Reading between the census lines

Although population in Western North Carolina increased only by a modest amount over the past decade, home construction grew at a much higher rate, according to 2010 census data released last week.

The census counts year-round residents. But much of the growth in WNC has come from second homes — and as a result isn’t reflected when looking at population numbers alone.  

Hard data on the number of second homes and the region’s summertime population can be difficult to ferret out. But the latest census shows the growth in housing units has outpaced population growth, confirming the second home dynamic that people who live here year-round witness.

ALSO: See the graphs

“You can definitely feel when summer season is coming back,” said David Francis, a Haywood County resident and the head of the county tax department. “You can just tell from the traffic on a Friday afternoon. Where I really see it is at Ingle’s.”

While long lines and empty shelves at the grocery store are a sure sign that the seasonal population has returned, the summer influx of residents is witnessed in every facet of society, from more trash at the landfill to more people at the emergency room.

Seasonal residents translate into a 15 to 20 percent increase in trash at the Haywood County landfill, Francis said.

The emergency room at MedWest Harris in Sylva sees a seasonal spike in patient volume of 10 to 15 percent during the summer and fall compared to winter, according to numbers provided by Lucretia Stargill, a MedWest spokesperson. Ambulance calls likewise increase in the summer, according to Jim Pressley, the EMS director for Haywood County.

In Maggie Valley, a town full of vacation homes, users at the town library go way up in summer, according to Town Manager Tim Barth. So does the need for police officers. It means the department is slightly overstaffed in the off-season.

“Right now there may not be a lot of people in the Valley. But you can’t just hire police officers for two or three months. That doesn’t work very well,” Barth said.

Running a community with such seasonal population swings isn’t easy. It must have adequate infrastructure to serve the larger population. In Maggie Valley, the sewer treatment plant has a much larger capacity than its year-round population of 1,100 would typically dictate.

“We have to assume that everybody will be in Maggie Valley all at one time, and that is what we have to plan for,” Barth said.

While thousands of seasonal Maggie residents make a wintertime exodus back to Florida, they continue paying a sewer bill of $15 a month while they’re gone, even if their water is completely shut off, Barth said. The minimum monthly bill allows the sewer treatment plant to be keep operating during those months and be in working order when the masses return.

The building surge of the past decade forced counties to grapple with all kinds of infrastructure issues. Ken Brown, Chairman of the Tuckasegee Community Alliance in Jackson County, pointed to the dispute between the Glenville Fire Department and second-home owners on an island in the middle of the lake. The second-home owners wanted the volunteer fire department to provide fire service, even if it meant taking a fire truck across the lake on a barge.

“I thought it was offensive actually they could buy an island then demand the county provide them fire service,” Brown said.

Second-home growth also takes its toll on natural resources, from construction-site erosion muddying the streams to view-obscuring smog from vehicles.

Public lands, which are home to the last remaining Appalachian ecosystems, are also feeling the squeeze. As development spreads across the landscape, it’s pushing up against the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests and encroaching on wildlife habitat. The National Forest Service ranked the Pisgah and Nantahala among the top five forests threatened by periphery development in a 2009 report called “National Forests on the Edge.”

Meanwhile, more people are recreating in the national forests, testing the carrying capacity of the public lands that make WNC such a desirable place to live, according to Brent Martin, the Southern Appalachian director of The Wilderness Society in Sylva.

 

How many second homes?

Mark Clasby has spent much of the past decade trying to quantify the second-home market in Haywood County.

“It is a very important part of our economy,” said Clasby, the county economic development director.

The potential buying power of Haywood County’s population can make or break whether a new business comes here. Clasby has been trying to pedal a mega commercial site once slated for a Home Depot that was cancelled after the recession took hold. Finding a retailer of that magnitude to fill the void has been tough.

“What they tend to look at when they pick a location is they want to know what the population is,” Clasby said. “We try to make an argument that we have more people here than what census numbers show. What I have to use is unscientific.”

One figure Clasby points to is the number of property tax bills mailed out of the county. In Haywood County, one-third of tax bills are mailed out of the county, indicating the property owner has a primary residence somewhere else. In Macon County — an even bigger second-home market — 54 percent of tax bills are mailed out of the county.

Five years ago, the Downtown Waynesville Association commissioned a study on where shoppers come from. Over 70 businesses throughout town recorded the zip codes of those making purchases, including those who were second-home owners. Second-home owners accounted for 12 percent of shoppers at participating shops the last week in July.

But second-home residents aren’t just here in the summer anymore.

“I think our seasonal folks increase starting in the spring and go into the fall and some all the way through the holidays,” said Linda Schlott, the director of the Main Street Program in Franklin.

And that’s good news for business owners.

“We can see an increase in people on the streets and merchants see an influx of customers when those seasonal visitors are here,” Schlott said.

Some second-home owners actually live here more months of the year than they do in their so-called primary residence. But the absence of income tax in Florida makes it advantageous to claim that state as their permanent residence.

 

Real numbers at last

The census offers a glimpse into just how many homes in our midst may be second homes or vacation rentals. To census workers, any house not occupied by a full-time resident was designated “vacant.”

In Haywood, 27 percent of homes were deemed “vacant.” In Swain, it was 35 percent. In Jackson, it was 37 percent. And in Macon it was a whopping 42 percent (see chart).

The numbers are even more staggering in quintessential vacation and second-home markets. In the town of Maggie Valley, two-thirds of the housing units were “vacant.” In the town of Highlands, “vacant” homes account for 78 percent of the housing stock.

A small portion of the housing units deemed “vacant” by the census are truly that. There’s a baseline of legitimately vacant houses, such as rentals that are between renters or empty houses where the owner has died.

Statewide, the average vacancy rate is only 13 percent. That average includes places like the beach and the mountains with a preponderance of vacation condos and second homes. For a typical city where these aren’t a factor, like Greensboro or Durham, the vacancy rate is 9 to 10 percent.

