in Maggie Valley, too, said Teresa Smith, executive director of the chamber of commerce there.

“We’ve used several recently,” she said. “We are trying to play off the park and being in the great outdoors.”

Maggie Valley uses a marketing committee to come up with choices. During the past several years, the town has used “Maggie’s calling.” Last year, they used “Far enough away yet close enough to play.” This year, it was tweaked to “Can you come out and play?”

Smith said it is indeed difficult to come up with taglines that make all those involved happy. Maggie Valley tourism leaders hold several meetings a year to do just that, usually working around a theme to help define the image Maggie Valley wants to project.

Jackson County recently has scaled down its slogan to focus on a single image it wants to project: mountains. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce recently has been just using “N.C. Mountains.” It has also used “Mountain lovers love Jackson County” during the past few years, and previously used “A change of altitude,” said Julie Spiro, executive director of the chamber of commerce.


Brand vs. tagline

Betty Huskins, a longtime marketing expert with Ridgetop Associates, makes a clear distinction between brands and taglines. A brand, Huskins said, “is who you are in other people’s minds. A lot of people feel they’ve developed a brand when they’ve gotten a slogan or tagline, but you can’t just choose that.”

You can’t, in other words, choose the perception people have of you simply by picking a catchy slogan.

Huskins said ideally in marketing “you have to see who you are and build what you want to be.”

Huskins said the best taglines, as she was taught and still believes, should be no more than three words (think Highlands’ “Above it all.”)

A tagline, she said, should ultimately define “who you are and what you do.”

Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said a tagline has to generate an emotional response.

“You may think it is wonderful, but if people don’t respond to it, it doesn’t do much good,” she said. “If you have a really good slogan they know where you are talking about. It needs to appeal to people on an emotional level.”

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is currently using “See yourself in the Smokies.” The previously used tagline, “where the sun rises on the Smokies,” is still used too on logos, Collins said.

A few years ago, Haywood County made the tagline switch to “See yourself in the Smokies” on advertising to try to get prospective visitors to picture themselves doing such activities as skiing or hiking.

“We did it to get people to put themselves in that photo and imagine doing those activities,” Collins said. “It’s just another format of using the Smokies and to evoke that emotional response.”

Like Huskins, Collins makes a distinction between branding and taglines. Haywood County’s brand, she said, “is our natural scenic beauty.” The slogan is to try to get people to come and participate in that great scenic beauty in Haywood County.


Current slogans:

Bryson City: My Bryson City is ___

Canton: Where the mountains kiss the sky

Cashiers: Nature’s design for enjoyment

Cherokee: Meet me in the Smokies

Franklin: Discover us

Haywood County: See yourself in the Smokies

Highlands: Above it all

Maggie Valley: Can you come out and play?

Macon County: Enjoy the beauty, discover the life


Facebook-submitted slogans, courtesy of our readers


Most things in life start out small — acorns grow into oak trees, babies are reared into adulthood, small patches of green spread until they eventually cover the mountains each spring.

The latter is the focus of Jackson County’s annual festival Greening Up the Mountains, an event that has seen a lot of growth itself.

What started as a small Earth Day event has now grown to the largest festival in Jackson County. Attendance at the former mostly locals event has swelled to 10,000 to 12,000 each year during its 15-year existence.

“It’s kind of neat that it started as a little Earth Day parade in downtown Sylva,” said Emily Elders, an event coordinator. “It’s grown exponentially every year.”

The Greening Up the Mountains festival will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 28 on Main and Mill Streets in historic downtown Sylva. The Downtown Sylva Association organizes the event, which celebrates the local economy, sustainability and traditional heritage crafts.

More than 200 vendors from all over the county — nonprofits, for-profits and others groups — will set up along the two streets, handing out pamphlets of information and peddling their handmade wares.  

“It’s a really good time to shop for incredible unique Mother’s Day or Fathers Day (gifts),” Elders said.

Even though the festival only lasts one day, the event offers for businesses and groups in Jackson County chance for greater exposure that last for years.

As a business owner, Matthew Turlington said the festival is a chance to broaden his customer base.

“You hope that it brings your standard customers and new customers,” said Turlington, owner of Penumbra Gallery and Studio.

The event draws new potential clients and more emails for their list-serves. This year, the downtown association will survey vendors and local businesses to get a concrete idea of how the local economy benefits from the festival.

“For me, that is the best part. The impact lasts,” Elders said. “It’s really been a lot of economic benefit, not just for the downtown.”

It’s also an opportunity for visitors to experience the best things about Jackson County all at once. As a Jackson County resident, Turlington said his favorite aspect of the festival is its incorporation of Appalachian history, from clogging to singing, and the young performance groups.

“I have always enjoyed the local young talent,” Turlington said.

Two music stages will feature Jackson County bands and heritage dancers. Between bands, multicultural dancers, such as Mexican Folkloric Dancers, Cherokee traditional dancers, the Liberty Baptist Men’s Choir and the Eternity Dance troupe, will perform.

“(The bands are) a pretty good mix this year too,” Elders said.

The traditional bluegrass and Americana bands will be on hand as well as folk and jam bands.

A third stage will be set up specifically for children’s enjoyment, along with the annual Youth Talent Show. Children’s activities include storytelling, face painting, an inflatable slide, the recycled materials Superhero Costume Contest and volunteer projects. This year’s event will also include a 5K run.


Schedule of events

Greening Up the Mountains starts at 10 a.m. and concludes at 4 p.m. on April 28 on Main and Mill Streets in historic downtown Sylva.

