Jackson County alcohol vote likely in May

Jackson County commissioners are leaning toward the May primary for putting alcohol on the ballot rather than waiting until the general election next November.

County Attorney Jay Coward briefed Jackson County commissioners this week on the nuts and bolts of a referendum, one that will decide whether the sale of alcoholic beverages is legal throughout the county. If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.

Four of the five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News three weeks ago of their intent to hold a countywide alcohol vote, but had yet to discuss the issue in public at a commissioners meeting until this week.

Commissioners will eventually have to formally vote to put the issue on the ballot, directing the Jackson County Board of Elections to stage the election in conjunction with the May primary. Coward indicated that the necessary timeframe doesn’t require the board’s commitment for some time to come, until about February. At that point, commissioners must sort out which — or all — of various options they will allow voters to consider. Beer and wine only? Only in restaurants or to-go from gas stations and grocery stores, too? What about mixed drinks, or a liquor store?

Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam has indicated he’s interested in seeing voters decide on countywide beer and wine sales, plus decide on whether to open an ABC store in Cashiers. The only ABC store now in Jackson County is located in Sylva.

Asked about the genesis of a possible alcohol referendum, Debnam emphasized that “personally, I don’t care … I don’t drink.” But, Debnam said he strongly believes that people should be given a choice.

As Jackson heads toward alcohol vote, bar owners lament their loss of monopoly

When Dale McElroy plunked down $100,000 to expand Mica’s Restaurant & Pub in southern Jackson County last year, he was banking on the status quo staying the status quo: a dry county remaining dry.

McElroy, like other savvy business owners in the area, have used numerous loopholes in the state ABC law to legally sell alcoholic beverages in “dry” Jackson County. McElroy can legally sell alcohol as a semi-private club.

At Mica’s, patrons are knocking back plenty of beer, wine and even liquor. McElroy is counting on that continuing — it’s how he plans to pay for his new outdoor deck, fire pit and remodeled dining room.

McElroy also sells beer and wine from a small to-go shop adjacent to the restaurant. To keep it legal, he sells lifetime memberships for $1 and piggybacks on the golf course and country club to help qualify for the status as a private club.

It’s the beer and wine sales from that shop that help subsidize his restaurant.

But take away the corner on the market he currently enjoys, and suddenly his investment doesn’t look very rosy.

That’s the case, too, for Jacqueline and Joel Smilack, who spent what she described as “a lot” to build two, full-sized asphalt tennis courts. That transformed JJ’s Eatery along N.C. 107 in the Glenville community into a sports club, legally entitled to sell alcohol.

McElroy, for one, doesn’t mince words. If the sale of booze becomes legal for every business — not just the ones such as his and JJ’s that invested big bucks to earn the right to sell alcoholic beverages — then he’ll be forced to shut his doors. The upfront investment has been too great to suddenly have to compete with every Tom, Dick and Harry who owns a service station or restaurant in the Cashiers area being allowed in the game.

The way it works now is that each week, McElroy must call in his order to Sylva’s ABC store detailing the amounts and types of liquor he needs, wait until they call back and say it’s ready, then go pick up the filled order.

So, he must be happy that Jackson County Chairman Jack Debnam wants a vote, too, on opening an ABC store in Cashiers? Wouldn’t that be convenient?

Well, no, as a matter of fact, he’s not happy at the news.

“I’d rather spend $1,000 a week to go down to Sylva than $300 to go into Cashiers,” McElroy said.

In other words, he’s making money because of the exclusivity and inconvenience of the situation as it stands now. The referendum passes, “and I wouldn’t continue running this place,” McElroy said flatly.

A dry county? Hardly. Booze abounds in Jackson thanks to creative state laws

It’s midday on a weekday, and the bar is hopping at Sapphire Brewing Company near Cashiers.

Jackson County, technically, is “dry,” with the sale of alcoholic beverages limited to the town limits of Sylva and Dillsboro. The truth, however, is a far different matter — businesses all over the county are selling beer, wine and mixed drinks, and they are doing so legally and by the letter of the state’s ABC law.

Nowhere is this relatively unrestricted flow of booze in an ostensibly “dry” area more evident than in the southern part of the county, “on the mountain” around the Cashiers area where droves of well-heeled retirees and seasonal residents flock each summer and fall.