In Jackson County, student housing contributes to the high percentage of “vacant” housing units. Several apartment buildings have gone up over the past decade aimed at students attending Western Carolina University. Perhaps too many apartments, said Mark Jamison, a resident of nearby Webster. The university predicted exponential growth of students that hasn’t materialized completely.

“You have an inventory created on suppositions that probably aren’t going to come true,” Jamison said.

Another factor in the number of vacant homes on the census roster is speculative building. During the boom years, the line of prospective second-home buyers seemed endless, prompting developers to build spec houses rather than merely sell off lots. Some contractors would even buy lots to build spec homes of their own.

But when the stream of buyers dried up, those homes were left standing, explained Danny Wingate, the vice president of Haywood Builders.

 

Sitting idle

The 2010 Census reveled a high number of second homes not occupied by year-round residents. Here’s the percentage of “vacant” homes by county.

Haywood    27 percent

Jackson    37 percent

Macon    42 percent

Swain    35 percent

Total housing units by county:

Haywood    34,954

Jackson    25,948

Macon    25,245

Swain    8,723

Urban areas to steal more seats in Raleigh, leaving the mountains with less

Urban areas grew at a torrid pace over the past decade — so get ready, legislators in the mountains and on the coast, because your already large districts are about to expand.

Why? Because, as Christopher Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University explained, even though there are very few rules about exactly how voting lines are drawn, there are two guiding principles.

First, lines cannot be drawn with race as the predominant factor; and secondly, there should be approximately the same number of people in each district.

Since urban areas grew faster than rural ones, that must be represented when lines are redrawn, said Cooper, who oversees a university-sponsored blog focused on North Carolina politics.

The state, as a whole, grew more than 18 percent. Much of that population surge occurred in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, and in those counties abutting them. Northwest North Carolina also experienced strong growth. These places are entitled to more representation in Raleigh beginning in 2012, while rural counties in WNC will get less.

“Since we hold constant the number of representatives in Raleigh, then those additional seats (for urban areas) have to come from somewhere,” Cooper said.

Voting districts in the mountains will expand to take in larger geographic areas, freeing up legislative seats for faster-growing urban areas.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, serves on the House Redistricting Committee. He said it’s too early to know exactly how mountain and coastal districts will expand, but the shifts must take place. Western North Carolina is bounded by three states, so expansions must flow eastward: Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina are unlikely to look favorably on a land and population grab.

That, Rapp said, will setup an eastward district-redrawing cascade of sorts. The veteran legislator emphasized that he doesn’t expect mountain dwellers to experience nearly the redistricting changes eastern North Carolinians can anticipate. Some counties on and near the coast saw population declines.

WCU Professor Cooper said residents in the state’s westernmost counties aren’t likely to look on changes favorably.

“Folks in the west have long felt that their voices are not heard in Raleigh and any change in the number of representatives we receive will only further erode trust in state government,” he said. “This is not only a North Carolina phenomenon — the farther you get from the capital, the lower the information about state politics and the less trust people have in their state government.”

Jim Davis, R-Franklin, a newly elected member of the N.C. Senate, isn’t particularly worried, though his analysis of the 2010 census data indicates the 50th District he represents will grow larger, despite already spanning parts of eight counties.

“It will have to expand quite a bit,” Davis said.

The Franklin orthodontist said he doesn’t view a larger district as a hindrance. Additionally, Davis described the state’s eastern legislative delegation as “kindred spirits” to those who represent the west. Much of North Carolina is rural, Davis said, and that creates commonalities transcending simple geography.

U.S. congressional districts, too, must reflect the population shift in North Carolina. But, in that those districts are so large already, changes are unlikely to seem as profound. Andrew Whalen, senior advisor for U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, said prior to the census-data release he expected the congressman might pick up a few counties to the east.

Redistricting, required by federal law every 10 years when updated census data is released, comes as Republicans have grabbed control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Previous redistricting in North Carolina proved acrimonious, with Republicans accusing then-in-power Democrats of drawing the lines to their political advantage, or gerrymandering districts.

District maps were redrawn three times in as many years from 2001 to 2003 because of Republican-filed lawsuits; primary elections were delayed twice as a result, in 2002 and 2004.

Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, the Senate Redistricting Committee’s chairman, says the GOP will draw districts correctly and fairly. Redistricting meetings get under way next week.

 

Time to redraw

The General Assembly is required to redraw voting districts for North Carolina after every census. Once adopted, a valid redistricting plan cannot be changed during that decade.

The 170 legislative districts for the N.C. Senate and House, and the 13 U.S. congressional districts, must be exactly or nearly equal in population — ensuring equal representation under the principle of one person, one vote. As the population grows, voting districts likewise must include more people.

Each representative in the N.C. House will represent about 79,500 people; state Senators about 191,000 people. Each congressional district must have 733,500 people. The redrawn districts take effect starting in 2012.

Trail running takes off

Once upon a time and not particularly very long ago, trail running in Western North Carolina was a fringe sport at best.

Hitting the trails instead of roads served as a refuge for longtime runners who couldn’t bear to give up their morning jogs but whose knees and joints simply couldn’t take the pounding anymore of feet-on-pavement. For other road-racing runners, trail running was a nice, scenic method of getting in some strengthening exercises. But in the main, serious runners primarily steered clear of focusing on trail running, afraid that while running off-road would indeed make them stronger, it might also make them slower.

No more. These days, trail running has burgeoned into WNC’s outdoor sport de jour. Some runners do nothing now but run on trails, avoiding road running altogether. Others, such as Brad Dodson of Haywood County, continue to enjoy both pavement and trails — Dodson, in fact, is currently training for one of the world’s premier road races, the Boston Marathon, set for April 15. He finds trail running complements his road racing.

ALSO: A mountain Assault: Black Rock Trail Race to aid Community Table

Dodson, 43, said he finds it much easier to run for three hours on trails than to put in, say, 20 miles on pavement.

“Running on pavement is really hard on your body, especially as you get older,” the former college track runner said.

Not to mention, Dodson added, the sheer meditative quality of running in the woods.

