Longtime aldermen seek second term in Bryson City
Two longtime Bryson City aldermen plan to run for another term in office, and so far only one possible name has surfaced to run for one of the two seats open in the November election.
Kate Welch, a retired business teacher who has served as an alderman since 1995, said she planned to run for another term despite rumors to the contrary. For her, it’s not about being a politician — it’s about being a part of the community in which she feels a deep connection.
“This is my home,” she said. “I didn’t just get on the board to add something to my resume.”
Incumbent Alderman Jim Gribble also said he would seek another term in order to see some projects come to fruition, including a new water meter system, hiring a new town manager and the potential closing of Fry Street to construct a pedestrian plaza.
Heidi Woodard, director of visitor services at the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, is also considering a run for alderman. She was born and raised in Swain County, moved away for several years, and has been living in Bryson City for the past 11 years.
While she’s been to a few town board meetings in the past, her involvement on the Little League board has kept her from attending the Monday evening meetings.
“I’m still contemplating it,” she said. “I’ve been looking back at the (town board’s) minutes to see what the issues are. I want to make sure I’d be a good asset for them.”
Mayor Tom Sutton said he hadn’t decided yet whether to run for a second term as mayor.
“It’s one of those things where I’ll probably put it off until the last minute,” he said.
Sutton, who spent 24 years in the Navy and is now a parole officer, ran as a write-in candidate in 2011. He won with 111 votes against the 89 votes for Jeramy Shuler.
“There was only one guy running and I felt like people should have a choice,” Sutton said. “You do it the old-fashioned way — shoes on the ground talking to your neighbors.”
Board dynamics play a large part in how a town operates and the decisions that are made. Differing opinions are good but progress can be stifled if a board disagrees on goals. Welch said the current board has a good makeup of different opinions.
“There’s certain things we don’t agree on, but we can do it in an agreeable manner,” she said. “You don’t need five people who think alike. There’s been things where listening to each other helps me better understand a lot of issues.”
Sutton echoed Welch’s sentiment, saying that the board works pretty well together. His only complaint is the slow pace of things.
“That’s just the nature of the beast — everything just moves a little slow when you only meet once every few weeks, but that’s the way democracy works,” he said.
Depending on how many people run for the two aldermen seats, Welch feels like she has a pretty good chance at being re-elected. As a retired educator and a member of the First Baptist Church in Bryson City, she is well-known in the community.
With voter turnout so low in Bryson City municipal elections, having too many candidates could split up the vote. In the 2011 election, Gribble received 148 votes and Welch received 134 votes.
Welch is proud of the reputation she has garnered for being a board member that fights for equal treatment for all residents and all businesses — even if her delivery is a little rough around the edges.
“I paid my own filing fees so I don’t feel indebted to any one person or business,” she said. “There’s times I have opposition — I don’t always explain things in a politically correct way. I’m known for being blunt, but most people can understand what I’m trying to say.”
So what are the election issues in Bryson City? The most pressing matter before the board will be hiring a new town manager. Current Town Manager Larry Callicutt announced his retirement earlier this year, stating he would stay on board no later than September.
“We’ll hopefully be selecting a new town manager before the election — I’d like to help select that individual and see that they get off to good start,” Gribble said.
Welch pointed to the normal challenges a small town deals with day in and day out.
“Some people ask me how the town is doing and I tell them ‘the Tuckasegee is still flowing, the train is still running and tourists are still coming,’” Welch said. “When I see we still get a lot of tourists in the summer, I feel good about Bryson City.”
Tourism is definitely the major economic engine for the mountain community with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nantahala Outdoor Center and Great Smoky Mountain Railroad located in its backyard.
While there are always needed projects to maintain the town’s infrastructure, finding the money to do it is often the tallest hurdle. Sutton said the town is constantly trying to maintain a dependable revenue stream without raising taxes too much for residents.
“So many things boil down to money,” he said.
Welch said the slow progress of government was sometimes frustrating, especially when funding isn’t available to complete needed projects.
“We’ve got sidewalks that need repair bad. We got streets that need to be paved — and a lot of times we don’t have the money to do everything,” she said. “But little by little we try to do things, but it costs money and we’re not a rich town.”
Welch’s goal of fair treatment for all could be why she is considered to be “against” the railroad on town issues. For example, Welch hasn’t been supportive of the idea to construct a pedestrian plaza in front of the train depot in downtown Bryson City. The train already owns the land, but the town would have to relinquish its right of Way for Fry Street for the project to move forward.
Alderman Rick Bryson called it one of the most controversial issues the board has discussed since he was elected to the board two years ago. The Swain County Tourism Development Authority presented the project to the board last September, but the board kept dragging its feet on making a decision. In May, the board finally set a public hearing regarding the closure of Fry Street for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 17, but Welch and Gribble voted against it.
Gribble said he was interested to see what people have to say about closing Fry Street. He said he would vote the way people encourage him to vote on the matter.
“I don’t have a business in town,” he said. “It appears to me the people who desire the closing of Fry Street are those that have the most to gain from business from the train. People who are citizens of the city — yet don’t own a business — have mixed feelings about it.”
File for candidacy
Sign up to be a candidate for the Bryson City Board of Aldermen between 8 a.m. Monday, July 6, and noon Friday, July 17, at the Swain County Board of Elections office, 1422 U.S. 19 South in Bryson City. The filing fee for aldermen and mayor candidates is $5. The only requirement is that candidates live within the town limits.