There’s no clear winner in a complex and multifarious new system for ranking roads projects when it comes to the ongoing debate over Sylva’s main commercial drag.
In just-release road rankings, redesigning N.C. 107 out ranked the competing proposal to build a new highway bypass around it — but just barely.
The two dueling projects — redesigning N.C. 107 versus building a bypass to divert traffic from it — ranked second and third on a wish list of road building projects for the six western-most counties, with 45 and 44 points respectively.
The near tie means controversy is bound to continue over the best way to address perceived congestion on Sylva’s thoroughfare.
The two projects are neck and neck in the ranking process, despite a strong message by local leaders that they overwhelming prefer to rework N.C. 107. A regional transportation committee comprised of leaders from the six western counties got to weigh in on the road ranking — and in doing so awarded reworking N.C. 107 the maximum number of points it could.
By contrast, the regional leaders awarded zero points to the concept of a bypass around N.C. 107.
The bypass was catapulted forward anyway, however, thanks to heavily weighted points injected into the ranking process by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Sarah Graham, a transportation planner and community liaison for the Southwestern Planning Commission, sees the ranking process as a success for public input, even though the preference of local leaders was nearly outstripped by DOT’s own rankings.
“The conversation we have going on now is of improvements to the current road, compared to a few years ago when the conversation going on was whether or not we wanted a (bypass),” Graham said. “The community said we want to see what it would take to improve 107 before you build a new 107.”
Indeed, community input got the idea of reworking N.C. 107 put on the list in the first place, and then advanced it forward.
But, some Jackson County leaders are discouraged that their input into the ranking process, which showed a clear preference for reworking N.C. 107 over a bypass, got watered down after the state DOT was done with the list.
“It is frustrating to see that a project the county planning board and the county commissioners ranked very low to score so highly on the statewide ranking,” said Gerald Green, Jackson County planner. “It made the time the county commissioners and planning board put into reviewing the projects and ranking them seem to be wasted and it felt as though our input was given much consideration.”
The road rankings were done under a new system launched last year that is supposed to be objective and data-driven. The DOT awards its points based on several predefined variables. The old process was considered subjective, determined in part simply by the preferences of politically appointed DOT board members.
Gov. Beverly Perdue ushered in the new system, as one of many state government reforms aimed at transparency and ending political corruption.
“It is a scientific approach that would remove so much of the politics involved in funding transportation and try to infuse the process with more science and more local input,” Graham said.
The ranking process can be a bit daunting to the novice, however.
The final list is a mish-mash of rankings by local leaders, the local DOT office and state DOT planners. Each has its own system for awarding points. Points are also weighted, so the points awarded by the state DOT office count for a greater share of the total than those awarded by local leaders.
The system is still relatively new, but local leaders on the regional transportation committee have already figured out a way to game the system and try make their points count more.
Since the DOT’s block of points are weighted more heavily, input by local leaders can only carry a project so far. The regional committee is given a block of 1,300 point to divvy up among its favorite road projects, with the caveat that it can’t award more than 100 of the points to a single project.
Last year, the regional transportation committee carefully spread their allotted bank of points among a long list of road projects, splitting hairs over how many points each project should get out of the total 1,300 they had to work with.
Their balancing act ended up being for naught once the DOT added its points to the mix, however. The preferences of local leaders were watered down once the DOT plunked its more valuable points into the mix.
So this year, the local leaders on the regional transportation task force decided to game the system. Instead of spreading their allotted points around to lots of different projects, they dedicated all their points to a handful of top projects and gave zero to the rest.
In the end, they got more bang for their points.
“They realized you have to work together to get your projects moved up the ladder,” Graham said. “They said, ‘let’s give 100 points, the most we can give, to our top projects and start pushing them up faster.’ If we are going to be given some say, we want it to mean the most.”
Graham said the transportation planning committees across the state have caught on to the strategy as well.
But, public input actually had an influence in the state’s road project rankings, so Graham sees it as a success.
“If we had not put improvements to 107 on the list and given it 100 points, it would not have been on there at all,” Graham said.
The rankings are all well and good, but the question ultimately is which ones will get money.
“We don’t really know how much money is going to be applied,” said Joel Setzer, head of the DOT for the 10 western counties. “What everybody wants to know is what is going to get worked on. We don’t know that yet.”
Technically, building a bypass is further along in the planning process than reworking N.C. 107. The alternative of reworking N.C. 107 emerged only a few years ago, while the idea of a bypass dates back two decades and has been inching ahead, albeit slowly.
“It is already in the development stage,” Setzer said.
But, “there is very little work being done on it,” he added.
Now, it is unclear whether that work should be halted, and the money put toward reworking N.C. 107 instead.
“We can’t hopscotch around the priority list,” Setzer said. “Because of the rankings, we can’t continue to work on the planning of the 107 (bypass) without addressing this potential project to widen existing 107 because widening existing 107 ranked higher.”
While Setzer refers to the project as “widening” 107, that’s not what local leaders who requested the project would call it. They want traffic flow improved, but in their book, that doesn’t necessarily mean a carte blanche widening.
In fact, that highlights a source of contention between the community and DOT over what exactly a “reworked” N.C. 107 would look like.
DOT did a cursory plan for reworking N.C. 107 that calls for wider lanes, more lanes, bigger intersections and medians. The new footprint would be so wide it would take out nearly every business lining the commercial thoroughfare.
Local leaders and the business community believed there had to be another option for reworking 107, however.
“They didn’t like what the DOT suggested,” Graham said. “They said we don’t want the study defined for us. We don’t like the way it was defined for us.”