“All my life I’ve been looking at a clock and worrying about time while running,” he said. “Trail running is less about the time, more about just being out there — and it’s about enjoying being in the woods.”

 

A new business niche for region

Even the Nantahala Outdoor Center, the area’s biggest and oldest river-raft company, is getting into the act of trail running. NOC is working now on improving a series of trails behind the business’ main headquarters in the Nantahala Gorge in Swain County, with the plan of hosting a series of trail races in the future. Additionally, walk (or run) into the outfitters’ store and you’ll discover a recently added complete line of trail-running gear — from trail-running specific shoes to handheld water bottles.

“We got many requests to add those, from a lot of customers who wanted trail-running items,” said Lauren Dieterich, a trail runner herself and a member of NOC’s marketing department.

The outfitting company also has teamed with nearby Fontana Village to hold back-to-back trail runs Oct. 29-30, “to give people a whole weekend of trail running,” said Charles Conner, the company’s marketing department director.

The demand for trail races is definitely growing, Conner said, which is what prompted NOC to focus on improving the trails nearby the center and to team with Fontana Village. By improving its system of trails, NOC will be able to hold a race and offer perks runners enjoy after a hard slog in the woods — showers, maybe a live band playing music and more.

Conner said there are about five or six miles of trail available to NOC now, and that the trails can be connected into loops. Plus a few more miles of trails might be added on as well.

In May, the trail-running community will converge on NOC via the 2011 Smoky Mountain Relay, a running event that starts in North Mills River and ends at NOC in Wesser. This is the second year NOC has been a relay sponsor.

Runners will cover 205 miles of trails, forest service and rural roads. Teams of 12 runners each will cover the course in 36 sections, with each runner completing three sections of 2.5- to 10-miles each.

Snow sports equals big bucks for North Carolina mountains

The rest of the economy might have suffered, but a couple of snowy winters are adding up to big bucks and good times for North Carolina’s ski industry.

Last year, the total economic impact of this segment of the state’s economic pie amounted to $146 million. That number is courtesy of the N.C. Ski Areas Association, which crunched and computed the figures for the 2009-2010 season and recently released its findings.

That good news doesn’t come as a surprise for ski industry workers such as Brittany Heatherly of Skis and Tees in Maggie Valley, who said the store was running out of rental equipment by 10 a.m. each day during the Christmas break.

“It’s been awesome,” Heatherly said. “Everybody is making a lot of money, and having fun. There have been a lot of people because it has been such good weather.”

(Clarification to readers: “Good weather” to the skiing industry would be the snow and cold many people have a difficult time dealing with.)

Heatherly, an avid snowboarder, said skiers and other winter-weather lovers didn’t let road conditions prevent them from getting to the slopes at resorts such as Cataloochee in Haywood County. Folks used four-wheel drive vehicles or put chains on their car tires.

N.C. Ski Areas Association defines “economic value” as the total value to the economy from the existence of ski areas. Winter value, employment value, capital improvements and economic multipliers were considered. The study looked from November to March as the “ski season” when compiling this report.

North Carolina has six ski areas: Cataloochee Ski Area, Sapphire Valley Ski Area, Ski Beech, Appalachian Ski Mountain, Wolf Ridge Ski Resort and Sugar Mountain Ski Resort.

Collectively, these ski areas provided 96 year-round jobs and 1,557 seasonal jobs during last year’s ski season. The industry generated over $32 million in gross revenue from ski area operations, including lift tickets, lessons, equipment rental, retail stores and food and beverages.

David Huskins, who heads the regional tourism group Smoky Mountain Host that is headquartered outside Franklin, said the rockslide and subsequent closure of Interstate 40 in the Pigeon Gorge section of Haywood County “obviously … impacted our region’s ski economy.”

“But, generally, reports are that it was offset by the continued natural snowfall through December-March 2010,” he added. “Good news for our region.”

 

Money breakdown on individuals at ski areas

(Per person spending, and percent of total)

Lift tickets/tubing/ice skating: $44.78; 33.5%

Ski/snowboard lessons: $5.75; 4.8%

Equipment rental/demo at ski area: $13.81; 10.7%

Equipment rental/demo at other N.C. locations: $1.97; 1.4%

Food/beverage/restaurants on mountain/base: $16.88; 13.2%

Food/beverage/restaurants in other N.C. cities: $14.22; 9.8%

Lodging accommodations (nightly rate): $18.88;14.4%

Shopping/gifts/souvenirs/retail stores: $9.04; 6.6%

Entertainment/activities: $3.85; 3.0%

Local transportation/rental car: $1.54; 1.6%

Other spending: $0.98; 0.9%

Total per person spending: $131.70  

Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association

 

09-10 statistics at N.C. ski areas

Total Visits: 671,554

Total Revenue: $32,526,608

Year-Round Employees: 96

Seasonal Employees: 1,557

Capital Expenditures: $3,341,237

Source: N.C. Ski Areas Association

Malady deadly to bats found in North Carolina

White-nose syndrome, the disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of bats in the Eastern United States, has been discovered in a retired Avery County mine and in a cave at Grandfather Mountain State Park, marking the arrival of the disease in North Carolina, according to a media alert sent out today (Feb. 9) by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.

On Feb. 1, a team of Commission biologists were conducting a bat inventory of the closed Avery County mine where they saw numerous bats displaying symptomatic white patches of fungus on their skin. Five bats from the mine were sent to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study unit at the University of Georgia for testing, which confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome.

In late January, a team of state, federal, and private biologists were conducting a bat inventory of a cave at Grandfather Mountain when they discovered a single dead bat. Following state white-nose syndrome surveillance protocols, the bat was sent for testing and it has been confirmed for white-nose syndrome.

“White-nose syndrome is confirmed in Virginia and Tennessee, so we expected we would be one of the next states to see the disease,” said Gabrielle Graeter, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “This discovery marks the arrival of one of the most devastating threats to bat conservation in our time.”

