Ghost Town looks to repair relations with inspectors

The ball is already rolling on repairs to the rides at the once-popular Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, but a summer opening could hinge on the park passing muster with state inspectors.

New owner Alaska Presley, a businesswoman and longtime Maggie resident, will meet with officials from the N.C. Department of Labor and town officials this week to discuss necessary repairs and improvements planned for the shuttered amusement park.

The Department of Labor and the previous owners had a contentious relationship as multiple devices failed multiple inspections on multiple occasions. Lack of communication by the former owner with state inspectors was part of the problem — one Presley intends to avoid now that she is at the helm.

The Department of Labor will be able to give Presley a better idea of what needs to be accomplished before she can open the park.

Ghost Town fell into bankruptcy about four years ago and ultimately ended up on the courthouse steps in mid-February this year. That is where Presley, a nearly lifelong Ghost Town supporter, purchased the park. She hopes to restore it to its former glory as well as add new attractions with modern appeal.

Presley said she hopes to open a portion of Ghost Town by the middle of summer. However, renovations and improvements will take at least three years, she said.

Presley would not name which rides she wants to fix up prior to her summer goals, saying she did not want to make any promises she couldn’t keep.

“I’m taking my time because I want it to be done properly,” she said.

Presley said she did not know which rides will need work, nor how much.

“At the time they closed, the rides were OK,” she said. “They look OK, but I just don’t want to take a chance on them.”

Instead, she will depend on ride inspectors with the Department of Labor to help point her in a positive direction.

The preliminary meeting this week is just about “goodwill and to be sure that I am on the right track and that I’m not doing anything that doesn’t need to be done,” Presley said.

For the Department of Labor, the appointment is a chance to get off on the right foot with Ghost Town’s new owner.

“(It’s) an opportunity to proactively assess the equipment,” said Tom Chambers, chief of the Elevator and Amusement Device Bureau at the Department of Labor.

Chambers is unsure exactly what to expect when he inspects the park, but said the rides were most definitely subject to wear and tear related to the weather, which could include corrosion to both the appearance and integrity of the equipment.

“A lot of time has lapsed between the last time we looked at this equipment and now,” he said.

The park has been closed since 2009. Its high-elevation mountaintop setting makes the rides and equipment particularly vulnerable to weathering.

The department inspects between 6,000 and 7,000 rides each year. Every ride in the state must undergo rigorous testing and be re-certified every season.

“We find problems with every device that we see,” Chambers said.

Not only does the department inspect rides, but it can also provide names of quality contractors who could complete specific tasks.

“We want her to be successful,” Chambers said.

Presley has already hired a company to trim the trees and tame the other plant life that has grown up in and around the park while it was stalled in bankruptcy and foreclosure.

“They got the (Wild West) town cleaned,” Presley said. “It’s just perfected.”

Within the next couple weeks, she also hopes to put out bids for plumbing repairs. The former owner did not shut off water to the park, resulting in burst pipes during the winter’s harsh freeze-thaw cycle.

 

A way up the mountain

Because Ghost Town is perched atop a steep mountain with no public road access, the only ways for visitors to access the park is by riding up in a chairlift or a cablecar known as the “incline railway.” Neither have been in working order, and both are key to the success or failure of Ghost Town.

Without them, visitors have to be shuttled up the mountain from a park-and-ride lot in school buses.

Presley is hunting for a contractor to begin repairing the incline railway, which transports visitors up the mountain to Ghost Town. She has already purchased the parts needed to repair the incline railway, but it will still be about five months before it’s fixed, she said.

And, what about the lift — the only other way to ascend the mountain slope?

To the best of her knowledge, “the lift is fine. It just needs to go through all the testing,” Presley said.

A couple town leaders attended an informal, private meeting with Presley last week to let her know that the town is behind her.

“We certainly will help anyway we can,” said Audrey Hager, the town’s festival director, during a phone interview. “We can’t speak to monetary or advertising.”

The town has already pitched in by helping facilitate the initial meeting between Presley and Department of Labor officials, who are required to inspect the park before it reopens.

“They have a lot of insight on what they (Ghost Town’s previous owners) did wrong in the past,” Hager said.

The roller coaster in particular had its ups and downs. After the amusement park filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009, the owners still tried to open it for the season, hoping to earn some money to help pay off its debt. However, on the opening weekend, neither the roller coaster nor the drop tower were running after failing to meet state standards.

Later that year, the roller coaster opened for a single day before it broke down once again.

Sales tax hike for education faces uphill battle

Gov. Beverly Perdue laid out a proposal last week to increase the state’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent to fund education.

The move would generate an estimated $850 million for the state’s public schools, community colleges and universities — money Perdue says is necessary to make up for the Draconian cuts to education at the hands of Republican legislators.

“We owe it to our children and our state to stop these cuts and make education a priority again — a fraction of a penny for progress,” Perdue said in a conference call with news reporters last week.