So a task force of town and county leaders, along with local business owners, hopes to come up with a more tenable solution. It has been meeting for a few months.
“There wasn’t really a clear vision of what had to be done with 107,” said Chris Matheson, a Sylva town board member and business owner. “There’s a lot more to consider than how to get from the light at 107 to the high school quicker. We are finding out just how complicated it is.”
Opinions on the committee vary on the extent of the congestion — which will ultimately frame out much of a “fix” the road needs.
Randy Hooper, owner of Bryson’s Farm Supply, doesn’t think traffic is that bad judging by his own commute.
“I can leave here in the afternoon and be home in 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, I could do the same thing,” said Hooper. “It takes no longer to get back and forth to work now as it did 20 years ago.”
The goal of the task force is to speak with one voice on what the community wants a “reworked” 107 to look like.
“We need our community leaders to be backing a single vision. We hope the corridor study will create the community consensus so as we move this project up the funding ladder we can say, ‘This is our vision. Help us fund it,’” Graham said.
Setzer agreed consensus is currently lacking.
“We are polarized right now on what we think we need to do, as a community,” Setzer said.
The $289,000 loan from Jackson County to the new owner of Sylva radio station WRGC has finally gotten the green light, meaning the popular local station could be back on the air early next week.
“I think everything is in place to move forward with this,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners earlier this week.
WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a souring economy. Sylva resident Roy Burnette hoped to buy the station and get it back on the air, but lacked the money or financing to do so.
540 Broadcasting Co., the business formed by Burnette, sought an economic development loan of $289,000 from the county. The deal has been in the works for months. Although commissioners OK’d the economic development loan in theory, it got hung up on issues of collateral. It was unclear what assets Burnette would put on the table to guarantee the loan.
Proper collateral, allowing the county to recoup its money should Burnette fail to make payments, is a touchy issue. The county’s track record for economic development loans has not been great in the past — finding itself in possession of the questionable collateral from underground fiber optic lines to 500 sewing machines — and it is trying to be a tad more judicious these days, explaining the hold up on the loan.
The issue of collateralization has now been resolved, County Attorney Jay Coward assured commissioners. Burnette will put up personal real estate “worth in excess of $175,000.” Additionally, an inventory of the radio station’s equipment shows that it, too, is worth in excess of $175,000, Coward said.
Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette needed $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette is providing $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.
Burnette plans to expand the radio station’s reach, previously limited to Sylva, from Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.
Prospects that Rover might one day find himself banned from attending events and festivals in traditionally pooch-friendly Sylva has left some dog owners here feeling like they are on the end of an increasingly short leash.
Town commissioners recently considered following Waynesville’s lead and prohibiting canines, even when controlled on leashes, from street festivals and town-sponsored functions.
Commissioner Harold Hensley emphasized on Tuesday “I am not a dog hater,” but said that he’s heard a rising tide of complaints from citizens and from law enforcement officers about dog-people interactions at town events and festivals.
“There was a man, he spread out on the ground for a picnic, and a big dog came up and helped himself to a piece of chicken off that man’s plate,” said Hensley, adding that more and more towns are moving to prevent those and more serious sorts of interactions.
Sylva leaders ultimately decided to postpone the discussion for now because one of the town’s most storied events, Greening Up the Mountains, is just around the corner, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association.
Greening Up, Sylva’s annual celebration of the arrival of spring when thousands converge on downtown for the biggest street festival of the year, takes place April 28.
The dog-ban issue hasn’t gone away, however, it simply has been postponed for additional debate until a later time. This frustrates dog owners in Sylva, who’ve been free to come and go with their animals as long as they abide by the town’s leash laws and clean up behind their animals when necessary.
“It kind of bugs me when people throw up blocks to bringing all God’s critters together,” said Annie Harlow, who is active in ARF, Jackson County’s humane society.
Harlow’s dog, P-Nut, is a rescue animal. Harlow said she hopes to bring P-Nut to Greening Up to help further socialize the terrier-mix dog.
Harlow emphasized that she’s in favor of some animal-oriented regulations, such as spay and neuter laws and animal-protection acts.
“But, we need to look at why we’re regulating and what it is accomplishing,” she said.
Waynesville long has banned dogs, even when on leashes, from downtown street festivals. That town’s ordinance dates to 2002.
“We’ve had situations over time with dogs being eye to eye with babies and strollers, and situations when folks have almost tripped over dogs’ leashes,” said Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association.
Phillips said the ordinance seemed particularly critical because the sidewalks in Waynesville are narrower than in many other Western North Carolina towns. This placed dogs and people in uncomfortably close proximity, she said.
The decade-old ordinance places dog bans on Waynesville’s parades, four festivals, a block party and street dances. Signs are stuck in sidewalk flower planters on the approach to Main Street announcing the law to festival-goers.
An attempt to provide babysitting services for people’s puppies petered out almost as soon as it began. Haywood Animal Welfare Association offered dog sitting at a festival the first year the ordinance was passed, fearing owners would leave their pets in potentially lethal hot cars while partaking in the street festivities. But, finding volunteers proved difficult, and people just weren’t comfortable leaving their animals with strangers, Phillips said.
Dogs receive their dues and welcomes at Waynesville’s annual Dog Walk, she said, an event sponsored by Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation designed to highlight animal adoption efforts.
Dogs being brought to events and festivals in Franklin and posing hazards to others simply hasn’t been an issue to date in that town, said Franklin Planner Mike Grubbermann. For whatever reason, bringing dogs out into Franklin isn’t a particularly popular pastime, he said.
Pat Thomas, who lives in Sylva and is co-owner of City Lights Café on East Jackson Street, said that she’d be extremely disappointed and even shocked if dogs were banned at Sylva-based events and festivals.