In the Northeast, the disease has decimated some species of bats. It seems to be most fatal during the winter months, when hundreds of bats are hibernating together in caves and mines. It’s not known if the disease will similarly affect all species in all regions of the country, though bat mortality and the diversity of species affected in the Northeast suggest the impacts will be significant.

The discovery of white-nose syndrome comes as Commission biologists work through bat inventory and white-nose syndrome surveillance efforts at numerous caves and mines in Western North Carolina this winter as part of a grant awarded by the Service to several states on the leading edge of the disease’s spread.

North Carolina is home to three federally endangered bats, the Virginia big-eared, Indiana, and gray. Virginia big-eared bats are known from the.

“The discovery does not bode well for the future of many species of bats in western North Carolina,” said Sue Cameron with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “Although researchers are working hard to learn more about the disease, right now so little is known. There has been some evidence that humans may inadvertently spread the disease from cave to cave, so one simple step people can take to help bats is to stay out of caves and mines.”

“Cavers are passionate about what they do and we truly understand that asking them to stay out of caves is no small request and we greatly appreciate their sacrifice,” said Cameron, noting that the western North Carolina caving club, Flittermouse Grotto, has been very supportive of efforts to protect the area’s bats.

In 2009, fearing the disease could be transferred from cave to cave by humans, the Service released a cave advisory asking people to refrain from entering caves in states where white-nose syndrome has been confirmed and all adjoining states. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission holds a protective easement on the mine and both it and the Grandfather Mountain cave have been gated and closed to the public for years to protect hibernating bats.

 

Read an in-depth article about the deadly bat syndrome that was published in The Smoky Mountain News in November 2010

Jockeying for space on the Nantahala: Outfitters and summer camps spar over control of river traffic

Rafting outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge have arrived at a compromise with summer camps and colleges vying for the chance to take kids down the Nantahala River without going through an existing commercial outfitter.

The U.S. Forest Service issues only a limited number of permits for commercial traffic on the river. Camps and colleges that don’t have a permit but want to take their kids paddling have to sign up for a trip with one of the outfitters.

A coalition of summer camps and colleges want to use their own staff, however, which often includes experienced paddlers, and avoid paying a commercial outfitter for the service of a down-river escort. They asked the forest service to up the number of permits issued on the river, setting off a months-long debate over how to balance demand on the Nantahala.

During the thick of summer tourist season, outfitter traffic on the Nantahala is akin to finely tuned, well-oiled clock gears.

An average of 200,000 people a year ran the Nantahala over the last five years — most of that crammed into a mere three months. Between 85 and 90 percent of river traffic is with a commercial outfitter, according to the forest service.

Moving thousands of rafters on and off the river in a day is no small feat given the narrow road, dearth of parking and cramped put-ins and take-outs.

While Nantahala Outdoor Center has its own take-out on its property, the rest of the raft outfitters share two take-outs.

Guides must get their loads of giddy and adrenaline-pumped rafters to the shore, out of their boat, out of their life jackets, then onto a bus — plus the rafts strapped on top — within 10 minutes to make room for the next bus waiting in the wings.

“We all work together to make sure that we are not clogging these places up. We understand the importance to make sure things move smoothly. It is a concerted effort,” said Kevin Gibbs, CEO of Wildwater and president of the Nantahala Gorge Association, an affiliation of rafters.

The same goes for put-ins, which are equally short on space.

The forest service initially considered granting up to 36 new commercial permits — compared to the 16 they have now. Doing so would have also opened the door for new commercial outfitters — not just camps and colleges — to start doing business on the Nantahala.

Rafting outfitters feared an influx of camps, colleges and new commercial guides running their own trips down the river would create an untenable free-for-all.

Guides unaccustomed to the hustle of the river would clog up the works. And guides unfamiliar with the river’s more treacherous spots could also pose safety risks, the existing outfitters argued, pointing to Big Wesser Falls just downstream of the commercial take-out.

“If you miss the take-out, you are going to want to paddle really, really hard to get to shore because there is a very large rapid just below it that no one paddles commercially,” Gibbs said. “It is very difficult, and it can be very dangerous. That is one of our initial concerns.”

 

Yes to kayaks, no to rafts

After studying the issue for much of the last year, the forest service decided against new commercial permits for raft trips, it announced last week.

But the forest service did make a concession that pleases camps and colleges. The forest service will issue a dozen new permits for guided kayak and canoe trips on the river. The permits will only be good Monday through Thursday, however, avoiding the busy weekends. Group size and the number of trips a year are also limited for those seeking the new permits.

Mike Wilkins, chief forest ranger for the Nantahala District, said the facilities and infrastructure in the Gorge simply can’t accommodate more traffic.

“It is really hard to move lots of people in and out quickly,” Wilkins said.

Both the outfitters and camps say the decision strikes a balance between giving camps more flexibility to take their own kids down the river yet guarding against the type of mayhem outfitters feared.

“I think that Mike listened to everybody’s concerns, not just the folks interested in coming here but the folks who are already here,” Gibbs said.

Wilkins said he wasn’t exactly aiming for a compromise, although that’s what it’s being called.

“I don’t know about a compromise but I was trying to weigh all the factors,” Wilkins said. “I guess in my mind, I wasn’t as concerned about the purely recreational use as the ability to give young people instruction.”

Wilkins didn’t want to deny a summer camp from teaching its kids how to paddle on the river.

After all Sutton Bacon, the CEO of NOC, first learned how to kayak at summer camp.

“We can all personally attest to the value of being introduced to whitewater paddling on the Nantahala at a young age,” Bacon said. “To that end, NOC strongly supports the use of the Nantahala River by a wide variety of groups and camps that expose young people to whitewater paddle sports.”

Gordon Strayhorn, president of the N.C. Youth Camp Association, said the new permits should satisfy camps for the most part. Camps are primarily interested in taking their kids kayaking and canoeing anyway — not rafting, Strayhorn said.

Strayhorn, who is the head of Camp Illahee, said paddling has been part of their summer camp program for decades. “Organized youth summer camps have been using the Nantahala River for more than 60 years and represented the first recreational use of the river, long before permits and outfitters existed,” Strayhorn said.

