Task force declared finished as draft plan advances for public review

Some members of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force feel like the list of road projects bearing their name has not properly been vetted, despite the work of the task force being declared finished.

“I think the task force has satisfied their charge in creating a comprehensive transportation plan,” said Ryan Sherby, community transportation coordinator with the Southwestern Regional Commission.

After a stint before the public for comment later this month, Sherby anticipates shipping the plan along to the county commissioners for approval and then sending it up the chain to guide road building priorities by the N.C. Department of Transportation. At this point, Sherby doesn’t intend the task force will ever formally vote on the plan — even though the plan will bear their name and they will be credited with creating it.

“This isn’t a real rigid process,” Sherby said.

Some task force members were surprised to learn, however, that their work is done. At their most recent meeting, they were never told it would be their last. They also weren’t told that the plan — essentially a list of future road projects — was in its final form and being sent on to county commissioners for a stamp of approval without the task force formally endorsing it.

“From my standpoint, there was no integrity or forthrightness about what was happening at that last meeting,” said Susan Leveille, a member of the task force and of the Smart Roads coalition. “We were being rushed.”

After more than year of poring over growth and traffic projections, the task force spent the past five months coming up with a list of new road projects that would make travel safer and faster.

Rather than vetting the list through discussion, however, task force members were asked to rank each project on a scale of 1 to 5. Task force members were asked to go around the table and verbally call out their score for each project, a process repeated 17 times for each road project on the list. The numbers for each project were tallied to decide which stayed on the list. Only one came off.

Sherby called it a “consensus building exercise.” The format for the meeting came as a surprise, however.

“We knew that we were going to be making some choices,” Leveille said. “But we had no idea what the procedure was going to be. We had no idea there would be a facilitator that was railroading us through this. I expected some thoughtful discussion.”

For some on the task force, the recent episode is indicative of the entire process.

“The task force was not in the driver’s seat,” said Jeanette Evans, another member of the Smart Roads coalition. “It felt steamrolled.”

Another source of confusion is exactly what the rankings were supposed to reflect.

“That’s a good question,” said Don Selzer, a task force member appointed by the county commissioners. “My understanding was that it was a vote to put certain options before the public — not necessarily ones we recommended but these are the options available.”

However, the rankings are apparently being viewed as an endorsement of the road projects on the list by the task force, since there is no plan to bring the list back to the task force for a vote. That is upsetting to Leveille, since she gave a high ranking to the Southern Loop, a controversial bypass around the commercial district of N.C. 107. Leveille is against the project and would have scored it much lower if she understood it was somehow a final vote. But she gave it a high ranking simply because she thought it merited additional discussion.

Sherby said the plan rests with county commissioners now, along with elected town leaders, and it will be their call whether the list goes back to the task force to formally sign off on the plan.

“If the county commissioners want the task force to do that then we will,” Sherby said.

That may be something the commissioners ask for, said County Commissioner William Shelton.

“There is always the possibility the commissioners would have some more questions of the task force before it goes to final approval,” said Shelton, who is on the task force.

Shelton is among those who were surprised that the plan is supposedly complete and the task force wouldn’t be meeting again. Shelton thinks the laundry list of road projects should be assigned a more thoughtful ranking than its current form.

Selzer is also uncomfortable with the lack of finality the last meeting had. He doesn’t think the plan as is can be touted as something the task force has endorsed.

“I would like to see a final list and say ‘yes or no, this is what we want,’” Selzer said. Selzer said he is “not terribly satisfied” with the process the task force used to create a plan.

Duke countersues Jackson

Duke Energy has fired back at Jackson County’s attempt to seize the Dillsboro Dam with a counterclaim of its own.

Duke claims that it is the victim of abuse of process by the county and is seeking damages.

Despite the county’s claims that it wants the dam and adjacent river shore to create a park, Duke alleges that Jackson has an “ulterior purpose.” Jackson County has long been an opponent of dam removal, fighting tooth and nail to save the dam before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Seizing the dam through eminent domain was seen as a trump card and last resort held by the county.

Duke argues the condemnation move is “solely for the purpose of interfering with and circumventing” dam demolition, not a true desire to create a park. Duke claims the county has “willfully misused” its condemnation powers.

