Year in review 2010

Editor’s note: Here is The Smoky Mountain News’ annual Year in Review, but ours comes with a nod and a wink — and an award. News is serious and sometimes tragic, but in hindsight we can at least try to find a little humor in what the newsmakers endured and we all read about in 2010.

 

The Sisyphus award

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is sentenced for eternity to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top.

The mountain gods showed a similar attitude toward human inhabitants this year, showing a particular inclination to shut down major thoroughfares. At one point, the three primary routes through the southern mountains into Tennessee were blocked with rock slides: Interstate 40 in Haywood County, U.S. 64 between Murphy and Chattanooga, and U.S. 129 running from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn.

The only passage was U.S. 441 over Newfound Gap through the Smokies, and even that route was temporarily reduced to one lane following a rock slide of its own.

Mountains have been running amok on the residential side as well. The biggest and most high profile was in Maggie Valley below Ghost Town amusement park, but there were also slides in the Water Dance development in Jackson County and the Wildflower development in Macon County that destabilized road grades and took out lots, as well as a slide in Macon County that led to a man’s home being condemned.

 

Popeye award

The construction crew restoring the historic Jackson County Courthouse could have used more spinach before tackling the structure’s crowning cupola. The domed top had to be taken down for restoration in June. But when a crowd of onlookers gathered at the bottom of courthouse hill to watch the day it was scheduled to come off, repeated attempts failed. Crews ultimately had to bring in a stronger crane the following week.

The $7 million restoration of the historic courthouse and construction of a new library adjacent to it was supposed to be finished by year’s end, but has been pushed back.

 

Pork award

When the U.S. Small Business Administration announced $1.4 million in loans for businesses hurt by the I-40 rock slide in Haywood County, business owners far and wide began hungrily licking their chops.

The October 2009 slide shut down the Interstate Haywood County for six months, choking off tourism traffic and commerce. Gas stations and hotels had to cut hours and even lay off workers as business dried up.

But of the 15 businesses that landed federal SBA loans, few were located in Haywood County. Among the more puzzling recipients: the Fun Depot in Asheville, an indoor kid’s amusement center; and an excavating company in Sevierville, Tenn., a business that hardly seems contingent on passersby on the interstate.

One local loan recipient was a bar in downtown Waynesville — a standard that would seemingly qualify every restaurant in the entire county.

 

Full House award

Despite a recession, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino barreled ahead with a $630 million expansion. The casino rolled out a major addition to the gaming floor, debuted a 3,000-seat concert venue and topped off a 21-story hotel tower. A 16,000-square-foot spa in the works is a testimony to Harrah’s mission to transform itself beyond a casino to a full-service resort.

The casino’s two existing hotel towers are consistently full.

The casino hit another milestone this year when it began serving alcohol for the first time in its on-site restaurants and at a new bona fide bar and lounge on the gaming floor.

The expansion began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. A 400-seat Paula Deen Kitchen restaurant also opened at the casino this year.

 

Best Power Struggle award

Solar panels. That’s what Haywood Community College and the Haywood County commissioners spent the better part of a year at loggerheads over.

HCC wanted to include green features, from rainwater collection to solar hot water in the design of a new $10.2 million creative arts building that will house its famed craft programs like woodcarving, pottery and jewelry making. But Haywood County commissioners accused the eco-efforts of driving up the cost of the building, and as a result threatened to veto the project. The college spent months trying to convince commissioners the building as designed was both frugal and necessary, while commissioner played hardball in an attempt to send the college back to the drawing board. The biggest sticking point were proposed solar panels on the building, which the college claimed would pay for themselves while commissioners remained skeptical.

In the end, the college won its quest to build a sustainable flagship creative arts building.

 

Last Laugh Award

To Sylva business owner Dodie Allen, who fought back against being ticketed for parking a van outside her downtown auction under the town’s new law designed to free-up prime parking real estate for visitors and shoppers.

Allen protested the citation — and the $50 fine it carried — for 45 minutes at a town board meeting, saying it infringed on her rights and hampered her ability to make a living. Allen argued she was simply loading and unloading at her auction house on Main Street.

Ultimately, Allen won her battle when it was discovered a key paragraph, the one specifying business owners and their employees can’t park on Main and Mill streets, wasn’t included in the ordinance passed. The town was forced to hold another public hearing and vote again on the town law, this time with the correct language intact.

 

Extreme Makeover award

Haywood County social workers will soon enjoy new digs. They are trading in a decrepit former hospital dating back decades for an abandoned Wal-Mart store being retrofitted for offices. Their new stripmall-esque working quarters will be a vast improvement over their current accommodations: a four-story brick building that’s cramped and crumbling, with makeshift offices in storage closets, perpetual leaks and rusted window jambs.

The Wal-Mart makeover project will cost the county $12.5 million — about half that to purchase the building and the other half to convert it into an office complex. Critics decried the move as an unnecessary cost in bad times. But county commissioners said the poor state of the DSS building could no longer be ignored, and scoring a bargain price for the old Wal-Mart made it the most attractive solution.

In addition to the Department of Social Services, the renovated building will also house the county health department and the planning department.

Initial construction bids came in higher than expected, so the county trimmed elements of the project to get costs down and then went back out to bid.

 

Most Creative Accounting

When the public learned Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was funneling money seized in drug busts to youth sports teams — and as it happened to teams his own kids played on — he claimed it was all for a good cause.

Drug bust money by law must go toward drug crime prevention and enforcement, and Ashe argued that supporting wholesome diversions for kids keeps them off drugs.

The justification gets a little hazier though when it came to other uses for narcotics money by Ashe, like $20,000 to replace carpet in the sheriff’s office or $400 to get himself listed on a national “Who’s Who” list.

Ashe enjoyed an unsupervised, free rein of how to spend the narcotics fund. He failed to get approval from the county on the expenditures, violating state statutes governing fiscal controls for local government. The state Local Government Commission made Ashe comply with new accounting procedures after media reports brought the issue to light.

 

Janet Jackson award

Haywood County nearly had its own version of the infamous wardrobe malfunction when a river rafter protesting pollution by the Canton paper mill threatened to pull down his pants and bare his buttocks during a public hearing. He was one of several Tennessee river guides at the hearing who claimed to have sores and skin cancers from being in contact with the Pigeon River tainted by chemicals from the mill, and was willing to prove it until the hearing moderator advised him against such public displays.

Evergreen Packaging is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River. The state was forced to ratchet down pollution levels in the proposed permit following objections by the EPA. But it wasn’t enough to abate environmentalists, who have filed a lawsuit to impose even tougher limits.

Evergreen is also facing a class action lawsuit by a group of Haywood County landowners. Downstream landowners in Tennessee have won similar class action suits against the mill.

The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.

 

Survivor Award

It was a dismal election year for Democrats, but U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, managed to hang on to his seat despite his conservative-leaning mountain district. He handily smashed Republican challenger Jeff Miller and advanced to the next round where he took on none other than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He went into the challenge with the intention of losing — or at least knowing he’d lose — because the loss gave him incredible national exposure.

What’s next for the former football player from Swain County? He’s not saying, but former communications director Andrew Whalen left a coveted job as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party to rejoin Shuler’s staff. Something’s afoot with this fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Republican Democrat, that’s for dang sure.

 

The Mother of all Irony Award

To the Village of Forest Hills, which incorporated in 1997 for the express and unabashed purpose of keeping rowdy, drunken Western Carolina University students from taking over this residential community, is now considering annexing land at Chancellor John Bardo’s behest so that some unknown developer can build a town so students will keep going to Western Carolina University (there’s a little retention problem) because, finally, they won’t have to drive to Sylva to — is this for real? — get good and soused. They’ll instead drink beer and wine and shots of liquor within walking distance of campus as God intended for university students to do.

Additionally, WCU suggests the Boca Raton, Fla.-reminiscent name of Forest Hills be lost in favor of the name Cullowhee. We can only assume the town sign painted in pastels on U.S. 107 will have to go, too, folks.

 

Only in Macon Could This Happen Award

Where else would a county board of commissioners appoint a man who openly doesn’t support land planning to the county’s planning board, except in Macon County?

In a move so audacious in its sheer lack of thought and concern for regulating unbridled development, we salute the Republican (and one rogue Democrat) commissioners in Macon County for the appointment of Tea Party member Jimmy Goodman to the planning board. Never mind that he’d not been reappointed to that same board for (allegedly and all that) obstructing the other members in, well, their efforts to plan, those rascally planning-board members.

We take our hats off to you, Macon County, and offer sincere thanks for being in our coverage area. You help us remember that we still can be surprised by what actually does take place sometimes on the local political level.

 

Boomerang award

Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College since 1997, retired this year and headed to Texas for a relaxing retirement close to the grandkids.

“As for everything and everyone, there is a season. My season has now come,” Groves said of his departure from SCC.