They have forest service permits on every other river in the region — French Broad, Ocoee, Chattooga, Nolichucky and the Pigeon. The Nantahala was the only they couldn’t run with their own guides but instead had to go through a commercial outfitter, he said.

Strayhorn said the forest service was right to open up new permits on the Nantahala.

 

River squatters

One logistical concern still troubles the outfitters, however. Unlike the outfitters, camps and colleges don’t have a home base in the Gorge. Where will their van drivers park for three hours while their students run the river? Where will they change into dry clothes afterward?  Where will they use the bathroom?

“Several business owners are concerned these people would come and stop at their outposts,” Gibbs said.

As the largest outfitter in the Gorge and with prime real estate on both sides of the river near the take-out, Nantahala Outdoor Center would likely be a prime target. NOC CEO Sutton Bacon doesn’t want their campus to become a staging area for other groups. Not when parking in the Gorge is at such a premium.

“Of course, we want to be as welcoming as possible, but it is also unfair to expect NOC to bear the entire burden of providing public access for all of these groups, especially if it means there is not enough parking for our own guests,” Bacon said.

That remains one of the biggest outstanding issues: what facilities will these groups use if they don’t go through an outfitters? Bacon said NOC is already getting queries from camps wondering whether they could use NOC as a staging area. But striking deals with up to a dozen individual camps or colleges would be challenging.

Bacon thinks a better solution would be giving an umbrella permit to the Youth Camp Association. NOC could then negotiate usage of its facilities with just one entity. And with one umbrella permit for all the camps, they could better divvy up use on the river to avoid all coming on the same day.

 

River economics

Outfitters downplayed their financial motive in opposing new commercial permits on the river. But they admitted that there is not an unlimited amount of rafting business on the river.

Wilkins said economic concerns among existing outfitters partly weighed into his decision not to allow new commercial raft companies but instead limit new permits to guided canoe and kayak trips. He realizes the existing outfitters have a lot at stake.

Outfitters made approximately $2.8 million on guided trips on the Nanty in fiscal year 2010, based on forest service data. The number only includes revenue on river trips — not T-shirts, food sales and other purchases rafters likely make.

Outfitters pay 3 percent of revenue made on guided trips to the forest service for a commercial permit.

Outfitters will obviously lose some revenue once camps can take their own kids down river. But Strayhorn said the economic benefits outweigh it.

“I don’t think camps being permitted on the river will negatively impact the economy of the region at all. I think it will improve it,” Strayhorn said.

Summer camps in Jackson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson counties alone have a combined economic impact of $365 million, according to an economic impact study by N.C. State University, he said.

 

Out in the cold

The decision will essentially put an end to teaching trips the Carolina Canoe Club historically led on the Nantahala, according to Spencer Muse, president of the Carolina Canoe Club.

The Carolina Canoe Club holds paddling workshops and rescue training on the Nantahala River for its 1,000 members. Since participants pay to go on the trips, it counts as a commercial operation and thus needs a permit.

Supportive of the club’s mission, Nantahala Outdoor Center used to let the club do its trips under the auspice of NOC’s permit. But the forest service put an end to that three years ago.

Lacking a commercial permit of its own, Carolina Canoe Club stopped charging its members for the courses so it didn’t count as a commercial trip. But the club can’t indefinitely bear the cost of hosting the trips without being able to charge those who come, Muse said.

Muse said the handful of new permits the forest service has agreed to issue are useless for his group since they aren’t valid on weekends. The club has always done its trips on weekends — since the people going on them as well as the instructors have jobs.

Muse said the club only goes on two trips a year, and would be willing to do them outside the peak summer season, such as early May or mid-September, when crowding isn’t an issue.

“We are only talking about two weekends a year we use the Nantahala,” Muse said.

If they can’t find a solution, the club will likely move its paddling instruction weekends to the Gauley River.

“It is a little odd to have West Virginia be the location for Carolina Canoe Club’s main teaching activities,” Muse said.

 

 

How permits on the Nantahala work

Commercial outfitters must have a permit from the forest service to run raft trips on the Nantahala River. The same goes for a guide leading a group of kayakers — or even escorting a single kayaker for a paddling lesson — if money is exchanging hands.

But if your buddy owns a raft and offers to take you and a few friends on a trip down the Nanty and he doesn’t charge you for it, no commercial permit is required.

The number of outfitters on the river has dropped over the years, along with the number of permits. As outfitters have gone out of business, the forest service closed out their permit rather than opening it up to new takers.

Ten years ago, there were 21 commercial permits. Today, there are only 16.

Most permits are held by commercial raft companies, but a few do belong to institutions. Western Carolina University has a permit, for example, and is able to teach paddling to its students on the river without going through an outfitter.

 

By the numbers

12: outfitters based in the Gorge

16: permits to entities operating commercial trips on the river

200,000: people going down the river each year

90: percent of river traffic that goes through an outfitter

What price public service? Arizona shooting fuels discussion in WNC

U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, is getting the word out: from now on, he’ll be carrying a gun when meeting with constituents.

Just a short time ago such an announcement from a member of Congress probably would have been considered outrageous, headline provoking, over-the-top political rhetoric.

But not so much now, in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Arizona, and the shooting deaths of six people standing nearby and the wounding of 11 others. Giffords was holding what has been described as a routine meeting with residents in her district when the massacre occurred.

“This weekend’s tragedy has touched many of us in a very personal way,” Shuler said. “With our thoughts on this tragedy, many of us are working with local law enforcement and the capitol police to coordinate safety measure for ourselves and our staff.”

Shuler worked closely with Giffords. He is co-chairman of the conservative Blue Dog caucus that Giffords, a former Republican, also belonged to. The two worked closely together on various pieces of legislation.

“I, like many of my constituents and staff in Western North Carolina, strongly support the Second Amendment and do exercise our right to legally and safely carry a firearm,” Shuler said. “In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to ensure that our political process is not deterred by the violent acts of a few.”