Duke further took issue with the miserly sum of $1 Jackson County has offered to pay for the property it hopes to seize. The county would be required to compensate Duke for the monetary value of the dam and shoreline property if condemnation is successful. The county argues that $1 is sufficient, since Duke would be saved the trouble and expense of tearing it down, an undertaking that would have cost more than $1 million. That savings should more than suffice as the monetary compensation Jackson would otherwise owe Duke, the suit argues.

Duke said the snub is “further evidence of the county’s bad faith and improper purpose for bringing this action.”

Duke’s counterclaim filed last week seeks an unspecified sum covering attorneys’ fees and monetary damages.

Library supporters close to $1.6 million fundraising goal

Fundraising for the new Jackson County library may have entered the home stretch, but is far from home free.

Friends of the Library is only $250,000 away from its $1.6 million goal. But the final leg will prove the toughest, longest and hardest yet.

The library fundraising committee has spent most of the past year going after big dollars and large grants from corporate sponsors and foundations. The fundraising will now enter what’s known as the public phase: eking out $50 and $100 checks from the general public to raise most of the remainder.

“This library complex belongs to all the people of Jackson County, and we need the citizens to support the project financially,” said Mary Otto Selzer, co-chair of the capital campaign committee formed under Friends of the Library. “Everybody’s circumstances are different, but if people will give whatever they can afford, we will reach our goal.”

In coming weeks, the public will start to see cardboard banks shaped like books on the counters of local businesses throughout the county where people can drop their spare bills and checks.

The fundraising committee got welcome news last week. The campaign was still half a million short when word came through of a major windfall: a $250,000 grant from the N.C. State Employee’s Credit Union. It comes with a caveat that the community must match the money.

“We can say to the people of Jackson County for every dollar you give, it means two dollars for your library. That is a powerful thing in fundraising,” said Dr. John Bunn, co-chair of the capital campaign.

The challenge grant provides a needed push to carry the campaign across the finish line.

“The $250,000 challenge grant from SECU is a strong incentive for our community to reach the $1.6 million we need to complete the new library complex,” said June Smith, president of the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library.

The library is scheduled to open in December 2010. Construction, including the courthouse renovation, is estimated at $7.9 million and is being covered by the county. The furnishings, fixtures and equipment for the library were left up to the fundraising campaign.

Bunn hopes the final dollar will be raised by next spring.

“I think the people of Jackson County will respond,” Bunn said. “When you give to this, you have made a gift to something that will keep on giving to generations.”

Bunn said there was skepticism in the early stages of the campaign when a $1.6 million goal was looming ahead of them.

“They told us it was impossible,” Bunn said.

Bunn credits the concept of the library itself as the main driver in the fundraising success.

“This is the kind of thing that brings a new quality of life for all of the people here,” Bunn said.

Those courting donors had another major selling point up their sleeve. The new library is being constructed alongside the famous historic courthouse, which is being restored and renovated in tandem with the library project.

“That just clinched it,” Bunn said.

The library’s main entrance, atrium and courtyard — features that connect the library complex with the historic courthouse — will be named for the State Employees Credit Union.

Bunn said the new library and courthouse restoration will be a point of pride for the community.

Land sales challenge basis for vested rights, some argue

When the 3,500-acre Legasus development won exemptions from Jackson County’s development regulations two years ago, it raised the hackles of residents in the Tuckasegee community who claimed the hard-fought growth protections they ardently supported had failed when needed the most.

Now the disgruntled residents have raised the rallying cry again, this time contending that the mega development should be stripped of its vested rights after selling off portions of the land, whether through foreclosure or a voluntary move to raise cash and pay off debt.

“There are so many questions that have come up recently with foreclosures and land sales that totally change the dynamics of what the county granted Legasus vested rights for,” said Thomas Crowe, a member of the United Neighbors of Tuckaseigee.

Vested rights are an exemption intended to protect developers caught mid-stream by new ordinances. When Jackson’s new ordinances came along two years ago, Legasus argued they’d already spent a great deal designing a master plan and marketing the development to prospective buyers and should be allowed to proceed. Jackson County ultimately awarded vested rights to every developer that applied for them.