“There are so many loopholes,” said Amber Powell, one of two bartenders needed this hot day at Sapphire Brewing Company to keep up with the brisk demand for cold, on-tap beer. “Honestly, the law’s not very fair — it should be all businesses, or none.”

Uniformity just might be on the horizon, if Jackson voters next year approve a referendum for the countywide sale of alcoholic beverages. Four of the county’s five commissioners say they will put the question to a public countywide vote, either in the May primary or the 2012 November general election.

 

A law of exceptions

For now, businesses outside of Sylva and Dillsboro wanting to take advantage of Jackson County’s big thirst have encountered few problems finding ways to capitalize on the numerous exceptions in North Carolina’s alcohol laws.

But working legally within the state’s ABC system can entail meeting some fairly odd requirements. Whether it’s building tennis courts to qualify as a sports club or proving historic entitlement, there’s dozens of loopholes — but they can be complicated to understand and expensive to implement.

Take one such exception — for a “tourism ABC establishment” — as an illustrative example of the apparent tailor-made nature of most of these right-to-sell booze exceptions. Restaurants or hotels within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway are allowed to serve alcohol — a handy exception if you happen to be the Balsam Mountain Inn in the Balsam community of Jackson County, or a similarly situated establishment, but not much use otherwise.

Far more common, especially in Cashiers, is the golf-course exemption.

Sapphire Brewing Company has a public golf course, so under the law, anyone age 21 or older can stride right up to the bar and order a drink, the bartender explained.

“These are adults who want to sit and have a beer,” Powell said. “It’s not like these are underage kids.”

Donald Irvine, busy eating a BLT sandwich at the bar and washing it down with a cold brew, was one of the patrons there last week. He retired in 2005 and now travels regularly from his fulltime home in Tampa, Fla., to the second home he built in Cashiers. Irvine believes North Carolina’s ABC laws are a mishmash of confusion, and that Jackson County would be better off just passing countywide alcohol.

“I can just put up a tennis net and say, ‘I’m a sports club’ and sell alcohol,” he said in wonderment.

 

Selling memberships

Well, it’s not quite that easy, but it’s close — if you’ve got the cash to back the dream. In the Glenville community outside of Cashiers alongside N.C. 107, JJ’s Eatery qualifies as a sports club. Owners Jacqueline and Joel Smilack built two regulation-size tennis courts, and now they are running a bar and restaurant, BP gasoline station and a package store.

Never mind that JJ’s tennis courts are up a weedy, relatively unused-looking dirt road and out of sight — they are in fact used, they do in fact qualify the couple to legally sell alcoholic beverages, and the Smilacks are doing a brisk business indeed serving thirsty lake-goers and Glenville residents unwilling to hoof it off the mountain to buy beer.

To meet the state’s requirements for a sports club, the Smilacks charge $5 for a weekly membership or $50 for a year, with tennis court rentals extra at $15 an hour. Or, for the tennis lover in their midst, there’s a $75 annual membership option with unlimited court time.

Provide a name, address, date of birth and driver’s license number, sign on the line and you, too, can buy whatever you’d like to drink from JJ’s — the membership fee is automatically included in the prices of the alcoholic beverages you buy.

“That was the requirement from ABC to do what we do here,” Jacqueline Smilack said of the sports-club designation. “We don’t make the rules, we just have to abide by them.”

Heidi Taylor, who stopped into JJ’s last week to get a cool six-pack before heading out for a hot day on the lake, moved to Glenville just last year.

It was her first experience with a dry county, and at first she thought it meant exactly that. But she quickly learned the lay of the land.

“It is really not that much of a problem to buy alcohol,” Taylor said, easily ticking off half a dozen places where you can buy it, either to go or from a bar.

She personally made the $50 investment for an annual “membership” at JJ’s.

“It was nice. I didn’t have to drive all the way to Sylva,” Taylor said.

Still, Taylor, a Christian, doesn’t drink a lot herself. She kind of likes Jackson being a dry county with only limited places where you can get alcohol.

“I guess they didn’t want liquor stores on every corner,” Taylor said approvingly.

But in Cashiers, so-called clubs have proliferated so widely that to stay competitive Mica’s Restaurant & Pub offers lifetime membership at the bargain rate of just $1.

McElroy, in abidance with state regulations, has a stack of file drawers behind the counter reminiscent of the old card catalogs. The drawers are crammed with hundreds of membership cards, a visual testimony to the pent up demand for alcohol in this “dry” county.