The shootings, in the words of one local politician, “give pause” to those who currently hold or might seek public office in the future — the price one pays for serving could be very high, maybe too high, given the level of angry rhetoric many believe helped fuel the attack in Arizona.

“As far as this tragic event preventing good citizens from seeking public office, I believe that if the political environment does not improve it will give pause to anyone willing to get in involved on all political levels, which is very unfortunate,” said Ronnie Beale, a veteran county commissioner in Macon County. “I also think this event speaks to the importance of maintaining and improving mental health services on all levels.”

The alleged shooter in the massacre had been expelled from a local community college for exhibiting bizarre behavior. His ramblings on the Internet also seemed incoherent, though a thread of seemingly extreme right-wing beliefs could be discerned.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and an expert on North Carolina politics, said it’s obvious the nation’s political discourse has grown more virulent in the past few decades.

“There are scores of studies to show that incivility is on the rise in Congress and in our political debate in general,” Cooper said. “Although it’s not ‘the media’s fault,’ name-calling and negative attacks are certainly more newsworthy, and thus more covered than stories about politicians who play nicely.

“The problem, therefore, is not just that there’s more negative, toxic rhetoric, but that we’re more aware of it than we’ve ever been. Did this cause the shooting? Of course not,” said Cooper. “Sarah Palin’s crosshairs ad is no more responsible for this shooting than Marilyn Manson was for the Columbine shooting. It does, however, create an environment that doesn’t suppress this kind of thing.”

Bob Scott, a former news reporter who now serves as an alderman in Franklin, said he believes the antigovernment movement in the U.S. is a contributing cause in the Arizona shooting.

“I am concerned that Congress will do one of its knee-jerk reactions and pass bills to provide security for congressmen and senators at a huge cost to the taxpayer,” Scott said. “But if you think about it, most of the attacks on politicians are at the local level such as town halls and school board meetings. Politicians at the federal level are so insulated by staffers that it would be pretty hard to get near them. It is much easier to get to a local politician who has no staffers and is not surrounded by lobbyists.”

Scott, a Democrat, also raised another issue likely to dominate coverage of the shootings: the right to bear arms.

“I believe in gun ownership for target shooting and hunting,” Scott said. “But you don’t need an AK-47 or a Glock 9 mm with a 31-round magazine to go hunting. Those type weapons that the National Rifle Association wants everyone to be able to own, apparently also including those who are unstable, are designed to kill human beings. Not wild game.”

New York City? No wonder they left us out

A spokeswoman with the state Department of Transportation said they didn’t intentionally leave out the state’s westernmost counties on an official logo created by consultants paid $434,590.46 by taxpayers.

That amount, in the interest of accuracy, was a lump sum for work done on the Complete Streets project, not just for creating a logo that — despite transportation officials’ assurances to the contrary — fails to include the state’s westernmost counties.

The transportation department adopted a “Complete Streets” policy in July 2009. The policy directs the department to consider and incorporate several modes of transportation when building new projects or making improvements to existing infrastructure.

The transportation department contracted with consultant P.B. Americas — interestingly, the company is headquartered in New York, so how could they be expected to know about counties west of Buncombe? — to lead and assist the Complete Streets project.

“While I can see what you mean about the Complete Streets logo appearing to lop off the far western counties, I can assure you that’s not the intent,” said Julia Merchant, a transportation department spokeswoman.

Merchant, it should in fairness be made clear, is perfectly familiar with the western part of the great state she now serves. Before taking the job in Raleigh, Merchant worked for this newspaper as a reporter and is a graduate of Appalachian State University.                                                                                      

“The logo is simply a sketch/rough outline of the state, and not a to-scale map,” she said. “So while the sketch may seem to exclude the far western counties, I can tell you they were very much included (as was the rest of the state) when it came to developing the Complete Streets guidelines.”                                  

Don Kostelec, senior transportation planner who works for an Asheville consulting firm, wasn’t amused when he saw the pricey logo adorning the new initiative.

“Yeah, it’s probably a little petty,” Kostelec said. “(But the logo) has chopped off the westernmost counties of the state while the coast and Outer Banks still maintain all of their detail. As a native of Macon County, this infuriates me. And they wonder why there is a healthy distrust of Raleigh in the mountains?”

Kostelec suggested the newspaper use the following headline if it pursued a news story: “Complete Streets … Incomplete State.”

Situation still bleak for builders in the region

By Colby Dunn and Quintin Ellison • Staff Writers

Although retail businesses might have found some relief toward the latter part of the year, homebuilders and real estate agents found fewer reasons for joy in 2010.

For homebuilders, the outlook was pretty bleak, according to Dawson Spano, president of the Haywood Home Builders’ Association. The bleeding in the industry, he said, has slowed but hasn’t altogether stopped, and many contractors around the region are still calling it quits — or at least still feeling the heat of the recession.

“Builders are getting out of the business, but not at the fast rate that it was last year,” Spano said.

The best way to characterize the situation, he said, is that things aren’t yet getting better, but at least they’re not getting worse.

The business they’re seeing now is different than what has long characterized the home building industry in Western North Carolina, with large developments of second and luxury homes on the decline or stopped altogether. And Spano said he’s not certain that kind of construction and housing market will ever return to the area.

“We’re going back to the way it used to be, where you have builders building one, two houses a year,” Spano said. “I think the big developments are dead for a long time. The Balsam Mountain Preserves, the Sanctuaries, those big places — I don’t see people dropping 300 to 400 thousand for a piece of property.”

Homebuilders, though, are seeing a trend towards remodeling, and Spano thinks this may be where the market is going when the country finally drags itself out of the economic slump. Wherever it’s headed, he has no doubt that it will be scaled back.

Phyllis Osborn, executive officer for Haywood’s Home Builder’s Association, said that the numbers bear this out. What they’re hearing from contractors around the region is that work is there, but it’s smaller in scope and opportunities are still sparse, as evidenced by the drop in contractors still in the game.