North Carolina is now 49th in the nation in per-pupil funding for education. Perdue said she was dismayed by what she considers the sell-out of the state’s long-standing reputation as a leader in education in the South.

“When I see a list with North Carolina in per pupil funding worse than Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas — all these states that for generations had tried to be more like North Carolina — I feel like there is something really dangerous happening to North Carolina,” Perdue said. “It is shameful. It is wrong.”

But, the sales tax has no hope of passing muster with the Republican-controlled General Assembly, according to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin.

Republicans are chalking Perdue’s proposal up to campaign posturing in her re-election bid this year.

“It is not going to go anywhere in the House or Senate,” Davis said.

Davis said an economic recovery is the best bet for boosting state coffers, and a tax increase would run counter to a recovery.

“We believe the economy is still very fragile and that money is best left in the hands of the private sector in the hopes that it will generate jobs and consequently increase revenue under the present tax structure,” Davis said.

But, Perdue is pitching the tax hike as an investment in children.

“I have never met a parent or a grandparent that actually didn’t want a better life for their child or grandchild than they’ve had themselves,” Perdue said.

The argument frames Republican lawmakers as putting the interests of children second.

“Of course she wants to make us out like bad guys so she can win the election,” Davis said.

But, Davis said Republicans’ stance against a tax increase is equally looking out for the interests of children.

“I don’t want anyone’s grandchildren or my grandchildren to inherit this legacy of debt,” Davis said.

He also questioned whether more money is always the answer.

“We believe the educational system has problems that money won’t fix,” Davis said.

Perdue will likely find allies in the ranks of public schools and universities. Bill Nolte, the assistant superintendent for Haywood County Schools, said education is hurting and could use any help it can get.

“If the governor or any other elected official can stop the bleeding, good for them,” Nolte said.

The Haywood County School system has lost $8 million and more than 120 positions during the past three years, Nolte said.

The result is larger class sizes and fewer teacher assistants. Teachers also have less help dealing with at-risk students, with students who can’t speak English and with special needs students — which takes time away from teaching the rest of the class.

Schools can brace for more cuts this coming year when a stream of federal stimulus money that until now had softened states’ budget crises is phased out.

Nolte admitted that the Republican leaders are keeping the promise they made to voters when they swept to power — namely that they would let a 1-cent sales tax initially billed as a temporary recession measure finally sunset and make up the difference with cuts.

“That is exactly what they did,” Nolte said. “They cut taxes that were being used for education and other essential services. I don’t think anyone can say they were surprised.”

 

Political instant replay

The debate over a sales tax increase for education is largely a replay of last year’s budget showdown between the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the Democratic governor. Republicans say Perdue has no chance of changing the outcome this go around and that her sales tax pitch for education is already dead in the water.

Last year, the governor vetoed the state budget crafted by Republicans. She wanted a sales tax increase to offset cuts to education. Both the House and Senate had enough votes to override the governor’s veto, however.

The Senate had a veto-proof majority of 31 Republicans compared to 19 Democrats. In the House, five Democrats joined with Republicans to override the governor’s veto.

To have any hope of success this time around, the governor would have to swing two Republicans in the Senate to her side and keep the five Democrats in the House from breaking ranks.

Even then, a bill to increase the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent could be far-fetched. It would require bringing a vote to the floor of the General Assembly — and since Republicans control the agenda they won’t even let it come to a vote, Davis said.

Perdue vowed to take her message on the road and hopefully raise enough Cain that voters will demand action.

“I am going to go in every legislators’ backyard to get this funding passed,” Perdue said. “I hope the people of the state think about this.”

NCAE needs to work for schools, not Democrats

In spite of Scott McLeod’s assertion that “it would be hard to argue otherwise” in his column (“Vote on NCAE dues a slap in the face to teachers,” The Smoky Mountain News, Jan 11 edition), I am going to give it a try.

I am not an apologist for the N.C. House of Representatives, but their leadership determines their agenda, not the governor. The legislature was called back into session to consider the veto override of S9, No Discriminatory Purpose in Death Penalty. The Senate overrode the veto in a 31-19 partisan vote. The House did not have the votes but instead referred it to the House Committee on Judiciary for future consideration.  

Speaker Thom Tillis has been very candid from the start in telling members that the governor’s vetoes could be considered at any time when the legislature is in session. Consequently, since they were in session they brought up the governor's veto of S727, “No Dues Checkoff for School Employees.” The Senate overrode the veto on July 13, 2011. The House overrode the veto in the early morning hours of Jan. 5. Two Democratic House members were absent due to illness and one Republican member is deployed in Afghanistan. The speaker had the votes to override two other vetoes but chose not to do so at that time.

There has been much misinformation put forward about S727. It is not an assault on teachers or education, merely an end to the practice of the state being the dues collection agency for the NCAE. The citizens of North Carolina should not be forced to bear the cost for collecting NCAE dues. That should be the responsibility of the NCAE. I am sure the teachers that choose to be NCAE members can find an alternative to the automatic dues checkoff, e.g., electronic funds transfer from their personal checking account.