McElroy sells beer and wine from a to-go shop, plus has a restaurant with a bar. His loophole? The establishment is affiliated with a country club golf course.

McElroy keeps his membership files handy should a state ABC officer pop in and ask to review them. Theoretically, ABC officers could walk into his bar and ask patrons to prove that they’re members. But no worries: If they don’t have their $1 lifetime membership card on them, a driver’s license will suffice as long as McElroy can go to his files and produce the records.

Other sports clubs in the area go the equestrian route to meet the requirement: providing equine boarding and training, plus on-site dining, lodging and meeting space and host horse trials and other events sanctioned or endorsed by the U.S. Equestrian Federation.

Or, like JJ’s, they have two or more tennis courts. Or, short of tennis, an 18-hole golf course.

Those unable to pay for expensive equestrian facilities, tennis courts or golf courses still find ways to accommodate their thirsty clientele. Four restaurants in Cashiers and Glenville currently have active brown-bagging permits, the state’s ABC database of permit holders shows.

 

‘Spot permits’

The law ended up like it did — messy — because businesses in historically dry areas such as greater Jackson County were seeking the revenue boosts alcohol sales could bring.

“Trying to get a county to vote 20 years ago is a lot different than it is today,” said Mike Herring, administrator for the ABC Commission. “Businesses who needed permits for economic development knew if they tried to go the vote route, they might not have a positive result.”

That resulted in “spot permits” being written and shepherded through the General Assembly by state legislators who were responsive to constituent demands. How responsive? Put it this way — the ABC Commission relies on a 25-page report to break down, county by county, who can legally do what.

“Every county is different,” Herring said, describing the report as a roadmap “that has grown over the years.”

Longtime state Sen. Robert C. Carpenter of Franklin, who represented the state’s western most counties from 1988 to 2004, wasn’t a soft touch for businesses looking to sell alcoholic beverages. An unapologetically conservative Republican and devout Christian, Carpenter disapproved of the end-run, as he saw it, that businesses were taking around the state’s ABC law.

“They never came to me, because they knew where I stood,” the 87-year-old said, who died this weekend two days after being interviewed by The Smoky Mountain News for this story. “It needs to be reformed. I remember when I was first elected a bill came up in Bryson City (for a business to sell alcohol). I called up the senate minority leader and told him, ‘We don’t need more liquor sold.’ He took it on, and he killed it.”

Times change, politicians move on — in Carpenter’s wake, a slew of local bills would indeed pass that blew open the door to legal alcoholic beverage sales in “dry” areas.

Luckily for local ABC boards, however, the politics of alcohol are removed from the requirements of overseeing sales in a county. That’s just fine with Veronica Nicholas, who has served on the board for about a decade.

Sylva’s Board of Commissioners appoints the three-member ABC board, though the town splits revenue from the ABC store 50-50 with the county. The amount collected by the town could drop if, as Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam proposes, the referendum includes an ABC store for Cashiers — and it passes.

Still, Nicholas said, she believes “any time to take anything to the voters, I think it is a good thing.”

Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this report.

 

Loopholes galore

Even in dry counties, country clubs, golf courses, inns, bars and even gas stations can use one of several exceptions in the state ABC laws to serve alcohol.

• Historic ABC establishment

• Special ABC area

• Tourism ABC establishment

• Tourism resort

• Recreation district

• Residential private club

• Interstate interchange economic development zones

• National historic district

• Permits based on existing permits

• Sports club

Poll results bode well for supporters of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson

Whether you’re a college student in Cullowhee or a socialite in Cashiers, stocking up on beer, wine and spirits requires a trip into town — a trip most would apparently rather not make.

A majority of Jackson County residents support countywide alcohol sales, according to a telephone poll of 600 registered voters.

The alcohol question was one of 20 on local politics and issues posed to a random sample of Jackson County’s voting public last summer in a joint public affairs project by the WCU Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News.

The poll showed 56 percent of voters in Jackson County support alcohol sales countywide compared to 39 percent against it.

Only 5 percent of those polled were undecided, a very small number compared to most other questions.

The poll revealed some trends about who favors countywide alcohol sales the most.

• Cashiers residents are more likely to support it than Sylva residents.

• Those with a college degree are more likely to support it. Among those with college degrees, 66 percent were in favor compared to 47 percent of those with less than a college degree.

• Men are stronger supporters of countywide alcohol, with 65 percent of men compared to 54 percent of women supporting the measure.

