Jackson County commissioners likely erred two weeks ago when they voted to double the county’s tax on overnight lodging: they failed to hold a public hearing first.
Commissioners were forced to rescind their vote, and will now hold a public hearing Nov. 7.
Commissioners had voted 4-1 to bump the room tax up from 3 to 6 percent, making it one of the highest in the region. The tax on overnight stays brought in $446,000 last year, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion through the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority.
County Attorney Jay Coward had failed to tell commissioners a public hearing was necessary.
Coward, who gets paid $150 an hour for his legal work by the county, explained that he thought Jackson County was exempt under a certain state general statute from the requirement for a hearing.
“Since then, I’ve decided that we probably ought to have that public hearing in case that was a defect in my reasoning,” Coward said.
The hearing is most likely an exercise in formality rather than a genuine intent to hearing public opinion, as a do-over of the vote is planned for the same night.
“After the public hearing we’ll take it up again,” said Commissioner Charles Elders.
Commissioners may get an earful, however.
Henry Hoche of Innisfree Inn By-The-Lake spoke against the doubling of Jackson County’s room tax at the county meeting this week. Taxing visitors might seem more attractive than upping property taxes, Hoche said, “but it is not advantageous” to owners of inns and motels. “It is difficult enough for us in the lodging business today.”
Hoche said a higher room tax would mean visitors stay in the area for shorter amounts of time.
Bob Dews of Laurelwood Mountain Inn in Cashiers also spoke against an increase, saying the economy has knocked down guest numbers, and inn and motel owners don’t need help from the county in knocking rates down even further.
Dews said people would choose to stay elsewhere if the room tax is higher in Jackson than neighboring areas.
Efforts are well under way in both Sylva and Franklin to build dog parks, places where folks’ canine companions can run off-leash in safely fenced, assigned areas.
If the two communities do build dog parks, they’ll be joining their neighbors to the east: the town of Waynesville already has two fenced romping grounds for dogs along Richland Creek Greenway. The town of Highlands in Macon County also has a half-acre dog park, complete with a five-foot-tall fence. Highlands is roughly a 40-minute drive from Franklin, however, putting it out of reach for regular use by Franklin’s dog owners.
Friends of the Greenway in Franklin has been talking about building a dog park for about six months, according to Doris Munday, a member of the nonprofit support arm for the greenway along the Little Tennessee River. Her dog “uses the mountains” as its dog park, Munday said, but that hasn’t blinded her from seeing the needs of others.
Dog owners, if their pooches are leashed and they cleanup waste deposited by their animals, can use the nearly five-mile paved greenway path in Franklin. But the dogs are not allowed off-leash along the popular trail, where upwards of 20,000 people a month can be found during the summer months. Munday said there have been some problems with “neighborhood dogs” trotting about the greenway unleashed and uninvited and apparently illiterate, too; these rowdy dogs are brazen in ignoring rules about leashes and cleanup that are posted along Franklin’s greenway.
Plans this week call for the Friends group to check in with the Macon County Board of Commissioners to make sure the county doesn’t have any objections to a dog park.
In this case, asking permission seemed optimal to begging forgiveness: Munday said no one is exactly sure whether commissioners’ permission is needed for the project to move forward, but that the group decided it seemed proper to find out.
Assuming everyone is OK with the idea, private funds would be solicited to purchase fencing. The hope is to enclose the dog park this winter. Later, if people want to donate more money, the dog park could be enhanced with additional doggie attractions, Munday said.
Some dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs. Other parks even offer such amenities as dog-agility courses. One standard feature, which would be included if a dog park is built in Franklin, are baggie dispensers so that dog owners can easily cleanup any canine deposits.
Other than the upfront cost of fencing, maintenance on dog parks is relatively minor. In Waynesville, the Haywood Animal Welfare Association buys non-toxic flea control and volunteers regularly sprinkle it on the grass.
In Jackson County, an ad hoc group of dog owners in Sylva requested via a letter sent to the county that they be allowed to use a portion of Mark Watson Park on West Main Street. The Sylva Dog Park Advocates noted in the letter, sent to county officials last month, that it believes a dog park would be “a low cost yet high benefit” addition to Jackson County.
The letter is signed by Stacy Knotts, who serves as a town council member but isn’t acting in that official capacity on this particular project.
She wrote that the group of dog owners believes 10-acre Mark Watson Park, a county-owned facility, would be the best place for a dog park because it is centrally located in Sylva on the county’s (unfinished) greenway; there is open space in the park; there are already pet-owner education classes and the “Bark in the Park” festival taking place in Mark Watson, and such a park would encourage Jackson County’s residents “from letting pets run free on the ball fields, particularly the newly designed fields in the park.”