The restaurant has a “pet friendly” patio so that people’s pets can be with there while their owners’ dine.
“In this day and age where pets are considered a part of the family, I cannot imagine not being able to bring my pet dog to an outdoor festival,” Thomas said. “Many visitors that come to this area vacation with their pets. I feel the demographic we are speaking of, in the majority, are responsible pet owners, whether they are visiting, or they reside here. I can definitely say that if I knew an area wasn’t pet friendly, I’d be reluctant to vacation there and would also not suggest the area to any friends.”
Sylva might not exactly be your classic college town — it's certainly not Chapel Hill or Boone. But efforts to bind this community with Western Carolina University have taken catamount-like bounds forward recently.
First, there's a "paint the towns purple" week running Monday, March 19, through Friday, March 23, with students and campus groups adorning storefronts in the official purple and gold colors of WCU. This decking out of Sylva, Dillsboro and the Cullowhee area foreshadows the official installation of new Chancellor David Belcher. He interviewed for the job just more than a year ago, and officially started last July, but the installation ceremony takes place Thursday, March 29.
Secondly, there's the fact that WCU's "First Couple," Chancellor Belcher and wife Susan, are on a first-name basis with many business owners in town. Previous sightings of top WCU administrators in town were as rare as spotting actual catamounts stalking Sylva's downtown district.
These days, though, there's a new top cat in town.
T.J. Eaves, president of WCU's Student Government Association, said that he believes the "paint the towns" purple event will help introduce more students to businesses off-campus, and help business owners in turn promote "purple pride."
"We're really looking forward to it," said Eaves, who added that "when students do get downtown, maybe they'll keep on going" after the event ends.
Randy Hooper and his wife, Debbie, own Bryson Farm Supply & Natural and Organic Food Store on N.C. 107 in Sylva. Hooper said that it's easy to underestimate the importance of WCU to the local economy, and to the financial wellbeing of his particular business as well.
"It would surprise you," Hooper said, explaining that in addition to selling food items to students and a complete inventory of food, garden and lawn items to faculty and staff, WCU's grounds crew buys much of the material for campus from Bryson Farm Supply.
"We get really good support from them," Hooper said, who wasn't sure yet what role his business might play in the paint the towns purple event.
Special deals will be offered all day March 26 by local merchants and restaurants to WCU students, faculty and staff who show their university identification cards.
Sylva town board member Lynda Sossamon, a WCU graduate and co-owner of Radio Shack, said in a prepared news release that the events are "a great reminder" of how important WCU is to Jackson County's communities.
"This is a great way to bring students, faculty and staff into Sylva and Dillsboro and to get members of the community, some of whom may have never set foot on campus, to go to campus," she said. "We truly are a part of WCU, and WCU is a part of Sylva and all of Jackson County."
Dieter Kuhn, who with his wife, Sheryl Rudd, owns Heinzelmännchen Brewery, is at something of a loss to describe the first time he met the Belchers. Chancellor Belcher promptly engaged Kuhn in a lengthy intricate conversation — in the German language.
"He is totally fluent," said Kuhn, a transplant from Germany to the U.S., still clearly delighted with the unexpected language and cultural exchange with WCU's man at the helm.
Students under 21 can get birch beer and root beer at Heinzelmännchen Brewery; graduate students and faculty and staff can get the real stuff, and often do, Rudd said when asked about how important a role WCU plays at this back street in Sylva business.
Hannah Armstrong, who started as a WCU intern at Heinzelmännchen Brewery and now works for the business part time after graduating two years ago, said Sylva has a long way to go before becoming a true college town, however.
"The students are unaware in general that Sylva is even here," the Greensboro transplant said, adding that most WCU students tend to travel to Asheville for shopping and entertainment. Or they simply build bonfires in their yards and drink beer beside them there, Armstrong said.
Rudd hopes to see that indifference change. She was attired appropriately in a purple-colored shirt, and was working at the brewery on Saturday in part to adorn the business' front window in the school's colors. Rudd said that simply by being who they are — friendly and unassuming — the Belchers have begun changing the equation between the university and the community. And for the better, at least in her view.
"It has been wonderful to see them in downtown as customers," Rudd said. "They have actual conversations with you."
This was not what the town's business owners experienced in the past. Previous WCU administrators have had little to do with the local community, at least not in a direct fashion via business owners or other regular folks. In addition to the visibility of the Belchers, relations between WCU and Jackson County have seen additional improvement thanks to the rebirth of WCU's retired financial officer Chuck Wooten, who is now serving as Jackson County's manager.
Bernadette Peters' experience with this suddenly friendly WCU has been similar to that of Rudd's and Kuhn's: extremely positive. Peters is the owner of City Lights Café, located just off of Sylva's Main Street on East Jackson Street. The café's official color logo-wise is purple, giving Peters a head start on the paint the towns purple event.
The café is a frequent hangout for university types. Some of WCU's information technology crew meets there on occasion; several graduate students routinely study in the café.
Peters spoke warmly of David and Susan Belcher and the couple's visible presence in the community that is now their home.
"They call you by name," Peters said in a tone of some wonderment.
March 26 is being set aside as a day of special events in honor of the installation of David Belcher as chancellor of Western Carolina University. The day will be capped by a program at Sylva's Jackson County Public Library at 7 p.m. called "Reflections on Place: An Evening with Distinguished Storytellers" featuring Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe; former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer; and Ron Rash, WCU's Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture and author of The New York Times best-seller Serena. It will be followed by a reception.
The Town of Sylva, in a quiet way, is busy setting a green example for its Western North Carolina neighbors.
