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2011 In Review

The Smoky Mountain News takes note this week of some of the newsmakers of 2011 by handing out our annual awards.

Back issues of the newspaper never fail to reveal a variety of humdingers: the funny, the astonishing, the interesting, the dismaying. Some we’d like to forget, others we hope to see repeated for the good laughs.

For those who made the list, hats off to you for giving us something to write about this year, even if you could do without the award bestowed upon you. For those who didn’t, there’s always 2012.


Epic fail award

Maybe there’s no connection, but did anyone else notice the timing involved in the arrest of a Western Carolina University student on charges he used a toy gun to rob a bank across the street from campus in Cullowhee? The robbery came just days after of an announcement that WCU would institute a $399 tuition and fees hike. The kid had just that day been evicted from his apartment, too.

When police searched the apartment, they found the toy gun and the money — someone clearly hadn’t watched enough bank heist movies.


The Captive audience award

To the graduation speaker for Nantahala School in Macon County, a cowboy preacher who tied up and blindfolded a student volunteer with ropes to make various points about the devil and sin.

This bizarre graduation spectacle was punctuated by the preacher’s fire and brimstones sermon, all clearly and obviously and indisputably in violation of the separation of church and state to so overtly push religion in a school setting. Though Macon School Superintendent Dan Brigman initially defended the speech, he retreated from that stance when faced with a possible lawsuit with Freedom From Religion Foundation.


LeBron James award

Haywood County commissioners borrowed LeBron’s mantra when they decided to sell out the county’s landfill — kicking the home team to the curb for a chance at greatness.

The county turned over the keys to its landfill to a private, for-profit company. That company gets to sell off space in the landfill to other places looking for somewhere to dump their trash — interestingly, it gets to keep the money made off selling space in Haywood’s landfill. Meanwhile, the company also gets a flat monthly fee for accepting the county’s own trash.

Why would Haywood sell out for such a raw deal? Haywood County won’t have to worry about replacing its aging fleet of landfill equipment or the cost of expanding the pit at the landfill in the future. It also won’t have to worry about the large expense three or four decades from now to close out the landfill when it finally fills up.

Despite allowing a private company to sell off space in the county’s landfill for a profit — something that could double or triple the daily volume of trash coming in — it won’t fill up any sooner than the 40-year life it was previously projected to have when being used only for Haywood’s own trash.

Maybe they should get the “fuzzy math” award instead?


99 percent award

There were no tents or campouts or long-lived protests for Occupy Sylva, who might better be dubbed Occupy Lulu’s restaurant. Participants, mainly aging Democrats, rallied gamely one Saturday morning in October for an entire hour around the courthouse fountain on Main Street in Sylva before retiring into various downtown restaurants to do lunch.

The Occupy Sylva hour has given birth to Occupy WNC, which meets in the cozy warmth of a county government courtroom on Tuesday evenings.


One percent award

How does an annual salary and benefits of $185,000 sound? That’s what the principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians makes, not counting a car. But a challenger for the chief’s seat this year, Patrick Lambert, was willing to give up his own salary and benefits worth $446,000 annually as the director of the Tribal Gaming Commission for the honor of serving as the tribe’s leader.

Lambert’s salary at the Gaming Commission became public in the final weeks of the election. The big salary was justified as being commiserate with other top jobs in the casino industry compared to government service.


Dust Bowl award

Granted, there won’t be any problem finding parking, but it sure promises to be lonely in Franklin’s largest strip mall when Walmart moves a few miles away to a new location. A few of the strip mall’s businesses are joining the exodus and following in the footsteps of the retail giant, but the rest are apparently left high and dry with an empty, hulking shell next door.

Walmart is planning a spring opening at its new location. The eight or so businesses left might consider planning a wake for about the same time.


Best idea

When Walmart abandoned its former store in Haywood County for newer, bigger digs across town, it left a hulking shell in its wake and a desolate strip mall with a shaky future. Haywood County commissioners, meanwhile, had been passing the buck for years on what to do about the antiquated Department of Social Services building, where 200 employees has been putting up with leaky roofs, frozen pipes, and quarters so cramped that closets had been converted into offices.