Three months later, Groves announced his return to the area to be the CEO of Balsam West, an entity that controls a 300-mile fiber broadband ring looping the six western counties. Groves helped create the fiber ring while at the helm of SCC and considered it one of his biggest accomplishments, but with few users, it is struggling to realize its potential.

 

The Garden City award

In Maggie Valley, the new mantra is call on the name of beauty and ye shall be saved. Residents and businesses alike buried thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs this fall in hopes that the bursts of coordinated color will swoop in this spring to help save the struggling city from economic depression and the gaping financial hole left by the death of Ghost Town.

The idea is being coupled with another aesthetic assault from the town government’s camp. In November, the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to impose a set of design standards for renovations and new builds that follow a general design plan town planners call “mountain vernacular.”

Officials hope that the visual double whammy will spruce up the town’s face which, they seem to be admitting, is a less-than-pleasant sight to behold.

 

The Long and Winding Road award

“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen …OK, I guess I’ll stay a little longer.” That’s the tune sung this year by Maggie Valley’s Dale Walksler, owner and curator of the renowned Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum.

After several years in its current location and several more bouts with local officials over the museum’s value to the town, Walksler threatened to pack up his collection and ship out to another, more friendly, but as yet unnamed, locale. This fall, however, he decided to make those empty threats and chose to keep the storied – and probably unrivaled – collection of American motorcycle memorabilia nestled snugly into its Soco Road home.

No word from local officials on how they’re reacting to the decision, but since sharing his thoughts with us in October, it’s been all quiet on the Walksler front. So maybe 2011 will see a happy ending to the animosity?

 

The Size Envy award

They say bigger isn’t always better, but Swain County’s Marianna Black Library isn’t so sure about that. After catching a glimpse of Macon and Jackson counties’ new, improved and enlarged library digs, they couldn’t help but want to gain some growth themselves.

So this October, the library system embarked on an exploratory campaign of their own, seeking input from local residents and guidance from the same consultants used by their neighboring counties. Patron suggestions ranged from expanded collections and more special events to requests for outdoor fire pits, presumably not to be stoked with the library’s contents.

Whether the county’s case of library envy has abated remains to be seen; the consultants won’t be back with final recommendations until the new year. But with Jackson County’s new facility opening up soon, it’s easy to hear cries of “but I want one, too,” on the not-too-distant horizon.

 

The Earmark to Nowhere award

To earmark, or not to earmark – that, of late, is the Congressional question. And for residents of Swain county, it’s the $52 million question. That’s how much they’ve been promised to repay the cash they laid out on the nonexistent North Shore Road over three decades. When the road was flooded for the war effort in 1943, the county took it on the chin, along with a pledge from the federal government that they’d put it back. But time went on, the county kept paying on the road loans and the promised new road was never to return.

Earlier this year, the county agreed to take a cash settlement from the government in lieu of a road they no longer needed, after laborious negotiations and a good bit of lobbying from Swain County native Rep. Heath Shuler.

But those dollars are in danger now that Congress is swooping in to slash earmarks. To some legislators, that’s just what the North Shore money is, an earmark designed to funnel federal money into local projects. But local proponents counter that it’s not just funding, it’s debt service paying off a 66-year-old IOU.

Whether the money will keep rolling into the county hasn’t been decided. But much rests on convincing Congress members that the settlement is an obligation, not an option.

 

Billy Graham Hall of Fame nominees

County leaders refused to stop praying in Jesus’ name during their public meetings, despite a federal court ruling that such overt prayers were tantamount to government endorsement of Christianity over other religions — and thus were unconstitutional.

A federal judge in Forsyth County found that specific references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioner meetings “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”

But county commissioners in Macon and Swain counties were undaunted.

“If there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phillip Carson.

Or as Swain Commissioner David Monteith put it, “I guess they would just have to arrest me.”

Macon Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Christian prayers reflect the vast majority of his constituents.

In Haywood County, commissioners chose to drop references to Jesus and stick with more generic, and thus legal, references to Lord or God. Jackson County does not hold a prayer during its county meetings.

 

S.O.L. award

This is exactly where homeowners down slope of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley found themselves this year. A massive landslide screamed down Rich Cove mountain in February, uprooting yards and bumping into houses on its way. While some residents remain without a well for drinking water and one couple still has not been able to return to their home, they had been unable to hold anyone accountable to cover the damages so far.

But Ghost Town’s liability insurance was canceled a week before the landslide due to late payments, according to the insurance company. Court documents verify that Ghost Town received warnings to pay up to risk cancelation, and eventually received a cancellation notice.

Ghost Town has blamed the slide on a company hired to shore up the slipping mountainside with a series of retaining walls, but the contractors blame Ghost Town for a leaking water line buried behind the wall, according to court documents.

 

Most Formidable Opponent

As a multi-billion Fortune 500 Company, Duke Energy is used to getting its way. But when it went up against the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians this year and came under fire for desecrating the tribe’s equivalent of an ancestral holy site, it seemed the utility giant had met its match.

Duke Energy had embarked on a $79 million electrical substation on a knoll overlooking an idyllic farming valley in Swain County — a valley that happened to be the home of Kituwah mound, an ancient ceremonial site and political center for the Cherokee. The massive electrical substation threatened to mar the landscape, which Cherokee considered integral to the cultural integrity of the spiritual site.

Duke faced three-fold opposition. The tribe’s government leaders condemned Duke for picking the site and failing to consult with the tribe first. A grassroots activist group formed to challenge Duke before the state utility commission. And Swain County leaders also got mad that Duke had started construction without applying for county permits, and even passed a moratorium barring work on the substation from moving forward.

It didn’t take long for Duke to throw in the towel on the controversial site and instead bought another piece of property in the Swain County industrial park to locate the substation.

 

Dumbest Criminal

Attorney John Lewis may as well have worn a flashing neon sign when he tried to forge a judge’s name in Jackson County.

Lewis forged a court order in a parental custody case, but no sooner had he filed the fraudulent document with the clerk of court then he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk — assuming it was a valid part of the case file — refused. But an agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document. As a last resort, he came around the partition in the clerk’s office, snagged the file himself and put a Post-It note on the document declaring it void, arousing enough suspicion to launch an investigation.

The 31-year-old attorney had also faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.

 

Head in the Sand award

When a recession took hold of the country in 2008, most counties got to work cutting costs to head off impending budget shortfalls. But Swain County was nearly a year late to the party.

Swain County continued with business as usual until summer 2009 when its fund balance dipped so low it was put on the watch list by the Local Government Commission, a state agency that monitors the fiscal solvency of counties.

Counties are supposed to have a savings account, known as a fund balance, that’s equivalent to 8 percent of their total annual budget. Swain’s dropped to only 6.67 percent. The county had to play catch-up to restore its fund balance by laying off workers and imposing furloughs, which amounted to pay cuts.

County Manager Kevin King failed to let the Local Government Commission know ahead of time that the county would dip below the safe threshold, but county commissioners said they didn’t know either until it had already happened.

 

The Life’s not Fair award

As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Haywood County nearly doubled its per capita recycling rate in two years under the leadership of a new solid waste director, Stephen King, who is passionate about recycling. The county will save money by saving landfill space in the long run, but in the short run, all those recyclables began to overwhelm the system. Faced with the need for more recycling staff, the county instead chose to simply shut down the recycling “pick line” and laid off workers who manually sorted recyclables before they were sold. Instead, the county started selling the recyclables in bulk without separating them first. They fetch a lower price, but allowed the county to save on salaries.

 

Biggest Loser(s) Award

The biggest election upset of the year was in Jackson County, where Democrats lost control of the board of commissioners for the first time in 16 years.

In a clean sweep, Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie headed to the house, while the conservative ticket of Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody took over their reins.

The new guys immediately started shuffling the deck. County Manager Ken Westmoreland, a target in the election because, among other reasons, he helped institute a pay raise that most benefited longtime employees such as himself, has gone to the house as well. Chuck Wooten, just retired from Western Carolina University, has stepped into his shoes temporarily until a new manager can be found.

 

Easy Money award

As a new form of video gambling proliferated across the state this year, several towns decided to get in on a piece of the action by imposing hefty business license fees for establishments sporting the machines.

The fees were hardly a deterrent given the lucrative nature of the video gambling machines. When the Canton town board voted to set the fee at $2,500, a business owner attending the evening meeting pulled out his checkbook on the spot. The town manager advised him to come back the next morning.

State lawmakers banned video poker, but the gambling industry came up with a reincarnated version called “video sweepstakes,” which wasn’t subject to the ban. State lawmakers followed suit by broadening the language of the ban, outlawing the sweepstakes machines as well, effective with the new year. But not before towns cashed in.

Maggie Valley and Franklin also cashed in on licensing fees.

