Senate clamps down on sweepstakes

If Rep. Ray Rapp has his way, the state House will crush video sweepstakes as fervently as the state Senate did late last month.

N.C. senators voted 47-1 to ban the video gambling machines that have evolved to circumvent a statewide ban. Court battles waged by the gaming industry had previously stalled new legislation to outlaw video sweepstakes.

The ban proposed in the House would go into effect Dec. 1. Towns like Maggie Valley, Franklin, Canton and Hendersonville would no longer be able to charge the $2,500 or more annual licensing fees on the newly illegal businesses.

Rapp, D-Mars Hill — who has been a major opponent of video gambling all along — looks forward to finally voting against sweepstakes in the House.

“It’s spreading like a contagion, and it’s got to be stopped,” said Rapp. “This puts an exclamation point on the fact that it’s an illegal activity.”

Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, wholeheartedly supported a total ban on sweepstakes machines when it came to a vote in the Senate.

“These parlors are nothing more than unregulated casinos operating outside the law,” said Queen. “I listened to all sides, but stand firmly with the sheriffs and police chiefs across the state who asked us to tighten the law because of the increase in crime and high social costs that come with these illicit operations.”

Rapp cited a desperate woman in Marshall who robbed a Wachovia Bank after running up debt at two video sweepstakes places.

Rapp also pointed out that the machines are predominantly found in poor neighborhoods. According to a survey conducted in Florida, the majority of people who play earn less than $30,000 a year or are retirees.

But the gaming industry — which previously denied that internet sweepstakes were at all related to video gambling — argues now that regulation is the key. It would protect customers and create accountability for businesses.

“[Taxation] would provide more than $500 million a year in revenue according to recent figures released by the N.C. Lottery,” said William Thevaos, president of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina. “Lawmakers know there’s a pot of money there if they would just regulate it and tax it.”

Rapp has hardly been won over by the argument.

“If an activity’s wrong, you don’t do it,” said Rapp, adding that most people would not advocate making other illegal activities permissible simply to generate revenue.

Rapp said out of frustration, he has sometimes considered resorting to what his attorneys term the “nuclear option” — banning sweepstakes of all kinds.

“Every time we try to do this surgically, and sit there with our lawyers, it’s a challenge,” said Rapp. “[But] cooler heads prevailed.”

Franklin clinic demonstrates V.A.’s great leap forward

The Veterans Administration’s community-based outpatient clinic in Franklin will be just two years old in August, but it’s already operating at capacity.

The clinic’s three full-time doctors have full dockets, and to them, that’s a sign the V.A.’s new service delivery model is working.

The Franklin community-based outpatient clinic is the only place the over 10,000 veterans from the far western counties in North Carolina and north Georgia can get basic services without driving all the way to the Charles George V.A. Medical Center in Asheville.

Kathy Spence, an Air Force veteran who lives in Clayton, Ga., comes to the Franklin clinic at least once a month for a variety of ailments from Parkinson’s to fybromyalgia. Previously, she’d drive two hours both ways to the V.A. Medical Center in Asheville.

“It makes a big difference for me,” said Spence. “Everybody here is friendly. If you have a question, they work on it as quickly as possible and when I talk, they hear me. They all treat me like a human being.”

Dr. David Ramsey, the clinic’s director, said the community-based outpatient clinics are the future of the V.A. medical system, and with two wars still going, he expects to see more of them in Western North Carolina.

“We do have two wars going on. We do have folks who will be returning, and it’s likely that we’ll be having more community-based outpatient clinics, but we’ll need to start thinking about how to handle these numbers,” said Ramsey.

The Franklin clinic is designed to provide integrated outpatient services for veterans in Western North Carolina so they don’t have to schlep back and forth to Asheville for all of their needs. But the benefits go beyond that.

“One thing I’ve seen is it’s a small community. Veterans know other veterans, and once they’re comfortable the word will spread,” said Dr. Mike Newberry, the clinic’s full-time psychiatrist.