The Smoky Mountain Stage in the Suntrust Parking Lot

• 10-11 a.m.: Tennessee Jed An Asheville-based bluegrass band with a bit of a rock feel.

• 11:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: Marshall Ballew A Sylva native and folk/Americana musician.

• 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Sugar Barnes & Dave Magill A duo with an old-fashioned blues sound.

• 1:45-2:45 p.m.: Moolah Temple Men’s Auxiliary A mix of electronic, lo-fi and choral music.

• 3-4 p.m.: Dan River Drifters A fast-paced bluegrass band based in Sylva.

Tuckaseigee Stage at Bridge Park Pavilion

• 10-10:45 a.m.: The Suite C:  An acoustic folk/indie band from Alabama.

• 11-11:45 a.m.: John-Luke Carter A singer-songwriter from Sylva.

• Noon-12:45 p.m.: PMA (Positive Mental Attitude) A Cullowhee-based reggae/jam band.

• 1-1:45 p.m.: Total War A Sylva-based indie/rock group.

• 2-2:45 p.m.: The Freight Hoppers A popular Bryson City-based old-time string band.

• 3-4 p.m.: Noonday Sun.

Triple Threat Kids’ Stage in Poteet Park

• 10-11:30 a.m.: Mountain Youth Talent Show

• 11:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Triple Threat Performing Arts

• 12:45-1:15 p.m.: Junior Appalachian Musicians

• 1:30-2 p.m.: Sylva Children’s Theater

• 2:15-2:45 p.m.: Lions Gate Kung Fu Academy

• 3-3:30 p.m.: Burning Ones (The Father’s House of Prayer)

• 3:30-4 p.m.: White Dragon Martial Arts

When Dr. Bob Adams walked into a hospital-wide meeting of Jackson County doctors in early January, he believed he had finally mustered the critical mass to demand action, action that so far had been elusive despite a year of working internally to bring change.

But, he made a fatal miscalculation. The message doctors would ultimately send up the chain that night to the WestCare board of directors would be rejected.

Some doctors had become disillusioned with the Charlotte-based management firm that had been at the helm of the MedWest venture since its inception two years ago. They voted 31 to 3 to ask the board of directors to go to Mission Hospital, hear what it had to say and consider whether it would be a better partner.  

It’s rare for the majority of doctors at a hospital to make a formal and pointed request to their board of directors. The issue had been escalating for months by then, and as the community would later learn, had not yet reached its climax.

A core group of concerned doctors began meeting in early 2010, discussing their perception of problems at Harris, which was struggling financially and had lost 10 percent of its inpatient business to Mission. Initially, they took their issues up directly with MedWest CEO Mike Poore. Unsatisfied, however, they opened a line of communication with the hospital board of directors, sitting down with key members in one-on-one meetings.

SEE ALSO: Carolinas affiliation catalyst for doc's departure

By summer, however, the airing of concerns became a standing topic at the monthly meetings of all the Harris’ physicians, marked by a heated exchange or two with Poore before the roomful of doctors.

Eventually, Poore knighted the core group of concerned doctors with an official title — the “kitchen cabinet” committee — in an apparent attempt to address the issues.

Meanwhile, doctors ramped up their line of communication with the hospital board, a rather brazen move to go over Poore’s head.

“We go in and sit down and talk and start expressing our concerns directly to the board,” said Dr. Randy Savell, a long-time gastroenterologist at Harris. “They were surprised. They suggested they had no idea how things were.”

The meetings with the board continued for several weeks, and while the board members were willing listeners, the doctors couldn’t spur them to take action.

“We never got anywhere, but they were being very surprised and shocked and concerned,” Savell said.

Some in the core group oscillated between caring about the management structure and just going back to doing what they did best: caring for patients.

“After a while, you get worn out. You get tired of fighting,” said Dr. Earl Haddock, a pulmonologist at Harris.

Two of the doctors in the “kitchen cabinet” had been on the hospital board themselves but had resigned earlier that year after growing disenchanted.

“The thing that struck me is nobody asks questions,” Dr. Waverly Green said of why he resigned from the board. “If it was a place where there would be honest discussion and be about the future of the hospital, I am happy to be a part of that. but I am not going to sit in a room and rubber stamp things that to me make no sense.”


Between a rock and a hard place

The group of concerned doctors decided to take matters into their own hands. In December, some of them drove to Asheville for a behind-the-scenes meeting with the CEO of Mission, Ron Paulus. It was a renegade move, unauthorized by the rest of the medical community at large, but they liked what they heard.

So in early January, they called a meeting of all the doctors under WestCare and asked them to take a stand. Discussion dragged on for more than an hour.

Getting out of the MedWest partnership wasn’t an easy proposition. There was an escape clause built in at the three-year mark, but it could only be exercised by a three-fourths majority of the MedWest board, which was comprised equally of seven members each from WestCare — comprised of Harris and Swain hospitals — and Haywood Regional.

But, there was a little-known loophole. A clause in the MedWest contract allowed either side to pull out if the financial viability of one of the partners was at risk. It just so happened there was bad financial trouble brewing next door in Haywood. The Haywood hospital was running so low on cash, word on the street was it might not be able to make payroll.

To solve the short-term cash flow crunch, Haywood had gone up the chain to Carolinas for an emergency loan. Harris, however, was being asked to co-sign for the loan, putting its own revenue stream on the hook should Haywood default.