 

Don’t Have to Win to be a Winner award

Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lost his seat in last year’s election, landed a spot back on the board anyway. When former town board member Sarah Graham moved outside the town limits and had to step down, it was up to the remaining board members to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. By a 3 to 1 vote, Hensley found himself back in his old seat, a move that shifted power from the progressive voting bloc to a new majority characterized by a more traditional philosophy.

This marked the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board had to vote to appoint one of their own, the other being the seat of Maurice Moody who left his seat on the board empty after moving up to mayor.

 

Texas Hold ‘em award

After seven long years, Jackson County finally folded in its protracted and expensive battle against Duke Energy over, well, that’s where things get murky. What started as a noble fight by mountain people to get their due from a utility giant left most people scratching their heads and wondering why Jackson County was still anteing up, long before the game was eventually over.

To casual observers, the fight appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wanted to tear it down and the county wanted to save it. But the origin of the conflict was philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams?

Duke proposed removing the Dillsboro dam and restoring a stretch of free flowing river as compensation for saddling the Tuck with a handful of dams, but county commissioners believed they were being short-changed and wanted more, including a trust fund based on a percentage of the hydropower revenues.

Jackson County commissioners hoped to bring Duke to the negotiating table, but Duke repeatedly called the county’s bluff. Instead of folding, Jackson kept throwing in for the next hand until finally calling it quits this year.

Mixing business with birding

A recent program brought together business owners and outdoor enthusiasts who shared a common desire — to promote birding while also taking advantage of its potential economic impact

Rob Hawk, the new Jackson and Swain County extension director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, presented a program on birder friendly businesses and communities at the Balsam Mountain Inn last Thursday, Dec. 9. Participants included interested citizens, community organizers and businessmen and women.

“It was a good program. I think it was a good way to get resources moving in the right direction,” said Andy Zivinsky and Diane Cutler, owners of Bryson City Bicycles.

Zivinsky said that most of the clientele at Bryson City Bicycles were outdoor enthusiasts and that he believes many would enjoy learning about birding opportunities in the area.

“We’re both birders and we’re outdoors a lot, and I feel like we could point interested bikers in the right direction.”

He said they had even considered outfitting bikes with birding gear or a place to carry birding gear. Zivinsky said that there were great Forest Service roads out there for birding and that biking would be a great way to cover them.

“It’s a lot easier than walking,” he said.

 

The program

The Birder Friendly Business & Birder Friendly Community programs were created and designed to work in tandem with the North Carolina Birding Trail. Work on the NCBT began in 2003. The trail is presented in a series of three trail guides — the Coastal Guide, The Piedmont Guide and the Mountain Guide.

These guides are great ways for local birders and tourists to find great birding opportunities across the state, from the Outer Banks to the mountaintops of Western North Carolina. The guides provide maps, site descriptions, species list and nearby accommodations and attractions.

Part of the mission of the NCBT is, “To conserve and enhance North Carolina’s bird habitat by promoting sustainable bird-watching activities, economic opportunities and conservation education.” The Birder Friendly programs were designed to help fulfill that mission.

Lena Gallitano, who is retired from N.C. State University, and Dr. Stacy Tomas of N.C. State developed the program and taught training seminars across the state until their funding ran out in 2008. Hawk co-facilitated some of the programs in the western part of the state with Gallitano.

Gallitano said she was happy that Hawk had decided to continue to work to expand the birder friendly concept in the mountains. She said she felt like the mountain region had embraced the concept better than other areas of the state.

Hawk said that while he was introduced to the birder friendly concept in his old role as community resource development agent, he thought it was a perfect fit for his new position as Extension Director in Jackson and Swain counties. He said that he hopes the program allows people to look at the landscape in a different way and learn to appreciate and understand the resources that are already here.

Gallitano and Hawk both noted that while the program was geared to mesh with the birding trail the overarching theme of the program is nature tourism in general and birding in particular. Gallitano said that the NCBT guide series is probably the most extensive list of public and private sites across the state for wildlife watching.

And Hawk said that his role as Extension Director was to encourage the wise use and the appreciation of all the natural resources across the region.

 

Putting the theory into practice

David Stubbs, the owner of The Waynesville Inn, was also present at last Thursday’s meeting. Stubbs said he was interested in attending the program to help the Inn focus its marketing strategy.

“We are trying to cater to people who are already interested in the natural beauty of the area and want to sustain that, and birding fits nicely into that concept,” said Stubbs.

He said Hawk’s program helped him learn about who birders are and what their needs and wants are and how to meet them. He said the Inn was currently working on it’s marketing and packages for next season and that the birding community was already a part of that dialogue.

He said that planning was in its “infancy stage,” but that guests might see some sort of birder packages and programs.

 

 

Why entice birders?

• A 2007 National Survey on Recreation and the Environment noted that 81.1 million Americans participate in some form of birding activity.

• A 2006 U.S. Fish & Wildlife study reported that Americans spent nearly $45 billion in 2006 on bird-related activities.

• A 2006 U.S. Census Bureau survey noted that 71 million people spent more than $44 billion across the country in activities related to feeding and/or watching birds and other wildlife.

• North Carolina reported that 2.6 million wildlife watchers in the state spent $916 million.

• According to a North Dakota Division of Tourism report more than 22 million Americans travel each year to observe, photograph and/or study birds. More than $38 billion are spent each year in these endeavors. The report notes that bird-based tourism in Texas and Florida generates approximately $540 million and $943 million, respectively, each year.

• A study done on the economic impact of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail in 1999 noted that birders spent an average of $78.50 per person per day while on the trail.

Internet could be key to economic development in WNC

Western Carolina might never be the next Silicon Valley, but experts say improving Internet access could help kick-start the region’s economy.

David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, said with the manufacturing sector mostly on its way out in WNC, it’s time to look to a new kind of model for economic development.

“The days of hoping for a factory to come to town, that’s probably not going to happen in the foreseeable future,” said Hubbs. Nurturing a tech-friendly environment would level the competitive playing field and allow students to stay in the area after they graduate, however.

“We’re helping to create an opportunity for people who grow up here,” Hubbs said.

Robin Kevlin, co-owner of Metrostat Communications, a Sylva-based telecom company, provides services to certain companies that would not have stuck around WNC without access to quality Internet service. The Internet can be an important tool in recruiting new businesses and promoting economic development, Kevlin said.

“Because of the way the land is around here, you’re not going to bring in a Dell Computer,” said Kevlin. “But you can bring in the smaller companies.”

For many companies, the Internet is not a luxury but a real need.

“Internet connectivity is as basic as water, sewage and infrastructure,” said Pam Lewis, senior vice president of entrepreneurial development at AdvantageWest, a regional economic development arm.

 

Preparing for 2013

Earlier this year, the Nantahala Gorge was named as the site for the 2013 Freestyle World Championships in kayaking.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center is equipped with high-speed Internet from BalsamWest FiberNET, but only at its headquarters. Fiber is not an option at branch offices, where Internet is both expensive and unreliable, according to Kevin Sisson, Chief Information Officer at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

“If it rains, it’ll go down, or if it’s foggy, it’ll go down,” said Sisson. “It really hampers the ability of these branch offices to connect to our reservation system.”

Sisson and others in the rafting community are worried about the Gorge’s preparedness for the kayaking championships. Lack of widespread Internet access might make it difficult or impossible to upload event photos or videos.

“We’re going to have an international community arrive here,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures. “Journalists, competitors, families that get here and have no high-speed wireless.”

The Internet is a necessity even during the regular tourist season. Kastorff says that about 10 percent of tourists anticipate working during their vacation. They sometimes rule out a travel destination if Internet connections are spotty.

 

Varied uses

The web is not just useful for browsing endlessly on YouTube or Googling for directions.

With the Internet increasingly being used to educate, children in WNC will need better Internet access at home as well as school.

John Howell, owner of Telecommunications Consulting Associates in Waynesville, said students in other regions are receiving laptops as early as the ninth grade. They complete assignments requiring Internet connections and interact with teachers via email.

“If a kid’s got dial-up, he or she can’t compete with kids from more populous areas of the state,” said Howell.

Data-intensive entities, like hospitals and Internet-based companies, also need the Internet to simply operate. The hospital group, MedWest, processes millions of transactions every month. On top of billing and registration data, hospitals need high-speed capacity for sending X-rays, MRIs and detailed medical records to doctors.

Since the creation of MedWest in January, administrators have also discovered a need for video conferencing to avoid excessive travel.

Kevlin said that the Internet is immensely useful for cutting down on pollution.

“If we’re going to be a greener society, more people are going to be working from home,” said Kevlin. “They need the tools necessary to do that, and broadband Internet is part of that.”

An uphill battle: Western North Carolina struggles to overcome digital divide

A few years ago, Michael Wade was ready to hang up tin cans and have tenants at his Rabbit Ridge Apartments in Cullowhee yell messages at each other — all to avoid the daily aggravation caused by two telecom corporations.

