Poll shows majority in Jackson tired of trekking to town for beer

Though many Jackson County residents shy away from publicly airing their views on alcohol, a recent poll shows that a comfortable majority of voters support alcohol sales countywide.

Whether you’re a college student in Cullowhee or socialite in Cashiers, stocking up on beer, wine and spirits requires a trip into town. But a WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll shows 56 percent of voters in Jackson County support alcohol sales everywhere in the county, not just in Sylva and Dillsboro, compared to 39 percent who would be opposed.

This particular question polarized respondents more strongly than any other issue on the poll, which was conducted by the Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, one of the Southeast’s most respected polling companies. Only 5 percent of those polled were undecided. Most questions saw undecided numbers of around 20 percent.

The poll questioned nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

“It’s fascinating that so few people are unsure,” said Christopher Cooper, director of the Public Policy Institute at WCU. “It seems like the kind of issue, if it’s ever on the ballot, that would lead to a high voter turnout.”

The alcohol question sticks out in a poll where most of the questions address trust in government. Clay County — one of the region’s smallest and most rural — recently voted to allow alcohol sales countywide, so it seems to be an emerging issue in Western North Carolina, Cooper said.

Though the area has traditionally been conservative on alcohol sales, a lingering recession may have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, however, doesn’t see the issue as pressing.

“I don’t have a whole lot of people stopping me in the grocery store, on the streets or calling me saying ‘We need alcohol sales,’” said Massie. “It’s not one of those things on my radar screen.”

Massie doesn’t see a trend toward acceptance in Western North Carolina, either. Clay County seems to be more the exception than the rule in the region, according to Massie.

“That’s got a whole lot more to do with tradition and deep-seated beliefs held by the populace,” said Massie.

Though Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones said there is actually more acceptance of alcohol in general, the primary motivating factor for legalizing alcohol sales countywide is most likely financial at this point.

“It is a revenue-generator at a time when sales are down and economies are tough,” said Jones.

WCU sees opportunity

According to Cooper, the biggest supporters of countywide sales were men, liberals, the more educated and the young.

Those who face a long drive to get a six-pack of beer or a few bottles of wine resoundingly said “yes” to countywide alcohol sales as well. About 68 percent of Cashiers residents clamored for change in Jackson County’s alcohol policy.

Meanwhile, Sylva residents just barely supported countywide sales, with only 50 percent voting “yes.”

Though WCU Chancellor John Bardo was reluctant to comment on the results of a poll conducted by the university, he did say legalizing alcohol sales in the county would have a tangible impact on the college.

The main effect, Bardo said, would be the potential for a viable commercial environment around the university. For now, Cullowhee is short on restaurants and grocery stores, and the total ban on alcohol sales may be to blame.

“People want to be able to go out to eat,” said Bardo. “It’s part of the quality of life they’re looking for.”

Alcohol sales countywide might lead to higher tax revenues for local government, a better business environment in Cullowhee as well as a positive impact on student enrollment.

“More services make the university more attractive,” said Bardo.

Jones agreed that Cullowhee businesses would make a handsome profit if students weren’t forced to drive to Sylva to buy their alcohol.

Moreover, Jones cited the trend of more retired individuals moving to college towns for its culture and activities. Allowing alcohol sales in Cullowhee would enhance the area’s attractiveness to these potential residents, Jones said.

But Massie said the few miles drive to Sylva most likely isn’t a major problem for students at Western. He recalled the days Jackson County was completely dry, when students would make beer runs all the way to Waynesville.

“College kids, if they want beer, and it’s legal for them to get it, they’re going to get it,” said Massie.

 

Cashiers highly supportive

 

Commissioner Jones, who manages High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, constantly encounters guests who query him on the nearest place to buy alcohol.

“For convenience, I send them to Highlands [in Macon County],” said Jones. “I’m guilty as charged.”

With Highlands a lot closer than Sylva, guests and residents alike often opt for the quicker trip when they’re thirsting for beer, wine and liquor. Jones said he cannot gauge how many thousands of dollars in potential tax revenue Jackson County loses each year in the process.

Some businesses in Cashiers are allowed to sell liquor, but only if they are established as a private club. Because these venues are required to purchase alcohol only from a Jackson County store, every restocking requires a drive down the mountain to Sylva or Dillsboro.

“It would save a lot of time, gas and trouble and expense to have an ABC store [here],” Jones said.

Though Jones supports countywide alcohol sales, he said he would rather see citizens petition to put the issue on the ballot than for the commissioners to get involved.

Massie, too, said he’d like to see a vote by the people, though he did not have a strong opinion on the matter.

“I’m not a teetotaler so it doesn’t bother me one way or another,” said Massie.

Still Massie, Jones and Commissioner Brian McMahan said they are all concerned that Jackson County ranks in the top 10 in North Carolina for alcohol-related accidents.

Though towns benefit economically from alcohol sales, there’s always a price to pay. “The trade-off is what are the social problems and liabilities that come with the sale of alcohol,” said Massie.

“Any time you have alcohol sales, you’re going to have that problem,” said Jones, adding that part of the tax revenues from alcohol sales do go toward law enforcement and education.

For McMahan, having widespread alcohol sales would probably not be worth the risks. McMahan said he would neither support legalizing alcohol sales in the county nor putting the issue on the ballot.