Newberry and Ramsey are part of a new breed of V.A. doctors. Both men have experience with the military but spent decades in private practices. Their career shift to treat veterans was a calling, but they quickly found the V.A. was on the cutting edge of new health care models, like integrated medicine.

“If I’m with someone and all of the sudden they’re not feeling well, all I have to do is walk them down the hall,” said Newberry, the psychiatrist. “It’s a great way to practice medicine.”

The team approach — which stresses communication between providers rather than compartmentalized fields of medicine carried out in separate offices — is a national trend.

“You’re not a lone provider on the frontier anymore,” Ramsey said.

In addition to three full-time doctors, one of whom is a psychiatrist, the clinic has a full-time psychologist, a registered nurse, and two social workers. It offers an eye clinic, primary care, mental health services, and a remote lab.

“Putting all of those services together is a huge number of visits saved for the veterans,” Ramsey said.

In addition to saving veterans the travel time, the clinic also offers a more intimate environment.

“It does make it a more comfortable place to come,” said Newberry. “They don’t like big crowds, big buildings and lots of noise.”

The local setting made a real difference when a suicidal veteran called the clinic in the midst of making an attempt on his life but would not reveal his identity. Doris Elders, part of the clinic’s staff, recognized the man’s voice, called 911 and saved his life.

“It connects the veterans more to the providers and less to the facility,” said Ramsey.

For Ramsey, who has only been with the V.A. for two and a half years, part of his job is showing the veterans that the system has changed.

“The V.A. has improved so much in the past 15 years, and unfortunately some of the veterans have been in the system longer than that and almost felt like they were serving the V.A.,” Ramsey said. “Sometimes you have to let people know that they’re number one.”

Larry Funke, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran from Murphy, never dealt with the old V.A. Funke said he hadn’t seen a doctor in 35 years when he was hospitalized for heart failure in 2006. He still travels to Asheville for many of his specialized treatments, but the Franklin clinic allows him to travel shorter distances for his checkups.

“Everybody I’ve ever dealt with in the V.A. has been wonderful people,” Funke said.

Another aspect of the V.A.’s shift in service delivery is the move towards a web-based platform. My HealtheVet, a new program, allows vets to access their records, schedule appointments and monitor their treatments via the web.

The program builds on the V.A.’s use of computerized medical records, which are far better than paper charts still used in most private practices and can track patient data from state to state.

With a new generation of tech-savvy veterans, the Web-based approach may be the future of the system, but in the western counties the bulk of the population is still Vietnam-era and older.

“Moving the V.A. into the next generation, we also have to keep hold of the previous generations,” Ramsey said. “We have OEF vets using I-phones and older vets who don’t have computers.”

Serving a unique population

Veterans are a particular kind of medical population. According to Ramsey, they have a suicide rate seven times greater than the general population and a rate of diabetes three times as great.

Both of those numbers can be linked to high rates of alcohol abuse. Ramsey said the V.A.’s record of treating the veteran population speaks for itself.

“We have generally a sicker population, but we have better outcomes than any other healthcare system in the country,” Ramsey said.

Sandra Melter, the clinic’s administrator, knows the veteran population firsthand. Her brother was a Vietnam veteran who died of cancer as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, and his experience has shaped her life.

“It leaves a lasting impression on you that you never get over,” Melter said.

Melter’s husband was a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific, and while he didn’t speak a lot about his wartime experience, it was part of their marriage.

She uses her experience as motivation to provide better care to the veterans she deals with on a regular basis.

“They are different from everybody else, and I have the greatest respect for what they went through for us,” Melter said. “Most of them are always in some kind of pain, and you have to realize they might not be happy all the time. The veterans have so much support right now, but they may not always know it.”

As a psychiatrist, Newberry sees the challenges young returning veterans face when they re-enter society. Post-traumatic stress syndrome leads to substance abuse, but the veterans avoid seeking mental health services for fear it will hurt their job prospects, Newberry said.