The 170 students who lived at Rabbit Ridge also lived on the Internet, and poor service forced Wade to reset modems at least three or four times a day. No matter how often Wade called each company’s customer service line, there was no end in sight to the infuriating Internet outages.

“They simply did not have the amount of bandwidth needed in the area,” said Wade. “It was a nightmare. Both companies were just a nightmare to work with.”

Then in November 2008, Wade decided to splurge. It cost him $25,000 to buy a high-speed connection to BalsamWest FiberNET, a Sylva-based telecommunications carrier.

Wade footed the entire construction bill for physically hooking up to BalsamWest’s 300-mile fiberoptic network.

“It was the best 25 grand I’ve ever spent,” said Wade, adding that now, there are no more outages at Rabbit Ridge.

But not everyone in Western North Carolina is lucky enough to be within spitting distance from BalsamWest’s fiber network — or rich enough to afford the thousands it would usually take to connect initially.

“If I was just a homeowner, it wouldn’t make sense,” said Wade. “But because I was a business and I had 170 kids, it made total sense.”


See also: Internet could be key to economic development in WNC 


Over in the Nantahala Gorge, Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, is still struggling with her own Internet woes. The outfitter is still using a snail-paced service via satellite. It’s the company’s one and only option.

“It’s so unreliable and so slow,” said Kastorff. “Considering three years ago, there wasn’t even cell phone reception in the gorge, I’m not entirely surprised.”

Kastorff said she’s encountered high-speed wireless in some of the world’s remote places.

“In South America, wireless and cell phone service is easily 100 percent better,” Kastorff said. “So we’re talking about developing countries that have more progressive infrastructure than we have in WNC.”

In a rural and mountainous area like Western North Carolina, telecommunications service is bound to be a challenge. But solutions, like BalsamWest, are slowly creeping up.

Million-dollar federal grants and millions more matching funds from nonprofits like the Golden LEAF Foundation will slowly bring high-speed Internet to rural counties like Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain in the next three years.

WNC can be said to fall into the middle-mile phase on the path to quick and reliable Internet. Most people talk about middle-mile to last-mile connectivity by using road analogies.

“Middle-mile is more like the highway instead of the off-ramp that goes to your home,” said Hunter Goosmann, general manager of the nonprofit ERC Broadband. “The off-ramp is the last mile.”

“You can’t go down the dirt road until you get off the paved road,” said John Howell, owner of Telecommunications Consulting Associates in Waynesville. “And right now, the paved road is being built.”

 

The high cost of last-mile

Middle-mile solutions, like BalsamWest, usually target anchor institutions in a community, like schools, hospitals, libraries, government offices and only major companies. BalsamWest, which is jointly owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County-based Drake Enterprises, focuses on providing Internet service to businesses found within its fiber footprint in the six counties west of the Balsam Mountains (Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties).

“We’re not in the business of building out to everybody’s homes,” said BalsamWest CEO David Hubbs.

The reasons that BalsamWest and other telecoms have not tackled the last-mile part are primarily financial. Most companies would have to put up millions of dollars to build infrastructure, only to have a relatively sparse number of customers.

Government help is on the way, however.

Soon, nonprofit MCNC will begin work on a $111 million broadband fiber project that will install 1,448 miles of new fiber through 69 of the most rural counties in North Carolina. BalsamWest and ERC are both major partners in the initiative. Particularly important to WNC will be the fiber link constructed in Haywood County.

Mark Clasby, economic development director for Haywood, said it’s been his priority to get Haywood connected to the fiber networks found east in Asheville and west of the Balsams.

“It’s essential we get this done,” said Clasby. “We’re kind of like the hole in the donut. It’s critical for our future that we have some type of system.”

Gene Winters, CFO of MedWest, a collective of hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, said the connection would save his company at least half a million dollars.

Presently, MedWest is forced to use multiple telecom companies since there is no fiber running from Haywood County to west of the Balsams. If such a connection existed, MedWest would not have to duplicate services.

Winters said MedWest, too, has spent thousands on Internet infrastructure. Recently, the hospital group dropped $18,000 on bringing Internet service from one building to another just 75 yards away.

“You got to look at it as a four- to five-year investment to recoup your cost,” said Winters. “Most small companies don’t have a longer view, and they can’t because cash is tight.”

 

Gaining momentum

All eyes in the telecommunications community are on the MCNC project, which will expand broadband capability exponentially on the middle-mile scale.

“I think the future is being written right now,” said Howell. “We should see deeper penetration of broadband into at least the business community and anchor institutions.”

“This is truly a game changer,” said Goosmann, whose company is tackling fiber in Buncombe, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Avery counties.

Meanwhile, BalsamWest will bring middle-mile broadband to 480 miles in 37 counties. It is also working on a major project connecting its fiber network west to Knoxville and Oak Ridge, Tenn. The link will bring instant access to universities, and scientific and high-tech industries.

In addition, Frontier Communications Company has taken over Verizon’s landline footprint in North Carolina. Unlike Verizon, Frontier markets itself as a telecom company for rural areas of the country. The company promises to bring high-speed Internet to 85 percent of all areas they serve in the next three years.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” said Brigid Smith, assistant vice president of corporate communications at Frontier. Smith says that her company has brought broadband to the mountains of Moab, Utah, the deserts of Arizona and isolated areas of the Midwest where it takes six hours to reach the next house on the road.

“Terrain issues are not new to us,” said Smith, adding that Frontier is also “very financially healthy.”

Smaller telecom companies like Sylva-based Metrostat Communications are also devoted to bringing Internet to the most unlikely places. The company says its goal is to bring Internet service to everybody, not just the big companies.

“My goal is to serve Annie’s Bakery and all the little guys on Back Street … I’ll use any means I can to do it,” said co-owner John Kevlin. “Sometimes we use radios, sometimes a fiber network. It depends on what’s cheapest and easiest.”

The company receives calls daily from bewildered new residents of WNC who expected Internet service to be just a phone call away.

“They are not understanding that not every place in the world has broadband Internet,” said Metrostat co-owner Robin Kevlin.

“I know people who can’t even get telephone access, and this is 2010,” said John Kevlin.

At times, Metrostat has to use admittedly quirky methods that aren’t always available to bigger corporations. For example, the company will ask someone if it’s OK to install a radio in their house to help a neighbor down the street.

“We have to look for creative ways to spend a smaller amount of money to get to the most people,” said Kevlin.

Hubbs says that extraordinary progress has undoubtedly been made in WNC in the last decade.

“You can get the same kind of connectivity in Franklin, N.C., that you can get in Atlanta, New York or Washington, D.C.,” said Hubbs. “In economic development terms, that is part of the most critical infrastructure that large 21st century knowledge-based companies have to have.”

Clasby calls the quest for reliable Internet complicated but also one of the most exciting issues he is working on.

“I see light at the end of the tunnel,” said Clasby. “It’s still probably two, three years away, but we’re getting there inch by inch.”

According to Goosmann, it will take time for the average citizen to benefit from the progress being made. But that progress is coming.

“It’s going to be years before we really see the full scope of what this is going to do for the mountains,” Goosmann said. “But the ball is starting to roll downhill, and it’s going to gain momentum.

New policy at Tuscola touches off student dissent

In the 1970s, blue jeans and boys with shaggy hair were as scandalous in Western North Carolina schools as miniskirts and pants sagging well below the waist are today.

Teenage fashion continues marching onward in its evolution, leaving school administrators constantly scrambling to modernize dress codes. Keeping up with the times while maintaining a distraction-free learning environment has become a delicate dance school leaders take up year after year.

That endless tug-of-war has prompted two Haywood County high schools to take strides in opposite directions this fall.

After an experimental year with a decidedly vague dress code, Tuscola High School in Waynesville is clamping down with strict, clear-cut guidelines. All students need to comply is a card — an ID card, a driver’s license, a debit or credit card — used to measure everything from the height of skirts above the knee cap to the width of tank top straps.

Meanwhile, Central Haywood High, an alternative school in Clyde, has created a more liberal dress code, no longer requiring its students to wear belts or tuck in their shirts.

Other area schools are sticking to their stricter-than-average policies. Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva requires all skirts and dresses to be knee length or longer, while Swain County High School prohibits all tank tops or sleeveless shirts of any sort.

“Knee-length is an easy measurement,” said Jay Grissom, principal at Smoky Mountain High. “There’s no extra steps involved.”

“When spring has sprung, we get a lot of cleavage,” said Regina Mathis, who recently left her post as principal of Swain County High. “Tops are too low, shorts are too short.”

No matter how strict or liberal, though, dress codes were brought up as the number one concern of teachers in at least three WNC schools last year.

The case for stricter codes

Parents found it hard to believe their eyes as they drove up Tuscola School Drive to drop off their kids last year.

Girls donning strapless shirts and scandalously short skirts, shorts and dresses. Guys wearing tank tops and pants that were practically falling off their bodies.