In realty, Harris would never be asked to cough up the money. Haywood’s revenue stream — about $100 million annually — along with all its equipment and its hospital building were also on the hook as collateral and would be tapped first before Harris would ever have to ante up. Essentially, there was more than $250 million guaranteeing a $10 million loan.

But, Carolinas was outside its comfort zone. This marked the first time it had ever loaned money to any of the 34 hospitals it manages. So it wanted the kitchen sink as collateral.

The Jackson doctors theorized the financial straits at Haywood were grave enough to exploit the loophole and engage in talks with Mission.

Little did the doctors know, however, that the WestCare board faced a grave choice — co-sign the loan to help bail out Haywood or comply with their own doctors’ request to meet with Mission. Doing both, it turned out, would not be an option. There was a catch to the loan with Carolinas. As long as MedWest owed Carolinas, the hospitals were prohibited from negotiating with a new partner.

Business-wise, it made sense. Carolinas didn’t want to prop up MedWest only to have it walk away still owing money. But to the unhappy physicians, it played out like a game of Mousetrap — and they were the ones sitting under the cage.


Harris board backs Carolinas

The WestCare board ultimately had faith in the MedWest venture and co-signed Haywood’s loan.

“We believe the future is bright for all three hospitals, even though the challenges are many. It is time to look forward, assuring the full potential of MedWest-Haywood, MedWest-Harris and MedWest-Swain is realized,” the MedWest board said in a statement this week. “Is this a short-term process? No, it is not. It will take months of hard work. But, we are confident in the expertise of our medical staffs and in the skill and dedication of all our employees.”

The doctors, however, felt ignored in their pleas to consider other options.

“We said ‘We aren’t telling you to dump Carolinas.’ We are just saying go talk to Mission and see if we made the best choice,” said Dr. Waverly Green, a pulmonologist at Harris. “Two days later, they signed documents that tied us up even tighter to Carolinas. That told me the board didn’t want input from the medical staff.”

One of the board members, Bob Carpenter, resigned from the board a few days later in a show of solidarity with the doctors.

“The bottom line is our hospital is in serious shape, and our trustees need to be looking at alternatives,” Carpenter said. “The community needs to keep pressure on the board to seek alternatives and do the right thing for this community.”

It turns out Harris was not merely hamstrung by Haywood’s loan. Harris was beholden to Carolinas for its own financial security as well. Carolinas had pulled strings to help Harris out of a pinch over an outstanding $15 million loan with BB&T, dating back to hospital construction projects a decade ago. Under terms of the loan, BB&T required Harris to have 75 days cash on hand.

Last year, Harris wasn’t able to maintain that balance and dipped below the cash-on-hand threshold that BB&T required. Carolinas tapped its relationships in banking circles, essentially putting in a good word for Harris, and convinced BB&T to temporarily relax its cash-on-hand requirement.

Harris currently has 56 days of cash-on-hand instead of the mandated 75. If Harris sent Carolinas packing, it could jeopardize the leniency BB&T had extended on the loan terms.

The door had been closed on any escape hatch Harris may have had, Savell said.

To be clear, the concerned doctors don’t believe in a conspiracy by Carolinas to make the hospitals financially dependent as a way of keeping MedWest intact. Adams thinks Carolinas just wasn’t paying close enough attention to the day-to-day operations, which after all is the expertise Carolinas was supposed to be providing in exchange for its management fee.

“They would never have allowed them to spend what they spent at Haywood without having the resources to back it up,” Adams said. “They would never have allowed Harris to be run in the ground even if that was a planned maneuver because it created a huge backlash. You don’t poison the components.”

John Young, a vice-president for Carolinas’ western hospitals, said that Carolinas doesn’t tell MedWest what to do — it’s the other way around.

“We work for the local boards. We have no control mechanism,” Young said.


A unique community of physicians

It’s rare to find physicians and hospital management in lockstep on everything. Now, however, the WestCare board must find a way to rebuild the fractured relationship with physicians.

“For every member of the medical staff that has talked to the board, to walk away feeling like nothing was going to be done was a difficult thing for us,” said Dr. Earl Haddock, a cardiologist at Harris.

It marked a departure from an amicable relationship the Jackson medical community had always had with its board of trustees.

“There was never any adversarial relationship. It was collaborative across the spectrum. We all worked together for the same goals. I think the thing that has been particularly uncomfortable for the medical community in these last two to three years is that relationship no longer applies,” Adams said.

A saying by a patriarch of the Harris medical community has been reverberating in Jackson County for nearly 40 years, handed down through practices and still preached to new recruits today.

“Sylva is where you can practice contemporary medicine in the old-fashioned style,” so the saying goes. It was coined by Bill Aldis, an internal medicine specialist who came to Harris in the mid-1970s.

Aldis was part of a dynamic trio of upstart internal medicine specialists who sought out Sylva after medical school as a place to make their mark, perhaps even a social experiment of sorts. Their mission: to take a rural hospital with a smattering of primary doctors and see how far they could take it.

“They were at John Hopkins together and decided they were going to find a place where they could make an impact,” said Dr. Joe Hurt, a retired pathologist who came to Harris in 1978. Hurt came partly because he was impressed by the three young internists who had thrown themselves headlong into building up a rural medical institution.

“There was a tremendous amount of potential,” Hurt said.

The energy was infectious. Each new specialist who came on board joined the recruiting crusade, putting their best foot forward as a medical community to build up their own ranks in partnership with the hospital.