“The present system works, and there’s no need to change it,” said McMahan.

 

Sylva not swayed

 

Cooper has two theories to explain why Sylva voters were more reluctant than others to welcome countywide sales.

Of the alcohol tax that stays locally, Sylva shares half of the tax revenue from alcohol sales with the county and keeps the other half.

Allowing alcohol sales everywhere obviously means fewer people driving into Sylva or Dillsboro to buy their beer, leading to a direct decline in the town’s revenues. Sylva voters might have taken that into account when a higher number of them opposed countywide sales.

Cooper’s other theory is that alcohol is already widely available to Sylva residents.

“If you live in Sylva, what do you care if there’s alcohol in Cashiers?” said Cooper.

Massie, who represents Sylva on the county board, has another conjecture altogether. While elected officials and town employees are well-aware of the alcohol’s impact on revenues, that’s probably not driving your average Sylva resident to vote “no.”

“Sylva has a concentration of some of the biggest churches in the county,” said Massie. “That’s what I’m thinking is the reason.”

Strong on momentum, but shy of real power, TEA Party’s political weight remains to be seen

A year ago, Scott Cummings would never have pictured himself standing on the sidewalk pumping a homemade sign in the air for passing motorists to see. But last week, he found himself front and center in a 200-strong crowd at a TEA Party rally in downtown Franklin.

“I didn’t have nobody that shared the same views as me until the TEA Party came along,” said Cummings, 45, a childcare worker in Franklin.

A recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of registered voters in Jackson County shows a nearly even split of how people view the TEA Party: 42 percent reported a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus 40 percent unfavorable.

“We have a very polarized country right now,” said Gibbs Knotts, a WCU political science professor who developed the poll.

The highly accurate poll was conducted among 600 or so registered voters in Jackson County last month, gauging views toward government at the local, state and national level. The TEA Party incidentally has a higher approval rating the federal government, according to the poll.

“Love the TEA Party or hate the TEA Party, they are an important movement in American politics,” said Chris Cooper, another political science professor at WCU who developed the poll. Cooper said the TEA Party — and in particular whether it will leave a lasting mark — is not yet well-understood by political analysts like himself.

To Gail Chapman, however, the TEA Party has given her life newfound meaning. She described her first brush with the TEA Party during a march in D.C. as the “best day of my life.”

“To be with so many people who felt the way I felt, who believe in getting back to our core conservative values,” said Chapman, 65, a retired high school teacher in Franklin. “I think it is important that we, the silent majority, stand up and speak out.”

The TEA Party can’t yet claim a majority — at least among registered voters polled in Jackson County. But the movement definitely has a higher approval rating in the mountains than among the nation as a whole. In a national New York Times poll, only 18 percent said they were supporters of the TEA Party.

Cooper has a theory why more than twice as high a percentage of people here are TEA Party sympathizers — one that goes back to the Scotch-Irish roots of the Appalachian settlers.

“Western North Carolinians have a streak of independence historically and culturally,” Cooper said. “There is a strong distrust of the federal government here in particular.”

TEA Party supporters believe they would have even higher favorable numbers if not for the leftist media casting them in a negative light.

“We are not radical. We are not crazy. We are not right-wing nut jobs,” Chapman said.

She is doing her part to change perceptions. She wears her TEA party button everywhere she goes and uses it to start conversations with other people in line around her at the grocery store.

Bruce Gardner, a TEA Party activist in Haywood County, said more people would support the movement if they understood it.

“I fail to believe that 40 percent of the people are in favor of higher taxes and bigger deficits,” said Gardner.

Knotts agrees the TEA Party has caught some bad publicity and has been negatively portrayed as anti-establishment. He was impressed with how well the TEA Party polled locally, given the strikes against them in the media.

Beverly Elliot, a member of the TEA Party in Waynesville, said the movement has been pigeonholed by the national media.

“It is easier to marginalize someone if you can stick them in one camp or the other and say they are just a shill for this party or the other rather than being free thinkers,” Elliot said. “If people only get their news from 90-second sound bites, they are gong to believe hook line and sinker what the TEA Party is about.”

One of the labels — that the TEA Party is merely Republicans in disguise — should come as no surprise, however. Speakers at the TEA Party rally in Franklin, as with most TEA Party rallies, were all Republicans. Their talking points read like a conservative anthem. And signs in the crowd decried President Obama.

“The TEA Party claims to have dissatisfaction with both parties, but clearly Republican or conservative leaning folks are more likely to support the TEA Party,” Cooper said.

The PPI/Smoky Mountain News poll backs that conclusion with hard data. TEA Party sympathizers were far more likely to be Republican and more likely to view themselves as conservative, as opposed to moderate or liberal.

TEA Party activists admit to being conservative more readily than being Republican. A flyer for a weekly TEA Party meeting in Haywood County implores those attending to “leave your political party at the door.” Yet when the same group formed a political action committee, its stated purpose, according to the paperwork filed with the N.C. Board of Elections, is “to support candidates with conservative values.”

While TEA Party members rail against illegal immigrants and lament the loss of Christian influence in government, their universal rallying cry is to cut spending.

“If people care about this country and don’t want to leave this country with an unsustainable debt, they need to get off their sofas,” said Elliot.