First the fire department, and now the new police department, incorporate green, environmentally friendly components. Sylva’s police soon will take over the former library building on Main Street now that the library has moved to a new home on the hill alongside the historic courthouse.
There are a couple of common denominators in these two municipal green projects: town leaders who support these sorts of efforts and Sylva architect Odell Thompson.
“If you can tap into that, you should,” Thompson said. “We do want to do the right thing.”
Police Chief Davis Woodard is a convert, too, adding it’s important “to go as green as possible.”
Green strategies packaged with renovations to the old library include solar cells to augment the electrical system and a solar setup to heat water for showers. Solar tubes, a form of sky lights, will provide additional natural lighting. Some of the retrofitting includes adding insulation along the brick walls inside the old library.
Town council members last week approved $786,500 to fund the renovation. Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said he believes the project will be ready to go out for bid next month.
The green elements are provided as alternatives in the bidding package, Thompson said.
“Up until the last possible second we can accept them or not,” he said.
If the cost comes in higher than the town wants to pay, it can opt to include the green features or trim them down.
The town’s new firehouse was completed a couple of years ago.
There are photovoltaic solar cells to convert the sun into electricity. To save on heating costs, hot water warmed by the sun’s rays flow through coils beneath the concrete slab in the garage bays where the trucks are parked, a form of passive, radiant heating. The slab retains heat because it has thermal mass, which helps keep temperatures warmer.
Up to eight sky lights, known these days as solar tubes, to bring in natural daylight. The building is south facing, and there’s an overhang to prevent heat buildup in summer and accept heat during the winter.
The men’s room has a waterless urinal to save on water use. Plus the building avoided the use of volatile organic compounds in the paints or carpet.
Plans also call for a new look for the library façade on Sylva’s Main Street. The outside of the former public library is dated, even to the casual observer.
“Our goal is to make it look like a municipal building in a good sense,” Thompson said. “Secure, welcoming — not dated. This, now, is 1970s. We want something that is timeless.”
Architectural features from Sylva’s oldest building, the C.J. Harris building on Main Street that now houses Jackson General Store, provided ideas. The architect termed the creative borrowing as a way of “paying homage” to Sylva’s historic past. This includes a portico entrance, which as it sounds is a porch of sorts leading into the building, plus simplification of the roof canopy.
Inside, the police department will have women and men’s locker rooms, office space and a secure area for keeping evidence critical in criminal cases.
Outside and inside will be updated and modernized, Thompson said, adding that Chief Woodard brought a self-created lay-out for the interior space that worked with just some tweaking. Woodard said he collected ideas from visiting law enforcement facilities in Franklin, Maggie Valley and in Clay County. Plus, he said, his officers had ideas about what would make for an efficient workplace in the 6,400-square-foot building
For now, the 15-member town police, counting only fulltime employees, will continue to squeeze into the current police department on Allen Street next to town hall. The officers share just 1,000 square feet.
“We’ve been in that box too long,” Davis said.
Jackson County owned the old library building, but agreed to a property swap with the town last year. The county gave Sylva the old library building, and in exchange the town gave the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.
No jail cells will be built in the future police department. As takes place now, any prisoners detained by police will be taken to the county jail at the administration building.
Architect and engineering: $36,000
Site work: $40,900
Fixtures, furnishings and equipment: $76,800
Borrow seeds in the spring, grow your garden in summer, give them back in the fall. That’s the premise of the Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library, the first seed-lending project in the region.
The concept of the seed-lending library is simple, but the possible ramifications of the project profound: Local growers will be able to check out open-pollinated or heirloom seeds in the spring and return some seed they’ve saved that next fall, in essence replacing the seed they used. Over time, project founder Jenny McPherson hopes a truly local bank of vegetable seed will be built, sustaining the community and protecting local plant diversity.
“Somebody told me that seed libraries do exist, and I got really excited about it,” said McPherson, who heads the Jackson County Farmers Market.
McPherson, who is getting her masters in library science at Western Carolina University, knew how to conduct the research necessary. She quickly discovered Richmond Grows, based in Richmond, Calif., and learned how this iconoclastic group established its seed-lending program. Richmond Grows is a nonprofit seed-lending library physically located in the public library in that city.
Jackson County ended up going another, slightly different route: Sylva Sprouts Seed is being physically located in a cabinet at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, a home that seems to marry like interests and mutual focuses of the project and state agency.
“I really like the idea,” said Mary Ferrick, a faithful buyer at the Jackson County Farmers Market both during the winter indoors and, when the weather moderates, outdoors in downtown Sylva. “Because our seeds need to be preserved. We don’t want to be dependent on agribusiness.”
Jackie Hooper, who operates the diversified seven-acre Shared Blessings Farm in the Tuckasegee community and was selling meats, eggs, vegetables and more last Saturday morning, agreed. But Hooper also is excited about the project because she fears history could repeat itself: too few varieties of seed could spell trouble.
“I think my biggest interest is my concern that we are going to be tied in to just a few varieties of seed,” said Hooper, who recently retired from Jackson County Schools and is now devoting her attention to farming on a fulltime basis.
Take the Irish Potato Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, also known as The Great Hunger. Potato blight struck, and because the Irish had only a limited variety of different potatoes, this staple crop was essentially wiped out.
In the 1970s, when the Southern corn leaf blight hit, it was this country’s turn to learn that lesson. Though three decades later many local growers fear it’s one we’ve forgotten. Fields that once produced many varieties of corn were planted with a single species because this hybrid variety had desirable, marketable qualities. The corn blight cut production by 15 percent and cost U.S. farmers and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Genetic diversity, you see, is food insurance for us all.