Considering the NCAE is a thinly veiled lobbying group for Democrats, it should be no surprise that it does not have many sympathizers in the Republican ranks. More than 98 percent of the NCAE campaign donations go to Democrats.

During my 10 year service as a Macon County commissioner, I voted for every capital facilities improvement in Macon County Schools since 1997, investments of more than $50 million. For the first time in more than 35 years there will be no mobile classrooms at the start of the 2012-13 school year. That is a record I’m proud of and a testimony to the value Macon citizens place on their public schools. In spite of that record, the NCAE chose to spend thousands of dollars on mailers that contained misleading information and/or outright lies about my record. So, is the NCAE for education or is the NCAE for the Democrat Party? My personal experience makes me wonder.

I have met no person in the Legislature who is interested in an “orchestrated evisceration of the state’s public schools,” as was stated in the column. I have met many who are interested in improving public education so that students are better prepared to compete in a global economy. Our results are not adequate at this time and it will take more than money to improve them.

Your readers should be reminded that H200, the bipartisan budget passed for this biennium, cut K-12 education budget 0.5 percent more than the governor's recommended budget. Hardly the draconian cuts described by some. That does not include the $60 to $100 million the governor wanted to pass on to local governments for school bus purchases. Ask your county commissioners what they thought of that idea. The legislature worked diligently to craft a budget so that our state was fiscally sound. We have begun that journey but there is still much work to do.  

The present legislature inherited a $2.5 billion deficit, a $2.6 billion debt to the federal government for unemployment compensation, $7 billion in tax supported debt, a $2.8 billion underfunded state employee retirement system, a $40 million underfunded consolidated judicial retirement system, a $40 million underfunded National Guard retirement system, and a $32.8 billion unfunded liability for retiree health insurance benefits. The legislature would prefer to dedicate more to education programs that work and reward good teachers with merit pay, but those efforts will not reach full fruition until we have our fiscal house in order.

We do agree that teachers should not be held accountable for society’s ills. We cannot continue to dump our problems at the schoolhouse door and expect our teachers, our educational system, to make it all better. To use Mr. McLeod’s own words, “Student achievement still has ground to make up with counterparts around the nation. Many counties have put together quality programs that send students on to college prepared for what lies ahead, but others are lacking.”  

We need to invest in finding out what works and need to stop doing what clearly does not. As we move forward to provide our students with the very best we can offer, we must infuse integrity into our stewardship of funds for education so that those same students will not be shackled with state and nationally imposed debt they will not live long enough to repay. That, sir, is a burden they do not deserve and one against which I will continue to hold my guard.

(Sen. Davis, a Republican, lives in Franklin. His 50th District, after the recent redistricting, covers all of Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Macon, Clay, Cherokee and Graham counties. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Unexpected pleasures from a trip across the state

Sometimes what we expect to happen doesn’t:

On vacation this week, I stopped in Raleigh and viewed the “Rembrandt in America” exhibit currently showing at the N.C. Museum of Art. I enjoyed the exhibit very much indeed. But what honestly carried far greater emotional impact for me was a secondary exhibit by North Carolina artist Beverly McIver.

McIver is an African-American woman born in Greensboro; she lives now in Durham. McIver’s work to date has focused on her mother, Ethel, who died in 2004. And on Beverly McIver’s mentally disabled sister, Renee, who is in her 50s but has the “mental mindset” of a second-grader.

McIver’s paintings are bold. They are raw and honest. Her rendering of her mother in “Mom Died” literally and unexpectedly brought me to tears. Her mother’s mouth is open, a hole in a white, unfilled-in face. Ethel is lying flat in her hospital bed; the perspective is incredibly pain-filled and heartfelt, unmistakably real.

I have cried listening to certain music performances. I have cried while reading particular books. Never have I been forced to leave an art exhibit because of overwhelming emotion and tears. This was a new, welcome if painful, experience, and Beverly McIver’s powerful paintings are an exciting addition to my life. I look forward to seeing what she will produce in the coming years, and have every intention of tracking her work in various galleries. What a tremendous gift this woman has, and the labor she has clearly invested into mastering her craft is sobering but inspiring.

McIver’s work hangs at the state museum through June 24. Rembrandt’s, by the way, can be viewed through Jan. 22.

•••

Learning dreams really can come true:

I stayed as a guest in a 15-year-old community in Carrboro, Arcadia Co-housing, which residents tout as “a progressive, intentional community governed by consensus.” Amazingly enough, that proud claim rings true — there are 33 families here, each living in their own individual houses. Residents work together to create an interconnected community. Arcadia consists of 16.5 acres of land, but development is limited to five of those acres. The remainder is kept in woods, a field, a pond, a community garden and meadows.