The deficit is cause for real fear among TEA Party activists — the equivalent of global warming for their liberal counterparts. Gardner said the country is headed toward “financial ruin.”

“We are going to be dominated financially and probably militarily by foreign powers,” Gardner said. “We cannot afford to continue on the road we are on. I am not even sure if it is reversible.”

 

Now what?

 

Exactly where the TEA Party movement will go from here is unclear — or even how to define it. Don Swanson of Franklin, who helped organize last week’s rally, summed up the TEA Party as a “philosophical movement.”

The TEA Party prides itself on its grassroots nature. There is no national headquarters and no national spokesperson. But that could prove limiting, relegating the TEA Party to influence policy around the margins rather than becoming a real player.

Knotts said American politics is entrenched in a two-party system where the winner takes all. He thinks it unlikely that a third party could become a viable player.

TEA Party members likewise doubt they will ever be a bona fide third party.

“I think the end game is to influence the two major parties, to move them more center-right,” Gardener said.

Indeed, both sides of the aisle are furiously pounding their fists over the out-of-control deficit. It’s now rated as the number one concern in national polls, and politicians can’t avoid the topic as they move toward the November election.

“This message that government spending is out of control, that is going to be popular,” Knotts said.

While some TEA Partiers may be happy to simply move the political dial their direction, ultimately they would like to see their handpicked candidates get into office.

While it’s not the same as recruiting a candidate and seeing them to the finish line, the TEA Party is poised to endorse local candidates in the November election after forming a political action committee, allowing them to legally accept donations and spend money on political campaigns.

The TEA Party will look for candidates most in line with their thinking.

“Not necessarily because it is a mirror image of what we support,” Elliot said.

Gardener said fiscally conservative candidates considering a run have been swayed to jump in the ring after witnessing what he calls a “groundswell of support for conservative thinking.”  The TEA Party has a sphere of influence in Haywood County that reaches 1,800 people through an email list. Not bad, considering “we started with six a year ago in March,” Gardner said.

Cooper cautioned that the TEA Party could actually backfire and motivate Democrats to turn out in bigger numbers at the polls in hopes of countering the conservative movement.

“Campaigns are either won by getting people to change sides or by mobilizing your base. I think this will be mobilizing your base,” Cooper said. “Historically, that’s what movement like this do. It is really hard to get people to switch their vote.”

Allen Demas, a founding member of the local TEA Party group in Franklin, is a case in point.

“This is the first time I have ever been politically active,” said Demas, 61, a retired store manager of Winn Dixie in Franklin.

However, he’s always voted — and always voted Republican. Come Election Day, his new-found activism with the TEA Party will mean little to conservative candidates. They’ll have Demas’ vote this year, just like they did every other year when he merely showed up at the polls as a lone voter without the weight of a movement behind him.

But it feels good to be part of something, rather than sitting home watching the news and fuming, Cummings said.

“It’s the first time people are coming together as a group,” Cummings said.

But he realizes the party doesn’t end here.

“If we don’t take our views to the polls and show them, it’s not going to work,” Cummings said. “Until we do that, we’re just holding signs.”

 

Poll results say …


• 42 percent have a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus 40 percent unfavorable and 18 percent undecided.

• 82 percent of Republicans have a favorable opinion of the TEA Party versus only 29 percent of Democrats and 60 percent of independents

• Among TEA Party sympathizers, 95 percent have an unfavorable view of the federal government. Among all respondents, 62 percent have an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.

 

Local TEA Party groups

 

• A TEA Party group meets in Franklin at 2 p.m. on the third Saturday of the month at the 441 Diner in Otto. Mountainpatriotsteaparty.info

• A TEA Party group meets in Waynesville at 9 a.m. every Saturday at Nico’s café downtown.

• A political action committee to support TEA Party candidates locally has just been formed. The website is under construction but should be online soon. Teapartywnc.com.

Poll shows little confidence in government

Government approval ratings are low all over the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re also low in Jackson County.

“The state of the economy is the strongest predictor of trust in government that I know of,” said Chris Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.

According to a recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of Jackson County registered voters, 46 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of county government and a whopping 62 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.

The flip side of those numbers shows that county government’s approval rating was only a bit higher than the federal government’s. Thirty-three percent of the voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government as opposed to 29 percent for the feds.

The poll questioned nearly 600 voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

At the same time, Gallup polls showed the national approval rating for Congress is 20 percent — as low as it’s ever been.

Cooper said without tracking the approval rating of county government over a period of years, it’s difficult to make any generalizations about what the numbers mean. But he still believes there is some cause for alarm at the county’s approval rating.

“I want to be cautious, because we don’t have a baseline, but the number strikes me as low,” Cooper said. “The one thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s lower than I thought it would be, and it’s lower than I’d feel comfortable with if I were an elected official in Jackson County.”

Negativity or fair criticism?

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is one of the five men who have to take county’s low approval rating on the chin. Massie said the numbers concern him, but without more detailed questions, it was hard to know how to read the causes.

“I’m disappointed. I’d like to see some follow up questions as to why. Is it something specific or is it a general feeling about government?” Massie said.

County Chairman Brian McMahan had a similar reaction to the results. He questioned how significant the data could be with the poll asking such generic questions. According to McMahan, the approval rating could be a measurement of the quality of services delivered, or of the popularity of the commissioners, or of the county’s stance on a particular issue.