McPherson knows and believes this to be true, providing added impetus to get Jackson County’s project up and running as quickly as possible. It will take time to build a proper seed bank for the lending library, plus there’s a strong education component involved. Classes on seed saving will be offered, too, so that community members can participate fully in the library.
Saving some seed is easy enough. You simply let the plant do what it does naturally in the course of a season. You plant it, the plant grows, the plant goes to seed, you let the seed ripen, collect the seed, harvest the seed and store it safely. But some plants are more complicated to collect seed from, and you can quickly find yourself lost at sea when considering proper isolation distances to avoid genetic mingling and various seed-saving techniques.
That, McPherson said, is where the classes will come in. Those wheels were invented long ago, about as long as man has been saving and planting seed, in fact, and likely before the wheel itself was invented.
McPherson said six or so growers already have offered varieties of locally grown seed. The idea is that gardeners can “borrow” four or five seeds per plant that they want to grow, “and then they should bring back — and keep — some of the seeds” at the end of the season, she said.
Start with these ‘easy’ seeds. These seeds are great for beginners to save because they produce plants just like the ones originally planted:
basil • beans • beets • carrots • chard • eggplant • leeks • lettuce • onions • parsley • peas • peppers • spinach • sunflowers • tomatoes
Humans have been saving seeds for over 12,000 years. However, in our culture much of that knowledge has been lost over the last hundred years, along with significant biodiversity. When you grow and save your own seeds, you:
• Develop seed stock that is well suited to our climate.
• Save money.
• Mitigate our dependence on agri-business.
When you participate … you create a culture of sharing and abundance.
• Visit www.RichmondGrows.org.
• Take seed-saving classes.
• Join the seedsavers.org forum.
• Read about seed saving at your local library.
• Talk to experienced seed-saving gardeners.
• Keep good garden records.
Source: Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library
Gary Carden didn’t realize he had an audience. He was coaching Lara Chew through a rehearsal of “Mother Jones,” a play he wrote three years ago about the famous American labor and community organizer. “Mother Jones” will be on stage for audiences in April.
Carden was seated in the front row of a small performance hall at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.
Chew attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Macon County, as does Carden, at least when he feels able to drive over the Cowee mountain range. Chew has spent many insomnia-ridden nights memorizing this more than hour-long dramatic monologue. For the most part, with only an occasional stumble, Chew’s rendition of Carden’s work sounded smooth and true. He mostly listened in silence.
Finally Carden interrupted.
“Drag that out right there,” he urged her. “Because that’s your theme.”
Chew nodded in understanding. She repeated the section again with more emphasis. Carden smiled appreciatively, apparently pleased with the result and the responsiveness to his suggestion.
Chew later discussed working with Carden, a Sylva native who has established himself as one of this region’s most-recognizable, best-known and best-loved wordsmiths through his storytelling, plays and short stories.
At the same time, Carden has earned a reputation for being, well, mercurial.
“He speaks his mind, and I appreciate that,” Chew said. “He wrote ‘Mother Jones,’ so he knows how it’s supposed to go. Yes, he’s easy to work with.”
Carden responded, “No, I’m not. I admit that readily.”
Then Carden added a self-assessment that he can “become irrational” if something blocks what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.
“Yeah, I reluctantly admit that I am a pain in the ass. I have been called a curmudgeon, a damned old geezer, ‘Gary Contrary,’ and a waitress in a local cafe calls me ‘Mr. Grumpy.’ I wish everybody loved me, and as one of my best friends tells me, ‘Gary, you are digging your grave with your tongue.’ But so be it. If you passionately love something and want to accomplish something meaningful, you are going to have to be a pain in the ass,” he said.
Carden is nothing if not complex. He’s a mix of a man, one who can be difficult but is equally capable of great love, generosity and tenderness; and of seemingly endless patience, as on this day with Chew.
How does a man become what and who he is? Carden has spent almost a lifetime, 77 years now, trying to answer that question through written and spoken words. He has told his story, in one form or another, a million times. The characters change, the context changes, the task remains unchanged: Who am I?
The facts that make up Carden’s life history aren’t easy. His father was murdered. His mother left for Knoxville, Tenn., ostensibly for “business school,” Carden said he was told.
“I grew up thinking that Knoxville was some magic place where my mother lived and I ran away several times, at the ages of 3 and 4, going to Knoxville,” he said. “On one occasion, I was taken to Knoxville. I now think my grandparents intended to leave me … but something miscarried, and they brought me back home with no explanation.”
Later, Carden learned that his mother had married a man she’d met in Sylva who had told her that if she came to Knoxville — without the boy — they would get married.
“My grandmother used to discipline me by taking me out on the front porch and pointing to a worn place near the banisters,” Carden said. “‘There is where she left you,’ she would say. ‘Now, I took you when nobody wanted you and you owe me.’”
These experiences profoundly shaped the future writer.
“Even when you are 77 you are still an abandoned child,” Carden said.
Dot Jackson is a longtime friend of Carden’s and an unabashed fan of his work. A former reporter who was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for work at The Charlotte Observer and at The Greenville News, Jackson has authored several nonfiction books. Her novel Refuge was published in 2006.
“Gary has made the most of a painful early childhood,” Jackson said. “As did Pat Conroy with his quick-fisted daddy, Gary has trademarked the imperfect lot of the orphaned toddler. Fact is, he’s done it with such alternating heart, pathos and comedy that like most everything else he does, it’s pretty much a work of genius. And unforgettable.
“I remember realizing, as I read more of the stuff he was writing, that he was exceptionally good. Not the kind of ‘good’ that was learned, but the kind that is once-in-a-blue-moon born.”