“There was a lot to be seen,” said Stephanie Goodwin, assistant principal at Tuscola.

“We get to lunch, and we got half-naked bodies it seems,” said Dale McDonald, Tuscola’s principal. “It’s fine if you’re going to Myrtle Beach.”

School leaders had just debuted a radical new dress code that simply barred anything that was “disruptive.” Teachers were charged with writing up students and sending them straight to the office.

While some teachers faithfully reported dress code violations, others turned a blind eye to inappropriate outfits. That inconsistency worked against students who didn’t know what to expect with each new class. It also worked in favor of students who argued to their fourth period teacher that there hadn’t been an issue with their short shorts during homeroom.

By the end of the 2009-2010 year, Tuscola administrators acknowledged the failure of their liberal policy and got to work coming up with a replacement.

They thoroughly researched dress codes in surrounding counties and came up with what they believed constituted the middle of the road.

The basics: Students cannot wear anything shorter than a card’s length above their knees. Their tops cannot be lower than a card’s length below their collarbones. Pants must be worn at the waist with no undergarments in view and no holes above the knee. Leggings worn underneath provide no excuse for any violations of the above.

A few of the schools Goodwin looked at had dress codes that prohibited facial piercing, mascara, flip-flops and hair dye — all of which are allowed on Tuscola’s campus.

“A girl here today, her hair was rainbow,” said Goodwin. “That’s fine. That’s her way of expressing something.”

At the same time, Goodwin sees the need to set clear boundaries for attire, whether or not students agree.

“They may be used to dressing that way,” said Goodwin. “At the same time, is it the time or is it the place? School is not a time to look like you’re at the beach.”

Students fuming

Most Tuscola students were angry, or apathetic at best, over the new policy. They often echoed each other in their reactions to the new dress code.

“I think it’s stupid,” said junior Alex Dotson. “We didn’t have a dress code last year. They’re so strict on us this year.”

Dotson is particularly displeased with the longer shorts requirement.

“You can’t find any cute shorts like that unless you cut off your jeans,” Dotson said.

Like a few of her fellow students, Dotson is outright opposed to a dress code on principle.

“I think they should just let us be who we want to be and wear what we want to wear,” Dotson said.

Other students see a need for a dress code, but say the latest one is too strict.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. It think they went overboard with it,” said sophomore Brooke Ferguson. “I like the fact of having a dress code, just not one like we have. Everyone’s talking about it.”

“It doesn’t really affect me, but I know tons of girls are furious about it,” said senior Joey Cutting. “It’s hard for a lot of people. They don’t want to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe.”

“I think that a Mormon church bought our school,” joked Arron Gibson, a 17-year-old senior.

Gibson said he knew many students who had to head back to the stores to replace their wardrobes.

Eli Haynes, 15, was one of them. Many of the shorts that she bought at the beginning of the summer were suddenly prohibited at school. Her mother, Leah Crisp, wasn’t thrilled when she received notice of the new dress code six weeks before the school year started.

Though she was able to afford new clothes for Eli, Crisp pointed that not all families were as fortunate.

“What about children who may not have a lot of money?” said Crisp. “If they had told us at the end of the school year, then we would have been prepared.”

Tuscola’s latest dress code seems stricter than the one Waynesville Middle School had when Eli was attending, according to Crisp.

Though she doesn’t agree with every aspect of the code, Crisp acknowledged it would help prepare students for a professional environment once they graduate.

Principal McDonald, too, emphasized that part of the school’s job is to teach character education.

“Integrity, confidence, self-respect, all those things play into that,” said McDonald.

Gibson remains unconvinced that the stricter dress code is necessary, however.

“They claim it’s because of distraction,” Gibson said. “Any time you have a coed school, there’s going to be distraction regardless.”

The flip side

Donna Parris, lead teacher at Central Haywood High, estimates that 30 percent of the students refused to comply with the dress code last year.

It was a source of nonstop disruption in classrooms. One student after another would be removed from class, and teachers had to sacrifice breaks to monitor students’ attire during lunch.

At the heart of the problem was that students were forced to tuck in their shirts and wear belts — rules that even teachers weren’t thrilled about enforcing.

“We did not feel passionate about keeping this up and letting it interfere with our school,” Parris said. “We want to teach the kids. We don’t want to be so concerned about how they dress, as long as they’re appropriate.”

“We were spending more time on the dress code than we was on the kid getting an education,” said Tara Leatherwood, secretary for Central Haywood.

Modernizing the dress code seemed like the best option moving forward.

“We know it’s the 21st century. It’s not the 1950s,” said Jeff Haney, Central Haywood’s new principal.  “We know they want to dress with style, but we also want to keep it modest.”

Many alternative schools see students only for a short stay before they return to their original schools. It isn’t uncommon for these schools to require uniforms for their temporary students. But most of the students at Central Haywood continue their education there until they graduate.

“We’re not a punishment place. We’re long-term,” said Parris. “The kids feel at home. They also wanted to feel comfortable.”

The school had required all students to wear collared shirts and khakis about six years ago. But dress requirements have been loosened ever since. Students still must wear collared shirts, but jeans, shorts and skirts in solid colors are now allowed.

With the more lenient dress code in place, Central Haywood teachers have already noticed a major improvement just a few days after school started this year.

“A couple of shorts too short, other than that, it’s been a pretty good deal,” said Parris. “The teachers are like, ‘Whew! This is so much better.’ We’re all happier.”

A few wrong turns on the way to paradise

I grabbed my guidebook and pen and wrapped my camera in a plastic grocery bag as it started to rain. Stuffing it all into my backpack, I headed down the ancient looking road, nothing but two narrow ruts overgrown by tall weeds. I wasn’t going back to Waynesville till I found waterfall 50.

I was approaching the last day of my internship, and I had less than four days to complete an online map identifying, describing and providing directions for waterfalls in our widespread Western North Carolina coverage area.

The road lead to a smaller path that headed straight for the creek, and I sloshed upstream in search of the trail on the other side. The path weaved from bank to bank, and it continued to rain.

I waded up the creek around a bend, and there it was — a 60-foot beauty known simply as the Upper Waterfall on Sols Creek.

Two months ago, with Kevin Adams’ waterfall map spread out on a Rubbermaid tub filled with back newspaper issues in the office, some coworkers and I decided which waterfalls to include in the map.

The list of potentials was daunting. More than 270 waterfalls fell in our four-county coverage area and neighboring parts of Transylvania County. With so little time, seeing them all would be impossible.

Since we don’t distribute papers in Transylvania, most of the county’s beautiful falls got axed from the list first, followed by those that involved bushwhacking or hiking more than two miles to access.

After having lived in Charlotte for 10 years and being the descendent of Midwestern farmers and Lutheran pastors, I didn’t want to do anything that would test my limited high-country outdoors experience beyond its limits.

With friends headed on vacations or tied up with summer jobs, my pool of hiking partners dwindled. And although I was afraid to venture out on my own, I had to reconcile myself to the fear of getting lost because if I didn’t get started soon on my own, I’d never finish.

About a month and a half later — and about 30 waterfalls into my journey — I set out to find Yellowstone Falls in Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway. My directions, in short, said to find a trail at the back of a couple of campsites and follow a path to the river.

I never found the path to the river. Instead I found a path that at first seemed like the right one, but eventually dwindled to nothing more than trodden grass, and beyond that a thick maze of tangled, impenetrable rhododendron bushes. When I tried to find my way back, I reached another dead end at a blackberry briar.

Had I not just come this way? A sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach overtook me. I was lost.

I retraced my steps back and forth a few more times, then started to rip out pages of my reporter’s notebook, leaving them on the tree branches I passed.

Making no progress, I sat down at a small campfire ring. Small grassy footpaths like the one I came in on spread out like a spiderweb from where I sat. I dug my phone out of my backpack and figured the worst thing I could do was panic. Thank God for cell phone towers — I had one bar.

I called my editor, Becky Johnson. She studied a trail map of the area on the other line, but I still couldn’t determine which direction was out. She gave me the number for the Forest Service, and I called them next.

A few hours later, I heard them yelling my name from the other side of a blackberry briar a couple hundred feet away. They stomped a path through the blackberry thicket. I was getting out and going home!

After loafing around my apartment the next Saturday, convincing myself I had better things to do than hike, I finally found the gumption to face Graveyard Fields again.

I didn’t try to find Yellowstone Falls but had to get Upper Falls crossed off the list. I found a few hikers eating blueberries and followed them to the waterfall.

Even having to face what scarred me most didn’t dull the obsession with the Western North Carolina landscape that brought me to a summer internship at The Smoky Mountain News.

I knew that if there was paradise on Earth, it had to be at the base of some of the region’s waterfalls. And I wanted to see them all, but I now know that’s impossible.

So as I pack my boxes and prepare for my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m left with the same sentiment most reporters feel when the deadline approaches for their big stories: I wish I had more time.