“We are 136 in our membership and at the end of last year it was 148, so we’re continually dropping,” said Osborn. “And I know in years prior it’s been up almost to 200.”

Spano’s predictions that small building will lead the way out of the recession and beyond are echoed by the National Association of Home Builders, who released a study at the end of December proving that very trend. The NAHB found that 65 percent of builders that are still in business pull in less than $1 million annually.

“We are seeing market conditions returning to normal in many parts of the country after a long, hard downturn, and these companies have the agility to move quickly and start leading the economy forward,” said NAHB Chairman Bob Jones in a December statement.

In the real estate market, the general sentiment seems to be much the same – that things are still languishing, but the sales dips are not quite as deep as they were last year.

Bob Holt, who teaches about real estate for Southwestern Community College, said there are fewer agents than during the pre-recession boom years. The ones that have stuck with it, however, are staying relatively busy, he said.

“It is still slow, but things are turning around,” said Holt, a Franklin resident. “The prices are low, the interest rates are low — it is a good time to buy stuff.”

Holt said the situation would not improve significantly for another year or so, “until we clear out all the foreclosures” and the job situation improves.

In Haywood County, the Board of Realtors is looking to a merger with Asheville as a possible force to help mitigate the loss if the economic hits keep coming. For homebuilders, 2007 was the banner year, and for Western North Carolina’s real estate world, the benchmark for booming business was 2005. But as one real estate agent put it at a recent board meeting, 2005 probably isn’t coming back, so the future may be found in a new business model, not a return to pre-recession growth.

“If the real-estate market doesn’t improve, then neither will my membership,” said Lisa Brown, association executive for the Haywood Board of Realtors. The math is simple, and after taking a hit of more than 25 percent last year, the area’s agents are looking for a better 2011.

But John Keith, a Waynesville real estate agent in his second year in the county, remains optimistic. People are still buying, even if the pace is much slower. People still want to move here, even if they can’t make it happen until their current house sells.

“The market is still depressed, but I’m optimistic,” said Keith. “We still know that this is one of the best retirement relocation areas in the country, and there’s still a lot of people that are trying to get here.”

For his part, Spano takes a more poetic view of what’s coming in 2011.

“We’re in the valley of the shadow of death,” Spano said. “We’re there, except now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Taking tabs on economic recovery: Economic situation in WNC seems to be improving for small businesses

By Colby Dunn and Quintin Ellison • Staff writers

Despite a sour economy, many businesses in Western North Carolina are not only surviving — they are thriving.

Take Krismart Fashions on East Main Street in Sylva.

While many stores have seen sales decline and continue experiencing downward economic spirals, Krismart Fashions in October enjoyed its best sales month ever in the store’s 40-year history. December, too, showed promise: sales were up 20 percent.

Libby Hall, who owns the store with business partner and sister Jeannie Kelley, credits a diversified inventory featuring quality clothing at reasonable prices, a willingness to work hard, and — most importantly — the loyal support of clientele who make purchases here because they want to see Krismart remain open and do well.

“We are in a niche that hits all income brackets,” Hall said between ringing up purchases from customers eager to take advantage of a sale on New Year’s Day, when Krismart’s and a restaurant or two were practically the only small businesses open in town.

The customers that day reflected the store’s product diversification. Mostly women, in this slice of time ranging in age from 30-something to, perhaps, their late 70s. A sales staff was on hand to offer fashion suggestions and keep everything moving briskly at the cash registers.

It wouldn’t be accurate or fair to paint the economic situation as an all-is-absolutely-rosy picture if only business owners work hard enough, or to ignore the reality that many astute small-business owners have seen their stores go under despite Herculean efforts to prevent just that. But it’s also true many mom and pop stores such as Krismart are doing just fine.

SEE ALSO: Situation still bleak for builders in the region 

Just ask Rob Willey, owner of High Country Style in downtown Waynesville.

He won’t say everything is peachy; 2010 was still a hard year for the upscale women’s boutique. But still, they’re making it. They even opened a new store in Asheville and started offering online sales to serve the large portion of their client base that spend part of their year living away from the stores’ mountain locations.

Willey said 2010 was actually better than 2009, especially the Christmas season.

“For us, business was better as far as overall sales,” said Willey. “People seem a little more willing to spend money this year.”

The last quarter, he said, was promising, and he’s cautiously optimistic that next year will continue to improve. Still, he’s not resting on his laurels; they’re focusing on online sales and improving brand image and customer service to stay relevant and profitable in what are still very tough economic times. But Willey said he feels like those efforts have served him well, and he’s confident that they’ll continue to do so.

“Overall, you know, it was a good year,” he said of 2010. “Not a great year, but still a good one.”

Across the street, Tammy Moseley, manager at Laughter Jewelry, is wishing that the bad economy would stop getting so much airtime. She realizes, of course, that not everyone is having an easy time of it, she said, but churning up fear in customers isn’t going to make them come back.

“It’s just fear, and I don’t know if confidence will be back today or this year or next year,” Moseley said. “Hopefully it’ll be back this year.”

Moseley and her store are 17-year veterans of the Waynesville retail scene. As for 2010, she said it wasn’t the banner year that 2009 was for her store — she, too, was unimpressed by Christmas sales — but in the grand scheme of the store’s history, it was still decent, still profitable.

“You always hope for the greatest year ever, every year,” Moseley said, but it was still a good sales year, and her outlook for 2011 is cautiously optimistic.

And, despite all the dreary financial news, startup businesses also abound. The entrepreneurial dream lives on in WNC.

 

Getting a handle on what’s happening

Linda Harbuck, executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce, has seen the chamber’s net membership, year-over-year, decline by 33. Despite the drop, Harbuck, along with many other business experts in the region, felt the situation began to improve in the latter part of 2010.

“The year ended better than it began,” said Harbuck, citing business startups and expansions.

The Buzz Bus in Cullowhee, a cab service of sorts that ferries Western Carolina University students back and forth from Cullowhee to the bars and restaurants in Sylva, started making runs in October. Franklin resident Tim Crabtree, who owns the business with brother Sam, believes they’ll survive and make their dream of small-business ownership come true.