The Legasus development once called for 1,800 lots on 3,500 acres between Tuckasegee and Glenville spanning five separate tracts. With lot sales falling short of expectations, the company has had to sell off portions — including part of the proposed golf course. It is unclear whether new property owners will join forces with Legasus to carry out the existing development plan or will do their own thing.

“The question arises exactly what kind of rights do the new owners have? Can they come in under the auspices of the vested rights granted to Legasus initially?” Crowe asked. “We want to be on the front end of this new situation.”

A community forum on the issue of vested rights will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, and will aim to answer these questions. Attorney DJ Gerken with the Southern Environmental Law Center will give a presentation and lead the discussion. The forum has been organized by the Western North Carolina Alliance and the United Neighbors of Tuckasegee.

“Those of us in the community as well as the county political leaders need to come up to speed on the whole issue of vested rights because of all the high-end developments here in Jackson County and in particular the Legasus development,” Crowe said.

Jackson EDC says new direction key to future

A comprehensive economic development strategy would go a long way toward solving the quagmire that is holding back progress on the Jackson County Economic Development Commission, the EDC board decided this week.

“This is probably the most important issue,” said Joe Cline, the chairman of the EDC. “If we wait until the economy starts turning back around and everybody has done the groundwork and are ready to go, they will be miles ahead of us. We won’t be on a level playing field.”

The EDC has been preoccupied for much of the past year with what its role is. The county, which provides most of the funding for the EDC and employs its director, has provided little direction on what the nine-member volunteer board should be doing. The body is also caught in a power struggle between the county and towns.

It is further plagued by lingering controversy over alleged financial mismanagement dating back several years that remains unresolved. Meanwhile, the EDC director has just resigned, leaving the entity even more rudderless.

Bringing in a consultant and assembling a task force of stakeholders to forge a new direction could be the answer to the problems, Cline said.

“I agree there should be some kind of strategy on the table,” said Cecil Groves, president of the Southwestern Community College and an EDC member. “I think it will take someone out the region, outside the immediate family, to come in and look at this and give some objective approach to get people together and unified in a direction they are comfortable with.”

Cline said the question is how much such a study would cost and who would put up the money. The outgoing EDC director estimated a good one would cost $200,000.

“You almost can’t afford not to do it. It is something that is definitely needed,” Cline said. “But that is a lot of money.”

County leaders have expressed interest in taking a step back and developing a comprehensive economic development strategy under the guidance of a consultant. The EDC has money sitting in its coffers, which has accumulated over several years. The county would have to approve spending the money, however.

EDC members came to a consensus that Cline should approach county leaders to gauge interest and their level of financial support.


Elusive audits

Meanwhile, the EDC continues to struggle with how it can complete back audits from the years 2001 through 2005 when records from that period are incomplete.

Larry Morris, an EDC member from Cashiers, said the issue is like an albatross around the board’s neck. Yet since the county, not the EDC, is in control of whatever records do exist there is nothing the board can do but wait.

“I hope they can work in all due haste to resolve this. It seems to be a continuing issue that has lingered on for some time for whatever reason,” said Morris.

“There probably has been some feet dragging somewhat, but it has not been by this body,” Cline said. “I don’t even know where the records are for the years we are talking about. I don’t know who has custody of those at the moment. I agree it has been a frustrating, agonizing process.”

During the period in question, EDC records were kept at the office and home of the EDC chairman Tom McClure, who works in development at WCU. He acted as the body’s de facto director, although he was technically a volunteer. When the county grew concerned over a lack of financial oversight, it sent sheriff’s deputies to seize the records from McClure. Despite operating largely on county funds, the county technically had no authority to seize the records since the EDC was a standalone body, and it had to give them back again. But along the way, some disappeared.

“Those records just went missing. They got gone. There is no good explanation for it,” said Jay Coward, an attorney and member of the EDC.

Cline said the EDC has asked the district attorney and sheriff’s office to figure out if wrongdoing occurred.

“If there was anything done wrong, I don’t care whose doorstep it falls on, it needs to fall,” Cline said.

But no one has been willing to investigate, Cline said.

Cline said the only thing the board can do is make sure history is not repeated by making sure there is proper oversight, something that was lacking back then.

“The county and elected officials should have kept a closer check and eye on what’s going on,” Cline said. “If you are elected to take care of the taxpayers money and you allocated it, then you ought to at least know how those funds are being used. I think all of them share equal responsibility.