Haywood County bought the old Walmart building and repurposed it to house DSS and the health department and county planning offices, for a total cost of  $12 million — breathing new life into the strip mall and saving taxpayers millions compared to the cost of a brand-new facility.


Super Bowl award

Despite the hype, the hard-fought road to victory and the tears along the way, the game itself is always surprisingly anticlimactic — which Webster’s defines as “lacking climax, disappointing or ironically insignificant following impressive foreshadowing.”

That pretty well sums up the first chunk of change Swain County spent from its North Shore Road settlement fund. After nearly 65 years of bitter fighting, Swain County got a $12.5 million federal payout to compensate the county for a 30-mile road flooded by the creation of Fontana Lake.

The money was put in a lockbox except for the annual interest it accrues. The county’s first move when that first interest payment came through? Five commemorative granite pedestals in front of the county administration building honoring the key players in the fight.


The most charettes

It’s a little known word in most circles, except in Waynesville, where it’s right up there with baseball and apple pie. A forum for public input, charettes bring stakeholders to the table to collect their ideas and visions.

When it came time to replace its long-time town manager, Waynesville spent $20,000 on a consultant to steer the process and hold charettes — five of them in all, including an on-going written comment period — to find out what characteristics and qualities the community wants to see in a new town manager.

Quick to trot out a charette no matter the occasion, Waynesville has held community visioning meetings on everything from a new skateboard park to sidewalk priorities, along with the more standard public input fare of zoning and road building.


Gaffe of the year

It seems like Marketing 101, but if your company is engaged in a turf war for Haywood County’s health care dollars, you probably should not do an impression of your “best Haywood County accent” at a national conference of hospital marketing professionals. But that’s exactly what Janet Moore, the former marketing director of Mission Hospital did — a misstep that ultimately cost Moore her job when an audio recording from the conference was leaked. Her comedic interlude also referenced the poor dental hygiene, fightin’ roosters and sofas on the porch of people living in the “hollers” of Haywood County. Backlash over the comments prompted Mission’s CEO to have a sit down with Haywood County leaders to apologize.


McClellan award

Following in the footsteps of Union General George McClellan’s famous retreat in the Civil War, the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority knew when it was licked.

Outnumbered by festival organizers and town leaders, the board backed away from its threat to cut funding for long-running, signature events in the county and redirect it to start-up festivals instead. The loss of funding could have dealt a devastating blow to annual favorites such as Church Street Festival, International Festival Day, Waynesville street dances and Canton’s Labor Day Festival — although it would have arguably given new festivals a chance to burst onto the scene.

Backlash led to a castrated version of the guidelines that instead merely suggests new events should be given priority over established ones — but did not unequivocally halt funding for the old standards.


Friends in high places award

What’s the best way to get a building named after you? Just ask Conrad Burrell, who used his position on the powerful Department of Transportation Board to land $12 million to build a road to the doorstep of a new building on the campus of Southwestern Community College in Sylva. Burrell also sat on SCC’s Board of Trustees, and ultimately the new building was named in his honor.


Public service award

Danya VanHook of Maggie Valley gets an “A” for effort when it comes to her desire to serve in office. Twice in two years, VanHook put her name in the ring to serve in a public capacity when elected seats were vacated mid-term: once as a District Court judge and later as a Maggie Valley alderman. Both times she secured an appointment to the seat, but when it came time to officially run with her name on the ballot, she lost the election.


Duct tape award

Canton has been holding its aging swimming pool with everything short of duct tape and bailing wire, but the annual patch job has finally gone down the drain. The town needs to come up with just shy of $1 million to completely rebuild its pool in the next few years — money that has so far proved elusive for the small town to come by.


Lewis and Clark award

Eureka! The National Park Service has finally discovered that part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies in North Carolina — more than half of it in fact, and the prettier parts if we dare say so ourselves.

More than 75 years after the park was created, the National Park Service has finally opened an official visitors center on the North Carolina side of the park. Of course, it was paid for entirely by private donations from the nonprofit Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies, but hey, we’ll take what we can get.