“A lot of the recruiting parties and events were actually held at my house,” Hurt said. “Some of the contracts between partners were worked out at my house.”

In the decade from 1975 to 1985, the number of doctors practicing in Jackson County more than doubled, bringing in the county’s first orthopedists, pathologists, radiologists and surgeons. More by fate than design, the community attracted a certain breed of physician — those who didn’t care about the lack of a country club or golf course, Hurt said.

Those early efforts set Harris on a track that still persists.

“Harris has had a long-standing tradition of attracting very good physicians. Part of the attraction was for a small hospital, this had an exceptional medical staff. Well-trained physicians, very community-oriented. There was a rapport between the physicians and community that didn’t exist elsewhere. The hospital just had a very good reputation,” Green said.


All still support local hospital

There’s one thing both sides in the debate agree on: keep going to your local hospital.

“In terms of the services, we can and should provide in our local hospitals, we are as good as anyone in the country,” the MedWest board of directors said in a statement this week.

Undermining Harris is indeed the last thing those speaking out want to do.

“There are those who felt the community deserved to know. Hopefully, there will be enough of a outcry to have an impact,” Savell said.

But, the 2,000 employees of MedWest in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties have surely felt the sting of the negative publicity during the past week.

“I care for every single patient with every ounce of my being,” said Heather Sheppard, a nurse at Harris and director of ICU. “I stand by the care that we deliver to every single patient at Harris.”

In Haywood County, a letter was signed by 29 doctors this week reinforcing their strength and resolve to provide excellent health care.

“We believe and have substantial data to corroborate that the care at Haywood hospital is, like the care at Harris hospital, something the community can take great pride in,” the letter states.

Dr. Joe Hurt, a retired pathologist at Harris, said going public was clearly a last resort for Adams after months of working through internal channels that got him nowhere.

“I don’t think any of them wished ill against the hospital,” said Hurt.

Savell agreed that’s not what this struggle is about.

“Good care is still there. Good people are still there,” Savell said.

Even those who have publicly stood beside Adams plan to stick with Harris to the end.

“I love what I do. I love the patients. I love the hospital, and by golly, we provide excellent care, and we want to get back to that,” Haddock added.

When the Med-West venture was coined two years ago, the premise was an easy sell. Together the hospitals would be stronger than going it alone.

Both Harris and Haywood hospitals had witnessed a troubling loss of patients to Mission — a loss so troubling in fact neither hospital could afford to continue as it was. They faced a cold, hard reality: turn the course, and fast, or they would be faced with financial insolvency.

Indeed, both hospitals hoped the MedWest joint venture would shore up the erosion of patients to Mission. Both, however, seemed to have different ideas of how that would play out on the ground.

Was there enough business for both to stay the size they were, or would one ultimately evolve into the big kid on the block under the MedWest umbrella — and if so, who?

Before the merger, and even now, Haywood and Harris competed very little. Fewer than 5 percent of patients from Jackson migrated to neighboring Haywood or vice-versa.

But with the future of their medical community on the line, 1 percent here and there suddenly seemed to matter quite a lot.

While the call by some Jackson doctors to withdraw from MedWest seems like a shot across the bow to their neighbors in Haywood, Jackson doctors said they didn’t intend it that way. They aren’t questioning the quality or caliber of health care at Haywood’s hospital or by Haywood doctors. Instead, it seems desperation amidst a shifting health care landscape has seized the day.

Next week: Read more about the specific concerns raised by Jackson doctors, an analysis of hospital market share, a snap shot of finances, and philosophical view points on the MedWest venture.


Four long-time physicians in Jackson County are leaving C.J. Harris hospital after becoming disenchanted with the direction of MedWest — and even more so with Carolinas HealthCare System, a giant network of 34 hospitals that MedWest is affiliated with.

Dr. Bob Adams, a hospitalist who is leaving Harris after 36 years, fears Carolinas plans to build up Haywood as a flagship to compete with Mission. He didn’t like where that would lead.

“Harris devolves and Haywood grows,” Adams postulated. “They are playing the corporate practice of medicine. I don’t want to be a pawn in somebody else’s power struggle and be used as a widget in a big business’ plan for their benefit.”

The president of Harris, Steve Heatherly, laments the loss of the four doctors — and the circumstances.

“It is unusual in the history of this organization to have physicians leave because they were not satisfied with the strategic direction,” Heatherly said.

Making matters worse, another seven doctors in the Jackson-Swain medical community have either already left or plan to leave — for a total loss of 11.

“It is unusual to have that level of turn over,” Heatherly said, even though only four of the 11 actually chalk up their departure to “dissatisfaction with the hospital.”

Lessening the blow somewhat, seven new doctors are moving to Jackson and Swain in coming months. They had already been recruited and were intended to bolster the physician ranks.

Now, however, the hospital will see a net loss instead of gain and a gap in a few key specialties.

Dozens of doctors, of course, aren’t going anywhere.

“We must not forget that we still have an extremely skilled and dedicated medical staff of nearly 230 physicians who are choosing to stay in our communities and work in our hospitals to take care of our patients,” Dr. Robin Matthews, an ob-gyn in Haywood County who chairs the Physician Leadership Council of MedWest.

Many of the 2,000 employees of MedWest have rallied to their hospitals’ defense during the past week.

“The hard decision is to stay here and fight for this place to succeed,” said Dr. Casey Prenger, the medical director of the hospitalist group at Harris. “We believe in our hospital and our community, and it is our privilege and honor to take care of you.”