The nightmarish caricature of the V.A. system paints a picture of a veteran negotiating a Kafka-esque bureaucracy equipped with a file folder and an ID number, wandering the halls of an endless antiseptic hospital building begging some brown shoe doc to legitimize his claims.

The reality now is that more doctors, nurses and administrators are coming to the V.A. from the private sector because it offers meaningful work, stable employment, and good benefits.

That fact — along with the addition of the smaller community-based clinics — has made the V.A. experience a lot like what you would find in a civilian doctor’s office.

After spending two decades in private practice in Sylva, Ramsey, who grew up an Army brat, saw the V.A. as a great way to end his career.

“I wanted to help the people I grew up around,” Ramsey said.

Angel Medical, Mission consider partnership

Angel Medical Center in Franklin may soon come under the wing of Mission Hospital in Asheville.

Smaller, rural hospitals are increasingly forging partnerships with larger hospitals as it becomes tougher financially to go it alone. Angel’s 15-member hospital board unanimously voted to explore an affiliation with Mission for both financial reasons and in hopes of improving health care in the community.

“There is no question there are some financial advantages,” said Angel CEO Tim Hubbs. Particularly when it comes to economies of scale when ordering supplies and negotiating purchase contracts.

“They have more negotiating power than us. We are one-twentieth of their size,” Hubbs said.

Mission brings in more than $1 billion in net patient revenue a year and has 800 doctors that practice there. Angel has 41 physicians and averages about 15 patients staying each night in the hospital

Medical care for people in Macon County could also benefit, Hubbs said. Doctors would have the benefit of consulting with specialists over cases and diagnosis. Ideally, doctors from Mission in more specialized fields would be willing to hold office hours in Franklin certain days of the month, helping patients who now have to travel out of the county. Hubbs said Mission won’t try to compete with established practices in Franklin, and would only make forays into specialties that Macon County doesn’t have the patient base to support.

Last year, Haywood Regional Medical Center joined forces with WestCare hospitals in Sylva and Bryson City. The trio then entered a management contract with Carolinas HealthCare System, a massive conglomerate based in Charlotte with 32 hospitals under its umbrella.

Two years ago, that number was just 22 — showing just how rapidly rural hospitals are affiliating with bigger institutions.

Mission, meanwhile, has partnerships with the hospitals in Spruce Pine and McDowell County. The hospital in Brevard is exploring an affiliation with Mission as well.

Hubbs said the Angel hospital board feels Mission is a better fit than jumping on board with WestCare and Haywood. Hubbs said Angel has a long-standing relationship with Mission already, and Mission has continually broached the subject of an affiliation with Angel over the years.

Mission vied for an affiliation with WestCare and Haywood but was beat out by Carolinas. That makes Angel all the more important strategically for Mission as it aims to transition from its reputation as the go-to regional hospital for advanced procedures to a flagship institution at the head of a regional network.

“I know they would love to see other hospitals in the region join them as well,” Hubbs said. “I think they have to figure out what they can bring to the table.”

Mission was too close for comfort for many Haywood physicians, who felt the proximity makes Mission more of a competitor than potential partner. Franklin physicians could feel the same way toward WestCare. Several medical practices in Sylva have satellite offices in Franklin, capturing patients who are then seen at Harris instead of Angel.

Hubbs said the presence of Sylva-base physicians in Franklin has been mutually beneficial in ways, however.

“WestCare over the years has provided office space over here to give their physicians fuller practices, and we also had some weak spots in terms of physicians in our own community,” Hubbs said.

An affiliation with Mission could take many forms, from an outright sale of the hospital at one end of the spectrum to a management contract on the other. Hubbs envisions something in the middle, with some level of shared ownership yet a measure of local autonomy.

“We wouldn’t want Mission to be able to control all things,” Hubbs said.