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the request is being reviewed.
Voices from the American Land — along with local partners Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, the Wilderness Society, Tuckasegee Reader, Western North Carolina Alliance, Wild South, Canary Coalition, Mad Batter Café, Tuckasegee Alliance, New Native Press and City Lights bookstore — presented the Every Breath Sings Mountains event at the Jackson County Public Library on Sept. 23.
The speakers, music and readings drew a packed house to the new library. The entire event was also recorded, and the video is both entertaining and thoughtful.
For those who couldn’t make it, organizers videotaped the entire event. Here are the links, in the proper chronological order.
Here is some information about some of the writers and community members who took part in and organized the event:
• Thomas Rain Crowe is an award winning author, poet an essayist. His memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods won the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Philip D. Reed Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment for 2006. Crowe’s literary archives have been purchased by the Duke University Special Collections Library. He is a respected, outspoken advocate for the conservation and protection of the Southern Appalachian landscape, her people and her culture. Crowe lives on a small farm along the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
• Barbara R. Duncan is education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee. Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, which she co-authored with Brett Riggs, received the Preserve America Presidential Award. Her book Living Stories of the Cherokee received a Thomas Wolfe Literary Award and World Storytelling Award. The singer-songwriter has also written a poetry chapbook, Crossing Cowee Mountain. Duncan lives on a tributary of the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County.
• Brent Martin is Southern Appalachian director for The Wilderness Society. Martin is a recipient of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s James S. Dockery Environmental Leadership Award. Martin has published two collections of poetry, Poems from Snow Hill and A Shout in the Woods. Martin’s poems and essays have appeared in Pisgah Review, North Carolina Literary Review, New Southerner, Tar River Poetry and elsewhere. Martin lives in the Cowee community.
• Western Carolina University historian George Frizzell, Jackson County farmer and former commissioner William Shelton, and Cherokee elder Jerry Wolfe. There will also be “a conversation with authors” featuring authors Charles Frazier, John Lane, Wayne Caldwell, George Ellison and Keith Flynn. The Ian Moore Song & Dance Bluegrass Ensemble will provide music. There will also be a meet-the-authors book-signing reception catered by the Mad Batter Café. And all audience members will receive a free copy of the chapbook.
Tourists staying in Jackson County will pay more on their hotel bills starting Jan. 1. Commissioners this week hiked the tax from 3 to 6 cents, the highest room tax rate allowed by state law.
“If this money is spent wisely, I think it might be a good thing,” Dillsboro Inn owner T.J. Walker said Tuesday. “I’m not against it — but I’m not aware of it enough to be for it, either.”
Jackson County will have twice the room tax of most Western North Carolina counties, which largely set the rate at 3 percent. Haywood and Buncombe have 4 percent, Henderson has 5 percent. Only the town of Franklin has a room tax of 6 percent, though outside the town limits in the rest of Macon County it is only 3 percent.
Jackson County commissioners approved the room tax hike this week in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Mark Jones of Cashiers casting the lone no vote.
This summer, Jackson County received authorization from the state legislature to increase its room tax up to 6 percent, but had to vote to enact it.
Before voting, county leaders reviewed tourism-related information about neighboring counties. It shows Swain County is leading the pack, with 3,210 tourism-related jobs compared to 560 in Jackson County — a difference likely accounted for by the Nantahala Gorge outdoor scene and Harrah’s Cherokee casino.
Jackson County, like most counties, has seen a decline in room tax collection rates with the recession; starting about four years ago. The past couple of years, room tax collections have been rebounding, but Jackson seems to have faired worse than its neighbors, with bigger drops and a weaker rebound.
“We need to redouble our efforts to attract tourists to Jackson County,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “Anything we make off tourism helps relieve pressure off of property taxes … these are taxes tourists pay. The citizens of Jackson County will not be burdened with another tax.”
Commissioner Charles Elders described the numbers that show Jackson lagging “troubling.”
Jones, who chairs the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism, did not specify exactly why he voted against the tax increase. But he did caution his fellow commissioners that “I hope the intent of these monies is to stay within the original intent,” that is, to market and promote tourism.
New state language in the law, Jones said, allows “it to be piggybacked on, it allows for hardscapes — as long as it promotes tourism.” Historically, room tax — under state law — had to be spent on tourism promotion. Now, it can be spent on “tourism-related” developments, which could include sports fields to attract tournaments, greenways or festival venues.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the original 1987 resolution by Jackson County authorizing a room tax would need modifying before any actions except promotion could take place.