There are huge challenges, however, facing Heatherly and MedWest: hold MedWest together, turn the corner financially, recapture market share from Mission, quell the doctor uprising, and recruit new doctors to fill the holes.


Resolving to make a stand

For the group of Jackson County doctors who went public with their concerns last week, the decision wasn’t an easy one nor was it taken lightly.

“They aren’t trying to hurt anything. They are trying to fix something,” said Dr. Gilbert Robinson, an anesthesiologist at Harris for 10 years.

Even those who spoke out aren’t certain now was the right time, or if it will do any good.

But, the ball was in Adams’ court. When he decided to go public, the core group who had been fighting alongside him during the past year to bring about change internally weren’t going to leave him on a limb by himself, so they reached out and grabbed on as well.

“I decided I wanted to let the community know what was happening to their hospital. The only thing that is going to change is if the community starts standing up for itself to Carolinas and the WestCare board,” said Dr. Waverly Green, a pulmonologist at Harris who is leaving as well.

Adams hopes the issues he raised aren’t construed as a parting shot or chalked up to sour grapes.

“They are portraying those of us who had concerns and discomfort about where we are as being disgruntled and outliers,” Adams said.

But in fact, hospital administration has gone out of its way to praise Adams and the others who are leaving.

“It is regrettable. They will be missed in this community. They are outstanding physicians who have provided years of service to this community,” Heatherly said.

Even doctors in neighboring Haywood, who rightfully have reason to be miffed by Adams’ shot across the bow at MedWest-Haywood, have been complimentary.

“He is a great doctor and wonderful human being. I just happen to disagree with them completely,” said Dr. Marvin Brauer, chief of staff at MedWest-Haywood and a hospitalist like Adams.

While Adams will soon be gone, others who support him will still practice at Harris and will continue carrying the torch to fix perceived problems.

SEE ALSO: Doctors take a stand out of fear for Medwest-Harris' future

Some of them are even on Harris’ payroll. Technically, the entity they are speaking out against writes their paychecks, putting them in an uncomfortable position at best, a vulnerable one at worst. Normally, few doctors would be willing to take a career gamble like that.

The difference at Harris likely comes down to their new president, Steve Heatherly. Heatherly has been with Harris since the 1990s, part of that time as a physician liaison and serving in a variety of vice president roles and as chief operating officer.

In hopes of quelling dissension among Jackson doctors, Heatherly was promoted two months ago as the president of Harris. It gave Jackson doctors one of their own at the helm — rather than the previous hierarchy where they answered to a single CEO for the entire MedWest venture, Mike Poore, who they were acutely aware hailed from Haywood and still had his base office there.

Jackson doctors have hope that Heatherly will help right the ship.

“I believe Steve is at the place he needs to be to help turn WestCare around, due to his experience and background and skill set. I don’t know of anyone else that would be better at this point in time,” said Bob Carpenter, a former MedWest board member from Sylva who resigned in January over the same issues troubling the doctors.

Even Adams agreed.

“I think the WestCare board and Steve Heatherly are doing their best to work with medical staff now,” Adams said.

Many doctors — even those who are in near lockstep with Adams’ pointed assessment of the MedWest landscape — wish he had given Heatherly more time to fix things before going public.

Dr. Randy Savell, a gastroenterologist doctor at Harris, said Heatherly faces a difficult future.

“He is between a rock and a hard place,” Savell said.

Heatherly’s boss is technically Carolinas, and he answers to them daily. But, he must also answer to the hospital board of directors, all the while winning the good graces of nurses and doctors by proving he will address their concerns.


The road ahead

Heatherly doesn’t downplay the reality that a hospital lives and dies by its doctors. If the doctors are good, people will get their health care locally.

“That leads to more volume through the hospital, which helps solve the business dilemma,” Heatherly said.

That business dilemma — dire financial straits for both Harris and Haywood — looms large in the debate.

Harris has lost more than 10 percent of its in-patient business to Mission Hospital during the past five years.

As a result, Harris is struggling financially and has been losing money for at least three years. It’s now in its third round of layoffs in four years.

“Our hospitals must confront the fundamental business reality that expenses cannot continue to be greater than revenue,” Heatherly said.

If the financial picture was rosier, the paranoia among Jackson doctors that Carolinas is trying to siphon its patients off to Haywood could simply melt away.

For now, Heatherly is stuck in a Catch 22. Rather than shrink, Harris must find a way to regain the market share lost to Mission.

“No organization can cut its way to prosperity, especially not a hospital, where quality patient care is our business. ‘Thrive-ability’ will happen when more patients come through our doors to see our brilliant doctors and caring staff,” Heatherly said.

Harris’ financial problems are largely because it lost several doctors back in 2006 and 2007, Heatherly said. When patients needed a doctor’s appointment, they were forced to look elsewhere and ended up walking right into the open, waiting arms of Mission in Asheville.

Heatherly, who started at Harris in the 1990s, had taken a hiatus for a few years to work for a physician management firm. When he came back to Harris in ?, job No. 1 was recruiting physicians to fill the void.

“The organization was having trouble recruiting physicians to replenish the supply to the local community, and it created a constrained access,” Heatherly said.

In 2008 and 2009, WestCare brought in 10 new doctors. It also bought out several private practices in order to put existing doctors on the hospital’s payroll — reflective of a national trend by doctors who increasingly prefer to work directly for a hospital rather than run their own private practices.