Hubbs said Angel Medical Center has lost money the past two years, though he would not share hard numbers. The hospital’s financial statements are private.

The loss is largely due to upfront costs of new equipment and recruiting new doctors, both of which will reap benefits down the road.

“We have been making heavy investments in the future,” Hubbs said.

Quintessential quilts

In 1980, Gov. Jim Hunt signed a proclamation declaring Franklin as the “Quilting Capital of the World.” That tradition has been preserved and is being expanded in a major way. Maco Crafts — a nonprofit cooperative that operated from 1969 until 2001 — produced many quilts, but three unique creations have continued to draw admirers and promote Macon County.

These three quilts, after many years, are now reunited in Franklin, and will be welcomed home at a special showing on April 17. “Patterns of our Heritage” will feature the quilts, but will also have various exhibits that show not only how the quiltmaking tradition is being preserved, but how it is expanding and evolving into an important part of the economy.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Quiltmaking is a $3.3 billion industry today, with 27 million enthusiasts.” These quilts can play an important role in attracting folks to Franklin and Western North Carolina. The Folk Heritage Association of Macon County is developing plans for a Living Heritage Center that will showcase the way of life in these mountains. The quilts will ultimately be displayed there, but in the interim, they can be displayed at many locations around the area.

The Original World’s Largest Quilt was created in 1980 and has been a “roving ambassador” for Franklin since that time. Measuring 18-feet by 21-feet, it was displayed on the “World’s Largest Bed” at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. In addition to appearing at many fairs and festivals, the quilt hung in the John F. Kennedy for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. for one month. A bus was chartered to take the quilters, the mayor of Franklin, and many local folks to Washington where they were hosted by Rep. Lamarr Gudger and his wife. The Friends of the Kennedy Center held a reception for them.

Some other major appearances of the Big Quilt were at the Master’s Golf Tournament, the Southern Living Show in Charlotte, and in New York City.

In 1980, Philip Morris Corporation began assembling the “North Carolina Collection” of North Carolina crafts at their cigarette manufacturing plant in Concord. The design firm of Chermayeff and Geismar Inc. in New York contracted with Maco Crafts to produce a giant wall hanging for this collection. Made up of 333 different traditional patchwork patterns, it is 10-feet high and 38-feet wide, with the colors blending from one to the next in a rainbow-like effect. When the Philip Morris plant closed in 2009, they chose to return the big wall hanging to the place of its creation, donating it to the Folk Heritage Association.

The third quilt in this trio was in the process of production when the 9/11 tragedy occurred. Originally designed as just a celebrity autograph quilt, the focus was changed to “The Celebrate America Autograph Quilt.” Centered by a hand-painted American flag and the motto “Out of Many, One,” the quilt is bordered with autographs of heroes like emergency medical workers, firefighters and law enforcement officers. In addition, there are around 40 celebrity autographs from all walks of life; for example, Kenny Rogers, Maya Angelou, Richard Petty, Alan Jackson, Bill Friday, Dean Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, and Tom Glavin. The quilt was given to KIDS Place, a local center for child abuse services, to use as a fundraiser. The winner of the raffle, Linda Tyler, chose to donate the quilt to the FHAMC so others could enjoy it.

Co-sponsored by Folk Heritage Association of Macon County, the Town of Franklin and Macon County, the event on April 17 is designed to do four things:

• Recognize the role of quiltmaking in the cultural heritage of Western North Carolina’s mountains and in its future.

• Showcase three priceless examples of this art form.

• Honor those who created these unique, incomparable treasures.

• Appreciate those who so generously made these quilts available to the Folk Heritage Association and the people of Macon County.

It is easy to forget the hundreds of hours of work that went into the creation of these treasures, but on this day, the guests of honor will be those women who worked so hard. Sadly, many of them have died, but any family members present will be recognized.

During the event, attendees will be invited to take part in the design and creation of another quilt, “Macon County Treasures.” When completed, it will become part of the Macon County collection of quilts.