“We don’t have to decide that right now,” Chairman Jack Debnam said.
The formula for distributing the additional room tax is unclear. Currently, 75 percent of room tax collected in Cashiers is used exclusively by Cashiers to promote that area rather than the county as a whole. The rest of the room tax is managed by the countywide Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, a public body.
Haywood County 4 percent
Jackson County 3 percent
Macon County 3 percent, plus town of Franklin imposes an additional 3 percent
Swain County 3 percent
• 2006-2007 $506,574.48
• 2007-2008 $506,004.53
• 2008-2009 $429,378.27
• 2009-2010 $413,939.07
• 2010-2011 $446,339.59
• 2006-2007 $305,352
• 2007-2008 $320,820
• 2008-2009 $309,802
• 2009-2010 $335,353
• 2010-2011 $352,437
• 2006-2007 $935,000
• 2007-2008 $1.04 million
• 2008-2009 $954,000
• 2009-2010 $891,000
• 2010-2011 $962,500
Tourism spending is on the rise after three years of stagnation and decline. The North Carolina Division of Tourism, Development conducts an economic impact study every year. It uses the industry standard “Travel Economic Impact Model” to measure the impact of travel, a disaggregated model that looks at everything from lodging and food to retail and recreation. Here’s a decade’s worth of those tourism economic impact numbers.
2000 99.9 million
2001 97.7 million
2002 97.8 million
2003 95.9 million
2004 97.69 million
2005 103.4 million
2006 111 million
2007 116.6 million
2008 113.6 million
2009 108.9 million
2010 116.3 million
2000 50.5 million
2001 50.1 million
2002 53.6 million
2003 53.5 million
2004 55.7 million
2005 61.7 million
2006 68.2 million
2007 72.6 million
2008 69 million
2009 60 million
2010 62.5 million
2000 89.7 million
2001 81.1 million
2002 89.8 million
2003 85.9 million
2004 92.2 million
2005 102.5 million
2006 111.1 million
2007 115.4 million
2008 120.5 million
2009 114.5 million
2010 122.1 million
Swain (includes Cherokee)
2001 199.2 million
2002 214.8 million
2003 216.8 million
2004 213.5 million
2005 222 million
2006 240.8 million
2007 251 million
2008 233.3 million
2009 237.3 million
2010 256.3 million
Swain (includes Cherokee) 3,210
They are dubbed by some in the community as the Three Amigos: a new chancellor at Western Carolina university, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County; Mike Murray.
Each started their respective positions July 1. Each promises new eras of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.
“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting this week. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.
Tomas said the Three Amigos have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.
“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.
The university, under the baton of Belcher, is holding a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents have to say about the school’s future. About 45 or 50 people, many of them WCU and SCC employees, turned out for the Jackson County hearing, though far fewer than that opted to actually stand up and speak.
Those who did called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty. They discussed a lack of childcare for professionals; and more specific needs, such as a request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, for WCU to again produce a regional economic report. Susie Ray, a retired WCU employee, urged the university to tap into the huge retiree population in WNC and corner a niche on “creative retirement.”
There were complaints that WCU wasn’t accessible to the community. The swimming pool, for instance, is closed to the public unless you are a student or WCU employee, forcing those who want to swim for exercise to motor over the Balsams to Waynesville. Continuing education classes are priced out of the reach of anyone except, perhaps, retired employees from WCU.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who retired from the university after 30 years service, told his former colleagues that many in the community simply don’t feel comfortable on campus. They feel uneasy and out of place. And, in turn, many of WCU’s faculty and staff choose to live somewhere other than Jackson County, with their connections to the community limited to commuting back and forth to work.
Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, spoke similarly of the “silo” mentality that’s afflicted the various Jackson County educational institutions.
“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”
The parking crunch at Jackson County’s new library in Sylva has largely eased, thanks to a new sidewalk that allows employees and exercise-minded readers to park farther away and walk safely.
The library opened earlier this summer. It is housed in a large addition to the newly renovated historic courthouse that dominates Sylva from its strategic position on a hill above town. The new library has been the toast of the town, generally lauded except for a spate of complaints about a shortage of parking spaces within the cramped footprint where it was built.
Also helping the parking cause are library and county workers, who are now officially doing what many were opting to do previously out of courtesy alone — parking away from the library to free-up as many parking spaces for patrons as possible.