Jackson remembers a young Carden expressing a possible desire to work in newspapers, where she spent most of her writing career. The South Carolina resident said being a reporter ensured her a decent living and the ability to write.
“But there was, involved in it, the business of give and take, learning to get all heated up about the fire at the trash dump, or ‘The Sewer Commission met on Thursday and took no action’ … This was not Gary’s world, and mercy kept him out of it,” she said. “He lived in a colorful, sweet-and-sour world of imagination. There were rainbows and clucking chickens and Cherokee bad words and sanctimonious uncles, and the stench of tanning hides that would have wrinkled a late-night editor’s brow — though the world would probably have loved it. Would have, and does.”
Creative ability is a mysterious gift to comprehend anytime, why some people have it and others don’t. So how to decipher the wellsprings of Carden’s vast talent? That mystery is even more unfathomable in his case than others. Because Carden’s family was not what you’d describe as the artistic set, with the possibility, perhaps, of his father.
“He was exceptionally gifted as a musician and was reported to be able to play any musical instrument and often composed melodies off the top of his head, a talent that both awed and disturbed my grandfather. He would sometimes ask him to repeat a melody that he had just played and my father would reply, ‘I can’t, Daddy. It’s gone,’” Carden said.
The remainder of his family Carden described as “the salt of the earth.” Which means not visibly artistic, or interested in the arts, or interested in helping Carden explore his growing passion for literature.
“No one read except my grandmother, who read Mary Rinehart novels and went to the movies each year to see ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’” Carden said. “There was a single bookcase in the house and it was filled with religious tracts, songbooks and They Were Expendable, a book about World War II.”
Carden was a lonely child. He had few playmates. When pressed, he’ll admit to being an outcast within his own family. Like countless isolated children have done before and since, Carden found what solace and comfort he could in books.
“I went to the barn and read and read and read,” Carden said.
When not reading, Carden listened to a small radio his uncle gave him, tuning into radio shows broadcast from the big city of Chicago straight into little Sylva. He memorized songs. He enjoyed comic books.
Eventually, and critically important to his development as a writer and storyteller, Carden discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He felt in his bones the music of the Asheville writer’s “poetic language.” Carden remains as passionate today about Wolfe’s work as when he first read the novelist.
In his book Mason Jars in the Flood, Carden through one character noted that Wolfe wrote “about loneliness and loss,” the great contrapuntal themes that sound in Carden’s own life. The language, he wrote, was beautiful: “the words booming like the organ at First Methodist. I found myself responding to the sound rather than the meaning. ‘Lost! Lost!’”
Carden taught about Wolfe at one time to elderhostel students. Carden quit because, he said, it upset him when they repeated all of the “hackneyed criticisms” of Wolfe, such as “he over-wrote.”
You can thank Sylva’s Fire Department for Carden’s writing career. He started writing in the ninth grade when the fire department sponsored a contest.
“I won it by counting all the matches in a box and estimated the damage I could do with them,” Carden said. “I got a trophy that immediately turned green. The next event was another contest. I won six tickets to the first production of ‘Unto These Hills,’ and had no one to give them to since my family was uninterested.”
His first stories, as Carden tells it to audiences, were relayed to “my grandfather’s chickens in a dark chicken house when I was 6 years old. My audience wasn’t attentive and tended to get hysterical during the dramatic parts.”
Carden had polio and sclerosis. This worked to his advantage when it came time for college: He attended WCU on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship.
“There is no way I would have been able to go otherwise,” Carden said.
Carden graduated with a degree to teach English, which he did for 15 years in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to WCU for his masters in English and drama. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Carden then wrote grants for 15 years for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“It was easy to do and the money rolled in,” Carden said. “I’m not bragging because Washington was eager to fund Native Americans.”
Then Carden went deaf. He continued on with Cherokee until, Carden said, “it became embarrassing.”
“I had problems because I misunderstood what was said by contacts in Washington. Once, I remember that a consultant said, ‘How do you justify Mead?’ That is what I heard. I said I didn’t see what Mead had to do with anything, Mead being the paper plant in Sylva that was a major polluter at the time. We ended up yelling at each other until I realized that he had said, ‘How do you justify need?’ That is just a tiny example of what became a daily problem,” Carden said.
His deafness propelled him directly into fulltime storytelling.
“I was fine as long as I got to do all of the talking,” Carden said. “Then I started teaching elderhostel and most of the elderhostel sponsors were tolerant of my deafness.”
When talking or listening to people, Carden described his attempt to turn up the volume by turning his two hearing aids on full blast. Even then, catching what was said was multiple choices and simply guessing, Carden said.
“Sometimes I’d guess right, sometimes wrong,” he said.
A girlfriend of old paid three years ago for a cochlear implant despite, Carden admitted, an inability of the two to “talk for 30 minutes without shouting at each other.”
The gift transformed his life. Able to hear, his ability to function creatively exploded again into full bloom.
Writers work in different ways, some methodically and others more impulsively. Carden is in the latter camp. He often writes starting at 3 a.m., taking advantage of insomnia to do work more or less “on impulse.”
“Sometimes ideas bother me for months and even years before I finally break down and write about it,” Carden said.
Carden said he started out writing poetry, which he described without elaboration as “a terrible mistake.”
“I did a few inept short stories and finally gave it up until I wrote Mason Jars in the Flood,” he said.
Carden has written eight plays. Asked why has found drama so satisfying a form to work in, Carden explained there is something fundamental about being on stage that helps fill the hole of loneliness.