“I’m not just going to stab in the dark to try to come up with why they responded the way they did,” McMahan said. “Those are the questions that should have been asked.”

Jackson County government at least fared better than the federal government in the poll — which is typical and to be expected.

“We’re the closest level of government to the people, and they know us,” Massie said. “They see us in the restaurants and in the streets and so they feel a little bit better about us.”

Rep. Phil Haire, who represents Sylva in the 119th District of the North Carolina Assembly, doesn’t put much stock in polls and, like McMahan, said more narrowly defined questions would be more useful.

“I’m not a big fan of polls,” Haire said. “A lot of the questions that were asked are what you could call knee-jerk questions.”

Haire said for poll data to be useful, it has to target a specific population and asked detailed questions about issues that are on the table for decision-makers.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe sees the poll results against the broader backdrop of national opinion.

“I think it’s a nationwide trend where society has become frustrated over the economic situation, and they’ve become anti-government and anti-authority,” Ashe said.

For Ashe, the confusing thing is that while government approval is at its lowest, voter turnout in this year’s mid-term primaries was abysmal.

“When we have a 14 percent voter turnout, we have a problem,” Ashe said. “It’s up to the people to take back the government.

For Cooper, whether or not the polls create a clear angle on issues, they are a starting place for improving the quality of communication between the public and elected officials.

“I would hope elected officials would take this and think about what they could do to communicate better with the public,” Cooper said.

 

Jackson County issues

 

County politics and federal politics are different. One of the things they have in common, though, is the economy.

“At the local level, we’re not as interested in partisan issues as pocketbook issues, but when the economy’s bad, we still need to raise money to provide the services that people ask for,” Massie said.

When the economy is bad, county voters look to government to explain their taxing and spending habits in greater detail. In Jackson County, a number of high-priced decisions by the county board have created a starting point for criticism.

The county’s drawn-out court battles with Duke Energy over the fate of the Dillsboro Dam, which ended last year, resulted in half a million dollars in legal fees and failed to produce their desired results.

Last year, commissioners awarded steep raises for the county’s highest-paid employees, a highly controversial move in a recession. The raises were recommended by a firm contracted to analyze the county’s pay structure, but that didn’t sit any easier with some members of the public.

This year, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe came under fire for his alleged misuse of a narcotics seizure fund while he was fighting a high-profile legal battle with Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn.

The county has also been embroiled in protracted struggles to reform its economic development commission and restructure its airport authority after controversial upheavals left both in disarray.

Mark Jamison, a member of the Webster town board who has also been active in county politics, said the cumulative result of those events has created bad feeling in the voting public.

“Whether or not there are legitimate concerns related to each and every one of these issues may not be as meaningful as the totality of their weight,” Jamison said. “Combine that with a county government that doesn’t have a very pleasant or helpful face and that generally doesn’t seem to communicate well and you have a prescription for disenchantment.”

Massie said all of the same issues may be playing a role, and he put some of their impact at the feet of the way they’ve been handled in the media.

“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” Massie said. “The pay raises, the dam, the lawsuit against the sheriff’s office –– that’s all about the news media grabbing attention, and negative attention grabs more attention than what you’re doing well.”

Jamison acknowledged that the county might be getting the blame for a more general ill ease in the voting public. He also agreed that the local media coverage focuses on outspoken critics of certain county decisions. But he still believes the county hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating with voters around its decisions on key issues.

“One has to at least acknowledge that the presence of our local gadflies has somewhat poisoned the political dialogue,” Jamison said. “Still, communication and advocacy for local interests seems lacking.”

Cullowhee business owner Jack Debnam, who is running against McMahan for county chairman in November, focused his criticism of county government on its spending. Debnam said this board has been slow to recognize the recession and plan for it.

“The majority of the reason people are unhappy is the spending that’s been done and how it’s been handled,” said Debnam. “I’ve been angry and other people are angry and I believe they’re ready to do something different.”

McMahan takes issue with the idea that the county doesn’t communicate well with voters and at the same time wonders if people really know what the nuts and bolts of county government are all about.

“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”

Massie, who is also running for reelection in November, said the county lacks a forum for issue-based dialogue. Without a League of Women’s Voters or the chance to debate at the Rotary Club, Massie said county politicians take the path of least resistance.

“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”

For Massie, the lack of a forum for discussion combined with low voter turnout make it hard to figure out how to take the criticism of the public constructively. He wants to begin televising county meetings on cable so interested voters can see how the commissioners work.

“We’re human beings not mind readers,” Massie said. “If we don’t hear from the public, what are we supposed to do?”

 

The Cashiers question

 

Perhaps the most glaring statistic generated by the poll is that only 15 percent of Cashiers voters have a favorable opinion of county government — lower than even the federal government.

“The big question we’re trying to get at is why?” said Gibbs Knotts, one of the poll’s creators. “That could be for many reasons. If there’s a way to engage people in the southern part of the county, then that could be one take-away.”

Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents Cashiers, said he believes the dissatisfaction in his part of the county has a concrete cause.

The county began the construction of a new $4.3 million recreation center in 2006 but construction delays, mainly the result of unforeseen environmental engineering costs, have seen the completion date pushed back over and over again.