“No one has complained directly to me lately about how there is ‘no parking’ at the library,” head Librarian Dottie Brunette said late last week.
The library employees are stashing their cars at Bicentennial Park below the building, and hoofing it up Keener Street via a new sidewalk the town helped build. The county also has worked to improve the access from the nearby 10-acre Mark Watson Park, located on west Main Street, where library parking is available to those willing to walk up a set of stairs.
“I didn’t have any trouble finding a parking space,” said Laura Wright, a visitor from Virginia who drove to the library as a scenic destination at the behest of local tourism officials. “And, the courthouse is lovely.”
Comments by Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe about a rape victim published in the weekly Cashiers newspaper two weeks ago have sparked protests from local and state groups that combat sexual violence, as well as individuals from the Cashiers community.
The news article, printed under the banner headline “Alleged sexual assault reported,” appeared in the Aug. 24 edition of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle. It included a blow-by-blow account, attributed to the sheriff, of the rape victim’s long evening of barhopping and heavy drinking in the hours leading up to two men following her home and breaking into her house. The 34-year-old woman told deputies one man raped her while the other waited for him to complete the act.
Critics have reacted angrily to the tone of Ashe’s comments. They said the sheriff seemed to cast doubt on the truthfulness of the woman’s rape claim. The news article also emphasized that several hours passed before the woman reported being attacked and discussed, at length, her level of alcohol intake that night.
“It painted the picture of someone who is lying, or who was to blame for anything that happened,” said Monika Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “Now in Jackson County, if I’m a woman and I’ve been drinking or gone to the bar and been sexually assaulted, I know what’s going to happen if I report it.”
Ashe said he’d provided the Chronicle’s reporter a factual recounting as the victim relayed the situation to law enforcement. After the sheriff indicated that he had not read the article — “I know what I said, I don’t know what they printed” — a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News read the article from the Cashier’s paper, in its entirety, aloud to him during the course of a cell-phone interview late last week.
Ashe was asked whether he wanted to correct any inaccuracies or misquotes in the newspaper’s report. The sheriff neither disputed the accuracy of the article nor asserted that he’d been misquoted. Kelly Donaldson, editor of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, declined to comment, which is the policy of the newspaper’s parent company, Community Newspapers Inc. of Athens, Ga.
Ashe emphasized that he did not intend to indicate that the woman’s barhopping brought on the sexual assault. A suspect, Efrai Ubera Morales, 30, of an Amethyst Drive, Cashiers, address, was arrested 16 days after the attack on a charge of first-degree rape.
“I’m not saying (the victim) went out and asked to get raped, but we can’t change the facts from what she told us,” Ashe said. “That’s the truthful statement from the victim.”
Hostler and other critics, however, said Jackson County’s top law enforcement leader and the way the newspaper article was framed crossed serious moral and ethical boundaries. In the end, according to Hostler’s assessment, an innocent victim appeared on the front page of her local, hometown newspaper (circulation 3,200) in substance, at least, judged responsible for a sexual assault.
The woman was not identified by name in the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle’s report, which is standard practice by most news organizations when reporting on sexual assaults. But in that small community in southern Jackson County, who she is and where she lives rapidly became public knowledge.
The article and the sheriff’s comments outraged Mary-Allyson Henson of Cashiers. She blames both Ashe and the newspaper equally for heaping further abuse on a woman who’d suffered through a sexual assault.
“There are no circumstances that would justify a woman being violated, period,” said Henson.
In fact, however, Henson said the victim was a friend who rarely goes out, and who had simply wanted to enjoy the evening celebrating another friend’s birthday.
Almost from the beginning of the news article, the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle focused on the woman’s actions that night.
“Though the assault occurred at the home, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe said that the night consisted of trips to multiple bars, which may or may not have been where the perpetrators encountered the victim,” the Chronicle’s article stated in the first paragraph.
The newspaper and sheriff also elected to tag the woman’s report an “alleged” sexual assault.
“It actually started at an individual’s house consuming alcohol,” Ashe was quoted as saying. “From there, the victim went to the Sapphire Mountain Brewing Company, and from the brewing company it went to the Gamekeeper where a birthday party was going on for one of her friends. There was continued consumption of alcohol during that course.”
When the article was published, detectives were hoping to locate surveillance video that would reveal the suspect’s identity, which is perhaps why Ashe elaborated on the victim’s schedule that night. He did not say that, however. Ashe did defend the use of the word “alleged.”