• Liberals were more supportive, with 72 percent of self-described liberals in favor of countywide alcohol compared to 50 percent among self-described conservatives.

• Younger people support the idea more.

Bottoms up? Alcohol vote on next year’s ballot in Jackson County

Voters in Jackson County will get to decide next year whether to allow alcohol sales countywide.

Four of the county’s five commissioners told The Smoky Mountain News this week they would support an alcohol referendum. The commissioners have not publicly discussed the issue yet, nor formally voted to put the measure on the ballot, but have confirmed their intention to do so.

“To me personally, alcohol sales mean nothing at all,” said Debnam, the driving force on the board behind the upcoming referendum. “But we’re going to give the people a choice.”

Still to be decided is whether the vote will be held in conjunction with the May primary or during November’s general election.

In Western North Carolina, only Buncombe and Clay counties currently allow alcohol sales countywide. Henderson County residents will vote on the issue in the May primary.

SEE ALSO: Poll results bode well for supporters of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson

Chairman Jack Debnam, and Commissioners Doug Cody, Charles Elders and Mark Jones said they would support the referendum. Joe Cowan did not return a phone message before press time seeking comment.

“We live in a democracy,” Cody said simply, on why he is throwing his support behind the referendum.

Currently, Sylva and Dillsboro have a corner on the market when it comes to alcohol. Given the long trek down twisty, narrow roads from Cashiers, its not surprising residents and businesses there are among the most eager to usher in countywide alcohol.

“I think it would be super for the economy of the Cashiers area,” said Sally Eason, owner of Canyon Kitchen restaurant at Lonesome Valley in Sapphire.

Restaurants could expect to see a boost to their bottom line — as will waitresses who get tipped based on a percentage of the bill — if alcohol hits the menus.

Diners will not only spend more, but will be more likely to go out in the first place, Eason said.

Now, people who want a glass of wine or a pint with their meal might opt to stay home and knock back a few while grilling out on the deck instead. But the absence of beer and wine from grocery store shelves is probably most irritating to those who don’t live close to Sylva — and even more so to second-home owners and vacationers bowled over by the concept of a dry county.

“A lot of our guests are from Atlanta, Charlotte or Knoxville. They have been a little a surprised at that. It is a turn off,” said George Ware, owner of The Chalet Inn bed and breakfast in Whittier.

Although Ware said he personally wouldn’t start serving up Mimosas with breakfast even if legally allowed to, Ware does believe a countywide vote is a good idea.

“I am happy to hear it is being considered. I think people should have the opportunity to vote on it,” Ware said.

 

Then there’s Cullowhee

A nod by voters to alcohol sales countywide could bring profound changes to Cullowhee, in particular. Western Carolina University lacks the typical array of bars and restaurants found in most college towns. But that’s because Cullowhee is not actually a town, and thus is dry like the rest of the county.

Curt Collins, who went to WCU and is now owner of Avant Garden, a community-based farm and event venue in Cullowhee, said alcohol is needed to spur economic development around campus, making Cullowhee a more vibrant community, and help create the college town other university’s take for granted.

“It would create a better atmosphere for new businesses and existing business who serve food and have entertainment,” Collins said. “There is so much evidence to show that will increase the local economy. It will create new business opportunities, and those will put people to work, and increase people moving their money around.”

To solve the problem of no alcohol, Former Chancellor John Bardo crafted a complex plan. He wanted the tiny nearby town of Forest Hills to first legalize alcohol sales and then expand its town limits to include parts of campus, hopefully paving the way for a vibrant college scene to spring up. He also wanted the Fine and Performing Arts Center and the sports stadium to be part of Forest Hills, so alcohol could be sold at events there as well.

Those plans have foundered with Bardo’s leaving, but are still percolating behind the scenes.

Countywide legal alcohol sales would likely make the issue moot, however.

SEE ALSO: The historical perspective: who’s dry, who’s wet

Jeannette Evans, owner of the Mad Batter Bakery & Café on “The Catwalk” near the center of WCU, said she strongly supports a referendum. But, ironically, she isn’t sure that she could, even if the referendum passes, legally sell alcoholic beverages at the popular Cullowhee establishment because the university owns the building.

“But it’s the right thing to let people vote on it,” Evans said.

Fears of chain restaurants flooding into Cullowhee if alcoholic beverage sales become legalized in the county are legitimate concerns for such buy-local proponents as Adam Bigelow. The recent WCU graduate and member of CuRvE, a group working to revitalize old Cullowhee, said that there were similar fears about Sylva when the sale of mixed drinks were legalized.