“When you are on there, people pay attention to you,” Carden said. “You get on that stage and people look at you, and you’re understood until the next day. In my mind it disproved my suspicion that I was worthless ... I was proving that I was ‘worth something.’ The problem is, this quick fix does not last. Within a day or so, the sense of being worth something fades, and you have to start looking for an opportunity to do it again.”
Carden has in the past decade started receiving long-due recognition. Awards and general accolades for his lifetime of work have started flowing in, pleasing those who have watched him labor for so many years. Among them is Joyce Moore, the retired owner of the popular City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She was at a recent production of Carden’s “The Liar’s Bench” with husband, Allen.
“I’m glad Gary finally seems to be hitting the big time after all the years,” Moore said. “He’s an incredibly talented person.”
Mason Jars in the Flood won the Book of the Year Award in 2001 from the Appalachian Writers Association. Two of Carden’s dramatic monologues, “Prince of Dark Corners” and “Nance Dude” have been filmed and appeared on PBS and the Discover Channel. He’s a 2006 winner of a Brown-Hudson Award in Folklore.
Carden has become a speaker at various literary events, including an upcoming appearance April 13-14 at the Carolina Literary Festival in Wadesville, where he’ll talk about storytelling becoming drama.
• “The Uktena,” a Cherokee “mime” play.
• A series of Cherokee plays based on the Nunnihi, street chiefs, old myths.
• “The Raindrop Waltz,” an autobiographical play that has received national exposure.
• “Mason Jars in the Flood,” an award-winning book of short stories.
• “Land’s End,” three monologues presented as a complete play.
• “Belled Buzzards, Hucksters and Grieving Specters,” a play written with Nina Anderson.
• “Papa’s Angels,” written with Colin Wilcox. Made into a movie.
• “Nance Dude,” filmed with Elizabeth Westall.
• “Prince of Dark Corners” made into a movie for PBS and Discovery Channel.
• “The Bright Forever,” a play.
• “A Sunday Evening in Webster,” a monologue.
• “Signs and Wonders,” a play. Premiered in Highlands last year.
• “Coy,” a play that was originally a part of the trilogy “Land’s End.”
• “Mother Jones,” a monologue.
• “Outlander,” a full-length play about Horace Kephart and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will have a full musical score and will be performed this June at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.
It will be several more weeks at best before Sylva AM radio station WRGC gets back on the air, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission to grant the station a license.
Word that the station would resume broadcasting around Valentine’s Day were rumors, said Roy Burnette, who is trying to revive the radio station. In addition to securing the license, Burnette is waiting on a final piece of funding in the form of a Jackson County economic development loan.
WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., which currently operates radio stations in Franklin.
Burnette wants to buy the station and expand its reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.
Burnette, CEO of the new 540 Broadcasting Co., asked county leaders for a $289,000 loan to make his dreams come true. Jackson County commissioners have approved $179,000 of the loan outright and are poised to extend the remainder — if the county can figure out reasonable collateral to cover the loan if the radio station owner defaults. Efforts to protect the county by joining Burnette as a co-license holder on his FCC permit were rejected by the federal agency.
Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette wanted $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette would provide $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.
The county has agreed that payments on the loan would be deferred until May 2012 and then be paid during the next 10 years in 40 quarterly payments at an interest rate of 2 percent.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said that Jackson leaders “are still having to work through” possible collateral and that Burnette might be asked to pledge personal assets.
“He seems amenable,” Wooten said.
For his part, Burnette said he’s simply “waiting on the FCC to grant the license for a transfer.” That will also allow him on moving forward with building a new transmitter.
“Everything will be top quality — the signal and service,” Burnette said.
It ain’t easy be green. Nor is it particularly easy for a full-grown man to position himself beside a busy highway and gyrate wildly for hours on end, day after day, in a Statue of Liberty costume.
Bryan Pixa is doing just that, serving both as a dancing human billboard for Liberty Tax Service in Sylva, located on Asheville Highway, and as a living testimony to those basic qualities that helped make America great: if you are going to do a job, do that job and treat your employer right. Earn that paycheck, son.
In the process of living up to America’s beloved work ethic, Pixa might be emerging as the best street entertainer Western North Carolina has ever seen. Surely he’s the most enthusiastic Statue of Liberty anyone in Sylva has ever seen, what with his leg kicks and wiggles, his hippity-hoppity get-down jiving and grinding, never-let-up-for-a-breath dance moves.
“He’s great,” Liberty Tax Service’s front-desk employee, Brittany Grillo, said of Pixa’s Lady Liberty. She is uniquely qualified to critique Pixa’s overall interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, theatrically and artistically speaking.
Grillo, you see, is a retired Sonic restaurant hotdog.
“I love the way he works,” the onetime hotdog said, who admitted she wasn’t as animated in her dramatic role as a life-sized hotdog.
And yes, those hotdogs and Lady Liberties, that human cow who not so long ago waved its hoof somewhat drearily to passing motorists on behalf of Ryan’s restaurant in Sylva — they most certainly do bring in business, Grillo said.
Does seeing a man in a green Statue of Liberty costume suddenly gyrate into view make drivers’ turn the wheel, pull in and get their taxes done? It works, Grillo insisted.
And it’s relatively inexpensive outdoor advertising. In these dour economic times, businesses such as Liberty Tax Service — a franchise within a national storefront tax preparation company — are pulling out the stops to attract new customers. Lady Liberty captures people’s attention and helps with branding.
This is really just basic old-fashioned advertising livened up for a modern audience. Because when you get right down to it, Pixa and his fellow human billboards are reinventions of the old-fashioned sandwich boards.
“I can’t afford it — I wish I could,” said Anita Stephens, who owns Sign Crafters a door or two away from Liberty Tax Service. “It seems to work, and it’s very entertaining. My customers stand at our door and say they could watch him all day.”