All households are represented on Arcadia’s board of directors. Business meetings are held monthly, there are work signup parties quarterly, steering committee meetings are scheduled monthly, and other meetings (stonings? banishments? The group’s website doesn’t specify) are held “as needed.”

I stayed in a room located in Arcadia’s common house. The group built this common facility, in part, to provide housing for guests. This keeps residents’ houses smaller and absent of guest rooms that would only experience occasional use. There’s a laundry in the common house so that residents don’t have these appliances in their homes, a multipurpose sitting area, rooms geared toward kid activities, extra storage room and a large kitchen with a dining area. Monthly community meals are scheduled, with volunteers doing the cooking.

I’m a raging liberal by almost any definition you choose. But I admit to harboring a certain skepticism when it comes to intentional housing. I would never have believed it could work, much less for 15 years, and furthermore seem really cool and fun.

My friend Kevin Corbin, who is as far to the right as I am to the left, happened to call while I was visiting in Arcadia. He wanted to chat about a particular article I’d written about the commission board in Macon County, which he chairs. Kevin’s son attends UNC-Chapel Hill’s dental school, an odd choice for the scion of such a proud GOP-oriented family. Kevin assures me that UNC’s dental school is different from regular UNC. It is suitably conservative, he said, even for a Corbin.

Kevin laughed when I told him I was in Carrboro. “You know that even the people who live in Chapel Hill think Carrboro is too liberal. Don’t you?” he asked me, clearly amused but also not speaking in jest.

Maybe indeed Arcadia could exist only in a bastion of liberals, but it’s neat indeed that it does work, regardless of where. We could use more Arcadias in our world.

•••

And, finally, the loveliness of our state:

When it comes time for my occasional trips to the beach, I’ve consistently chosen South Carolina because of its relative nearness to Western North Carolina. This vacation, however, I struck out on Interstate 40 and then to the Outer Banks. What a delight this place has proven.

The ocean here is strikingly rough, churning and chopping in unceasing, un-rhythmic, mesmerizing motion. The shells deposited on beaches bear the branding of this unforgiving ocean — they are rarely whole, usually just bits and pieces. There’s a natural beauty to this region that seems unique from other coastal areas I’ve visited. There’s something about being surrounded by so much water that is stunning, and even a bit overwhelming and frightening.

Damage from last year’s hurricane is clearly visible. Driving north down the coast, you come to a heavily hit, abandoned-appearing vacation or second-home community. Porches of houses were sheared, hanging desolate and broken in the sky; house pilings exposed, in places collapsed. Water was everywhere, in areas where water was not wanted or welcome. The place was a disaster.

The sign on the development was unintentionally prescient of what occurred: “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream,” it read cheerily, a slogan written to entice potential buyers pre-Hurricane Irene.

It seems to me that building in the Outer Banks is a crapshoot. More hurricanes will come; continued erosion is a given, not a guess. Sort of like building in defiance of a mountain’s grain; at least, that’s what this visitor from WNC couldn’t help but think.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Debate rages over proposed cell phone ban behind the wheel

Calling and talking on cell phones while driving is likely to continue, at least for now, in North Carolina.

But the debate still rages since the National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended a national ban on all cell phone use, even hands-free devices.

Donna McClure of Franklin is all for cell phone restrictions, describing distracted drivers on the road as “frightening.” She’s no hypocrite: McClure refuses to even own a cell phone, much less use one while motoring along highways and byways.

“I’m afraid it will ring when I’m driving, and that I’ll feel guilty for not answering it. So I avoid that,” said McClure, breaking away for a moment to chat from her volunteer job tending to sales at the Macon County Friends of the Library Bookstore. “If you don’t have a cell phone to answer, then you don’t feel guilty about not answering it. I prefer to communicate directly with another person.”

If you want to reach McClure, you’ll have to call her at home and leave a message on her answering machine.

But talking while driving has become an engrained behavior for most Americans. In the neighboring Mirror Dance Hair Studio, down a few doors from the Franklin bookstore, hairdresser Kristina Neighbarger is part of the fast moving high-tech world most Americans thrive on.

“I don’t text while driving, but I to drive and talk on my cell phone,” Neighbarger said. “I’d miss it, if it weren’t allowed.”

Neighbarger perhaps spoke for many when she noted that, truthfully, she wishes other drivers, however, were banned from using cell phones — just not her. Because, like most, Neighbarger believes she motors safely and attentively with a cell phone in hand, but not those other drivers.

Some drivers, such as Kathy Riddle of Waynesville, strike a middle balance between no-cell-phone McClure and talking-and-driving Neighbarger.

“I pull over on the side of the road if I need to talk,” said Riddle, who runs the Haywood Barber Shop.

Riddle said she learned the value of cell phones after, some years ago, experiencing a car breakdown on Interstate 85 in Virginia. She and her mother sat by the side of the highway for hours unable to summon help, Riddle said.

“I promised myself, if they ever come out here, I’ll get a cell phone,” the barber said.