“Right now, we are just covering costs, but we are picking up business,” said Tim Crabtree, who added that the holidays have put a crimp in the new venture, because his student-customer base hasn’t been on campus for much of the time the service has been offered.

Chris Wilcox is also a new business owner, though he bought a beloved community mainstay with a built-in clientele when he took over City Lights Bookstore on East Jackson Street in Sylva from founder Joyce Moore. Wilcox bought the store about a year ago.

Monday, with the help of a group of volunteers, staff and Wilcox’s mother, Margot, the store closed its doors to customers so that a physical inventory of the 5,000 or so books could take place.

Margot Wilcox does the bookkeeping for her son. His first year has been promising, she said, and the financial future of City Lights Bookstore seems sound. Her son agreed, crediting Moore’s work to build the store as a foundation he can work from.

“Incremental changes,” Wilcox said, is what he’s looking at. Such as offering Google eBooks, so that his customers can shop locally for digital media. City Lights Bookstore has offered ebooks through its website for several years, but Google eBooks, Wilcox said, expands what the store can provide — and helps him compete against corporate-owned bookstores and websites.

Interestingly, another independent bookstore with a different business model is also finding a strong, loyal customer base. The two-year-old Millie and Eve’s Used Bookstore in Franklin, located on U.S. 441 a few miles south of the town, is defying conventional business wisdom and finding it can compete with the big boys.

Eve Boatright and business partner Millie Griffin have a simple financial formula.

“If there’s no money at the end of the week, we don’t get paid,” said Boatright, a transplant from Britain, just outside London.

But they are making it financially, and doing it by offering 62,000 used books through trade (plus offerings by local authors). Additionally, to help drive traffic into the store, the women accept payments for Verizon and Duke Power. There is a Civil War section, classics section, children’s section as well as more conventional offerings such as mysteries and romances.

In neighboring Swain County, several new stores have sprung up and are making a go of the gifts market in Bryson City.

Robert Hoyle is the proprietor of one such establishment. He and his wife decided to open up Nannie’s Country Store on Fry Street in downtown Bryson City, which they bill as “a slice of country life.”

Hoyle and his wife moved to Bryson City from the Atlanta area after their kids were grown and gone, and have started the store as something of a retirement business venture.

The shop sells local gifts and crafts along with novelties and a few other odds and ends, and while Hoyle said he hauled in less this Christmas than he’d hoped, he’s still optimistic about next year’s outlook.

“It was difficult, with all the opening expenses, but it was successful at the same time,” Hoyle said as he looked back at 2010. “In this climate, people are not spending money, they’re just not. But I’m hoping that we do very, very well [in 2011]. We have a lot of new business ideas, some of the business ideas no one in Bryson City has. Hopefully, this next year will be great.”

Just around the corner on Everett Street, Lance Holland is also finishing his inaugural year in the retail business with his gourmet food and gifts shop, Appalachian Mercantile. Holland, too, was disappointed in the Christmas season, but has decided that, overall, 2010 was profitable enough to warrant another year on the lease.

He’s no stranger to the retail industry – his wife is in charge of retail operations at nearby Fontana Village – so he started the venture on a one-year trial basis. And while he said it couldn’t be called a banner year for sales, it’s been decent enough, especially considering that he opened in the grip of an economic slump.

“This is a brand new undertaking for me, and I’ll have to say that I’m kind of enjoying it,” said Holland. “It seems like the economy’s kind of finally turning around a little bit, and if I didn’t think it was going to be a little better, I wouldn’t be continuing.”

He said he’s hoping, too, that once word gets out about his gourmet offerings — which include a range of items from sauces to sweets — that it will become a bigger draw, possibly boosting his Christmas sales next year.

Not all newcomers are finding it so easy, though. In Canton, Johnetta Heil, who owns the Plaid Sheep Yarn Shop, said she too was disappointed with Christmas, but the rest of the year was a pretty mixed bag for her new business as well.

“It’s been up and down,” she said of the year overall, but she’s hoping that 2011 will give her the increased exposure she said her store needs to boost sales.

“People just don’t know I’m here,” said Heil. But she, like Willey at High Country, has been changing her business strategy to fit the economy and draw in more customers. She’s adding new classes monthly and is planning a camp this summer to get local kids interested in fiber arts.

David Huskins, head of the seven-county regional tourism group Smoky Mountain Host, headquartered outside Franklin, said the tourism industry has faced serious challenges beginning in 2008 and continuing through 2010. But not all is gloomy for this important leg of WNC’s economic chair.

“Our members have shared anecdotal information — they don’t like to give out their numbers, but will give a general impression — that verifies that at best the region has been flat in the tourism economic sector in 2010 compared to 2009 and 2008, which is actually a positive,” Huskins said.

Two vitally important regional businesses, The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad and Nantahala Outdoor Center, are reporting revenues increased year over year. The railroad, Huskins said, is upwards of 15 to 18 percent, though ridership is relatively flat.

“The revenues are up because of some creative repackaging they did this year with their first-class ticket sales and some creative online marketing they implemented to promote the first-class ticket,” he said. “NOC is reporting great success with its new retail outpost in Gatlinburg, which opened early last spring.”

Like Harbuck, the head of Smoky Mountain Hosts said he believes the economic situation began improving toward the end of the year.

“While we don’t have figures for 2010, our members have indicated generally ‘flat’ numbers compared to 2009,” Huskins said. “There is evidence of an upward trend in numbers and revenue this year in October and continuing through the first two weeks of November, which most of our members have indicated was perhaps the best since 2007.

“Going forward, we are optimistic that 2011 will see improved numbers in the region’s tourism economic sector, albeit only slight improvement. We will trend as the entire state does and the nation does. Our concern is with reports that gas prices will approach the $4.50 to $5 per gallon range by late spring-early summer 2011. We are a drive market and if that happens, it will be significant.”

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