It’s not easy money. Passing motorists are generally supportive and appreciative of Pixa, but there is always the occasional jerk in those poor, tired, huddled masses stopped at the signal light before turning onto N.C 107.
“‘I thought it was Lady Liberty, not big fat Liberty,’” Pixa recounted one passerby as shouting.
Not that he can easily hear what’s being said, supportive or ugly. Under the historically accurate seven rays of his crown, hidden behind large dark sunglasses and heavy smears of green face paint, Pixa is sporting ear buds and rocking out to music. It makes the time pass, keeps him entertained and provides a beat to dance to.
Sometimes, when an emotional lift is in order, the music is undiluted reggae. More often he’s indulging a sudden and strong passion for the music of Ben Harper, who mixes blues, folk, soul, reggae and rock.
Pixa loves being a human billboard and he loves working for Liberty Tax Service. But he’s wearing a Statue of Liberty costume for a very serious reason: Pixa wanted to be in Sylva for the imminent birth of his child. His wife is from here, and Pixa had been living six or so hours away working a regular, successful, routine job in Virginia.
The couple lost their first child in 2008, just hours after the baby was born.
“It was a unique situation,” Pixa said. “I needed to do something to get back to Sylva.”
A newspaper help-wanted ad for the position of a living Statue of Liberty caught his attention.
“I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Pixa said.
Pixa is a musician and an oil painter, and sometimes plays harmonica for motorists while working as the Statue of Liberty. Pixa said he sometimes imagines passing mothers and fathers warning their children they’d better get an education or they’ll grow up to be a Statue of Liberty, just like him.
“But I’ve got an education,” Pixa said good-humouredly. “I just needed some steady income. And I’ve ended up with the best job in town.”
It’s been nearly a year-and-a-half since Edna Queen lost her son, and despite forking over $1,100 for a headstone to mark his gravesite in Fairview Memorial Gardens in Sylva, there’s nothing but a patch of grass where his body lies.
No matter how many times she called Reg Moody, Jr., the owner of Moody Funeral Home and Fairview cemetery, the answer was always the same.
“He kept telling us it would be up next month, next month, next month, and it never did come. The money is gone. It is just awful,” Queen said.
Unfortunately, Queen isn’t alone. There are more than 30 complaints against Moody Funeral Home in Sylva for failing to deliver on grave markers that were paid for but never delivered. Some have been waiting for two or three years.
“To me, that is a lot of money,” said Queen, who’s cried over her son’s missing headstone many times. “Here I am 83 years old. People like me, we just draw Social Security. We just barely exist.”
Exactly when Queen and the 30 others like her will ever get the monuments they paid for is a mystery.
Moody Funeral Home closed in December after years of being dogged in court by collectors. Moody has resigned, and the funeral home has lost its state license.
A likely course of events at this point is a court-ordered liquidation — where all cash and assets are seized and sold off in order to pay what Moody owes, an amount that could clock in at more than half a million dollars.
The biggest problem for now, however, is figuring out exactly what Moody’s assets are. It’s been an ongoing dilemma that has frustrated the court, a string of collectors, and a court-appointed accountant tasked with sorting out Moody’s finances.
The court appointed an accountant to take over the financial side of Moody’s operations two years ago, but she has been stymied by Moody’s failure to turn over business records and bank statements, despite repeated court orders that Moody open his books.
Court documents reveal a tangled web of shell corporations, sole proprietorships and intermingled personal and business bank accounts that succeeded in staying one step ahead of those to whom Moody owed money.
A constant shuffling of business assets from one entity to another has been designed to “hinder, delay and defraud creditors,” according to Shelia Gahagan, a CPA in Waynesville who was appointed to act as a receiver.
Court filings contend that assets once owned by Moody — from its building, to vehicles, to equipment, to the business operation itself — have been siphoned to other entities in hopes of making them untouchable by creditors.
Further, income received by Moody has been placed in a personal bank account kept secret from Gahagan, court filings claim.
“Mr. Moody, Jr. opened a business account in his personal name, has deposited business funds into his personal account and has retained the profits of the business,” Gahagan wrote in court filings.
Moody funneled money from the funeral home into a personal account as part of the concerted and systematic effort to shield profits from collectors he owed money to, court filings claim.
Moody Funeral Home has been the target of a civil lawsuit dating back five years by a casket company owed $176,000 for coffins it delivered but was never paid for.
Last fall, the court finally threatened to hold him in contempt if he continued to stall Gahagan’s efforts to probe the finances and assets of the business — a threat that resulted in Moody resigning and the funeral home being shut down.
Exactly where those waiting for their tombstones are in the line of people owed money by Moody isn’t clear. In addition to money owed to the casket company, Moody also owes back state and federal taxes.
Another complaint against Moody has been the upkeep of his two cemeteries, namely Fairview Memorial Gardens in Sylva and Swain Memorial Park in Bryson City. Since the funeral home shut down in December, Gahagan has tapped limited businesses funds to perform basic maintenance that had been neglected in the cemeteries.
“He has received payments for services he has failed to perform, and most of these issues have been ongoing for years,” according to court papers filed by Gahagan. “Maintenance and performing services paid for are normal operations of a business.”
The ongoing saga involving Moody Funeral Home is common knowledge in Jackson County, but people such as Queen who already purchased burial plots in Fairview Memorial were over a barrel, she said. If they tried to buy their monument from another company, or if they wanted the funeral service performed by another funeral home, Moody would charge them extra for digging the grave or setting the stone, in effect forcing them to go through his funeral home, Queen said.