They did, and she did — but Riddle is fearful of the level of distraction many motorists demonstrate while talking on their cell phones.

“It’s kind of scary. They get to talking, and they don’t even look while they’re driving,” she said. “And I think texting is even more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.”

That said, Riddle would support some restrictions, because, she said, it might just save some lives.

Barely legal: reincarnation of video gambling continues on borrowed time pending court challenge

It’s early on a workday, and there’s a single player seated at one of the 18 machines in the two-room M&J’s sweepstakes café, located in a small strip mall on Highlands Road in Franklin.

Louise Dills, who works at the nearby manufacturing plant Whitley Products, has casually dressed for the time she’ll spend here. The Macon County native was wearing a sweat suit, T-shirt and tennis shoes, her typical sweepstakes attire. She was playing her favorite sweepstakes game: “Candy Money.”

M&J’s is one of more than 1,000 sweepstakes cafes that have sprung up statewide, despite a ban by the General Assembly on video gambling. Dozens are here in Western North Carolina.

Sweepstakes cafes such as this one sell “time” to customers to gamble online or by cell phone. Customers, in return for whatever amount of money they care to risk, log on to their machine of choice and play for the allotted time they purchased.

Sweepstakes café owners and managers argue that letting customers “find” cash and prizes via computers is simply buying and selling Internet or phone time — not real gambling, in other words.

Dills has defied the odds, in her accounting at least. She said she’s won more money at the games than waved goodbye to. Dills won $5,800 playing Candy Money a few weeks ago. It isn’t a hard game to master, she said, putting down a cigarette into an ashtray to free her hands and visually explain the game. You simply match identical items on the screen. They match; you win, she said, pointing at the screen.

“I’ll probably never win that much again,” Dills said of that blue ribbon day. “But I really play just to take a break.”

That break could end for gamblers such as Dills if the state of North Carolina has its way. Sweepstakes cafes such as this one are in the crosshairs.

The General Assembly first banned video gambling in 2007. It didn’t take long before so-called “sweepstakes” cropped up as an alternative. Lawmakers viewed the sweepstakes as a reincarnation of video gambling under a different name, designed to circumvent the previous ban. So the General Assembly went back to the drawing board and passed another ban in 2010 aimed at putting sweepstakes cafes out of business as well — the third attempt in an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the state and video gambling industry.

But the situation didn’t turn out as black and white as lawmakers had anticipated. Lawsuits challenging the ban have allowed the games to continue, leaving local law enforcement officers confused about whether sweepstakes machines operating in their counties are illegal or not.

And, meanwhile, owners of sweepstakes cafes are arguing that any attempt to close them down is a violation of free speech rights under the First Amendment — the basis of the pending lawsuit.

“There are some people who have gambling problems,” said Melissa Hurst, the owner of M&J’s in Franklin. “But what is the difference between us doing it here, and the casino being right over the mountain?”

Or, for that matter, sweepstake proponents argue, what’s the difference from sweepstakes machines in parlors and the state-endorsed, state-managed education lottery?

The sweepstakes cafes are a helpful, if not always fully embraced, revenue source in towns such as Franklin. The municipality charges a $50 business licensing fee and a $2,600 sweepstakes fee. The towns of Canton and Maggie Valley levy comparable fees on businesses operating sweepstakes machines.

In Franklin, it adds up to about $10,000 a year in revenue for the town, according to Franklin Finance Officer Janet Anderson.

And that’s just for four sweepstakes cafes located in the town limits; there’s many more operating outside those boundaries in greater Macon County. The county, however, doesn’t levy specific fees for these types of businesses.

 

‘Confusing law’

Law enforcement officers in Macon County, and in most of the state, have taken a hands-off approach to the sweepstakes cafes.

“We’ve been advised by the state Attorney General’s office not to enforce the law,” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. “It’s a very confusing law. We know there are people potentially abusing it, but the AG did not want us to prosecute any cases until they have a ruling.”

The state Court of Appeals held oral arguments last month on two lawsuits challenging the state’s sweepstakes ban but has not issued a ruling. The cases were first heard by lower-level courts, with those judges issuing mixed reviews on the 2010 law.

One judge upheld the entire law to ban the machines. Another judge struck down part of the law and allowed that certain machines could operate legally but also agreeing to the Free Speech argument in certain other cases.

“We have to keep watching the law, because it keeps changing,” M&J’s Hurst said.

Christy Wilson, who works in a nearby sweepstakes café owned by the same family, agreed with Hurst.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re up to date,” Wilson said.

The Buncombe County sheriff was one of the few in the state who was enforcing the state law banning sweepstakes machines. Buncombe, perhaps, has a lower tolerance for the offshoot of video gambling. Its former sheriff went to jail for his involvement in an organized crime ring centered around video poker.

After charges against those operating the sweepstakes machines were dismissed in Buncombe County court because of the pending lawsuit, the sheriff announced this month that he would suspend action against sweepstake operators.