For now, 50 waterfalls will have to do.

— Elizabeth Jensen

The allure of falling water

Although most people are drawn to waterfalls, many pause before they can articulate why. For some, it’s the sound of the water tumbling over the rocks. For others, it’s the sheer beauty or tranquility.

“Everybody loves them, but nobody can tell you why,” said Kevin Adams, author of North Carolina Waterfalls, A Hiking and Photography Guide. “We’re just mesmerized by them.”

• View the interactive map of 50 selected waterfalls in WNC

• See also: A few wrong turns on the way to paradise 

Part of Adams’ love for waterfalls stems from his passion for photography.

Sometimes he’ll take ladders and ropes or swim with his camera to get the shot he wants. But he’s careful and has never hurt himself at a waterfall.

“I respect them. I know how dangerous they are,” Adams said. “I have a wife I love very much that I want to come home to.”

For a quarter of a century, Adams had been trying to shoot a picture of a moonbow, a rainbow caused by the light of the moon instead of the sun. And last winter, he got the shot after standing for 45 minutes in the freezing spray of Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River.

With eight inches of snow on the ground and temperatures dipping to 15 degrees, Adams’ camera, clothes and tripod were covered with a thin layer of ice. But he didn’t notice — not until he started heading back to his car.

Whatever the power of attraction may be, the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority knows the ability waterfalls have to draw visitors to the area.

“We understand that waterfalls are one of our greatest resources and attractions,” said Julie Spiro, tourism director in Jackson County.

Spiro has capitalized on being at the heart of waterfall country by creating a map of 19 waterfalls in or near Jackson County. They go through 50,000 of the brochures every year.

“We hand them out all the time,” Spiro said. “It is the most popular product we put out. It’s a wonderful relaxing thing to do that’s still free.”

Spiro has been to all the waterfalls on the map so she can give accurate instructions to visitors. If a tourist can only see one waterfall, she recommends Whitewater Falls, which at 411 feet is the highest waterfall on the East Coast.

“This is the one that will make the biggest impact on their memory,” she said.

Adams also has had great success with his guidebook and photography, so much so that he was able to quit his carpentry job about five years ago and follow his passion fulltime.

His parents always talked about writing a guidebook on North Carolina waterfalls after seeing Lineville, Whitewater and Looking Glass falls on vacation. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Adams took on the task.

In 1992, Adams made a cold call to the John F. Blair publishing house in Winston-Salem to see if the guidebook was a feasible idea. He got an answer he wasn’t expecting.

The publisher just happened to be looking for someone to write a book on waterfalls and invited Adams in for an interview. He landed the job. It took Adams a year to do the research and six months to write before the book went to press in 1994.

The waterfall gurus

Adams has seen more than 800 waterfalls — likely more than anyone else alive. But he remains humble about his expertise and willing to share his knowledge. When someone calls him a “guru” or refers to his book as a “waterfall Bible,” he chuckles.

“I realize I know more about North Carolina waterfalls than anyone else on the planet, but I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “Nobody will ever come close to seeing all of them.”

Like Adams, visiting waterfalls is a part of both Jordan Mitchell’s family heritage and publishing success. But Mitchell has gone the online route, posting his information about waterfalls online at northcarolinawaterfalls.info.

The website draws 150,000 unique visitors every month during the summer.

“I have this dueling interest between the outdoors and computers,” he said. “This allows them to come together.”

Between his fulltime job as a software developer and as a new father, Mitchell only makes it to waterfalls a few times a month — still more than most people do in a year, but not enough by Mitchell’s standards.

His daughter, Harper, was only 5 months old when he took her to her first waterfall — also one of the first waterfalls he had ever been to, Douglas Falls in Buncombe County. At the base of the falls, the chronically fussy baby simply stared at the water in silence.

“She was more thrilled than I could imagine she’d be,” he said. “She was mesmerized.”

Why the rush?

Bryson City writer and naturalist George Ellison said he thinks part of the reason people are fascinated with waterfalls is that they activate all five senses, likening the experience of standing at the base of a waterfall to walking into a bakery.

But there may be an even stronger scientific reason behind people’s fascination with waterfalls and for the euphoric feeling many have at the base of a waterfall.

Rushing water in waterfalls releases negatively charged ions. Once they’re breathed in and begin to circulate in the blood, negative ions trigger biochemical reactions that increase the production of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which can reduce stress, lift the mood and increase energy, according to “Negative Ions Create Positive Vibes” written by WebMD reporter Denise Mann and reviewed by Dr. Brunilda Nazario. They also increase the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain.

“The air circulating in the mountains and the beach is said to contain tens of thousands of negative ions — much more than the average home or office building, which contains dozens or hundreds, and many register a flat zero,” Mann wrote.

But  some scientists remain skeptical of the claim. And many waterfall goers feel the escape the scenery offers is enough to lift their spirits.

“I enjoy taking the day off from work and getting away from it all,” said Tom Mendenhall after hiking with his brother and friend to reach Wardens Falls in Panthertown earlier this month.

Wayne Joyce, Mendenhall’s friend with a vacation home in Cashiers, said he plans most of his hikes around waterfalls, often eating lunch at the base. Wardens Falls is one of his favorites.

“We hiked five miles to get here so we must like it,” he said.

That same day, Dawn Lavers came to Wardens Falls with her friends and family, who recently moved to Lake Toxaway from Florida.

“We only come when we really don’t have to be anywhere,” she said. “You don’t ever want to be rushed to leave.”

Lavers said that there’s beauty in every waterfall, but that each one is beautiful for a different reason. Some are powerful and dangerous; whereas, others are tranquil and secluded or make for great swimming holes.

The beauty of the region’s waterfalls was enough to lure Rich Stevenson, founder and developer of ncwaterfalls.com, to move to the mountains from Raleigh.

While he was working at Federal Express, Stevenson visited friends in the mountains who took him on a tour of the chain of falls on the Horsepasture River, including Turtleback and Rainbow Falls.

“I used to be a big beach person, but after that I kept coming back to the mountains,” he said.

Stevenson quit the two jobs he had in the Triangle and moved to Western North Carolina. Since then, he estimates he’s seen 400 to 500 falls. Some of the falls he heard about from locals he worked with at his manufacturing job in Candler — locals who’ve spent their entire lives exploring and fly-fishing in the backcountry.

“Once they realize I wasn’t a city wacko, they’ve turned me on to some places,” he said.

In 1999, Stevenson began posting his waterfall finds online. And in 2001, he launched ncwaterfalls.com, one of the most comprehensive online indexes of North Carolina waterfalls.

“At first I thought I was the only fool out there looking for waterfalls,” Stevenson said.

But Stevenson was wrong. The site has grown to include about 280 waterfalls and receives between 1,000 and 2,000 unique visitors a day.

Waterfall hunters

Stevenson soon learned there was a circle of waterfall hunters like himself, those who will strike out along a creek coursing over steep terrain, sometimes bushwhacking and sometimes wading their way down the mountain hoping to discover a previously unknown waterfall.

Stevenson’s swing shift job keeps him from exploring new falls as often as he’d like. Usually, his friend Bernie Boyer, a retired man in his seventies, will study topographic maps, discover a new falls and take Stevenson to it on his next trip.

But sometimes Stevenson finds time to hop in a creek bed and head upstream in hopes of discovering something himself.

“Usually the first thing is that you hear the sound,” he said. “You feel your heart pounding a little bit. There’s a real excitement knowing there’s something around the corner.”

But when it comes to the relatively undiscovered falls, Stevenson and Adams use discretion before making directions available to the public.

Although some of sights they discover are spectacular, the environment at the base of the falls is fragile, covered in rare plant and animal species. A plethora of hikers would destroy the falls’ unique inhabitants.

“You go there and you see that it looks like nobody’s been there for 100 years,” Stevenson said.

Some of the most unique species located at waterfalls are rare ferns, typically found only in the tropics. Because these species of ferns in North Carolina don’t grow to their adult form, they don’t look like a typical fern. They are usually only a small leaf.

The species grow in low light and moist, cool environments, the conditions found behind a waterfall.

“You have a small area with a lot of diversity in a microclimate,” said Anya E. Hinkle, Highlands Biological Station associate director. “Even if it’s hot, a waterfall really cools things off quickly.”

Figuring out how the species took root at North Carolina waterfalls can solve mysteries related to plant migration or provide geographical clues about how the areas were once located closer together before the continents shifted to their present positions.

Naturalist George Ellison often leads flora tours to waterfalls to view the unique plants. He’s seen many of the area’s falls, but some of his fondest memories come from Little Creek Falls, a small-flow, nearly vertical cascade in a lesser known area of the Great Smoky National Park outside Bryson City.

He would take his children to the falls decades ago before the public property in front park entrance came under the ownership of a trout farm.