“It appears to me that everybody sat back until it got to a certain point and said ‘Wait a minute.’ Everybody tried to get in front of it and close the door to the barn after the cow got out,” Cline said. “Quite honestly, I don’t know if you will ever get totally to the bottom of it.”

Jackson EDC still taking old board’s heat

Old records of the Jackson County Economic Development Commission are likely too spotty to complete missing audits from the years 2001 through 2005, although the county and EDC board say they will continue their quest to do so.

“The citizens deserve as much answers as can be provided. I don’t know how much can be provided, but I think everybody is committed to providing as much as they can,” said EDC Chairman Joe Cline. However, “It may be tough to pull the records together.”

Meanwhile, a watchdog group called Jackson County Citizens Action Group continues to dog the county and the members of the EDC, accusing them of a financial cover-up and lack of diligence in safeguarding public funds. Indeed, the entity had a pall cast over it when Jackson County leaders withdrew from the body four years ago and seized its records, citing concerns over financial management of tax dollars.

However, today’s members of the EDC are nearly all new, and they are ready to move on.

While it was actually a violation of state statute for the entity not to perform audits, the all-volunteer board didn’t realize it was supposed to be conducting them until the past couple of years.

“There is obviously some mismanagement and expenditure of small amounts that are not accounted for, but the large sums are fully accounted for,” County Manager Ken Westmoreland said of the missing audit years. “We are talking about nickels and dimes.”

Tom McClure, the director of Partnership Development for WCU’s Millenial Initiative, acted as a de facto director of the EDC during the time period. He kept many of the EDC records in his office and largely ran the entity’s financial affairs and managed its business on a daily basis, even though he was only the volunteer chairman of the board and not a paid director.

The past controversy that most haunts the EDC is the revolving loan fund, even though the revolving loan fund was under the auspice of the county and a nonprofit arm of the EDC called the Jackson Development Corporation. Defaults on revolving loans are actually what prompted the county to withdraw from the EDC four years ago and to pull a somewhat hostile takeover of the JDC’s assets and liabilities.

“Not only were some of these loans in default, but many times in the majority of the cases, the loans were not adequately collateralized,” Westmoreland said.

The loans helped prop up small industries and in turn support job creation. While several loans are still behind, all but one is still making payments, according to County Finance Director Darlene Fox.

This has not satisfied critics, who have attempted to trace the path of public dollars from the county, to the EDC, then to the JDC and finally into the hands of private businesses who have failed to keep up with payments. The JDC was dissolved and assumed by the county, so complaints from the public over the defunct entity’s dealings have landed on the EDC board.

The Jackson County Citizens Action Group has railed against both county leaders and the EDC, asking for answers for nearly two years, requesting public records, compiling their own outlines of events, and making pointed presentations on the issue during public meetings.

Marie Leatherwood, a longtime critic of the EDC, called the entity a “dark hole using taxpayer money with no accountability.”

“The tainted history of the EDC and their equally tainted defunct bankrupt property buying arm know as the JDC has totally undermined any confidence in these entities,” Leatherwood told EDC members at their last meeting.

Cline said that people should understand the current EDC members have nothing to do with the past dealings of a dissolved entity.

“I know the JDC is no longer in existence, but really you are complaining to the wrong people,” Cline said.

Most of the nine EDC members have come on board only in the past year, however, and only two were actually on board four years ago.

One of the new members, Dick Sterka of Sylva, said it was difficult to continually be held accountable for what happened before his time.

“I think everybody is ready to throw their hands in if we are going to be abused like this,” Sterka said following 25 minutes of public criticism at their last meeting by two individuals. “Our hands are tied.”

When Sterka was appointed to the EDC, he thought the controversies of the past were behind them. New bylaws were created and mostly new members were appointed, leading Sterka to believe they had started over from scratch.

“That’s what we thought we did,” Sterka said.

But the EDC was never formally disbanded, so today’s entity inherited the liabilities — both real and perceived — of the old board.

It’s one reason that Dorothea Megow-Dowling, the EDC director up until last week, suggests dissolving the EDC and creating a new one.

“My view as an outsider is that really has to be put to bed before anybody can move forward in any way,” said Dowling, who resigned this month after less than a year on the job. “Information will minimize the conspiracy stuff that goes on.”