Running sweepstakes cafes come at potential costs in the community to these business owners and workers included.

“There’s a lot of people who look down on it,” Hurst said.

Leaving possible moral implications aside, Sheriff Holland’s deputies in actuality respond to very few calls at or from the local sweepstakes cafes.

“There are few to zero problems at the establishments where these machines are set up,” Holland said.

Fired up over Devil’s championship run

If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.

Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.

This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.

“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.

How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.

 

Football unifies community

Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.

It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.

“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.

But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.

“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”

As for Sneed’s winning kick?

“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.

Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.

Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.

That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.

“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”

Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.

“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”

 

Want fries with that?

If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.

Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.

So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.

“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”

These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.

“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.

Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.

The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.

“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.

This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.

“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.

 

Overwhelming community support

A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.

Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.

“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”

 

What else but football?

Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.

How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?

“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.

Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.

Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.

“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”

 

Listen to the game

Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.

Cherokee plays hardball with state on casino

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has agreed to give up 8.5 percent of the gross revenue from new table games if the state will open the doors for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

In addition to the live dealers, the tribe wants a guarantee from the state that no other casinos will be allowed to encroach on its territory. The state has agreed in principle — but exactly where to draw the line around Cherokee’s exclusive gaming territory remains a major sticking point.

The tribe and the state have made major strides in working out a deal, however. What was once a wide chasm in their negotiating positions has closed to a mere gap over the past 11 months of talks and correspondence.

“I believe we are on the verge of success,” Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks wrote to the governor’s office earlier this month. “Let us resolve these few remaining concerns in short order. Hundreds of new jobs and much needed revenue for the state depend on it.”

Hicks urged the governor’s office to agree on a deal by this week, in time for the General Assembly to take up the issue. State lawmakers are usually on a prolonged recess this time of year, but returned to Raleigh this week to take up a handful of pressing issues that couldn’t wait until the new year.

An agreement with the tribe is tentatively on the General Assembly’s agenda, should the governor and tribe manage to work out their differences.

 

Where to draw the line

Initially, the tribe agreed to give up 8.5 percent of gross revenue from new table games if the state promised no other casinos would be allowed anywhere in North Carolina.

The state countered that was too big a territory. Cherokee conceded, agreeing it would settle for being the only casino west of I-95. That would satisfy the state’s Lumbee contingency, which hopes to one day get federal recognition as an Indian tribe and potentially open a casino in the eastern part of the state.

But the state again said Cherokee was asking for too much exclusive territory. In the latest counter offer from the tribe, the tribe said it would settle for being the only casino in the western half of the state — determined by the state’s geographic mid-point. But if the tribe had to acquiesce in its quest for exclusive gaming territory, it was no longer willing to give the state an 8.5 percent cut of profits, and instead offered 4.5 percent.

“The portion of our revenue to be shared with the state will depend upon the area of exclusivity provided to the tribe,” Hicks wrote in a letter to the state this month.

The governor’s office replied that it wanted at least 7 percent of the tribe’s revenue, and wanted to limit the tribe’s exclusive casino territory to merely “west of Asheville.”

Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office has more than the tribe to contend with in the gaming negotiations. Perdue and Republican lawmakers are at odds over what the casino money should go toward.

Perdue wants it earmarked for education, namely pre-K education initiatives that saw budget cuts from Republican lawmakers this year. But Republican lawmakers want the Cherokee casino proceeds to simply go into the general budget with no restrictions on their use.

Cherokee has been lobbying the state for more than five years for permission to bring in live dealers with dice and cards and real table games rather than the electronic and video gaming the casino is currently limited to. But negotiations hit a brick wall under former Gov. Mike Easley but were reopened under Gov. Perdue.

The tribe and the governor have bandied offers and counter offers back and forth since January. In one of the most recent exchanges, the state went out of its way to compliment the tribe on the nature of the parley.

“At the outset, I want to express how much we appreciate the cooperative and collegial manner in which we have concluded these negotiations as we work together on these important issues,” Mark Davis, general counsel to the governor, wrote to the tribe’s Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky.

Who has the upper hand at this juncture isn’t clear. Getting live dealers at the casino is critical to the tribe’s financial wellbeing: The Eastern Band has a $633-million expansion to pay for at a time when the recession has taken a toll on casino business.

Meanwhile, the state has budget problems of its own that need solving, and the prospect of a lifeline from Cherokee is coming none to soon.

Safety or politics? Battle between state lawmakers influenced specialty license plate debate

More than a decade ago, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida became the first state to approve a “Choose Life” specialty plate. Since then, similar plates have been OK’d in more than two-dozen states.

Supporters view them as a means to mass-market adoption to mothers who might otherwise abort; detractors believe the plates are government-endorsed attacks on abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.

Thanks to North Carolina House Bill 289, passed earlier this year by a Republican-dominated state General Assembly and signed into law by avowedly pro-choice Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, motorists around North Carolina can now sport the “Choose Life” message on a specialty license plate.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was among Democrats who voted against the bill, introduced by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion. Gillespie was out of the country last week; a message left at his home went unreturned by press time Tuesday.