“But that really didn’t happen,” Bigelow said. “But, if they could go to Cullowhee and find a readymade thirsty market, that could be a problem.”

Still, overall, Bigelow supports the concept of legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County as part of building the community’s economy.

Collins said it would just be more convenient if people didn’t have to drive to Sylva to buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.

“Students want to be able to walk or ride their bikes to the bar,” Collins said. It would be safer and reduce possible drunk driving between Sylva and Cullowhee by students.

 

Help everyone but Sylva?

Meanwhile, however, Haley Milner, co-owner of Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro in Sylva, gets a lot of customers filtering down the road from Western College University. And on weekends, live bands clearly cater to that college crowd.

If new restaurants and bars opened in Cullowhee, Milner could lose some of that business, but said she would still support countywide alcohol sales. Besides, Soul Infusion might just move closer to campus.

“There is also the possibility that we could move out there ourselves,” Milner said.

Milner said her food is the top draw for clients, not beer and wine, but alcohol sales are important to the bottom line. And giving up that piece of revenue is a strike against moving to Cullowhee without it.

Although Sylva establishments might lose a little business if other restaurants serving alcohol cropped up around the county, the town of Sylva likewise would lose some of its ABC revenue.

The town runs the only liquor store in the county right now. Debnam said he would like to see a liquor store in Cashiers, another measure that would have to be included on the ballot and approved by voters.

“Obviously it would impact us greatly. We wouldn’t have the monopoly we have right now,” said Kevin Pennington, chairman of the Sylva ABC board. “If that’s what the commissioners want to do and what the people of Jackson County want to do, that is their total prerogative.”

Sylva’s ABC store netted $360,000 last year. The town split the proceeds with the county. Of the town’s share, a portion is reserved for the police department and the swimming pool, but the majority — about $130,000 a year — goes straight into the general budget to spend on whatever town leaders please.

Putting an ABC store in Cashiers might hurt Sylva’s sales some. But doing so would at least keep more of the money from liquor sales in Jackson County.

And Commissioner Mark Jones believes the amount gained could be substantial.

As it stands now, he said, Highlands in Macon County and Transylvania County capture a share of the Cashiers market, as does neighboring Georgia, draining both sales tax revenue and ABC profits away from Jackson. And many second-home owners have likely gotten in the habit of buying in their home state or town before they come to the mountains.

Jones is also bothered by what he considers the unfairness of certain private clubs in the area being able to legally sell alcohol while other establishments cannot. There are loopholes in the law for private clubs or restaurants tied to a golf course, development or resort.

Several in Cashiers have capitalized on the arrangement, but they still have to buy their liquor from the lone ABC store in Sylva, logging weekly trips down the mountain to get their stock.

“It is a two hour roundtrip, and you are putting that on top of the cost of the product,”

 

Time will tell

Ultimately, it’s simply up to the county’s just more than 40,000 residents to decide, the commissioners interviewed said, and to argue the pros and cons of their decision.

“Nobody can tell me the last time Jackson County had an opportunity to vote on the issue,” Jones said. “It’s only fair to put it out to the people.”

Commissioner Elders, arguably the most traditional member of the board, said he expects some backlash to his and the board’s decision from more conservative members of the community. But, like Jones, he said that he believes it’s important that citizens be allowed to make a decision.

“The fairest way of doing anything is to put it out there,” said Elders, who owns and manages a gasoline station near Whittier on U.S. 23/74. “And let the people decide.”

 

How the ballot would work

It might sound simple enough, but a vote over alcohol sales isn’t a plain yes or no question. At least not to the state of North Carolina.

Voters in Jackson County may face an arsenal of questions as they wade through exactly what form of imbibing should be allowed and where. Beer, wine, liquor — or all of the above? At grocery stores and gas stations, or only sit-down restaurants? And what about a liquor store?

“If they do everything at one time, it could be a very lengthy ballot,” said Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections.

County voters will face a separate question for each type of alcohol and each way it could be sold.

Most towns that allow alcohol sales have warmed up to the idea gradually: first putting beer and wine to the test, later opening an ABC store for the public, but only recently voting in the sale of liquor drinks by bars and restaurants.

The mix of what’s allowed and what’s not can take many forms.