That said, Dowling doesn’t think the past should be wallowed in. EDC Board Member Chris Matheson agreed.

“I think what we need to look at is what has gone right and what can we do to make the EDC run like it needs to run. There are so many people wanting to point fingers to the past. I think it counterproductive,” Matheson said.

That said, Matheson understands that members in the community are still confused about what transpired during the EDC upheaval.

“I respect their concerns and their desire to have answers,” Matheson said. “There was so much confusion it was difficult for me to get it straight myself.”

Lawsuit filed to seize Dillsboro dam

Jackson County has formally filed a lawsuit against Duke Energy to seize the Dillsboro Dam and surrounding river shore, using eminent domain to create a public park and in the process save the dam from being torn down.

The county is also seeking a preliminary injunction against Duke to keep the utility from demolishing, altering or removing any part of the dam or nearby powerhouse.

“Duke intends to immediately begin preparing the Dillsboro Dam and Powerhouse for demolition and removal,” the lawsuit states. But any forays toward removal would cause “irreparable harm as these historic structures cannot be replaced.”

Jackson County wants to transform the dam and surrounding shoreline of the Tuckasegee into a river park and promenade, replete with walking paths, benches, fishing areas and river access. The dam and powerhouse are intended as focal points in the county’s Dillsboro Heritage Park Plan, and, therefore, must be protected through a preliminary injunction against Duke, Jackson pleads.

The injunction also seeks to allow county officials to come onto Duke’s property. Duke had threatened the county with trespassing charges if it attempted to do so, keeping the county from surveying the property it plans to seize or conduct an appraisal.

The lawsuit claims the county is within its rights to seize the property under a state statue allowing for eminent domain for the purpose of creating, enlarging or improving a park or other recreational facility.

Duke has previously countered that condemnation would interfere with an order from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to tear down the dam. Jackson claims that the “order” to tear down the dam is being misrepresented by Duke and that FERC merely granted Duke permission to tear it down. Once Duke no longer owns the dam, the FERC ruling will become moot, Jackson argues.

Jackson points out in the suit that the hydropower operation at the Dillsboro dam has been offline for five years, and therefore isn’t a core part of Duke’s business operation. In addition, Duke no longer has a federal license to operate the dam, having relinquished it in anticipation of demolition.

The county would be required to compensate Duke for the monetary value of the dam if condemnation is successful. At the time of filing the condemnation suit, the county was supposed to deposit the money upfront in an escrow account with the courts.

However, Jackson County only deposited $1. The county argues that by seizing the dam, Duke has been saved the trouble and expense of tearing it down, an undertaking that would have cost more than $1 million. That savings should more than suffice as the monetary compensation Jackson would otherwise owe Duke, the suit argues.

Methane-powered foundry opens at JCGEP

The Jackson County Green Energy Park recently opened the first landfill methane-fueled art foundry in the world.

“Because of the increasing costs of fossil fuels, as well as the environmental impact of the fire arts in general, demonstrating that landfill gas can work in a foundry situation opens up new opportunities for the preservation of these art forms,” said Tracy Kirchmann, a Western Carolina University graduate student and assistant to JCGEP.

Kirchmann was a recent recipient of an honorable mention in the International Sculpture Center’s Outstanding Student Achievement Award.

The foundry was built to increase the versatility of the metals shop for incoming artist residents. The JCGEP metals shop has two studio spaces available for one to three-year residencies, and is also available for four-week residencies and internships year round. Resident artists share access to the 2,500-square-foot shop, which includes metal fabrication equipment, blacksmithing forges and the foundry.

As the JCGEP program develops, additional works will be shown onsite through an annual sculpture competition. This year’s selected piece, “Metamorphosis,” is a sculpture made of cor-ten steel by Waynesville artist Grace Cathey.

To date, JCGEP also has completed construction on a metals shop featuring a series of greenhouses, three blacksmithing forges, and a glassblowing studio that is slated to open this fall. The major appliances in each of these facilities utilize the landfill gas as their fuel source.

For more information, or to organize a tour of the JCGEP, call 828.631.0271.

Megow-Dowling announces resignation

Jackson County’s economic development director Dorothea Megow-Dowling had been on the job for less than a year when she announced her resignation last week.