Throughout the day, music will be provided by Macon County’s own Ronnie Evans. Playing his classical and steel string acoustic guitars, he will perform pieces that range from pop standards of the past to bluegrass and easy listening.

For more information, call 828.342.0644 or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Franklin enjoys symbiotic relationship with AT hikers

For years, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have been stopping in Franklin for supplies, rest, and Internet access, but last week the town solidified its place as a trail destination. Mayor Joe Collins signed a proclamation accepting the town’s designation as an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at a celebration event in the town hall.

“It’s such a natural fit. We’ve always appreciated the hikers and hopefully this will allow us to broaden our relationship with them. Hikers are great people,” Collins said.

The Appalachian Trail passes 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap. Franklin’s position 100 miles from the trail’s southern starting point makes it a natural stop for hikers making the 2,170-mile trip from Georgia to Maine.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy Board Chairman Robert Almand described the magic feeling of discovering the AT as he welcomed Franklin into the greater community of the trail at the ceremony last week (April 23). Almand told the story of his first encounter with the trail in the ‘80s while picking up trash near Moody Gap on Earth Day.

“I noticed the AT ran through there, and I went down the trail a little ways to explore and kept seeing those white blazes,” Almand said. “I realized I could walk all the way to Maine if I kept going.”

The Appalachian Trail is one of America’s true pilgrimage routes, stretching nearly the length of the East Coast and attracting some 2,000 thru-hikers each year.

Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the ATC’s designation as an official trail community. The effort was driven by the Nantahala Hiking Club — whose volunteers maintain the 80 miles of the AT between Bly Gap and the Nantahala Outdoor Center — the Franklin Main Street program, and by local businessman Ronnie Haven.

The trail has been both a passion and a resource for Haven, who owns and operates a group of motels between Franklin and Georgia.

“At age 16, I thought I could walk to Maine and back before school started, but I didn’t make it but to Pearisburg, Virginia,” Haven said.

Haven was one of the first Franklin-based business people to embrace the trail hikers as customers. His hotels are known as a stopping point, and Franklin’s trail celebration “April Fools Trail Days” owes its genesis to the hiker bash Haven has hosted at the Sapphire Inn for the past six years.

Haven’s bash includes trail advice from legends, music, and demonstrations of mountain cultural activities, like five-string banjo picking and clogging. Haven said the new ATC designation would allow the town to take on the role as cultural ambassadors of the Western North Carolina high country.

“There’s people who come here from all over the world, and some of them never heard tell of some of the things like we do,” Haven said.

The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. In order to qualify, communities must meet two of four requirements. Franklin met all four by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems, and getting the county planning department to commit to consider the trail in its land use plans.

Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn hailed the effort as confirmation of Franklin’s commitment to the AT motto “Join the Journey.”

“Today Franklin has truly joined the journey,” Van Horn said.

Van Horn spearheaded the trail advisory committee, which spent the past year meeting to plan local efforts around education and trail stewardship. Along the way, the committee conducted an informal survey of thru-hikers. The survey found that, on average, thru-hikers stay 1.4 nights in Franklin and spend $124 during their stay.

Both the town of Franklin and Macon County have shown strong support over the past year for becoming an official trail community, but it’s the Nantahala Hiking Club and its volunteers that have undertaken the hard work of maintaining the AT over the years.

Don O’Neil, the NHC trail manager, is one of the many volunteers who maintain the 47 miles of trail that run through Macon County. For O’Neill, who hiked the AT in sections between 1981 and 1991, the motivation to maintain the trail is a sign of gratitude for the experience it provided him.

“I’m just giving back what I got out of the trail,” he said.

As the newest Appalachian Trail Community, Franklin is doing the same.

Meet the thru-hikers

It’s a sure sign of spring for Southern Appalachian communities along the Appalachian Trail: hikers loaded down with backpacks hitchhiking to town and back to stock up on supplies, eat that hamburger they’ve been craving, and knock back a few cold beers before hitting the trail again.