Those moves came at a financial cost, but Heatherly said the influx of doctors stopped the bleeding of market share. Unfortunately, it hasn’t come back up yet either.

“Now that we’ve had success in rebuilding our medical staff, we need more patients from our local communities using our local hospitals. Only then can we expect more positive financial results,” Heatherly said.

Heatherly’s belief in doctors as a core business strategy for the hospital seems genuine. He stresses it even when discussing other topics, like when the long-awaited renovations to Harris’ emergency room will be re-started.

“As we move forward, we have to assess that we have the right medical staff in place to offer ongoing appropriate access to care, and then those opportunities to evaluate facility expansion will be driven by the ability to generate sustained financial results,” Heatherly said.

Heatherly was speaking off the cuff, not reading from a prepared statement. But, his hospital administrator’s version of Alan Greenspan’s famous Greenspeak can be boiled down this way: doctors must be shored up first, which will bring back patients, which will bring back money.

Large, walk-in beer coolers are ready and waiting to be stocked at Dwight and Jamie Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center, a gas station directly across the street from the entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on U.S. 441.

They’ve been there for eight years in anticipation that one day alcoholic beverages could be sold countywide in Jackson. The day of reckoning has finally come, with Jackson voters poised to decide on countywide alcohol sales in the May primary election.

And the financial stakes for the sale of alcoholic beverages by the Winchesters and others in the Gateway community along U.S. 441 just got a lot higher after Cherokee voters overwhelming decided this month to keep the reservation dry except for the casino.

Winchester’s gas station is literally the first and closest stop for potential beer buyers from Cherokee, literally a stone’s throw from the reservation boundary line.

Winchester is keenly positioned to capture the business of anyone in Cherokee looking for beer, saving them what would otherwise be 15-minute drive west to Bryson City or a bit more than that east to Sylva.

“We don’t have to have beer to be successful,” said Dwight Winchester, gesturing at his bustling store, mid-morning on a workday. “But we do, of course, want it.”

Winchester said there has been a lot of land speculation along U.S. 441 in anticipation of a “yes” vote to alcohol sales. Winchester said that he expects plenty of company in coming days, in the form of other businesses setting up to sell alcoholic beverages, if the vote indeed passes.

The Winchesters currently employee 42 people, and they expect to add two or three more workers if alcohol sales are allowed.

Winchester, though he clearly and unabashedly hopes the referendum does go through, is concerned about perceptions of his business on the nearby Cherokee Reservation when he begins selling alcoholic beverages.

“I have great respect for the folks and the pastors who feel so strongly against it,” said Winchester.

The Bryson City native added that he’s struggling with how exactly to broach the matter with those Cherokee residents who just voted “no” so clearly — more than 66 percent specifically voted against the sale of beer and wine at gas stations and grocery stores — firmly and unequivocally.

“But, the economic increase is going to outweigh any negative you can come up with,” Winchester said.

Winchester said the beer companies clearly believe the sale of alcoholic beverages will pass in Jackson County because they’ve frequently been in his store to discuss the matter. Those sellers’ guesses are as good as any: there’s barely been any discussion of the matter publicly, for or against, in Jackson County since commissioners first decided on the vote last year. That, however, certainly wasn’t the case in Cherokee.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the sale of alcoholic beverages on the reservation were busy mailing out flyers, putting up signs and giving speeches to bolster their cases.

A recent study by Martin and McGill found that the tribe conservatively would have received up to $3.8 million in revenue via an ABC retail store within five years. The tribe’s version of sales tax was projected to pump a total of $1.7 million into Cherokee’s general fund from the addition of alcohol sales.

Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center is a combination gas station and Huddle House. The Winchesters have an identical business in Cullowhee, too, another potential hotspot for the sale of alcoholic beverages with the captive Western Carolina University population. The Gateway business was built in 2004, the one in Cullowhee in 2001. When both were built large beer walk-in coolers were included in each.

To say they are now perfectly positioned to benefit financially from the sale of alcoholic beverages is to indulge somewhat in understatement.

If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.

The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, at least according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

Jamie Winchester said she is uncertain how quickly the couple’s stores would be able to sell alcohol if the measure passes May 8. She has been undergoing a self-taught crash course in North Carolina alcohol sales to, in part, try to determine just that.

Dwight Winchester said if the vote is “no” that’s OK with the couple, too.

“We’re not going to go anywhere regardless,” he said.

A group of Jackson County doctors say they want out of the two-year-old partnership with the hospital in Haywood County and instead would like to look toward Mission Hospital in Asheville as a future partner.

There have been murmurings for months that Jackson County doctors are dissatisfied with the pseudo-merger with the hospital in neighboring Haywood and might want out. But this week marked the first time a group of doctors went public.

“There is a common element of frustration with day-to-day operations, and concern about the financial viability of the hospitals,” said Bob Adams, the chief hospitalist at MedWest-Harris hospital.

Adams, backed by six other doctors, appeared at the Jackson County commissioners meeting Monday to get his message out.

Though the doctors say they ardently support Harris hospital, they are dissatisfied with the MedWest joint venture that united Haywood Regional, Harris and Swain County hospitals under a single umbrella. At the same time, the new MedWest entity signed on with Carolinas HealthCare, a network of 34 hospitals based in Charlotte.

Many doctors in Jackson and Swain now say that was a mistake — and that they don’t trust Carolinas or their own board of directors.