She came from a long career in economic development and specialized in strategy and planning processes.

“It is going to be unfortunate to see her leave,” Joe Cline, the chairman of the economic development commission told fellow members of the EDC at their last meeting. “The county and this board owes her a debt of gratitude for the work she has put in it has been tireless to say the least.”

More board members expressed regret after the meeting.

“She was fantastic,” said Dick Sterka, an EDC member appointed by Sylva.

Sterka’s company, Diversified Expo, helps works the trade show circuit, whether it’s hosting the shows or helping companies attend them. Given the circles Sterka runs in, he interacts with businesses regularly that may be interested in moving to a new area or expanding their operation, and as a result, he constantly fed Dowling tips on companies that would be worth courting.

“She was very active. Give her a lead and she was like a bulldog. I hate to lose her,” Sterka said.

Larry Morris, an EDC member appointed by the county, said Dowling excelled in strategy, which had ideally been the next leap the EDC would have been making.

“I was real pleased,” Morris said. “I thought we were making headway in the direction we needed to go. It is really unfortunate.”

Dowling says she has plans to move back to her home region of Michigan.

Departing director recommends dissolving Jackson EDC board

Jackson County’s Economic Development Commission has again been thrust into turmoil, a near constant state of affairs for the entity in recent years.

The county’s economic development director announced her resignation last week, and along with it, offered her views on what the county should do to kickstart a new day for its economic development efforts. Most notable on the list is to dissolve the economic development commission.

The resignation comes on heels of a somewhat contentious EDC meeting last month, where the mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro charged the county with stripping the EDC board of its power and relegating it to a mere advisory role.

Meanwhile, the EDC members say they can’t figure out exactly what they are supposed to be doing. The board has been preoccupied with their structure — namely whether they have any real authority or are simply an advisory board to county leaders.

The quandary over their role has dominated discussion at their meetings in recent months, distracting them from their ultimate mission of advancing economic development, EDC members say.

The EDC board is a joint venture between Jackson County and the four towns in the county: Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills. It was created in the late 1990s.

Alleged financial mismanagement by those at the helm and concerns over a lack of oversight for public funds at the disposal of an all-volunteer body led the county to withdraw from the EDC in 2005. The EDC continued to limp along without county participation for 18 months until the county eventually threw its hat back in the ring.

The board was reconstituted with a new set of bylaws, but not without a power struggle between the county and the towns over who would hold the most authority.

It appears the issue was never properly settled and continues to pose problems — thus the still-festering issue over the board’s role and authority today.

Dorothea Megow-Dowling, the EDC director, said the county missed an opportunity by agreeing to reconstitute the board under the same structure rather than dissolving the EDC and creating a new one from scratch.

“Things move on best when there is a very clear cut from a past situation that has been difficult,” Dowling said. “I don’t think that cut was perceived as adequate.”

Of the nine members on the EDC board, the majority have come on within the past year. Only three on the board were there during the past turmoils.

Yet the entity has been unable to shake itself of old baggage in the public light. In addition, it inherited a structure that isn’t working, Dowling said.

Dowling sees another fatal flaw: the lack of a comprehensive economic development strategy. Setting up an EDC structure, appointing members and hiring a director before a clear mission is defined is a backwards approach, Dowling said.

“I believe it would be very effective to let this current structure go and establish a steering committee to oversee an economic development planning process,” Dowling said. “My recommendation is to start with the task, scope the task, then put in place the best teams and resources you can to accomplish the objectives you’ve set. My recommendation is and has been dissolution of the EDC.”

Disbanding the EDC is not an easy proposition, however. It is not solely up to the county, or even to the EDC board members themselves. As so-called forming entities, all four towns in the county have a say on whether the existing structure remains in tact.

“We are stuck with it unless there is some willingness on the part of municipalities to do something different,” County Manager Ken Westmoreland said.

There was a failed attempt to dissolve the EDC board two-and-a-half years ago rather than reconstitute it. It was voted on by elected officials from the county and all four towns and failed by a vote of 15 to 13.

Dowling’s resignation has caused all the old tensions still lurking below the surface to emerge, Westmoreland said.