“I’m frustrated, too,” Jones said. “People up there feel like their tax dollars aren’t being utilized for them and that recreation center is an example.”

Jones said Cashiers voters often think of themselves as a sort of cash cow for the county, since the area contains many high-priced homes that add to the property tax base.

Jones thinks if the economy has turned around and the recreation center is finished when he comes up for election in 2013, he’ll stand a good chance of surviving the current approval rating.

“I think the people of Cashiers want to see visually what the county is doing for them,” Jones said.

Jones also acknowledged that the high-profile coverage of the legal suit between Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe and Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn took its toll on the voting public.

Finn and a group of supporters ran a negative ad campaign through a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff during the May primary.

“People read the stuff and if they don’t know what’s going on, they believe it,” Jones said. “Negative campaigns can be very successful.”

Ashe was cleared of allegations that he used his position to hinder Finn’s private security business, which has strong ties to many of the developments in and around Cashiers, but the lasting effects of the animosity between the two men could continue to affect public opinion there.

And then there’s the archetypal divide between the mountains and valley, a gap Jones feels is narrowing slowly.

“The distance from Sylva to Cashiers is a barrier that even the press has a problem with,” Jones said.

 

Jackson County Poll Results

1. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jackson County government?

Favorable    33%

Unfavorable    46%

Not Sure    20%

 

2. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the federal government?

 

Favorable    29%

Unfavorable    62%

Not Sure    9%

 

3. Currently alcohol sales are legal in Sylva and Dillsboro but not allowed elsewhere in the County Would you support legalizing alcohol sales anywhere in Jackson County?

 

Yes    56%

No    39%

Not Sure    4%

 

4. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party movement?

 

Favorable    42%

Unfavorable    40%

Not Sure    18%

 

5. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Jackson County schools?

 

Favorable    49%

Unfavorable    27%

Not Sure    24%

 

6. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue?

 

Favorable    33%

Unfavorable    44%

Not Sure    23%

 

7. Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of U.S. Representative Heath Shuler?

 

Favorable    46%

Unfavorable    39%

Not Sure    15%

 

8. If you are a Democrat, press 1. If you are a Republican; press 2. If you are an independent or identify with another party; press 3

 

Democrat    45%

Republican    23%

lndependent/Other    32%

 

9. What is the highest level of education you’ve completed?

 

Did not complete high school     10%

Graduated from high school,

but not college    30%

Graduated from college    61%

 

10. If you are a woman, press 1 if a man, press 2.

 

Woman    55%

Man    45%

 

11. ThinkIng about politics today; would you describe yourself as a liberal, moderate. or conservative?

 

Liberal    18%

Moderate    42%

Conservative    40%


*The poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, surveyed 587 registered voters in Jackson County and was conducted in early June. It has an error margin of +/- 4 percent.

 

A few additional notes

People who approve of Jackson County government are more likely to be:

More educated

Ideological liberals

Older

Less likely to be from Cashiers

 

People who approve of the federal government are more likely to be:

 

Democrats

Educated

Liberal

 

People who approve of Jackson County Schools are more likely to be:

 

Older

Less likely to be from Cashiers

 

People who approve of Shuler are more likely to be:

 

Conservative

From Sylva

Interesting Note: Party ID has no effect

 

People who approve of Perdue are more likely to be:

 

Liberals

Educated

Democrats

Older

 

People who approve of the TEA Party are more likely to be:

 

Republicans

Conservative

Disapprove of the Federal Government (this is VERY strong)

Disapprove of Jackson County Government (not as strong as for federal government)

 

People who support alcohol being available and legal in the County are more likely to be

 

Educated

Male

Liberal

Younger

Less Likely to be from Sylva

More likely to be from Cashiers

WCU poll is first attempt of its caliber to measure political opinions on solely local scale

A new polling project developed by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News aims to get data that is the meat and bread of political scientists into the hands of the voting public.

“As academics, we’re pretty good at using rigorous methods to find things out,” said Chris Cooper, the institute’s director. “We’re not as good at showing our results.”

Cooper and his colleague, Gibbs Knotts, were interested in partnering with a media company to help disseminate the results of a poll measuring Jackson County political opinions and in turn instigate a larger conversation. They hatched the idea during the debate over tearing down the Dillsboro Dam. Because there were so many strong opinions on the issue, it was hard to get a feel for the sentiment of the majority.

“Most people like people who like them,” Cooper said. “Consequently they hang around people who think like them. The idea was to get a representative sample, so people could have some idea what others were really thinking about the issues.”

Smoky Mountain News publisher, Scott McLeod, saw the project as an opportunity to explore a partnership that could get to the crux of what is on readers’ minds.

“This is what good journalism and good newspapers are about,” McLeod said “We want to provide our readers with information about this region they can’t find anywhere else and present it in a way that’s interesting and useful. These polls and the subsequent stories we do will fulfill that mission.”

By combining accurate polling data and a platform for discussion, the first poll in the project is designed to create a baseline for Jackson County voters to discuss issues in the run-up to the November election. The project is called “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue.”

“Anytime you can get people to discuss their views on government and on elected leaders, there’s a chance it will lead to better decision making and better leadership,” McLeod said. “Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems.”