“People are naturally attracted to the larger ones like Whitewater Falls,” Ellison said. “But those aren’t the ones that mean the most to people around here.”

It’s one of those smaller waterfalls that Kevin Adams holds a particular fondness for. Although he doesn’t usually name the falls he discovers, he named one in the Nantahala National Forest Loretta Falls after his mom.

“She instilled the love of waterfalls in me,” he said. “I knew she would absolutely love it.”

The falls is the tall freefall of a small creek. At the base of the falls, there’s no pool, only thick moss and ferns and some tall hemlock trees.

“It’s a really nice feeling to walk up to a waterfall that you’ve never seen before,” Adams said. “I got to tell you that’s one hell of a feeling, standing there in front of it.”

Who’s visiting the Smokies?

While conducting a research study a few years ago, tourism official David Huskins came across an Atlanta resident who thought the Blue Ridge Parkway meandered its way through Kentucky.

Another focus group participant said all he knew about the Smokies was what he saw in the movie “Deliverance,” which doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the region.

An African-American woman flipped through travel guides and said while Western North Carolina looked picturesque, she wouldn’t go.

“She said, ‘There’s no one in here that looks like me,’” said Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a travel promotion organization for the seven counties west of Asheville.

Researching tourists — both real and potential — sometimes amounts to a harsh reality check, according to Huskins. But it’s what he believes is necessary to greatly improve efforts to market Western North Carolina as a tourist destination.

“That’s the thing we’re lacking ... You want the research to drive your marketing decisions,” said Huskins. “Demographics, what people like, don’t like, we need to be doing that on an ongoing basis.”

Research can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, though, making it less feasible for tourism entities operating on tight budgets. The latest study on Western North Carolina scrutinized tourist demographics back in 2008.

Then, the average tourist to the North Carolina side of the Smokies was a 51-year-old Caucasian with a household income of $53,500.

Most visitors traveled without kids and came for the scenery, to relax and to hike. Predictably, the area was rated lowest by past visitors for “nightlife,” “cell phone reception” and “theme parks.”

Changing any of the latter three might assist in attracting younger visitors, but tourism officials are instead promoting ample opportunities to reconnect youth with the great outdoors.

With more and more kids glued to video games, the Internet and their iPods, fewer families are making their way to the Smokies for outdoor adventure.

Still, outdoor recreation and scenic beauty continue to drive millions of visitors to the region every summer and fall. The types of tourists attracted to WNC fluctuate in their numbers, but tourism remains a staple of the region’s economy.

A changing demographic

Decades ago, the bread and butter of summer tourism in WNC came from blue-collar workers employed at textile mills in North and South Carolina.

One factory after another would shut down for a week or two of summer vacation. Each week would bring a new batch of workers who had saved up all year for an annual vacation to the mountains with their families.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the Carolinas began losing much of their traditional industries, and the mills began closing their doors for good.

With that came a major shift in the kind of tourists who frequented WNC.

“We lost that segment, that blue-collar worker,” said Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for Cherokee. “It’s like a new generation now and new people.”

Driven by nostalgia, some loyal visitors continued returning to the Smokies, along with their kids and grandkids.

For decades, WNC enjoyed a high rate of repeat visitors, which has been both advantageous and problematic.

As the baby boomers devoted to WNC grow older, the target market begins to die out, literally. The goal now is to bring in new visitors who then will restart the cycle.

Capturing the attention of youth is important in keeping visitors coming back for more as they grow old.

“You’re not going to see a 70-year-old rafting down the Nantahala,” Huskins pointed out.

Older visitors concerned about saving up for retirement are also less likely to spend than younger visitors.

“They’re not going to spend money frivolously,” said Ferguson.

Gen Xers have started showing up heavily in the region, and they’ve already distinguished themselves from their predecessors.

“They’re more active; whereas a lot of folks previously had come for natural beauty and the sightseeing, just to rest and relax,” said Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

Gen Xers come to the Smokies for all kinds of outdoor recreation, whether it’s hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking or rafting.

Karen Wilmot, director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that she, too, was seeing more young, active tourists beginning to visit WNC.

According to Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association, many tourists there are outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from 25 to 45 in age. However, also in the mix are adventurous 50-somethings who come to hike, bike and tent camp.

Spiro said these older visitors are enjoying a renewal of their passion for the outdoors, something that had probably been put on hold as they juggled careers and kids.

Huskins agrees there are a sizeable number of middle-aged couples out mountain biking.

“What we are not seeing is kids on those trails, on those bicycles,” said Huskins.

Families heading elsewhere

Fewer families with young children are flocking to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for a chance to camp under the stars, according to Huskins.

Kids are not as attracted to the mountains, rivers, rocks and trees as their parents and grandparents were in their childhood.

It’s a trend that concerns Huskins and his colleagues.

“We are an outdoor mecca,” said Huskins. “We’re trying to market the region to get more families interested.”

Losing attractions like amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky and a zoo that had operated in Maggie Valley for decades also put a damper on family visitors.

Ghost Town brought in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years. After filing for bankruptcy and being plagued by a landslide on top of that, the Western-theme amusement park remains closed for the time being.

“That eliminates a lot of families that would normally come here,” said Collins. “When you all of a sudden don’t have that available, it makes a huge difference in the mix of folks that do come into the area.”

Even if the park reopens, it must reinvent itself if it hopes to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors again, according to Huskins.

“If you’re in the tourism business, you have to reinvent yourself every day,” said Huskins. “It’s got to be more than a rollercoaster and a shoot-out on Main Street.”

Some areas are faring better than others in terms of family visitors, however.

Gem mining in Macon County and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroads in Swain both attract thousands of families to the region.

The Railroad opened a depot in Bryson City in the late 1980s, greatly stimulating the downtown area. Two years ago the railroad moved its administrative offices from Dillsboro to Bryson City and made that depot it headquarters, bringing even more traffic to the Swain County town. Wilmot, who grew up in Bryson City, recalls what the town looked like in the shoulder months before the railroad came along.

“Sidewalks were rolled up. We were gone until Memorial Day,” said Wilmot.

But with the specialty Polar Express train running each winter, Bryson City sees a total of 40,000 riders from November through December.

“That’s a great thing for our local economy in a time we previously had nothing,” said Wilmot.

Now, Bryson City businesses coordinate festivities to complement events at the Railroad. For example, the downtown trick or treat event, coordinated with the Great Pumpkin Patch Express train, draws 3,000 people in just three hours.

Tracking the trends

Changes in tourist demographics would likely seem minute to most lay people, but officials are maintaining watch and picking up on the trends.

Cherokee visitors tend to be more affluent than ever before. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is now marketing toward educated individuals with a household income of more than $75,000.

Cherokee is also focusing on promoting outdoor activities, which have always drawn tourists.

“We’ve always attracted people who enjoy the outdoors and a slower way of life, just being surrounded by beauty,” said Ferguson.

Meanwhile, Swain County has seen an influx of Horace Kephart scholars to visit the famous author’s grave. Bryson City has even come up with an annual celebration in honor of Kephart.

During tough economic times, Jackson County is especially highlighting its outdoor activities that don’t come with a charge.

The Jackson County Chamber is also promoting a free weekly concert series in Sylva this summer.

“Some of the best fun is free,” said Spiro.

With the recession limiting how far most people can afford to travel, Cashiers is seeing more families and young couples from the Atlanta area coming up for the weekend.

“People with money are not flying overseas,” said Sue Bumgarner, executive director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce. “They’re taking vacations closer to home.”

Cashiers promotes its outdoor offerings, but makes sure not to overwhelm potential visitors.

“We let them know you can come here and be as busy as you want or lazy as you want,” said Bumgarner.

Wilmot concurs, letting visitors know they can spend a lazy afternoon in Deep Creek or enjoy peaceful kayaking on Fontana Lake. If visitors would like to camp without the hassles, guides can do all the grunt work.

“You’re not dealing with a 50-pound pack and two small children,” said Wilmot. “They cook for you, clean up the site for you.”

WNC tourism trends

Motorcyclists

Maggie Valley business owners have seen an uptick in motorcycle enthusiasts with the opening of the Wheels through Time Museum.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, says many more motorcyclists are rushing to the Smokies to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Dragon and other twisty roads.

More motorcycle rallies in Haywood have attracted bikers, but they’re not the kind of bikers most would expect.

O’Keefe said while convertibles were the go-to vehicle for the wealthy in the past, it’s now motorcycles that are the status symbols.

“We see doctors, lawyers, more upper-class people riding expensive bikes,” said David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism organization.

Moreover, motorcycles aren’t only for males. More females are riding their own bikes rather than taking a backseat.

Visitors who stay

With beautiful environs situated relatively close to major metropolitan areas, WNC has long attracted second- and third-homeowners from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and other Southeastern states.

Many of these part-time residents visit before buying. The second-home market especially spiked in the mid-1980s and continued to grow — until the recession stopped it in its tracks.