“It is ‘alleged’ until we can prove that it happened,” Ashe told The Smoky Mountain News. He does not apparently agree that the use of the word “alleged,” when attached in this manner to a victim’s report of sexual assault, might cast doubts on whether law enforcement believed the woman involved.
Generally, newspapers use the word “alleged” when referring to someone charged with a crime. A suspect can allegedly commit murder, but the murder itself is not alleged. The murder happened. The only uncertainty is who did it. If arson was committed, or a theft occurred, those crimes are not alleged. They occurred and are treated as facts. A suspect later charged with the crime allegedly committed it until a court of law proves them guilty.
Ashe, via the Cashiers newspaper, then described the actual rape.
“She said that two Hispanic males entered her home,” Ashe told the Chronicle. “She was not sure how they got into the home; there was no forced entry. One of the Hispanic males forced her to the floor and had sexual intercourse with her in the bathroom area. … She was able to send a message from her cell phone to the friend, whose residence she was at previously, and said something to the effect that she was being assaulted.”
The newspaper reporter then wrote: “According to Ashe, it was not until the following morning when one of the victim’s friends convinced her to go to the hospital for a rape kit, around 6 a.m., that the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office was contacted in regards to the assault.
The article then quoted Ashe directly as saying: “’During his whole time, no one had contacted law enforcement: not when she was being followed, not when the assault occurred, not after she had a conversation with her friend on the phone who she spoke to. During none of this time had any law enforcement been contacted. It wasn’t until she had a female friend who she was talking to convince her that next morning around 6 a.m. that she (needed) to go to the hospital and be checked.’”
Later in the newspaper article, Ashe is quoted as saying the victim provided “very vague descriptions,” and that she knew one of the Hispanic males involved went by the alias or nickname of “Drug Boy.”
Brent Kinser, president of REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors, said in an email interview with the The Smoky Mountain News that he wasn’t “sure in whom I am more disappointed: the sheriff, Mr. Ashe, who made the statements, or the writer … who presented them in such a clearly accusatory way.”
REACH is a nonprofit that works to help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Surely neither of these good men intended to imply that this victim had it coming to her, and yet the article reads in such a way that lends itself to precisely that interpretation. The only question here is the guilt or innocence of the perpetrators of this crime,” Kinser wrote. “The victim is only that, a victim, whether she decided to enjoy herself with friends at one location, or several, alcohol present or not. It is indeed painful to see yet another case of sexual violence in which a victim, in addition to all else, will now have to find some way to forgive herself, since according to this article, she behaved in such a way to invite the assault.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, executive director of REACH, said that “victim blaming is definitely the issue here.”
“It was reported that there were trips to multiple bars, with extensive information on alcohol consumption,” Roberts-Fer said. “It leads one to believe that if you consume alcohol you deserve or can expect to be raped. Not only is this information irrelevant, it actually is giving false information to the public, by implying that if you don’t consume alcohol you can somehow avoid being raped. This is not true — anyone can be raped, under any circumstance, and the one responsible for the rape is, very simply, the rapist.”
Terrifying, exciting and kind-of liberating. That’s how Tom Scheve describes the inaugural experience of telling jokes on stage. And usually, he says, you either get it out of your system then and there, or the performance bug gets you.
“We’re trying to develop and encourage people who do it for the first time and try and see who’s going to catch the bug,” says Scheve, which is part of why he’s teamed up with a local comedian who styles himself Shucky Blue and No Name Sports Pub in Sylva to start an open mic comedy night.
Now, for the budding humorist who doesn’t want to trek to Asheville, there’s a local evening where they can test out their best cracks.
The show is scheduled every Monday night, and beginners to seasoned pros are welcome on the stage, says Scheve. The regular performers, in fact, were one of the biggest factors in the night’s genesis.
“Performers that have been doing it for a while, they want to get on stage every night,” says Scheve, and he’s one of those guys. “I try to perform as much as I can and also build as much stage time as possible for regional performers. And there wasn’t anything close to me on Monday night. The closest one is in Greenville.”
With this new night, he’s hoping to cultivate something of a little comedy scene in Western North Carolina, like the one that gave him his start in Asheville.
That town, he says, now has a pretty vibrant comedy scene, even hosting an annual comedy festival with the appropriately tongue-in-cheek moniker, Laugh Your Asheville Off.
But it started, he says, with a night called Tomato Tuesday, where guests were given tomatoes to throw at a gong when they wanted you of stage.
Yes, it sounds pretty brutal. But Scheve says it was exactly what he was looking for.
Sylva’s evening of laughter may not be quite as caustic, but do expect it to be unexpected.