Dillsboro, for example, allows only beer and wine and only at restaurants. No mixed drinks, and no over-the-counter sales by gas stations or grocery stores.

The towns of Highlands and Franklin for years allowed wine, but not beer.

Meanwhile, Waynesville opened a liquor store for the public in 1967, but more than 40 years passed before you could buy a liquor drink at a bar or restaurant.

There are two ways to get an alcohol referendum on the ballot. One is a petition from 35 percent of the registered voters, a highly ambitious prospect.

The other is a vote by county commissioners to place it on the ballot.

Cashiers rec center gets green light

The Cashiers Recreation Center is back on track following a unanimous vote this week by Jackson County commissioners to move forward with the $8 million project.

Commissioners voted to use money from the county’s fund balance instead of taking out a loan, and to hire a professional cost estimator to figure out the bottom-line price tag.

Current estimates are based on blueprints that have been on the shelf since 2006. If anything, given the crash of the construction market since then, Jackson County can anticipate a probable improvement on the original guesstimates.

The county already has spent about $3 million on the project in the past five years getting a site ready. County Manager Chuck Wooten said a fire-pump station is still needed to ensure future sprinklers have the water to operate. But otherwise, he said, the county is about ready to go through a punch (or to-do list) for that part of the project.

Cashiers’ recreation center has been a sore point for that community, which is isolated by virtue of geography. The residents in that area shoulder the bulk of Jackson County’s tax base, but often complain of seeing little return for their dollars.

The project hit environmental snags (the site is in the protected headwaters of the Chatooga River), which triggered correspondingly higher costs. The county had to pay an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with the regulatory demands.

The project almost hit another potential roadblock when Chairman Jack Debnam shied at designating the fund balance as the source of funding. He said he wanted more time to study whether the county might be better off taking out a loan. With Wooten saying commissioners couldn’t move forward at this time without detailing where they’d get the money from, and a motion from Commissioner Mark Jones, a resident of Cashiers, already on the table, Debnam voted “yes,” too.

Living at the top has some down sides

Living in Cashiers has certain perks: There is a beautiful lake to play on, gorgeous homes to live in and lovely vistas to enjoy. There also are nice restaurants, great gift shops and even an upscale Ingles grocery store that is the envy of residents in the much larger town of Sylva, who are afforded considerably fewer shopping selections at their smaller, scaled-down version.

But there’s a price to pay for living in Cashiers, both literally — because of high land prices — and figuratively. You’ve got to drive “off the mountain,” as the locals here say, for most shopping and to enjoy other amenities — and to work out.

Unless, that is, you’re made of sterner stuff than most. Which Rebecca Smith must certainly be — because she tries to swim for exercise three times a week (during the warmer months) in nearby Lake Glenville.

Smith, however, said she’d welcome a recreation center, and hopes Jackson County commissioners follow through on building it. Not so much for her personal use, but for the kids who live in the community, and for the younger people here in general. Friday at 1:30 p.m., the commission board will hold a meeting at the Cashiers library to discuss the possibility. Smith noted down the time and place. She’s going to try to be there.

Smith is a member of the Glenville community club, and on this day, was volunteering at the group’s thrift shop alongside N.C. 107. Her husband is currently the club’s president.

During a recent meeting, Smith said, group members were discussing how best to keep the community’s young people from leaving the area. Take her own grandchildren for example, who went to nearby Blue Ridge School but then “couldn’t wait to get out of here,” she said.

“‘What’s here for us?’ they said. And, that’s true,” Smith conceded.

There are a few options for the recreationally minded when they don’t want to hike or swim in the lake. Cashiers residents can motor over to neighboring Highlands and use the fitness center there; they can drive down to the Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee. Either way, though particularly if heading to Cullowhee, they are dealing with a windy, slow, two-lane road. Depending on where a person lives in Cashiers, it can easily take 30 minutes or more to get there.

There is one more option, and oddly enough, it was exactly what Zac and Jama Koenig were, just that morning, discussing the possibility of doing. The couple was picnicking Saturday in the Village Green with their daughter, Emma, and her friend, Addie. The Village Green is a community park paid for and built by people living in this community.

Even with the park, “unless you are a member of a club, there’s nowhere to do anything,” Jama Koenig said. “There’s nowhere to go to be fit.”

The solution this couple and many other Cashiers residents are forced to settle on? Buying a small “amenities” lot in the Country Club in Sapphire Valley, down around the Jackson-Transylvania county line, so that they can use the facilities.

