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Franklin transfers ownership of Nikwasi Mound

Franklin Town Council approved transferring ownership of Nikwasi Mound to nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative after months of debating the controversial decision. Jessi Stone photo Franklin Town Council approved transferring ownership of Nikwasi Mound to nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative after months of debating the controversial decision. Jessi Stone photo

After months of debate, Franklin Town Council voted unanimously Monday night to transfer the deed for Nikwasi Mound over to nonprofit Nikwasi Initiative. 

Applause broke out in the boardroom from those who have been pushing for the deed transfer, but others wanted the town to keep the deed and left the meeting feeling like their concerns and questions had fallen on deaf ears. 

Several people who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting pleaded with the council to at least delay the vote and take more time to consider the impact. The town acquired the deed in 1946 when county residents pulled enough money together to purchase the property and save it from being privately developed. 

The language of the deed states that the mound “shall be preserved for the citizens of Macon County and for posterity” and some community members interpret that to mean the town has to keep the mound indefinitely. Town Attorney John Henning Jr. assured council and residents that’s not the case. While it must be maintained for posterity, the deed does not require the town to keep the property forever. 

Nikwasi Initiative is a locally based public nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Nikwasi Mound and expanding access and educational activities. It is a collaborative effort a board of directors made up of representatives of Franklin, Macon County, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Mainspring Conservation Trust. Though the Initiative has intentions to preserve the mound and utilize the adjoining properties in East Franklin for interpretation and educational projects to highlight Native American history, opponents say they don’t trust the nonprofit and that the town is the only rightful owner under the 1946 deed. 

Betty Wallace, who is one of five Macon County residents who filed for an injunction against the town, said the town council was trying to give away something that doesn’t belong to them.

“You are caretakers of historic property that belongs to me and 34,000 other citizens of our county, public property bought by us and placed in your hands for protection and safekeeping on our behalf, forevermore,” she said. “It would behoove you to reconsider your actions in a less aggressive manner toward the rightful and legal owners of the mound and to respect the trust placed in you by lifelong citizens of our county.”

On the other hand, proponents of the deed transfer said they were excited about all the possibilities that could come out of the partnership. Though opposition tried to build a case against the nonprofit — calling them a “private entity” with no track record — others said they believed the board of directors had nothing but good intentions for the sacred mound. 

“I can’t think of a better nonprofit group than what’s been put together — it’s a good group of partners broadly represented,” said Dr. Gordon Mercer, a retired Western Carolina University professor. “They’ve been working for some time on this. At least it’s a plan for our future.”

While the town has met its obligation to preserve and maintain the mound, Ken Murphy, former chairman of Mainspring, said the Initiative and its partners have the resources to take it a step further by offering an educational component while also improving the appearance of East Franklin. 

“I think Nikwasi Initiative is uniquely positioned to accommodate redevelopment around the mound and they are a nonprofit with a public purpose — not private — and it does represent the interest of its stakeholders,” he said. “I know all the directors — they are thoughtful and reasonable.”

He also addressed another major questions opponents have been asking — why does the Initiative need to have the deed in order to move forward with the projects planned for the adjacent properties? A collaborative effort and a more permanent ownership agreement is what funding agencies look at when awarding grant money. 

“It puts us in a better position to seek funding,” Murphy said. “Nikwasi Initiative’s vision for the gateway of Franklin will benefit the town tremendously.” 

Opponents also tried to argue that the Cherokee people didn’t build the mound and therefore shouldn’t be a stakeholder in the future of the mound even though EBCI has showed interest in taking over the deed and maintenance. That point was quickly shot down. Even if the mound predates Cherokee inhabitants, whatever tribe constructed the mound was closer related to the Cherokee than the white settlers. 

“It’s called Nikwasi for some reason — maybe the Cherokee didn’t build it but it was probably their cousins,” said Councilmember Joe Collins. “And this gives them skin into a game I think they’re deserving of — this opportunity may not come along very often.”

Lastly, opponents argued that Councilmember Barbara McRae had a conflict of interest as the co-chairwoman of the Nikwasi Initiative and should abstain from voting on the issue. 

“Town Council represents the town of Franklin — you don’t represent any other entity or the parties involved in this proposed transaction,” Robert Siler told the board. “If you are, you’re not doing your job as a council member and in my opinion have a conflict of interest.”

Henning said McRae did not have a conflict of interest because she had nothing to gain financially from the transferring of the deed and was therefore compelled to vote in the issue. Even if she hadn’t voted, the measure still would have passed.

Henning then explained the new proposed deed he had drawn up for the board’s consideration. He said the new deed contains the same restrictions found in the 1946 deed to the town. Nikwasi Initiative won’t be able to sell, limit access or develop the property and must keep it maintained for all residents. 

“I think we have honored the deed,” he said. 

Henning said those against the transfer were “cherry picking” parts of the old deed to meet their argument, but there’s one section of the deed that hasn’t been brought up. It states that any new deed that conflicts with the 1946 deed would be considered null and void. Henning said that meant there could be a deed that doesn’t conflict with the 1946 deed, which is what he thinks he accomplished. 

Most importantly, Henning said, ownership of the mound would automatically revert back to the town if the nonprofit ever dissolves. If the town ever felt like Nikwasi Initiative wasn’t living up to its obligations, he said there would be a process for the town to take back over the deed.

“Any other failures of Nikwasi Initiative to follow through on its obligation, we’d have a due process and could hold a hearing to prove our case. I think that’s only fair,” he said. “Everything I’ve researched about Nikwasi Initiative gives me no pause about their ability to maintain a historic property.”

Once everyone had their say on the controversial issue, council members had a chance to weigh in and justify their pending vote. 

Mayor Bob Scott — who doesn’t get a vote on the board unless there is a split vote among the council — said he was opposed to the transfer and wanted the council to delay the decision.

“I have questions about this deal from an ethical and moral standpoint of my own,” Scott said. 

Originally Scott said he didn’t want to put his signature on the deed conveyance document and had asked Henning if someone else could sign the agreement. He thought another councilmember could sign it, but it would have to be Town Manager Summer Woodard. Not wanting to put that burden on her, Scott said he would sign it himself.

“I will sign the deed but it will be under duress because I can’t throw a town employee into this,” he said. “This is probably the most contentious issue I’ve seen within the town since 1967.”

Henning said the mayor’s signature was simply a symbolic act signifying that the council approved it. 

Collins said he didn’t think the community was as divided on the issue as it appeared to be based on opposition at the meeting and on social media forums. 

“There are divisive people in the community that are vocal,” he said. “We should go forward with this conveyance because of the educational opportunities. The town has kept it alive but we haven’t done anything to educate the public and we have the opportunity to do so,” he said. 

Collins then made the motion to approve the deed transfer — it was seconded by McRae. 

Councilmember David Culpepper said he’s examined the issue from every angle and can’t find a downside to transferring the deed to Nikwasi Initiative. Even though the nonprofit is only three years old, he said the people on the board have been working in the community for many years and have good intentions for Franklin’s future. 

“The bottom line is the people in Nikwasi Initiative are good people and they’re smarter than me,” he said. “Now let’s play devil’s advocate — let’s say we get conned — the protections are still there in the new deed. Public access can’t be limited. The town of Franklin isn’t expunged of it’s duty to oversee it and make sure Nikwasi Initiative complies with those restrictions. If they break the deed it automatically reverts back to the town.”

The motion passed unanimously. 

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