They emerge slowly at first, one or two early birds trickling by, and then turn into a steady stream just about now, with dozens a day filtering along the trail on the pilgrimage to Maine.

Last week, The Smoky Mountain News caught up with three thru-hikers who had taken a break in Franklin to refuel and were heading back onto the AT at Winding Stair Gap.

Kate Imp (“Ringleader”), her brother Brandon Imp (“Monkey”), and their friend Emily Ginger (“Lightning”) have set aside their normal lives to walk from Georgia to Maine this year.

“You only have so many chances in life to have big experiences with the people closest to you,” Kate said. “The AT is something known for the community experience more than just the hike itself.”

The three-person team stopped in Franklin for two nights, staying at the Sapphire Inn and eating at Mi Casa and Cody’s Roadhouse before stocking up on fresh food supplies at Ingles. It’s that type of involvement with the town that the Appalachian Trail Community designation was created to encourage.

Kate Imp said knowing that Franklin was a hiker-friendly community made it easier to decide to stop there.

“You’re less on guard. With trail towns there’s the assumption that 99 percent of the people you meet are interested in helping you,” Imp said.

Roughly two weeks into the trail, Franklin is a crucial make-or-break point for thru-hiker hopefuls. They’ve come far enough to realize how tough the journey will be, but not far enough to have developed their “trail legs” or fall into the true rhythm of the trail. The town’s official trail designation recognizes the symbiotic nature of the trail and the town.

Fighting hunger, one bowl at a time

Fill a bowl, feed a soul, and help fight hunger with a warm heart and a full stomach. The second annual Empty Bowls Dinner is set for Friday, March 12, at Tartan Hall in Franklin. The fundraising event is a great opportunity for people to make a difference both in the community and abroad. It is hosted by Franklin High School’s Interact and Art Clubs, the doors open at 5 p.m., and the food, live music and entertainment will run until 8 p.m.

The basic premise of the dinner is simple: guests are invited to choose from any of several hundred handcrafted ceramic bowls, they are then served a simple meal of soup, bread, and dessert. The guests are asked to keep their bowl as a reminder of all the empty bowls around the world. In exchange for the meal and the bowl, guests are suggested to make a minimum donation of $10. All proceeds from the dinner will go towards the effort to end hunger. Like last year, all proceeds will be donated locally to Care Net, and internationally to Partners in Health in Haiti (

As a result of the continuing economic recession, Care Net is under greater strain keeping their pantries stocked than in any previous years. Haiti currently stands as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and after the tragic earthquake suffered in January, the people of Haiti are in dire need of support, now more than ever. Empty Bowls offers the opportunity to pitch in a helping hand to real people.

Students in several art classes at the high school have been creating bowls all semester that are dinnerware and dishwasher safe. Parents, community members, and local businesses are making the soups, breads and desserts for the event. FHS’s Jazz Band will be playing throughout the evening, and Danny Antoine will be performing live karate demonstrations as well. There will also be Franklin High students handcrafting pottery bowls on the throwing wheel. In addition, there will be representatives on hand from both of the organizations receiving the donations to provide information about the fight against hunger. There will be disposable bowls available for families that wish to attend the dinner but can’t afford several bowls.

Empty Bowls began in 1990 as an international endeavor to fight hunger. The goals of this project are to raise money to help fight hunger, to raise awareness about the issues of hunger and food security and to help bring about an attitude that will not allow hunger to exist.

Local sponsors include The Noon Time Rotary, Daybreak Rotary, Ronnie Beale, and United. Tartan Hall is located at First Presbyterian Church, 26 Church Street in Franklin. Doors open at 5 p.m. and the nicest bowls go fast!