“This is an open mic, which means no promises, no expectations and it’ll be basically whoever decides to show up that night,” says Scheve. But he kind-of likes it that way, and the impromptu nature of an open mic offers benefits to performers and patrons alike, he says.
For the novices, it can be a try-before-you-buy experience. Not sure if you can hack comedy with a live audience? Then try it on stage for one minute, two minutes. It’s an open mic, so no one will commit you to a longer, more daunting time slot.
For the comedy consumer, variety is the selling point of nights like this.
“It’s just really fun because you really don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Scheve. “If you really hate it, if you wait a few minutes, somebody else is going to be on stage.”
In addition to being a performer, Scheve also writes the Asheville Disclaimer, a satirical column in the weekly Mountain Xpress. Plus, he has experience running shows. He’s at the helm of a similar comedy evening on Wednesdays in Asheville.
And part of making them a success, he knows, is having a good venue on board.
No Name was perfect in that sense. It was actually looking for some help with a comedy evening, and with some assistance from the sometimes-reliable Craigslist, got matched up with Scheve.
Though it’s only been on its feet for a mere two weeks, Scheve hopes that just the night’s existence will entice closet comedians onto the stage, giving them a community where they can hone and cultivate their skills.
“I want it to be a vehicle that kind-of nurtures and develops a little comedy scene west of Asheville,” says Scheve. “The people that want to perform comedy are out there, and they’ve been thinking about it and looking for a chance. I‘m hoping that they’ll come out and give it a try.”
What: No Name Comedy Night
Where: No Name Pub, 1070 Skyland Drive, Sylva
When: 8 p.m. every Monday
What else: Call 828.216.2331 for more information
Western Carolina University, eager to broadcast Catamount sports and other school-based programming to a larger audience than it can currently reach, is fighting The Canary Coalition for rights to a new FM radio station.
The station could reach up to three states once on the air, depending on which Jackson County mountaintop the transmitter is located, according to regional radio experts.
WCU’s current radio station, WWCU 90.5 FM, on a good day is heard roughly from Sylva to parts of Buncombe County. The signal is spotty at best, however.
WWCU 90.5 FM currently reaches about 43,627 people. Meanwhile, 73,800 people potentially could hear the new FM radio station, according to Federal Communications Commission filings.
Asheville-based public radio station WCQS, the Cherokee Boys & Girls Club and a nonprofit Christian foundation based in Georgia also applied for the new frequency.
While the FCC tentatively awarded air rights for the new full-powered FM radio frequency to The Canary Coalition, a small grassroots environmental organization headquartered in Sylva, WCU is not going down without a fight.
WCU has hired the private Raleigh law firm Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey and Leonard, whose specialties include telecommunications and media law, to persuade the FCC to give it the license instead of The Canary Coalition.
The Canary Coalition has a staff of one, Executive Director Avram Friedman, and is using the legal services of an attorney in California to fend off WCU’s bid for the radio station. The attorney is helping the nonprofit for a reduced rate, Friedman said.
Larry Nestler, chairman of The Canary Coalition’s board, questioned why WCU would choose to pick this fight during such tough budgetary times. The state cut the university’s budget this year by 13.5 percent.
“And here is Western hiring a big-time law firm out of Raleigh using taxpayer money,” Nestler said. “It seems a little much.”
WCU has paid the Raleigh lawyers $21,752.34 so far in legal fees, according to the university.
The university issued a terse statement when queried about its bid for the radio station, saying through spokesman Bill Studenc that: “Because the application is still pending with the FCC, the university is unable to comment on the status of the application, or any specifics about the application, until that process has moved forward to completion.”
The Smoky Mountain News then filed several requests for information from WCU under the state’s public records law. WCU complied with most of the requests, but has yet to produce emails, as also requested under the state law, to-and-from various university leaders regarding the radio station.
WCU’s legal battle against The Canary Coalition originated under former Chancellor John Bardo, who retired this summer from the university’s top post. It isn’t clear whether new Chancellor David Belcher will embrace his predecessor’s fight.
Records reveal that WCU is fighting The Canary Coalition on every front that it can, challenging a variety of claims in the environmental group’s FCC application, and even arguing about whether The Canary Coalition is locally based as claimed.
The FCC used a point system to award licenses, with applicants given a set number of points if they met certain criteria. The Canary Coalition received five points (three for being local and two for diversity), WCU just three (localism only).