 

The poll

 

Cooper contracted Public Policy Polling in Raleigh to conduct a random sample survey of Jackson County registered voters. The polling firm has had great results with its relatively low-cost phone survey method. SurveyUSA’s report cards rated Public Policy Polling the most accurate pollster for South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and Oregon during the 2008 election cycle.

The Jackson County poll, which was administered through a computerized phone call, asked 11 questions. In the end, just less than 600 respondents from all parts of the county offered their views on questions that asked what they thought of county and federal government; whether alcohol sales should be allowed outside incorporated areas; and how they felt about Congressman Heath Shuler, Governor Bev Perdue, the TEA Party and their local school system. It also measured political persuasions and collected demographic data.

Some of the results were surprising, like the fact that 95 percent of the respondents had an opinion about alcohol sales outside of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Cooper is quick to point out what the poll results — which canvassed registered voters only — can and can’t show.

“We can generalize about voters in Jackson County, but we can’t generalize about the people in a broad sense,” Cooper said.

Voters are, in general, more educated, more liberal and older than the public at large. They are also the people most likely to engage in the political process.

“The downside is we’re not getting the opinion of a whole group who by definition are disenfranchised and disconnected from the political process,” Cooper said.

Knotts estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Jackson residents aren’t registered to vote.

The poll functioned with a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error. Cooper said he only recognized one peculiarity in the results: more than 61 percent said they graduated from college, a larger percentage than normal for the voting public.

“We over-represented educated people, but it’s not because we called more, it’s because more of them answered the call,” Cooper said.

In the end, the survey provides a starting point for the discussion of what’s really on the mind of Jackson County’s voters. Past public opinion surveys in Western North Carolina have focused on the region so broadly that voters in Asheville or Boone have been lumped in with those from Cashiers and Whittier.

The newest poll hopes to lend badly needed specificity the conversation.

“We were very interested to see how it came out to, and I feel really good about the results,” Cooper said.

 

Reading the mind of Jackson County

Gauging public opinion can be a tricky proposition, but for the elected officials who run Jackson County, it can also provide a glimpse at what matters to the people who elect them.

County Commissioner Tom Massie is up for reelection in November, and he likes the idea of the poll.

“I think we genuinely need to know where there are issues of concern in the public, and people ought to participate more in their government at all levels,” Massie said.

Vicki Greene, director of the Southwestern Planning Commission, has conducted numerous polls in Western North Carolina aimed at getting information on how people are employed. Greene, who grew up in Sylva and Dillsboro, said it could be hard to get good, accurate information from people through an automated phone call.

“My initial reaction is it’s a waste of time, because I’d be real surprised if you can get somebody to stay on the line for seven minutes,” Greene said.

The poll called voters on the list six times before moving on to another name. The short duration of the poll and its touch-key response system limits the complexity of the questions, but it greatly enhances the chance that people will respond.

Greene acknowledged how important good data can be in informing the larger policy discussions that shape the region.

“Assuming the questions are asked in a neutral format, the results of the polls should be beneficial to elected officials in their decision making capacities,” Greene said. “When you do a random survey, you are getting the voices of folks that don’t often participate in the discussion.”

For Knotts, who helped design the list of questions, the poll is a starting place.

“We see this as a way to put some numbers out there and use them as a starting point for a regional dialogue,” Knotts said.

At a moment in history when the economy is still mired and approval ratings of government at all levels are low around the country, the Jackson County poll is a chance to find out why voters are so frustrated and what can bring them back to the table.

For Cooper and Knotts, gathering data is the best place to start.

“The goal is to get the word out there, get out of the academic silo and communicate data and empirical results to the people who make decisions,” Cooper said.

For Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod, the polling partnership is the first step in creating a broader regional dialogue around issues.

“I can’t recall there ever having been scientific polling data from citizens in the counties west of Asheville,” McLeod said. “If we can continue this project for a year and do a half dozen or so polls, we’ll have some great information about our region that no one else has ever made the effort to gather.”

DSA’s future tenuous without more money

Recently, the town of Sylva passed a $1.6 million budget on a 3 to 2 vote. The most contentious line item in the finance package was a $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.

Since the DSA was formed in 1995, its town funding has fluctuated from $20,000 at its high point to $2,000 at its nadir.

The ups and downs in the town board’s support for the DSA sheds light on a the bigger questions. How much does the town value the program?

Sylva first joined the N.C. Main Street program under the name Sylva Partnership for Renewal in 1996. With strong support from Mayor Brenda Oliver the town funded the program up to $20,000 per year and used it to drive the revitalization of Sylva’s downtown.

With the leadership of Sarah Graham, who later became a town board member, the DSA spearheaded the $120,000 fundraising drive that created Bridge Park, a unique downtown green space that hosts events like the Sylva Farmer’s Market and Concerts on the Creek.

These days, the DSA operates with less than $50,000 in its budget which includes a $12,000 contribution from the town, more than $10,000 in dues from its 50 members and another $9,500 from sponsorships.

Mayor Maurice Moody believes the DSA is under-funded by the town, and he considers it a crucial part of the equation.

“I think it’s absolutely essential really,” said Moody. “Not just for the downtown but for the whole town.”

DSA Director Julie Sylvester, a part-time employee, is worried that the program still doesn’t have a sustainable funding scheme.