(Lauren Stenger, a senior at FHS, and I got the Empty Bowls Project underway at Franklin High School in fall 2008. The first Empty Bowls Dinner was a tremendous success, drawing well over two hundred people. With the help of Joan Lansford, FHS art teacher, and several other students, we have been working diligently with high hopes of building upon the success of last year’s event. We are able to accept cash and checks only. But remember that the donations are tax-deductible. Anyone who can’t make it to the dinner but would like to support the cause should contact Joan Lansford at the high school or at 828.506.9318. Checks can be made out to Empty Bowls and sent to the school. )

Franklin could reap windfall from sale of property

Franklin’s leaders are trying to decide what to do about a valuable piece of property on the outskirts of downtown, and they’re hiring outside consultants to help them.

The town purchased the Whitmire property in January 2005 for $1,585,373 with plans to build a new municipal complex to house town hall, police department and public works.

The town board later changed its mind and decided to renovate a building on Main Street for a new town hall instead, leaving the Whitmire property without an express purpose.

The 13-acre property, appraised at $2.15 million in August 2008, is by far the largest piece of undeveloped land remaining in the greater downtown area. Last week, the Franklin town board voted to hire a development consultant to provide options for the sale of the tract, along with the old town hall building on Main Street.

The fate of the Whitmire property was a point of contention in this year’s town mayoral race between Alderman Bob Scott and Mayor Joe Collins. Collins favored getting the property back on the tax rolls, and Scott wanted to use the property as a public space, possibly a town park.

Scott cast the lone opposition vote to the plan to bring in development consultants.

“My feelings haven’t changed. In no way should the town do anything with that property other than use it for the public. I don’t want to see a big box (store) in there,” Scott said. “I do have a problem with surplusing it because that’s the last piece of undeveloped land in the town, and it has so much potential for public use.”

Collins pushed for bringing in a development consultant.

“We thought by doing that we could take some of the bias and some of the emotion out of it to get as focused an idea as we can,” Collins said.

Sam Greenwood, Franklin town manager, said developing the property could give the town an important source of financial stability, because it would likely realize a profit on the sale while at the same time returning the property to the tax rolls.

Realtor Evelyn Owens of Keller Williams in Franklin said that while the market is down the value of the Whitmire property should remain stable. She estimated that the property would fetch close to $150,000 per acre today with a total selling price between $1.8 and $2 million.


The future of Whitmire

The issue now is what to do with it. Scott said he intends to watch the discussion closely because he fears the board is intent on getting money out of the property without looking hard at the future implications of selling it.

“When are we ever going to get a piece of land like that? Most people are still stuck in the 1950s mindset of build, build, build without a thought to what the costs would be in the long run,” said Scott.

Collins said Scott’s fear that the town would develop the Whitmire property without adequate planning is misplaced.

“I don’t think anyone around the table envisions getting a check and just hoping the development makes sense,” Collins said.

Collins for his part said he foresees a mixed-use development that could add housing density and retail space in an important commercial district.

Collins said that because the town owns the property outright, it could dictate terms of any purchase, including what a developer plans to do with the property. It could sell the property with restrictions or partner in a public-private development venture.

“If they come in and give us ideas we haven’t thought about, we should have an open mind,” Collins said. “The bottom line is it needs to be utilized. It’s too valuable to be sitting vacant.”

Alderman Sissy Patillo, who also voted to bring in a consultant, said she wanted to know what the options were.

“Doing this doesn’t mean we sell it. It doesn’t mean we develop it,” Patillo said. “It just gives us options.”

Patillo also touted the potential for a mixed-use development.

“In an ideal world, I would like to see it developed with lots of green space interconnected with other areas with mixed usage and affordable housing,” Patillo said.

Owens supports the idea of a mixed-use space that incorporates small retail, residential condos and town homes and integrated greenspace.

“I’ve been saying this for eight years, we really need some town homes closer to the downtown,” Owens said.

Owens said homes between $150,000 and $250,000 would be ideal.

“Affordable housing, yes,” Owens said. “I think it needs to be maintenance free and if they could have condos and town homes with different price points and a nice park area, that would be great,” Owens said.