In its petition to overturn the FCC’s ruling that tentatively favors The Canary Coalition, WCU countered that the nonprofit is not a local entity — rather, that people think of it as an Asheville-based group, though it indeed leases office space in Sylva.
Perhaps most significantly, WCU has called into question the financial solvency of The Canary Coalition. The group, WCU’s high-powered legal team says, doesn’t have the money to back the dream of a radio station with regional reach.
The Canary Coalition indeed might have trouble proving it has the financial ability to get a radio station up and running. Friedman estimates it will cost about $50,000 to get on the air, for equipment, staff and so on. The FCC wants those awarded a frequency to have enough money in the bank to construct and operate a radio station for three months.
In a filing with the FCC, The Canary Coalition pointed to a bank balance on Feb. 5 of $43,945.97 as evidence that it can build and operate a radio station.
That just doesn’t cut it, WCU responded in a follow-up filing. A more complete financial picture of The Canary Coalition, not a one-day snapshot, doesn’t bode well for the group’s ability to pay for a radio station, WCU claimed. The Canary Coalition is attempting “to elevate the significance of that one-day balance determinatively above the significance of three years’ worth of public IRS filings … that show Canary’s downward-trending revenues and dire financial health,” WCU wrote to the FCC.
When Friedman put out a fundraising call to help get the radio station up and running in an email newsletter to Canary Coalition members and supporters last week, WCU jumped on it as more evidence the environmental organization doesn’t have start-up costs required by the FCC. WCU filed a supplemental petition late last week, citing the newsletter, that indicates Friedman is soliciting money now from group members for the project.
“This admission by Canary conclusively demonstrates not only that Canary lacks the funds to construct and operate the proposed station for three months without revenue but also that Canary recognizes that it lacks the funds. This admission is fatal to Canary’s financial certification and qualification,” the university’s lawyers maintained.
WCU’s lawyers also pointed out that The Canary Coalition originally estimated costs for the radio station at just more than $39,000, but now is seeking $50,000. Regardless of which amount is correct, WCU’s Raleigh law firm stated, a radio station “is clearly beyond (The Canary Coalition’s) financial ability to build and operate.”
If WCU is able to overturn The Canary Coalition’s rights to the new FM station, plans call for the university to continue serving the area with its current “unique, locally originated programming,” plus to turn the station into “the flagship station in the WCU Catamount Sports Network, airing live college athletics of substantial importance to the local community.”
“Through the airing of its non-commercial educational program service, (WCU) brings thousands of hours of unique radio broadcast programming — including educational and curriculum-related programming — to its service area every year, and … seeks to further its educational mission by expanding its ability to provide such programming to the residents of Western North Carolina.”
How old is the radio station at WCU?
In 1948, WCCA 550 AM signed on as a radio station from the lower floor of the Joyner building. In 1949, the call letters were changed to WWOO. In 1972, WWOO changed its call letters to WCAT. In 1977, WCAT 550 AM went off the air and WWCU 90.5 FM went on the air.
What’s the coverage area?
Roughly, from west of Sylva to the west side of Asheville, though the terrain of the mountains makes the coverage sporadic in places. The station transmitter is located on Cutoff Mountain near Balsam Gap.
How is it subsidized, to the tune of what each year?
The radio station receives two funding allocations each year for operational expenses. The station receives $15,000 from the provost’s office and $27,500 in education and technology funds.
Does the radio station make any money?
The radio station is licensed as a noncommercial educational station and as such does not sell commercial advertising.
Is it student run?
WWCU operates with a student general manager and student program coordinator under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The student general manager and program coordinator work with a volunteer staff of students, staff, and faculty.
What is the programming?
Classic rock, plus weather, WCU sports programs, and some Native American-geared programming.
The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group rooted in Jackson County that fights for air quality, might soon take to the airwaves via its own educational, community radio station.
Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, believes a local radio station would provide the entire environmental community in Western North Carolina with its own forum, plus open educational and networking opportunities for those involved. A range of community-oriented programs by other nonprofits could be included, and local musicians featured, Friedman said. A more complete vision of the future community radio station still must be hammered out, he said.
In a newsletter announcement last week to The Canary Coalition’s members, Friedman noted: “The organization’s leaders view this an opportunity to bring the public educational and advocacy mission of the Canary Coalition to a new level of effectiveness. This will be a radio station that offers programming found nowhere else, delivering in-depth coverage of environmental issues and news.”
Friedman added that in his view, the environmental and social progress community has little voice in a world of corporate-owned mass media.