“MedWest is failing and needs to be dissolved. Carolinas is not an acceptable partner,” Adams said. “Mission is the only partner acceptable to the communities west of Balsam.”

Some doctors in Jackson County believe Harris has not fared well in the MedWest joint venture.

Harris is struggling financially. It has seen an outmigration of patients. Doctors, too, are leaving.

Adams said he is one of eight physicians leaving Jackson and Swain counties in coming months. The community already faces a doctor shortage, a factor partly to blame for the loss of market share in recent years.

Doctors in Jackson County also feel that the Haywood hospital is being groomed to become the flagship of the MedWest venture. They fear patients once cared for locally at Harris will be gradually siphoned to Haywood. They also feel Haywood has gotten a greater share of resources. A long-promised new emergency room remains on the back burner in Jackson — meanwhile Haywood used up MedWest’s borrowing ability by taking out a $10 million line of credit to stem a cash flow shortage.

Whether real or perceived, the Jackson medical community has long prided itself on its reputation and didn’t take kindly to the thought of their beloved local institution declining. That, along with a strong independent streak, has doctors questioning the corporate relationship they now find themselves in as culturally incompatible.

“It is clear to me that the hospital that I joined 10 years ago no longer exists, and is unlikely to rise again from its current ashes,” said Dr. Waverly Green, who is leaving the community in a few months. “I am saddened that it has come to this, and ultimately, I think the community as a whole will be left paying the price.”

Adams and Green both blamed Carolinas HealthCare System as duplicitous in bringing about Harris’ plight.

Adams said he does not trust Carolinas to look out for the interests of their local Jackson County hospital.

They say Carolinas pushed Haywood and Jackson together to advance their own long terms interests — namely to mount a competitive front in WNC against Mission, Adams said

After corralling the trio of hospitals under MedWest, Carolinas then began setting the stage for Haywood to be the lead player with Harris and Swain in supporting roles.

“Carolinas wants everything to funnel past us to Haywood and stop them from going to Mission,” Green said.

“It was Haywood-centric all along,” agreed Bob Carpenter, a former board member for WestCare and MedWest.

Carpenter resigned in a show of solidarity with the medical community.

In particular, though, Carpenter believed the board had not been given ample time to consider signing off on $10 million loan documents that encumber the entire MedWest venture for money borrowed by Haywood. Carpenter said board members were called into an emergency meeting in January and asked to sign documents they had not even had a chance to read.

“They said we had to do it to save the MedWest system,” Carpenter said.

Haywood allegedly didn’t have the funds to make payroll and needed the credit immediately.

The Jackson County medical community appealed to the management of MedWest and Carolinas as well as the hospital board of directors several times during the past six months to no avail.

“I realized we were being shut out,” Green said.

Adams has worked at Harris for 36 years and does not take lightly the decision to come forward with his views.

“Some people thought it may do more harm than good and may be more destructive,” Adams said. “A group of the physicians believe the information needs to be made public and our whole intent is to allow the community to make a decision to look further into what is going on and make their own decisions.”

One thing is for certain. Whichever of two Democrats Jackson County voters pick in the May 8 primary will be bringing a lot of governmental experience to the table in their bid for a seat on the Board of Commissioners. Stacy Buchanan is a former commissioner and board chairman; Vicki Greene recently retired as assistant director for Southwestern Commission. They are running for the seat currently held by Joe Cowan, who decided not to seek re-election.

The two might face competition in the general election, despite no candidates formally signing up to run during the official filing period. Local builder Cliff Gregg, who plans to run as an unaffiliated candidate, has until June to collect the signatures of 4 percent, or roughly 1,400 names, of Jackson County voters. If Gregg succeeds, he will compete with whichever Democrat clears the primary hurdle.


Vicki Greene, 61, retired assistant director Southwestern Commission

Greene has one son and noted that it’s important to some people in Jackson County that she’s Maude Bryson’s daughter. Her mother worked at the old A&P grocery store, Greene said, and functioned “as a one-woman Chamber of Commerce.” Greene attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as a Reynolds Scholar. She holds a master’s in public administration program from UNC, a certificate in county administration from the School of Government at UNC and has taken a variety of courses in economic development and financing.

Where do you stand on land-use planning?

Greene said that she favors land-use planning and that she spoke in favor of and still supports Jackson County’s mountain hillside ordinance and its subdivision regulations.

“The board is looking at fine-tuning the subdivision regulations as far as having a hierarchy of standards for roads based on the number of lots in a development,” she said. “And, I think that’s a positive thing to do.”

Greene said she believes the conservative-dominated board is appropriately responding by evaluating the existing regulations. She emphasized her belief in the need to continue planning efforts in the Whittier and Cashiers areas and said she also thinks that the county needs to become directly involved in community planning in the Cullowhee area. Cullowhee, she pointed out, is the fastest-growing township in Jackson County, growth that most believe will increase more rapidly if an alcohol referendum passes during the primary.

“It would be an exciting time to have an entity such as the county to take a leadership role in developing a plan,” Greene said.

What are your plans for economic development?

“I think Jackson County has been unique in southwestern North Carolina in terms of having no or an ineffective economic development effort,” Greene said.

Jackson County’s economic development commission came under fire and was ultimately dissolved, during her opponent’s tenure on the board amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid business loans and generally questionable lending practices. The economic development arm back then was an independent body outside the county’s direct control.

Greene said that Jackson County needed to follow the lead of neighboring counties like Haywood and Macon and hire an experienced economic development director.