Owens said consultants would bring impartial knowledge to the table, but they might not fully understand the needs of the community and the market in Franklin.

Greenwood said the board’s intent was to move the project forward patiently.

“There’s no sense of urgency to it other than trying to get the property back to work so to speak,” Greenwood said.

Undocumented students receive helping hand from Franklin principal

Despite the daunting road ahead, Franklin High School principal Gary Shields is steering his undocumented students toward the naturalization process. Gaining citizenship would give his students a shot at higher education and better job opportunities.

“They’re not going home, and so we’ve got to find some way that they can make a contribution to our society,” said Shields.

Shields became interested in helping the students after one of his football players came to him for help after being threatened with deportation last summer.

Shields assisted the student in applying for citizenship and decided to do the same for the rest of the undocumented students at his school.

“The students look at me saying, ‘I don’t even know anyone in Mexico, I don’t even know anything about the culture,’” said Shields. “I call them the hip kids. They came here on mama’s hip. They know nothing about their homeland.”

Shields enlisted the help of Saul Olvera, a Macon County Middle School business teacher who brings firsthand experience of the naturalization process.

The duo met with undocumented students and their parents earlier this school year to educate them on the lengthy, expensive procedure.

“Going through the process was tedious, it was expensive, it required many trips,” said Olvera, who said he’s returning the favor after receiving help from his own teachers in the past.

Shields stressed the importance of starting paperwork early since the application procedure can take five to eight years to complete.

A 16-year old junior at Franklin High School said she’s still waiting to hear on a naturalization application that her parents submitted eight years ago.

Despite the long delay, there’s no guarantee that she will become a U.S. citizen. If she doesn’t become a legal resident by the time she turns 18 next December, she will have to restart the entire process.

“I kind of don’t think it’s fair, for the kids,” said the student, who would like to see children prioritized over adults in the naturalization process. “We have more opportunities than they do.”

While she and her fellow undocumented students wait for a decision, they live with an ever-present fear.

“We can’t go out like other people,” the junior said. “We can get deported ... We’re terrified for our parents to get deported.”

Unlike their classmates, undocumented students cannot obtain a driver’s license, check out materials from the public library, or work summer jobs legitimately.

Olvera and Shields have contacted county commissioners and state representatives to point out treatment they see as unfair.

“Most of the students that are in school now did not have the option to come or not,” said Olvera. “That is the poignant disadvantage. Why are children being punished for something they had no control over? ... We’re just trying to make their dreams possible.”

Franklin students’ hard work helps greenway

Franklin High students became active volunteers in a service-learning program this fall to improve the ecosystem along the Franklin Greenway.

More than 40 students, along with local community members, conducted a three-day site inventory and extraction of exotic invasive plants along two miles of the greenway in October.

Exotic invasive plants have seriously degraded the natural areas along the greenway. Exotic plants spread aggressively and monopolize light, nutrients and space to the detriment of native species. As a result, animals that rely on native plants for food and shelter also suffer losses.

“The worst exotic invasive plants change the character of entire ecosystems,” said Mary Bennett, Southwestern Community College’s GEAR UP College Readiness Coach.

Controlling exotic invasive plants is labor intensive, in this case requiring pulling, digging and chopping.

“It’s just plain hard work!” observed sophomore Clinton Anderson, who eagerly uprooted 10-foot-tall shrubs from the woods.

In addition to the manual labor, the program was coupled with classroom instruction, guest speakers and fieldwork exercises.

“Participating in a practical and hands-on activity while communicating with professionals enables the students to improve technical skills and job readiness while increasing their career awareness,” said Bennett.

Other groups participating in the project included Western North Carolina Alliance, Friend of the Greenway, Coweeta Hydrological Lab, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

“The students really took to the responsibility of protecting the natural habitat and wanted to leave it in better shape,” said Franklin Agriculture Teacher Devon Deal.

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