Joe Cline, chairman of the EDC, is reluctant for EDC members to wade into the fray over whether the board should be dissolved.

“I feel like that rests with the local elected officials,” Cline said. “It is up to the stakeholders and the people who put it together to decide.”

Cline acknowledged that some EDC members would like to weigh in. At the meeting last week, however, he suggested holding off unless the board is asked for its opinion.

“To me it is a moot point. One way or the other we could all be removed tomorrow,” Cline said at the meeting.

The board may be not be able to speak with a unified voice, however. Some members want to assert more authority and hold the decision-making power, while others are fine in an advisory role.

“The advisory board I think is the way we need to go,” said Larry Morris, an EDC member who owns a kitchen and bath cabinetry dealership in Cashiers.


What next?

At this point, the county will not rush to replace Dowling, Westmoreland said.

“I think we are going to take some time before we try to re-employ someone in this position to analyze some of these questions,” Westmoreland said. “I think we do need as a community and as a county to come to some general consensus as to what we are going to focus on.”

If an economic development director is preoccupied chasing every elusive job on the block, the county can’t focus its resources on the prospect that are the most probable fit.

“It may be three, four, five, half a dozen things that we can do best, that works with the environment and our labor market and infrastructure,” Westmoreland said. “We can’t just continue to go negotiate with everyone about everything.”

County Commissioner Tom Massie agreed. Massie likes the idea of taking a time-out to create a comprehensive economic development strategy before deciding on a new director or a possible new structure for the EDC board.

“We need to go through a planning process where we bring everyone interested in economic development to the table,” Massie said. “We have to get them all on the same page of the hymn book.”

Massie had hoped that the county could initiate such a process sooner rather than later, and believed Dowling’s skill set was well-suited to move the process forward.

“It is just a shame everything is caught up in this nitpicking,” Massie said. “It has been a source of frustration.”

Westmoreland isn’t sure the existing EDC board is the right vehicle to create a strategic plan. Westmoreland instead favors a special task force or blue ribbon committee to embark on a comprehensive strategy, guided by a professional consultant or facilitator.

“I think that would serve a very useful purpose to explore our strengths and weakness and what we are trying to pursue,” Westmoreland said.

A special task force should be crafted to include those with something to contribute to the discussion of economic development. The same approach should ideally be used when making appoints to the EDC itself, Westmoreland said.

“Those appointments need to have some expertise to assist in working with business prospects,” Westmoreland said. “Just appointing general citizenry with an interest in economic development won’t satisfy that need.”


Cart before the horse

Dowling said it would be wise to have an economic development strategy in place before bringing in another director.

“This goes to the crux of the matter that really needs resolution. What person do you want in place for the county and what do you want that person to be doing?” Dowling said.

A strategy should also be in place before a board is created, Dowling said. Instead, the board’s structure was inherited and appointments made to fill the seats before a task was decided on.

Since Larry Morris came on the EDC several months ago, he has seen the issue of the EDC’s role and its structure dominate their agenda.

“A lot of time is taken up by trying to determine what is our role,” Morris said. “We are struggling to define how best we can serve.”

Others shared his characterization of the meetings.

“The discussion tends to revolve around the function of the EDC rather than around the tasks required to help economic development progress,” Dowling said. “When that occurs again and again, for me, I make an observation that there is something not working well structurally. There is frustration all around.”

Morris would rather spend his time working for economic development, but thinks they need a comprehensive strategy and approach, which doesn’t exist now.

“Should we be focusing on studies and research, infrastructure growth, or sitting back and waiting until a prospective business makes an inquiry about moving here?” Morris said.

That’s the issue Morris would like feedback on from the county and towns.

“It is pointless for use to think in one direction if the people we are accountable to are thinking in a different direction,” Morris said.


Structural makeup

The EDC board is a joint entity comprised of appointees from each of the towns and the county. But Dowling reports directly to the county manager — not the EDC board. That has bothered some on the EDC board, and the mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Cline countered accusations that the issue is one of a power struggle. “It shouldn’t be an issue of a power struggle,” Cline said.

He said the EDC members merely need clarity.

“There is confusion there with it being a county employee but working for the EDC board,” Cline said. “How can you serve two masters? We all need to be on the same page, but at the end of the day, there can really only be one boss.”

Cline said it has to be one or the other.