“We have to go in the hole each year and dip into our savings, and that’s pretty much gone now,” Sylvester said. “Now more than ever we need the support of the town and the community.”

Sylva has broached the possibility of a business tax district, but those plans have never come to fruition. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on getting more money from the town or from private sources.

With two of the five members of the town board, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen, opposing the $12,000, Sylvester fears for the future, mainly because Sylva’s town contribution is already so much lower than in surrounding Main Street communities.

Of the 10 programs around the state that serve towns of 5,000 people or less, Sylva’s contribution to the DSA is second lowest.

“I’m not just asking for money because I want to see certain things happen,” Sylvester said. “We’re trying to keep this community a place that people want to move to.”

Allen and Lewis have said they don’t like the idea of funding a program that only benefits one sector of the business community.

Moody and board members Stacy Knotts, Chris Matheson, and Sarah Graham all support the DSA.

“I think the $12,000 is just a drop in the bucket to what it needs,” Moody said. “Obviously some people feel the downtown doesn’t have much importance, but I disagree.”

Moody said he would support the expansion of the DSA to cover the town’s other business districts, but that would require even more money to accomplish effectively.

Sylvester said the support of the full board is crucial to the success of the DSA moving forward. Instead, the annual funding for DSA has been a source of controversy among elected leaders for five years running.

“I think what would be great first is for everyone to be on board and them to sit down and think through how this can happen,” Sylvester said.

The DSA has had many successes and it operates a full schedule of events throughout the year, but the history of the N.C. Main Street program has seen many local organizations fall by the wayside.

For Sylvester, support for the DSA amounts to a vote for a town with better opportunities.

“If we have a vibrant downtown it helps our property values. It helps the tourist experience and it helps our families. You need to have everyone working together to have a vibrant community,” Sylvester said.

Sylva town board to appoint Graham’s replacement

The Sylva town board is in for another shakeup. The board will vote at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 1, to appoint a replacement for Sarah Graham, who had to step down from her position because she and her family have moved outside the town limits.

It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote on an appointment. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his commissioner’s seat after the November municipal election.

Harold Henson, who lost his board seat to Danny Allen, was bypassed for the appointment when the remaining members tapped Chris Matheson for the seat Moody left.

Now Matheson, Allen, Stacy Knotts, and Ray Lewis will have to vote to fill Graham’s vacant seat. As with the November appointment, the newest town board member could provide a decisive third vote on key issues.

Replacement to Sylva town board sets stage for new voting majority

The make-up of Sylva’s town board shifted this week when board members voted 3-1 to replace outgoing board member Sarah Graham with Harold Hensley.

The vote changes the town’s disposition from one with a progressive voting majority to one likely to be characterized by fiscal conservatism and a more traditional philosophy.

Graham, who came to the board after leading the Downtown Sylva Association, stepped down from her seat after moving outside the town limits, making her no longer eligible to serve as an elected town leader. Hensley formerly served on the board for four years, but narrowly lost re-election last year.

Graham and Hensley often had opposing visions for the town and voted on the opposite side of key controversial issues.

It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote to appoint one of their own. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his seat after the November municipal election, and the board replaced him with Chris Matheson.

In the November 2009 election, board members Danny Allen and Stacy Knotts narrowly edged out Hensley. It was Allen who tipped Hensley for the spot at this week’s town board meeting.

“I think the fairest and the honest thing to do is consider the third runner up, previous board member Harold Hensley,” Allen said.

Only Knotts objected to the motion. In a dignified prepared statement she explained her opposition to Hensley, who was seated in the crowd.

“To respect the voters who voted for me I’m going to vote ‘no’ to the motion,” Knotts told Hensley. However, “I will work with you for the betterment of Sylva.”

Knott’s opposition to Hensley was based on her support for town initiatives like downtown improvements, funding for the Downtown Sylva Association, the expansion of recreational facilities and making a forray into land-use planning. That type of progressive platform is one that was largely shared in recent years by Graham and Moody — and more recently by Knotts, Graham and Matheson — giving them the three votes needed to push an agenda.

Now Hensley, Allen and Ray Lewis, who in general share a vision of fiscal conservatism, now hold the majority voting block.

Hensley downplayed his historic opposition to funding for the Downtown Sylva Association after the appointment.

“There probably will be a difference between mine and Sarah’s opinion, but I’m definitely not against the DSA,” Hensley said.

But he did indicate where is priorities lie.

“I hope I can do what I did before, which is never take a decision without the taxpayer in mind,” Hensley said.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody only votes in the case of a tie. Moody shares a progressive inclination with Knotts and Matheson, but has also used his energy to try to create consensus on the board. He had hoped to find a candidate that would result in a unanimous nomination.

“I’m not disappointed,” Moody said. “Harold and I agree on some things, and we disagree on some things. I can work with Harold. We’ve known each other most of our lives.”

Another result of Hensley’s appointment is that Knotts is the only sitting member of the board not originally from Sylva.

Moody said Graham had provided a fresh outlook and great experience to the board, and he said there was little point in attempting to draw meaning from a board member’s birthplace.

“I don’t put much importance on being a native, even though I am one,” Moody said. “I would put more importance on the welfare of the town.”

Sylva budget passes on split vote

Funding for the Downtown Sylva Association has caused a rift in the Sylva town board for the fifth year running.