The fitness club at Sapphire is 3,600 square feet, offering both cardio- and weight-training equipment. There are locker rooms and saunas, and places to play golf and tennis.

Zac Koenig, who runs the family owned Koenig Homebuilders, said the amenities lots generally are priced starting at $2,500. There’s reasons they can’t be built on — no septic, things like that, but buying a lot does allow people to buy their way in to the club.

And, many Cashiers residents are doing exactly that, Jama Koenig said.

Jama and Zac Koenig (he serves on the county’s planning board) represent, in many ways, both ends of a debate that is likely to take place over building a recreation center in Cashiers. A projected $5 million project to serve a selected few in the county, yes, but in a part of the county that is among the most isolated, and which pays the bulk of Jackson’s taxes.

“Our portion of the tax base is huge,” Jana Koenig said. She has no doubt the community needs and deserves a recreation center.

Her husband, however, isn’t so sure, though he’d enjoy having a recreation center nearby.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Zac Koenig said. “Our area does pay most of the taxes, but in the winter, there’s not many people here.”

That’s because Cashiers’ population is dominated by seasonal residency. Many houses stand vacant during cold-weather months, and the numbers of people in the community plummet.

 

Plans for the Cashiers Recreation Center

• Approximately 2,500 square feet in size

• Gymnasium for basketball and volleyball

• Eight-foot wide indoor running/walking track

• Fitness equipment area

• Meeting space, kitchen, storage

• Aerobics and dance areas

Source: Jackson County

Cashiers, Glenville show their pull in the polls

The three new Jackson commissioners — Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody — owe their victory last fall in part to the Cashiers and Glenville communities, where they won by margins of nearly 3 to 1.

Though they won in several other precincts as well, no where was their showing as impressive as it was on the mountain.

The floundering Cashiers recreation center project could be partly to blame for their predecessors’ ousting  — although it’s not the only reason. All three were Democrats, and no Democrat on the ballot, from Congress to sheriff, fared very well in Cashiers — though none did quite so poorly as the commissioners.

While the new board of commissioners will surely curry favor with Cashiers-Glenville voters for finally making the recreation center a reality, the stage for success was set — ironically — by the former commissioners despite their dismal approval rating there.

The blueprints, the costly site work to date — and most notably $5 million squirreled away in savings to pay for construction — were left behind on a silver platter for the taking.

Cashiers and Glenville combined have a year-round population of just 3,700, according to the latest census. But there are far more seasonal residents that flood the mountain in the summer. Of the 6,440 homes in the Cashiers-Glenville area, only 25 percent are lived in year-round, according to the census.

 

Cashiers/Glenville election results

Jack Debnam    904

Brian McMahan    513

Doug Cody    1,179

Tom Massie    439

Charles Elders    1,175

William Shelton    453

Cashiers recreation center might finally become reality

Jackson County commissioners say it’s high time Cashiers gets its due: an $8 million recreation center as pay back for the disproportional share of property taxes carried by the affluent homeowners there.

Blueprints for a Cashiers recreation center have been ready to roll since 2006. Five years later, the long-promised but yet-to-be delivered recreation center has become a symbol of discontent for Cashiers residents. Cashiers residents frequently claim they are neglected for the off-the-plateau county seat of Sylva and the communities surrounding it.

“They deserve a lot more than they have gotten in the past,” said Charles Elders, a newly elected Jackson County commissioner. “They feel like they have been neglected quite a bit.”

Elders said the recreation center has floundered on the “back burner” but that is about to change.

“I feel it was time to get serious about it and get busy with it,” Elders said.

SEE ALSO: Cashiers, Glenville show their pull in the polls

The county has spent $3 million over the past five years getting the site ready, including water, sewer and grading. All that’s lacking now is construction, estimated at $5 million.

County Chairman Jack Debnam, also a newcome to the board, said it seemed like the county had lost momentum on the project.

“After this site preparation stuff, the building sort of vanished,” Debnam said. “I am not sure what happened and how we got to where we are at.”

Debnam, like Elders, cited the taxes paid by Cashiers and Glenville residents — a product of the higher-priced homes and lots in those communities — as justifying the expense.

“If anything happens as far as any kind of building project, I would like to see that be one of the projects we do,” Debnam said. “It is a project that has been promised evidently for years and other things have always pushed it back.”