“Does the county and municipalities want us to be an advisory board or a totally independent board?” Cline said. “Right now we are operating with one foot in each.”

As a result, the board has been preoccupied with what its role is, Cline said.

The EDC members have drafted a list of questions they want the towns and the county to answer, primarily dealing with what their role is but also what types of economic development projects they should be undertaking. The plan is to present the list of questions in the run-up to a joint meeting held each quarter between all the town boards and the county.

“Our position is we just want to be told by the people that formed this what they want,” Cline said.

It is unclear why the issue has come to a head again. The job description for the economic development director was hashed out during a lengthy round of meetings between the county and towns two-and-a-half years ago and included a clause that gives the county manager hiring and firing authority over the director rather than the board.

Jackson County antes up most of the money for economic development. While the county puts in $105,000. Each town puts in just $1 for each resident, amounting to a few hundred for Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills, and $2,500 for Sylva.

The county ultimately shoulders the financial burden of economic development, and therefore argued at the time the economic development director should be a county employee under county control.

“It was never our intention that the only job responsibility for the economic development director was to staff the EDC,” Massie said.

Cline, however, points out that the job description for the EDC director, says he or she will report both to the county manager and the chairman of the EDC board.

“There is no dispute it is a county employee and a county position,” Cline said. “Everybody understood it was a county employee and the hiring and firing of that position would rest with the county manager. But it was also stated they would work for the EDC.”

Whatever the case, the actual role of the EDC remains a source of confusion not only for those on it, but some town leaders, Dowling said, and therefore needs fixing.

“Obviously, it was not clear in their minds. Obviously, everybody did not have the same understanding,” Dowling said.

Westmoreland doesn’t see anything wrong with the EDC serving in a formal advisory role, just as the planning board or any number of county boards are advisory in their capacity.

Massie said the question of whether the EDC should officially be dubbed an advisory-only body is one he can’t answer right now.

“That is a role that will have to be determined at some point in the future. I can’t preconceive what the outcome of that is going to be before we have those discussion,” Massie said.

Cline said regardless of how the seats at the table are divvied up, the EDC will represent the entire county fairly.

“You are not going to say for example if you don’t have a representative from Sylva that there won’t be any economic development in the town of Sylva,” Cline said.

Cline doesn’t think the debate over the board’s structure is a major hurdle.

“Everyone is committed to the economic development of the county and understanding what is the best way to do that,” Cline said.


Other focus

Some EDC board members complained at last month’s meeting that Dowling was doing the bidding of the county at the expense of their own board.

“I can understand perhaps why the EDC board feels somewhat neglected,” Westmoreland said. “We have consumed almost all of her time on several significant projects.”

But with good reason. Dowling’s calendar has been filled in recent months with courting several major employers with the prospect of bringing new jobs to the county. One is widely known already: an expansion of the Jackson Paper plant.

To land the jobs, the county promised incentives. While it is not a new tactic, it was for Jackson. Dowling had to craft the incentive deals and legal contracts from scratch.

Westmoreland said the minutia of orchestrating the state and county incentive packages is immense.

“You don’t just touch bases or two times you touch base dozens of times,” Westmoreland said.

Dowling has several similar ventures in play from companies that expressed an interest in setting up shop on the old Tucksegee Mills property and the Whittier Industrial park. Dowling did not brief the EDC board on the prospect employers she was working with, however.

Cline said she should have, since the EDC’s role is presumably to help facilitate new companies moving into the county.

“There was no point in us even meeting once a month with no information about what was even going on,” Cline said.

But Westmoreland said Dowling can’t disclose the prospective companies to the EDC board.

“These prospective business plans are very proprietary,” Westmoreland said.

There are too many people on it from too many different entities to ensure that word wouldn’t leak out, he said.

With most economic development boards in the region, the EDC director does disclose — in private sessions — the companies that are being courted.

Westmoreland said he would rather disclose the prospects to handpicked stakeholders, mainly just those in a position to bring resources to the table.

Dowling said she has also spent time in her initial months on the job meeting with stakeholders and prospective partners.

“I’ve laid some groundwork with people and organizations that might be able to work with the county,” Dowling said. “I am very pleased I have been able to help the county with the things I have become involved with,” Dowling said.

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