Main Street duel award

Tourists now have their pick of literature when it comes to travel brochures on Haywood County thanks to two visitor centers operating just two blocks away from each other. The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority opened a new visitor center in downtown Waynesville this year down the street from an existing one operated by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber used to enjoy a financial support from the tourism agency for its visitor center, but that has been scaled back now that the tourism agency has opted to open a visitor center of its own.


The Stickup award

If you can’t get a loan, just ask for cold, hard cash instead. That seems to be the answer for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which wants some half million in taxpayer dollars to bring a steam engine to Dillsboro. The engine is in Maine, and it costs a pretty penny to get it down here. Seem crazy? Some of Jackson County’s leaders don’t think so — in return for that seductive promise of jobs and economic good times for the tourist train, they seem willing to try to work with the cash-strapped railroad, whose owner, Al Harper, was involved in the Ghost Town in the Sky old-West theme park in Maggie that went bankrupt.


Banana peel award

After six wrecks happened in the same spot on Interstate 40 during an early morning dusting last winter, the truth came out: there was a stretch of no-man’s land on the Haywood and Buncombe county line when it came to snowplowing detail.

Plows and salt trucks coming from opposite directions — one crew from Haywood and another from Buncombe — use exit 37 as a natural turn-around point before heading back the other way. But a few hundred yards of Interstate between the exit ramp and on ramp weren’t hit with the same regularity as the rest of the Interstate, since it meant trucks had to overshoot their mark and go all the way to the next exit before doubling back. The plow crews in neighboring counties lacked a formal policy for who would do the bothersome spot — at least until this article hit the fan.


Field of Dreams award

Swain County firmly believed in the saying “build it and they will come.” Unfortunately, it didn’t quite pan out like the movie. When Swain spent $10 million to build a jail four times bigger than it needed to house its own prisoners, it hoped to make money housing prisoners from other counties. But other counties, it seemed, had jails of their own in the works at the same time, and taxpayers are stuck paying a 40-year loan on the oversized jail without a revenue stream to offset it.

A final nail in the coffin came this year, when the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — the only steady supplier of outside inmates who will pay to bunk up in Swain’s jail — broke ground on a jail of their own as well.


The Head in the Sand award

The town of Bryson City has been through plenty this year regarding its volunteer fire department after the State Bureau of Investigation launched a probe into financial handlings under the former fire chief.

Meanwhile, an investigation by The Smoky Mountain News found that town officials felt something was amiss for years but did nothing about it. Rather than demand the department’s financial records, town leaders stuck their head in the sand and ignored talk about alleged misuse of donations until a whistleblower inside the department took his concerns to police detectives.

Why the blind eye? The town donned kid gloves when it came to the fire department financials because the fire chief threatened to strike if posed with uncomfortable money questions.


Bachmann, Perry & Cain award

Their epic rise and fall, and the blight left in their wake, is all too familiar in Sylva where a daily reminder of a similar crash-and-burn phenomenon has become part of the landscape. Known these days as the Ghostel, a partly-finished four-story hotel towers over the main thoroughfare as a shadowy reminder of the great real estate hey-day gone by.

Developers of what was supposed to be a four-story Clarion Inn went bankrupt before the project was finished. And much like these failed Republican presidential primary candidates, a wake of supporters were left high and dry. The contractor claims he was never paid fully for the work he did. The bank foreclosed but so far can’t unload the shell to anyone else. And the town is still casting about for a replacement, someone to come in and fill the shoes of the empty void left behind.


Bob Barker award

New owners of the troubled Wildflower subdivision in Macon County realized Bob Barker was on to something with the “Price is Right.” Prices on lots were slashed, giving rise to a rebirth and reincarnation of the beleaguered development, renamed The Ridges.

Dozens of lots were sold at rock-bottom prices, marking the first significant movement in Macon County’s troubled land market since the economy crashed — even if it was at a fraction of the price.


World Record for Grand Openings

Ask anyone in Canton when the Imperial Hotel is supposed to open, and you’ll get a myriad of dates — past, present and future.