But Debnam said other outlying areas of the county — such as Qualla for example — also deserve more.

“People in Jackson County stay so close to their communities they don’t understand the wants and needs of the other communities is what I have found,” Debnam said.

 

A long and twisted road

Progress on the recreation center was stymied at several turns by a web of environmental permits. Site work hit one setback after another as the county learned of yet another regulatory hoop that had to be jumped through. There were also water and sewer lines to run, and an entrance road to build.

“Progress has been slowly plugging along but nobody has seen a building go vertical,” said Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers.

Trying to explain why it has taken so long has been a “nightmare,” Jones said.

“I would tell people we are going to build it and they would say, ‘Oh yeaaahhhh, suuurrre,’” Jones said.

The site lies in the headwaters of the protected Chattooga River, and thus required stricter-than-usual environmental requirements. The county had to navigate a maze of permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, the N.C. Wildlife Commission, the N.C. Division of Water Quality and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System

At each step, costs ballooned skyward.

“We had to spend a phenomenal amount of money to meet the environmental requirements and permits,” Jones said.

The county ponied up an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with tougher standards on everything from wetlands to stormwater runoff. Even bringing water and sewer to the site cost more than expected.

Cost overruns did influence the project’s timeline, Jones said.

“As we were spending the extra money, we saw more and more go to site prep and less and less left for the building,” Jones said.

County Manager Chuck Wooten, who just came on board in January, said it is unlikely the former board of commissioners would have kept spending on site work if they didn’t plan to follow through with the project somewhere down the road. In 2007, commissioners took out a $2.7 million loan to cover the site work.

But the drawn-out process and lack of actual construction work left many thinking the project was never going to be completed.

“I do think the folks up there in Cashiers are confused as to why it hadn’t been taken care of,” Wooten said.

Jones said the former board of commissioners were always committed to the project — at least the majority of them were.

Former commissioner Tom Massie said publicly — during a candidate’s forum held in Cashiers no less — that he thought it was unwise to spend the money at this time given the uncertain economic conditions and school funding shortfalls that could lead to layoffs of teachers. Jones said Massie’s honesty in a roomful of Cashiers voters on the eve of the election was admirable, at least.

At the same forum, the three newly elected commissioners pledged support for the recreation center.

Making good on their promise, they asked Wooten to bring them a status report on the project and what it would take to jump start it.

The architect, Dan Duckham of Cashiers, told Wooten plans could be ready to go to bid within two months. The cost estimate stands at $5 million.

Wooten hopes it might not be that much. Builders are hungry for work given the depressed construction market, he said.

“It is a great climate for bidding,” Wooten said.

The county has enough in reserves to pay for construction without borrowing.

Jones said the county once intended to take out a loan for construction but were waiting until this year, Jones said. The county this year will finish making loan payments on the Fairview and Scotts Creek schools, freeing up the county’s debt load.

Wooten instead has recommended tapping the county’s plentiful savings, which stands at roughly $20 million. Commissioners have informally agreed.

The county built up its reserves over the past decade, growing the fund balance by $10 million in the last 11 years, Jones said.

“They were very wise in socking away a considerable amount of money,” Jones said. “You have to give credit to the former county manager and boards of commissioners.”

The recreation center will cost another $330,000 annually for staff, overhead and maintenance, Wooten estimated. Part of that would be offset by memberships.

Jones said the Cashiers recreation center will provide economic stimulus in Cashiers, both creating jobs and spurring investment. People who have bought lots but not yet built their retirement home may now decide to do so thanks to the coming amenity.

 

Want to go?

Jackson County commissioners will hold a work session to discuss the Cashiers Recreation Center, including a chat with the architect, at 1:30 p.m. Friday, June 3, at the Cashiers library.

Cashiers rec center would cost $5 million

Jackson County commissioners may tap the county’s robust savings to build a $5 million recreation center in Cashiers.

The rec center has been years in the making, with the previous board of commissioners chipping away at site preparation, planning and design.

County Manager Chuck Wooten told the current commissioners they could move ahead with construction thanks to healthy county savings.

“Even by taking $5 million out of our fund balance we are still in really good shape financially. It would not impact the county negatively at all. We still have a very generous reserve,” said Wooten, who took over as the new county manager in January along with a new slate of commissioners.

Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers, said he would support using the fund balance to build the long-promised Cashiers rec center.

“I think after five years it is time to take this off the shelf,” Commissioner Charles Elders added.

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