Town leaders last week approved a $2.3 million budget for the coming fiscal year by a vote of 3 to 2. Board members Ray Lewis and Danny Allen cast their votes against the budget in protest.

Lewis said two appropriations particularly irked him: a $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association and a $2,500 contribution to the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.

“Ever since I’ve been on the board I’ve voted for a budget, but I just decided this time I wouldn’t do it,” Lewis said.

Allen would not comment on his vote, but he has previously been a critic of the town’s funding for the Downtown Sylva Association.

Town Commissioner Sarah Graham is stepping down from the board in a couple of weeks because she is moving outside the town limits, making her ineligible to serve as an elected town leader. An ardent supporter of DSA, Graham said she wanted to see the budget process through before stepping down.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody would have voted in the case of a tie, however, and he has always supported town funding for DSA, a point he drove home following a video presentation shown during last week’s meeting extolling the virtues of the North Carolina Main Street Program.

“That just highlights some of the benefits we do get from the Main Street program,” Moody said, pointing out the town was currently eligible for a $250,000 matching grant through the state and acknowledging Waynesville’s receipt of $300,000 through the Main Street Solutions program.

The funding for the two business development groups was a small portion of the overall budget this year. Sylva will spend nearly $1 million on its police department, $300,000 on streets and another $250,000 on administration.

Overall, the budget reflects a $40,000 decrease from last year, stemming from a decline in local sales tax.

Sylva aims to ban downtown workers from parking on main shopping drag

The town of Sylva plans to impose a new parking law to stop shop owners and employees from taking up customer parking on Main Street.

While most towns in the region face the same challenge — what to do about downtown workers monopolizing coveted parking spaces — only Highlands has tried to legislate a solution so far.

Highlands has an ordinance barring employees from parking on Main Street, a model Sylva now wants to emulate.

The new ordinance comes as part of a larger attempt to fix the parking pinch in downtown Sylva, which has shop owners on Mill and Main streets infuriated by the lack of available customer parking during peak business hours.

To help alleviate the problem, the town board recently decided to rent a commercial lot near the intersection of Mill and Main and designate it for free public parking.

It will provide between 30 and 40 additional parking spaces downtown, but the board felt it needed to go a step further.

Last week, the town’s attorney Eric Ridenour offered the board a first draft of the ordinance, which would bar employees of downtown businesses from on-street parking along the one-way portions of Mill and Main streets.

Ridenour told the board that Highlands’ version of the ordinance includes an exception for service-oriented businesses like real estate offices, which need to keep their vehicles close to serve customers.

Board Member Sarah Graham said she didn’t see the need to make exceptions, particularly given the town’s investment in leasing an additional lot.

“We should free up as many spaces downtown as possible,” said Graham.

Board Member Danny Allen agreed.

“The town (now) has three parking lots, and they’re all in close proximity to one end of town,” Allen said. “It’s not going to require but a hop and a skip for them.”

The board considered a provision that would reserve spots in the newly leased lot for businesses willing to pay a rental fee.

That suggestion didn’t thrill Sylva Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who said it would be difficult to enforce.

“We’re going to be policing that lot as well as Main Street. Is that what I’m hearing?” Jamison asked. “That’s going to be difficult folks.”

The board ultimately struck the idea from the draft ordinance.

Enforcement a challenge

Ridenour said the ordinance would rely heavily on the cooperation of business owners to report violations to the Sylva police, since the department doesn’t have any staff dedicated to parking enforcement.

“The way I drafted it is in the hope that our downtown business owners will work as our eyes and ears,” said Ridenour.

The town not only lacks a dedicated parking cop, but enforcement would hinge on police officers’ ability to visually recognize the vehicles of downtown workers. If a worker’s car is indeed spotted in a parking space that’s off-limits to them, another challenge is determining whether that employee is on their shift — or happens to be shopping downtown on their day off. The board plans to hold a public hearing on the ordinance at its second meeting in July.

Sylva is not alone in confronting the issue of employees and business owners parking in spots that were meant for their customers. Waynesville’s Town Manager Lee Galloway said the problem is ubiquitous.

“I’ve worked in six towns, and I don’t think there’s one that didn’t have the same issue,” Galloway said.

Galloway recalled a running joke in Rockingham about a jeweler named Fox.

“Why does Mr. Fox park right in front of his business? Because he can’t get his car inside,” Galloway said.

Galloway said Waynesville has addressed the issue by adding more public parking –– in particular a large parking deck a block off Main Street –– and by enforcing three-hour parking limits on Main Street.

In addition, the Downtown Waynesville Association has taken on the responsibility of communicating with business owners about the need to keep customer parking free.

“We’ve tried to handle it amongst ourselves,” said Buffy Messer, the downtown association’s director. “I think the merchants try to communicate with their neighbors. We don’t mind if someone parks all day as long as they’re spending money.”

Bryson City has the same problem, especially during the high season, but Town Manager Larry Callicutt said thus far no one has suggested drafting an ordinance to confront it.

“I’m not sure there’s a town where that doesn’t happen,” said Callicutt. “They’ve always complained about it, but it’s not gotten to the point that anyone’s taken action on it.”

Galloway said he understands merchants’ anger over the issue.

“You have to turn those spots over to protect your merchants,” Galloway said. “I understand their frustration.”

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