Rapp described Gillespie’s bill as “crafty,” one that satisfied several conservative goals and ambitions: “Choose Life” plates were approved, and by adding groups to the bill such as the Boy Scouts, Fox Hunting and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Democrats such as Rapp who stood in opposition can, in upcoming elections, be painted as “against Boy Scouts,” apple pie and the American flag, the veteran lawmaker said.

“We have, historically, not let issue plates be issued,” Rapp said. “We didn’t want North Carolina cars to become rolling billboards for political issues.”

Drivers can opt for the “Choose Life” plates for a $25 extra annual fee. Nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers opposed to abortion get $15 from each plate sold.

As part of House Bill 289, started in 2015, state specialty plates — including the “Choose Life” plates — must all change to meet a uniform template approved by various law enforcement agencies, including the state Highway Patrol.

Therein lies the next “crafty” machination of state Republicans, according to Rapp. Law enforcement’s concerns were truly legitimate, he said, “and there was a public safety issue, and true cause for concern.”

The new law will gut the attractive full-color plate designs and instead relegate a logo for the organization to one corner of the plate, leaving plate numbers easily seen and the state of origin easy to ascertain. There are 216 specialty plates, but fewer than 30 boast the full-color designs such as Friends of the Smokies.

But in the debate, the particularly popular specialty plates such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway plates, “were held hostage over whether to let the right-to-life plates be in the list of specialty plates,” Rapp said.

“It is a much bigger issue than just GSMNP plates and Blue Ridge Parkway plates,” Rapp said of the behind-the-scenes political fight over what messages should and should not be allowed on license plates.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, agreed. He said that Republicans efforts to get the Choose Life plates have potentially come at the steep cost of the public’s support for good causes such as the Smokies and the parkway.

“That money (raised) really helps these organizations,” Haire said.

Rapp believes there is a solution, though whether he can get it through the Republican-dominated House is debatable. Rapp wants certain groups, particularly the Friends of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, exempted from the new rules. That would allow the nonprofits to continue marketing the full-colored plates used now.

“They helped to get this whole thing started to begin with,” Rapp said, “and I think they should get some preferential treatment. We’ve got to try to find a way around this — that’s a huge revenue source for these groups during these times of revenue cuts, and they need these sources of revenue more than ever.”

The political slugfest that took place over House Bill 289, Republicans thwarted efforts by Democrats to, in response to the Choose Life plates, add a license plate with the abortion rights message “Respect Choice.”

In September, The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking the specialty license plate supporting a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. The lawsuit alleges that North Carolina is engaging in “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment by allowing pro-life but not pro-choice license plates.

— By Quintin Ellison

 

Existing full-colored specialty plates

• Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

• Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

• Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation

• Friends of the Appalachian Trail

• NC Coastal Federation

• In God We Trust

• Stock Car Racing Theme

• Buddy Pelletier Surfing Foundation

• Guilford Battleground Company

• National Wild Turkey Federation

• North Carolina Aquarium Society

• First in Forestry

• North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation

• N.C. Trout Unlimited

• Ducks Unlimited

• Lung Cancer Research

• N.C. State Parks

• Support Our Troops

• U.S. Equine Rescue League

• Fox Hunting

• Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina

• Home Care and Hospice

• N.C. Tennis Foundation

• AIDS Awareness

 

Newly approved full-colored specialty plates:

• Donate Life

• Farmland Preservation

• Travel and Tourism

• Battle of Kings Mountain

• N.C. Civil War

• North Carolina Zoological Society

• United States Service Academy

• Carolina Raptor Center

• Carolinas Credit Union Foundation

• North Carolina State Flag

• N.C. Mining

• Coastal Land Trust

• ARTS NC

• Choose Life

• N.C. Green Industry Council

• N.C. Horse Council

• Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center

State nixes plate designs: Smokies, Parkway lament loss of money-making license plate designs

Dr. Jessica Ange of Sylva enjoys sporting on the back of her Subaru Outback the colorful black and green Great Smoky Mountains National Park license plate, with its emblematic black bear head and background of green mountain peaks.

She’s honest enough to admit her enjoyment comes not just with supporting the Smokies; it’s also simple fact that the plate looks really cool. And, Ange isn’t sure if she would have paid the extra $30 a year, at least originally, if the plates were any less striking.

“Since I’ve already gotten one of the park plates, I might now continue on to support such a good cause,” Ange said. “So that’s part of the allure — but I don’t know if I would have initiated getting one to begin with if the plates were less colorful.”

That’s a choice Ange might soon have to make, however, because of a new law that attempts to standardize the state’s specialty plates to a uniform template.

 

Could changes hurt sales?

The Smokies specialty license plate costs motorists such as Ange an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support efforts to preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The remaining $10 goes into the Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.