“A lot boils down to having a director with the connections who can put Jackson County at the forefront” for when the recession ends, Greene said, adding that the county needs to work on a comprehensive strategy that considers health care, training, tourism and building the necessary infrastructure.

She’s running because…

“I have a commitment to make this the best possible Jackson County that it can be,” Greene said.

Greene noted that she has served for more than three decades as a technical resource for local governments on retreats, grant applications, workforce development funding and more.

“I’ve worked with Democrat and Republican boards for 36 years and have developed strong lines of communications with them all,” Greene said, adding that Mountain Mediations one year named her peacemaker of the year.


Stacy Buchanan, 49, district vice president America’s Home Place

Buchanan is married and has two children. He has a bachelor’s in business administration, two associate’s degrees in personnel administration and recreation administration, a master’s in public administration and certification in business and marketing education. He is an Air Force veteran who taught in the Jackson County Schools and who served from 1998-2005 on the Board of Commissioners, including as chairman. Buchanan resigned in the middle of his term in March 2005. Buchanan, at the time, cited his acceptance of a position as assistant head football coach and co-offensive coordinator at Smoky Mountain High School and an inability to split time between his school and public service career.

Where do you stand on land-use planning?

“I’m very much pro-land planning,” Buchanan said. “I support the ordinances we have in place, and I’m glad to see those were adopted.”

He said he does not oppose the revisiting of those ordinances now taking place under the new Board of Commissioners.

“I’m never opposed to seeing change; they constantly need to be updated,” Buchanan said. “You need to see the impacts they had positive or negative, and whether you need to tweak them. I see tweaking as making the language easier to understand and easier to follow.”

Buchanan said tweaking does not, in his book, mean diluting or watering down the ordinances, however.

“We need to protect the beautiful natural resources that God has given us. We need to be good stewards of the land,” he said.

What are your plans for economic development?

Buchanan noted he’d been part of developing a 15-year strategic plan for Jackson County that emphasized facility development. He said that he’d take the same approach to economic development and help construct a 15-year plan “that people will buy into” to guide the county’s efforts.

“I don’t think we’re being proactive enough going after companies that are looking to come back to the U.S. that went overseas,” Buchanan said, adding that Jackson needs to understand and market its assets. “We need to be able to ask these companies, ‘Why not Jackson County?’ I’ll match Jackson County up with any county.”

Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted in the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly because of lack of results. At the time, the economic development arm was not under the county’s direct oversight or accountability. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about unpaid business loans and generally questionable lending practices.

“I believe in an EDC but not the way that we had it,” he said, advocating for a “paid professional” with a proven track record to head economic development efforts for Jackson County. And that professional, Buchanan said, needs to be “backed up by a board with experience.”

He’s running because…

Buchanan emphasized again that he believes Jackson County needs to develop a strategic plan for the next 15 years, and he said that he’s the man who can help the county reach that goal.

“To know where you’re going you’ve got to understand where you’ve been,” Buchanan said, pointing to the facilities plan developed under his prior tenure as where he’s been. “It’s coming to fruition now,” he said, adding that the facilities plan laid a critical groundwork for Jackson County’s economic future.

“Now we need a plan going forward so that we don’t miss opportunities,” Buchanan said.

With its obvious Cuban influences — the combination of guava and cream cheese, or even mango and cream cheese  — Mindy’s Bakery in Sylva is clearly not your typical mountain bakery.

But that’s not all that sets this small bakery apart: the five family members directly involved have graduated from or are currently enrolled at Western Carolina University. This family, who lives in Waynesville, is literally working its way through school one pastry at a time.

Raul and Mindy Guillama are the patriarch and matriarch of this family. They have three sons, Raul, Andre and Sebastian, who jumpstarted the family’s WCU train.

Andre and Sebastian have both graduated from WCU with degrees in construction management and finance, respectively. Young Raul is getting a degree in marketing, his father is getting an accounting degree and his mother is getting one in psychology.

“The three of us were going, and they said ‘we have a lot of free time so we might as well go to school, too,’” young Raul said.

“And accounting is something you can use in any business,” his father added. “I can do my own accounting and taxes.”

Seventy-year-old Raul is an engineer by training.

“I’m doing my share of contributing to the social security working force,” Raul said, only partly in jest.

Mindy, 50, the mother, explained that both she and her husband were born in Cuba. She came to America on the first Freedom Flight from Cuba to Miami that brought exiles to this country. Her husband was already in America as a young student when Fidel Castro took over. His family joined him in the U.S. in flight from the ensuing oppression.

“He has a brother-in-law whose father was killed in his arms,” Mindy said. “We are a family that came to this country because we had to — it was either communism or freedom.”

That said, the family loves America and what it has given them in return, Mindy said. The Guillama family ended up in Western North Carolina about eight years ago following years of vacationing in this region.

These days, they live together, work together and go to school together.

Husband and wife are taking a psychology class together. Raul the older and Raul the younger are in calculus together. They both said that each is doing equally well, and they choose to sit side by side in the class.

Baking is in the family blood. Their daughter, Mindy, who lives in New York, is also a baker and worked with them in the past.

Mindy’s Bakery specializes in wedding and special occasion cakes, as well as tropical desserts such as flan, coconut cakes, and the Cuban “pastelito” pastries.

“I got the éclairs and took them to work one day and everybody just loved them,” said customer Diane Winstead who was at the bakery one morning this week picking up another order of éclairs for an office party. “It just all looks so fresh.”

Page 59 of 106
Go to top