Former Mayor Pat Smathers has owned the historic hotel on Main Street for more than 20 years and has been renovating it since the 1990s. The initial opening date in May of this year turned into July, then August, and the latest target being New Year’s Eve only days away. But, will it actually open? Or will that have to wait for another year?

No matter what Smathers must open by November 2012 or pay the piper. If he does not create 15 jobs by November, he will be forced to repay the $90,000 economic development grant he received from the state.


Bottomless Pit award

“Mo Money Mo Problems” by rapper Notorious B.I.G. seems to be the Maggie Valley Fairgrounds theme song.

During the past six years, Maggie has blown through two festival directors and upwards of $1 million on an enterprise that only seems to lose money. This year, the town lost more than $50,000 putting on the two taxpayer-funded events — Red, White and Boom and the Americana Roots and Beer festival.

However, the town seemed bound and determined to throw cash at the fairground’s problems until they disappear, putting their hopes in motorcycle rallies and craft shows to pull the valley out of a tourism tailspin.

Now, it’s just a game of wait and see if the new regime elected to town hall will make good on their campaign promises to cut back fairgrounds spending or if more tax money will find itself blowing in the wind.


The ‘E’ for Effort Award

Considerable excitement swelled around the installation of the Wave Shaper on the Nantahala River this year but the initial response from resident kayakers was that the Wave fell flat.

The verdict: the $300,000 underwater mechanism that kicks up surf for paddlers to perform tricks and stunts on, still needs tuning. During the official unveiling in December, The Wave created only a small pocket for kayakers to show their stuff, and several were impeded by the contraption’s concrete ledge while attempting tricks. Reactions to The Wave ranged for “It’s ok” to “I liked the old wave better.”

Project leaders pledge to hone The Wave and will eventually get it right, but they still have some work to do before the 2012 World Cup of Freestyle Kayaking and the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship.


Gertrude Stein award

A rose is a rose is a rose — but can tulips and daffodils save Maggie Valley’s wilting tourism trade? In an attempt to improve its streetscape and attract more visitors, Maggie Valley leaders launched a plan to give the town a little color with a four-season show of flowers along its five-lane drag. The town invested several thousand dollars and rallied business owner to dig in and plant bulbs as well to beautify town. It remains to be seen if the idea will bear fruit.


Fight Club award

Jackson County sparked a brouhaha when it petitioned the Department of Transportation for its own ‘This way to Cherokee’ sign, saying the highway through Jackson County is the safer, faster and best route for tourists in search of casino action. Currently, the lone roadside sign pointing the way to Cherokee shunts the traveling public off the highway and through Maggie Valley, a winding, two-lane route over Soco Gap.

Jackson County leaders were hoping Waynesville would get their back in their bid for a second sign, since Waynesville would presumably benefit as well from Cherokee-bound travelers passing by their doorstep instead veering off through Maggie.

But Waynesville wasn’t immediately down with the tag-team format, wavering on whether to throw in with Jackson County or proclaim its loyalty to Maggie Valley as a fellow Haywood County compatriot.


The Claiming Credit Where It Ain’t Due award

In a power play as audacious and brazen as any that has occurred in recent local political history, a bronze plaque for the new Jackson County Public Library was hijacked by newly elected county commissioners hoping to share in the moment of glory.

When the new commissioners took office, a plaque had already been ordered, per custom in Western North Carolina, featuring the names of the five commissioners who shepherded in the $8 million library project. By the time the ribbon cutting rolled around, however, three of them had since lost their seats. A change in wording was sent to the plaque company asking for the names of the three newly-elected commissioner to be added. Ironically, the new commissioners vying for a spot on the plaque had questioned the price tag of the library during the campaign.

Stay tuned on this one — after the uproar, no plaque has appeared at all. A cardboard replica of the plaque-to-be still hangs in the library’s foyer, tucked away in an obscure corner.