Friends members worry new regulations for special license plates could squelch sales. A new state law will eliminate the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, an emblem for the group will be shoehorned into one small corner of the plate, with just room to accommodate a logo.

The new law starts in 2015. But, in actuality, new designs will hit the roads when the existing inventory of specialty plates runs out — which has happened, or is about to happen, according to Marge Howell, spokeswoman for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

SEE ALSO: Safety or politics? Battle between state lawmakers influenced specialty license plate debate

Holly Demuth, North Carolina Director of the Friends of the Smokies, said she understands that the stock for the bear license plates has indeed run dry, and that sales have been suspended.

The Friends group is working with DMV on a transitional-plate design — one that isn’t quite as austere as the new 2015 law would require. It would still feature a black bear, but the plate is less colorful than the current design. The hybrid design will fill the gap until 2015, when the future stark reality of the state’s specialty license plates becomes official.

Last year alone, the sale of specialty plates raised $385,000 for Friends of the Smokies, said Friends board member Steve Woody. All of the money raised was spent on the North Carolina side of the park, including the Parks as Classrooms project, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center displays, the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob, helping fund the hemlock woolly adelgid battle and even to help bring back elk into Cataloochee, Woody said.

“It was a surprise to us when the state said it wanted to change the plate,” Woody said. “It had been approved by both the Highway Patrol and the manufacturer.”

Woody said surveys have shown 40 percent of sales are by people “who buy because they like the plate.”

Pat Steinbrueck of Sylva said that when she and husband, Steve, moved here from Pennsylvania a few years ago, the colorful Smokies plate “caught my eye right away — it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a pretty plate and support a good cause.”

Several of the nonprofit groups with specialty plates in the mountains have formed a coalition to lobby legislators to reconsider gutting the plate design.

“We are trying to convince the people in Raleigh to keep them the way they are,” said Joyce Cooper, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I think if they take the color off of them it will destroy the beauty and the interest that people have. They are so attractive, that’s what makes people want to have them.”

The cool factor of sporting a specialty plate indeed seems to be a driver for those buying them. Case in point: after the Smokies redesigned its original specialty license plate — a turquoise and pink color scheme with a silhouette of trees — to the iconic black bear design, sales skyrocketed. Friends of the Smokies saw the number of its license plates on the road increase by more than 50 percent after introducing the new design.

The Friends plate, launched in 2000, was the first in a subsequent explosion of colorful specialty license plates in the state. In addition to “First in Flight” standard plates, North Carolina issues 216 other specialty plates, including a hiker on the Appalachian Trail plate, a scenic mountain road on the Blue Ridge Parkway plate, and an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The problem comes with some of the 25 full background specialty plates now decorating cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways: Highway Patrol troopers have said some of the plates are difficult to read, increasing the difficulty of keeping the motoring public safe.

Yet this year, the legislature approved an additional 25 or so full-color plates — the same lawmakers, and in the same bill, that phases out full-color plates.

 

The design

Micah McClure, a designer for The Smoky Mountain News, designed the popular black bear Smokies plate. It replaced the older plate which sported pink and turquoise curly-cue letters. He’s attempting now to design the “transitional” plate. McClure said that it’s not an impossible task to create a beautiful specialty tag and meet law enforcement needs, too.

Color choice is critical, he said, as is contrast and not “making it too busy” with too many graphic elements. McClure said that he’d noticed during the weekend a N.C. Tennis Foundation specialty license plate, with dark blue lettering on a dark green background, and understood instantly why law enforcement officers have been complaining.

“There has to be legibility for law enforcement,” McClure said, “You couldn’t read it. But if the contrast is there, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”

The Parkway plate has navy lettering on a yellow background, for example. That color contrast makes it is easy to read, as is the Smokies’ — dark blue on light green.

Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said getting a specialty license plate approved in North Carolina proved “an incredible political process” to undergo. That Friends group wanted one of the full-color plate designs. But Dixon was told the state wasn’t approving any more of those, and the only design she could have was the new kind with a tiny logo in the corner.

“It was disappointing to us,” Dixon said.

It was also quite confusing to Dixon, because the state did indeed approve full-color plates for certain groups — around 25 or so — including plates for anti-abortion groups, N.C. Mining and Carolinas Credit Union Association.

The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has started selling its plate already, but it must obtain 300 prepaid applications before the DMV will start manufacturing them, a job that is done by prisoners in state correctional facilities.

 

Specialty plates by the number

Friends of the Smokies

• raised $2.5 million since 2000 in N.C.

• almost 20,000 plates on the road.

Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation

• raised $2.9 million since 2004

• 27,000 plates on the road.

Appalachian Trail Conservancy

• $586,000 since 2004

• more than 5,000 plates on the road.

Backcountry Horsemen

• Need to sell 300 before the state will manufacture and distribute; have sold about 150 since 2004. No plates on the road.

Elk Foundation

• More than 4,000 plates on the road

• Raised more than $200,000 since 2003

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