“Important events, demonstrations, public hearings, discussions, debates and informational forums are often ignored by the conventional media or relegated to small back page, one-time articles that may even miss the point entirely. Even public radio stations have been less than forthcoming with covering the news and events organized by local nonprofits,” he wrote.
There are, at rough count, at least 34 environmental organizations based in WNC. If The Canary Coalition successfully launches its radio station, it could open the region’s airwaves to issues that are of interest to other nonprofits as well, empowering the grassroots movement in WNC as never before.
That’s because The Canary Coalition’s radio station wouldn’t be a dinky, low-powered station with a broadcast reach of a measly two blocks or so.
The Federal Communications Commission has given The Canary Coalition the OK for a full-powered FM station. Regional radio experts say the station could potentially broadcast to a three-state audience, depending on where the transmitter is placed. The radio station would be based in Dillsboro, frequency 95.3 FM (for two decades where listeners in WNC have found public radio WCQS, see accompanying story).
“We view this as an opportunity to provide that voice for the environmental community,” Friedman said one day last week in a cell phone interview as he headed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a protest against a pipeline that would connect oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.
In an application filed with the FCC, The Canary Coalition promised to “coordinate with local educational institutions, community health, environmental, social and cultural organizations and the business community on developing programming for the station. In addition, it will broadcast cultural programming including musical content relevant to the population of the service area, as well as local news, public affairs programming and public service announcements.”
Friedman, a Bronx native, is a fixture in the WNC environmental movement. Friedman studied political science at Hunter College, and has been a grassroots activist since the late 1960s. Friedman, a Sylva resident, ran unsuccessfully — twice — against Democrat Rep. Phil Haire for the right to represent Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood counties in the state House.
He is unapologetically liberal, even perhaps something of a radical, at least by many mountain residents’ standards. He was arrested twice for protesting Duke Energy’s Cliffside coal plant, once in front of the governor’s mansion and once in front of Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte.
If the FCC issues a construction permit (Western Carolina University wants to wrest the frequency away from the nonprofit, see accompanying article), Friedman and The Canary Coalition would have a three-year window to study what programming to offer, and how to get the radio station actually up and running.
Larry Nestler, who chairs the nonprofit’s board, said he believes a radio station could serve both as a source of revenue for The Canary Coalition, and “as a way of getting the word out on soliciting help on getting clean air.”
Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, which operates the low-powered MAIN-FM 103.5, said in his group’s case the Internet Service Provider side of MAIN subsidizes the radio station. The technical staff essentially has done double duty for the ISP and the station, Bowen said.
The Canary Coalition has even shallower pockets than MAIN. This would be noncommercial radio — minus paid advertisements — so listener contributions and grants would most likely have to sustain the operation in Dillsboro, Bowen said.
The Prometheus Radio Project, a national group promoting community-based radio, estimates that a “minimalist” studio can cost only $4,000 (not including furniture), depending on how much equipment is donated. A high-end studio, however, can cost as much as $100,000.
Friedman estimated it would cost about $50,000 to buy the needed equipment, hire some staff and get the radio station started. In a recent newsletter, he urged members to consider supporting the effort with cash donations.
Friedman told the nonprofit’s members that “if and when we overcome this challenge (from WCU) and gain the FCC license, we look forward to a new era when The Canary Coalition can serve the community in a new and spectacular manner, broadcasting news and information about air quality, climate change, new developments in the renewable energy and efficiency economy transformation. News of the Fukishima catastrophe and other nuclear accidents will not be blacked out in our region, on this station. Listeners will learn about the realities of hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking). There will be no corporate tampering with this news. The facts will be presented, discussed and debated.”
In 2007, in a relatively rare event, the FCC accepted applications from community groups across the nation seeking full power, noncommercial radio licenses. A second round of applications took place last year.
There were a limited number of these new FCC licenses to go around — only in areas with open bandwidth on the radio dial, and only for nonprofit, community radio stations.
The idea was to open up the airwaves to non-corporate interests and encourage citizen access and community participation, said Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville.
Bowen, a nationally known advocate for local ownership of media infrastructure, was on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Bowen’s group already operates MAIN-FM 103.5, a low-powered FM radio station that bills itself as “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” and is based in Asheville.
As Bowen followed the FCC’s release of new frequencies, he discovered there indeed would be one in the mountains, but not in Asheville — it was being issued in Dillsboro.
“We didn’t qualify, because we are Asheville-based,” Bowen said. “But I immediately thought of The Canary Coalition. This was a golden opportunity, and there are folks (including MAIN) who have the experience to help them.”
He called Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, and the idea of Canary Coalition radio was born.