“This is the first recession that actually hit the luxury market,” said David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism organization. “Previously, they’ve been immune to that.”

Karen Wilmot, Swain County Chamber of Commerce director, testified to a surge of second-home buyers there in the past five years. When folks in Atlanta realize they can get to WNC in three hours, the area shoots up in popularity.

But the Swain Chamber doesn’t deliberately advertise the area as an ideal place for a second residence.

“We don’t really push it as come and live. We push it as come and stay,” said Wilmot.

Word of mouth is the best marketing tool by far, according to Wilmot.

Foreigners

The Smokies have witnessed a noticeable rise in foreign visitors in the last decade. Favorable currency rates and concentrated international marketing have brought more Germans and Brits to the region than ever before.

Many international tourists are flying into Washington, D.C., picking up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, getting off in Cherokee, then flying back out from Atlanta.

More Scandinavian and Swedish tourists are beginning to join their German, English, Irish and Scottish counterparts in the Smokies.

Fishing

After Maggie Valley and Waynesville were designated Mountain Heritage Trout Waters cities two years ago, more families are coming to the area to take kids fishing. The designation means anyone can pick up a three-day fishing license for just $5 and check out equipment at discounted prices.

Jackson County has also seen a rise in visitors after instituting a fly-fishing trail and ap two years ago. Visitors are coming from as far away as Texas and Montana for the first time.

Cherokee has also become a fly-fishing Mecca after opening catch-and-release sections on Raven Fork and the Oconaluftee River stocked with trophy trout.

Fido-friendly

Jackson County is seeing more tourists traveling with pets – so many that it has added a pet icon to its visitor guides to let tourists know which accommodations allow pets.

Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, said it may seem like a minor trend, but traveling with pets is becoming more important than ever to consumers.

Over in Macon County, the new Smoky Mountain Performing Arts Center in Franklin has led to a rise in traveling concert-goers. Visitors from outside WNC are now heading to Franklin to see their favorite musicians perform.

Summer poses challenge for feeding low-income kids

Thousands of poor and low-income children across Western North Carolina rely on schools to get least at one square meal a day, but with classes now out for summer, there’s no easy solution for keeping kids fed.

“This question has been asked many times, and we’re trying to come up with a solution for the problem,” said Beth Stahl, MANNA Food Bank youth programs coordinator. “It’s scary to know they don’t have nutrition on a regular basis. We’re trying to fill in the gaps, but it’s a slow process.”

Throughout North Carolina, about 700,000 children qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, but only 53,000 or about 8 percent get free meals during the summer, said Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Ervin said. “I believe we can do better than 8 percent.”

The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses approved programs $1.85 per breakfast, $3.25 per lunch and 76 cents per snack.

But nonprofits, schools or other programs have to be in charge of preparing the food and keeping up with the paperwork required for reimbursement.

“It’s definitely one of the most needed federal programs,” Ervin said. “But it is the most underutilized program.”

In Macon County, 66.6 percent of the 4,239 students enrolled in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But no programs are in place to ensure those 2,825 children get good nutrition during the summer.

“It’s because we don’t have organizations that are interested or aware of the program,” Ervin said. “They just haven’t stepped up to the plate.”

Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties all have free meal centers and programs to reach kids who need food. But the number of kids fed during the summer through these programs still falls well below the number eligible for free or reduced meals during the school year.

In all three counties, any child up to 18-years-old can simply go during the right time to an open meal site and get a free meal. Proof of lower-income status isn’t required in counties where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year.

In Jackson County, 52 percent or about 1,500 to 1,800 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year, said Jim Hill, director of child nutrition. But in summers past, free lunch and breakfast programs have served only about 250 meals a day.

This year, Hill anticipates that number will double, he said.

“There is a major effort in North Carolina to get the feeding numbers up, and we want to be a part of that,” Hill said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to get a lot of people involved.”

Led by Jeffery Vickery, senior pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church, volunteers are delivering lunch to children at four free meal sites in the Tuckasegee, Cullowhee and Canada communities every weekday this summer to expand the reach of the program to more remote areas.

“These kids are spread out in little pockets everywhere,” Hill said. “You want to take it right to their neighborhood, and that’s the tough part.”

Vickery met with school officials to determine which areas had the poorest children and estimated the number of meals to prepare based on how many kids get off at nearby school bus stops.

“This is filling a gap that no one else has,” Vickery said. “The children needed the food. We are just a conduit willing to do it.”

Staff at Smoky Mountain High School prepares lunches that meet strict government nutrition guidelines, and Vickery and his crew deliver them.

Last week — the first week the four satellite sites were open — Cullowhee Baptist Church distributed 151 meals, Vickery said. He anticipates the number will increase as more children learn about the sites, he said. On Fridays, the students also get bags of food to take home for the weekend.

“We said going in that if there were four or five kids who didn’t go hungry this summer, it would be a success,” Vickery said.

Even with the new meal sites, about two-thirds of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year aren’t taking advantage of summer feedings.

“The big challenge is that there’s other children we can’t get to,” Vickery said. “The difficulty is knowing we could feed twice as many if we had other people willing to host a site.”

Although Jackson County has seen a great improvement in the number of children getting lunch during the summer, Swain and Haywood counties only have one location where meals are served to the general student population.

In Swain County, 1,230 of 1,880 or 64 percent of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price meals during the school year, said Diane Shuler, Swain County school food service director.

Swain County Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at the Swain Middle School cafeteria seven weeks during the summer, starting next week.

Last year, between 140 and 150 kids came to the middle school each day to get food. Most of those children attend summer camps. Few come in off the street, Shuler said.

Although Haywood County has several meal sites, only one — the Pigeon Community Center — is open to the general public. The rest serve students in specific summer day camps.

The Pigeon Community Center also offers a summer camp for eight or nine weeks each summer and usually enrolls between 37 and 47 children, program coordinator Lin Forney said.

Forney said the day camp focuses on children whose families can’t afford other summer camps. For the entire summer, the camp costs $200. But any child up to 18 years old can come in for breakfast or lunch, Forney said.

Besides a handful of children just down the street from the center, relatively few children come in for the meals, Forney said. She said she never sees children from other parts of the county like Canton, Clyde or Maggie Valley.

“The major issue is transportation,” Forney said. “Awareness is another factor.”

During the school year, 42 percent of enrolled students in Haywood County Schools are eligible for free lunch and another 9 percent can receive reduce priced lunch. Allison Francis, Haywood County director of child nutrition, said she is sure some children fall through the cracks, and other organizations are stepping up to try to fill the gaps.

In addition to meal sites this year, MANNA Food Bank is supplying food to Haywood Christian Ministries, which in turn will distribute it every Friday to eligible kids through a program called Summer Sacks.

The kids will receive between four and a half and five pounds of food, which may include pasta meals like Hamburger Helper, dried beans, rice, fruits, vegetables and a smaller bag of kids’ snacks, Stahl said.

“With what the family is already receiving from the food bank, I would say it would last about a week,” Stahl said.

Summer Sacks is a spin-off of a similar effort in Haywood County during the school year. School counselors identify students in need of extra food on weekends, and teachers stuff it in the kids’ backpacks on Fridays to get them through until Monday, Stahl said.

The last week of school, these same students got notes put in their backpacks to let their parents know they can pick up extra food bags at the Haywood Christian Ministries this summer.

Nobody knows how many kids will come for the summer backpacks, however, Stahl said.

The Summer Sack program started with a food drive led by Bonnie Williams with the Waynesville office of Keller Williams Realty. The company does regular service projects, and Williams raised the question in a planning meeting for their spring project.

“I said, ‘Does anybody know where these kids get their food in the summer?’” Williams said. “Over the summer there would be two months where they wouldn’t get food. So we decided to take it on.”

The realtors gathered food at four locations in Waynesville and collected more than 1,500 pounds of food on a single day in May. There was so much food, they couldn’t fit it into their cars to take to MANNA. Instead MANNA had to send a truck, Williams said.

“We didn’t know how much food it would take so we worked our butts off,” Williams said.

 

Summer meal sites for school kids

Jackson County

• Tuckasegee Baptist Church

• River Park Trailer Park (Cullowhee)

• Jackson County Recreation Complex

• Canada Community

Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Haywood County

• Pigeon Community Center

Breakfast 8:30 – 9:30 a.m.

Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Swain County

• Swain Middle School

Breakfast 7:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Lunch 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Macon County

• None

 

Wanting to help?

Organizations interested in sponsoring meal sites should contact Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Ervin begins recruiting new sponsors in the fall and visits potential organizations. Organizations must apply and be approved before they can get reimbursement, and volunteers must go through training.

There’s no minimum requirement for how many days or weeks an eligible organization serves meals during the summer or how many kids get fed through the site, Ervin said.

“We want them to do whatever they are capable of doing,” Ervin said.

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