The Maverick award

OK, we finally believe it — Jackson County Chairman Jack Debnam is not simply a Republican in sheep’s clothing, despite receiving GOP funding and support during the last election. He’s actually a member of the local Cowboy Party, made up of just Debnam. This cowboy has been shooting from the hip since taking over the top spot in a unique, take-no-prisoners style of his very own.

Debnam has supported a referendum on alcohol sales in Jackson County though he’s a nondrinker. He received heavy support in the election from the Cashiers area, but he’s openly advocated for a single tourism entity in Jackson County instead of the current model that gives Cashiers autonomy over its own cut of tourism tax dollars, to the chagrin of his Cashiers supporters.

And despite backing from county development interests, Debnam even embarked on a one-man war with the state’s Department of Transportation, questioning a waste of taxpayer dollars on environmentally-destructive road projects.

What’s next in the O.K. Corral? Who knows, not with Debnam in charge of this wacky wagon train.


The Big Baby award

When N.C. Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion, didn’t get his way to score a Right to Life license plate for car bumpers, he got even. He pushed through changes to the state’s specialty license plates that will strip the attractive designs of wildly-popular specialty plates for groups like Friends of the Smokies, the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and others.

The extra fee for the specialty plates benefits the groups involved and the state. Last year alone, the sale of specialty plates raised $385,000 for Friends of the Smokies, helping to pay for the elk reintroduction project, trail building, black bear studies and similar initiatives.

Unless the pendulum swings back, starting in 2015 all plates will have to abide by the (dare we call it dull) state-approved template. The new law will gut the attractive full-color specialty plate designs and instead relegate a logo to one corner, leaving plate numbers easily seen and the state of origin easy to ascertain.


The Good Morning, Vietnam  award

We love you, man, we really do. And we support environmental protections, too. But the idea of waking up each morning to an anti-fracking report, daily ozone update or latest anti-Duke Energy rant over the air is perhaps more radical than even Jackson County’s leftist ranks can handle. But if Avram Friedman, director of the Canary Coalition, succeeds in his bid for an FM radio station license, get ready for some unadulterated, uncut, uncensored, parental-advisory-recommended environmental programming.


Rally the Troops award

To administrators at community colleges, who brought immense local political pressures to bear when the state proposed a cost-savings plan to consolidate 15 of the state’s smallest community colleges, mergers that would target Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.

Community colleges would lose their autonomy and local responsiveness — taking the “community” out of community colleges, so the argument went — for savings of a measly $5 million a year. Lost in the arguments was this salient fact: the administrators leading the charge were at risk of seeing their jobs lost in the merger.


The Get Real award

To Macon County commissioners, who at regular intervals over the past two decades have given the planning board a green light to draft a land-use plan, only to reject each plan the planning board presents.

The latest planning train crash involved the Macon County Planning Board’s futile attempts to institute steep-slope regulations, an effort that broke down into open warfare on the planning board. In order to salvage some scraps of the steep slope rules, the ordinance as a whole was shelved save a few of the least egregious parts, which were cherry picked out and repackaged as “construction guidelines” — but even they still haven’t received commissioners’ support.

We have a novel idea — why not just get real and dissolve the planning board in Macon County? Give those poor folks a break from writing ordinances that don’t see the light of day.


The Duking it Out award

To Susan Ervin and Lamar Sprinkle, who dressed up otherwise long and tedious planning board meetings this year by openly spatting and sniping at each other. This made for much more exciting news from the meetings than would otherwise have been the case, and we and our readers thank the Macon County commissioners for their brilliant decision to add Sprinkle — who is open and non-apologetic about his overall anti-planning stance — onto the planning board in the name of “balance.”

Perhaps, in the same spirit, commissioners should consider placing anti-development forces on the Economic Development Commission, pot smokers on the county’s drug task force and parents who oppose vaccinating their children onto the county’s health department board.


No shame award

So let’s get this straight: Western Carolina University has hired its fourth football coach in 10 years — after running off the last three for losing too much — in hopes of buying itself some wins on the field. This time, however, the university is taking a new approach. If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em … the latest WCU football coach is from Appalachian State University, which has smushed the Catamounts for, well, ever. We suggest recruiting some of ASU’s football players, too, while you’re at it.

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