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Jackson health department gets new leadership

fr healthdirectorJackson County’s health department is gearing up to start millions of dollars of construction for its animal shelter and health buildings, but before those projects get off the ground leadership will change with the coming of a new health director. 

Paula Carden, who has served as Jackson County Health Director for 12 years and with the county for 30, will retire from the position effective July 31. The county will welcome Shelley Carraway — currently the chief of healthcare planning for the N.C. Division of Health Services Regulation — as her replacement.  

“It’s wonderful working for the state, but you’re very detached from who you’re affecting,” Carraway said. “I’m a real community person and I really wanted to get back to the job where I can really be a part of the community and see what happens — good and bad — with what I am there for.”

Carraway, 58, knows what she’s getting into in that respect. She was director of the health department in Alexander County, a rural county in the central part of the state with a population comparable to Jackson’s, from 1997 to 2001.

However, she’ll be coming to Jackson by way of Durham. Since 2002, Carraway has served in various health-related state positions in the Raleigh-Durham area. The Minnesota native has lived in North Carolina since 1968, graduating from Appalachian State University and living in Watauga County for many years. Carraway said she’s always loved the western part of the state and had been looking for a way to get back to the mountain region. 

With her son now living in Asheville, she said, “I didn’t know what was stopping me from going west. I happened to notice that Paula was retiring and thought, ‘I don’t know if they’re ready for me, but I’m ready for them.’”

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The Jackson County Board of Health received 12 applications for the director’s position, inviting four of those candidates for an on-site interview and requiring a PowerPoint presentation as part of the process. 

Carraway was impressive for several reasons, said Commissioner Mark Jones, who also serves on the health board. Her presentation skills were excellent, she comes with a “wealth of knowledge,” and seemed to have done a good bit of research about Jackson’s health department beforehand, he said. 

“She complimented me on the health department’s website, so she had done her homework and knew a good bit of the details,” he said. “That kind of stuck out in my mind.” 

Jones also expressed confidence that Carraway would be able to handle the challenges of capital construction projects currently facing the department. Addressing needs at the health department building and animal shelter occupy the top two spots in the county’s list of capital priorities.  

As director of health services operations for the state prison system from 2002 to 2004, Carraway oversaw the planning and construction of medical facilities in a 1,000-cell prison built in Scotland County. The design was then replicated in two other counties after she left the position. She also grew up around the construction and real estate world. 

“My mom was in real estate and development for 33 years, so I’m very well versed in that and love that,” Carraway said. “I’m excited about that project. I know it will be huge and daunting, but I love that stuff.”

Commissioners are currently considering whether to build a new health department building, renovate the existing building or construct an addition. The animal shelter building, everyone seems to agree, needs to be replaced, and likely on a new site. However, a preliminary study that delivered an estimated project cost of $5.5 to $6.6 million gave commissioners pause, leading them to reconsider what features are actually needed in the new building and how much taxpayer money should go to the project. 

Carraway anticipates that the construction projects will take a significant portion of her time upon starting her new job and is grateful for what she terms the “amazing staff” she’ll be working with. 

“If I’m very distracted by this major, complex construction project, I have full confidence in the staff that’s in place that the day-to-day mission of the health department can go on,” she said. 

While she’s lived and worked in rural, mountainous areas, Carraway acknowledges that the most difficult part of her new job will be learning her new community — its issues, its people and its culture. She’s excited for the challenge. 

“The Blue Ridge Mountains are very different from the Smokies, so I really need to understand the issues of that community, that county,” she said. “It’s got lots of hollers and lots of pockets, and I’ve got to understand who’s there.” 

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