Quintin Ellison

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Among new state laws taking effect this week is Susie’s Law, which promises the possibility of judges being able to sentence even first-time offenders to jail for being cruel to animals.

Animal-rights advocates and law officers alike have heralded the change in law — and the overall shift in attitude toward animals — as long overdue.

“I think that’s a good thing,” said Macon County Sheriff Robert “Robby” Holland, who started his career in law enforcement as a part-time animal control officer, Macon County’s first.

“These are animals that cannot defend themselves,” Holland said. “And much of the time, animal abuse and child abuse go hand-in-hand.”

Holland said during his time as an animal control officer, he investigated cases of cruelty toward animals that were taking place in front of young children. The purpose, the sheriff said, was to demonstrate the perpetrators’ power over the children.

The new law is named after a dog in Greensboro who was burned, beaten and left for dead, outraging residents of that city when the perpetrator received probation. Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, was the primary sponsor of the bill.

Penny Wallace, executive director of Haywood Animal Welfare Association, agreed with Holland that animal cruelty, while bad in and of itself, is also often a signal of abuse toward humans, as well.

“My personal opinion is it is the same as spousal or child abuse,” Wallace said, adding there is often a “trickledown” of cruelty.

The law makes extreme animal cruelty a felony. Other new laws also went into effect Dec. 1, including:

• A ban on video sweepstakes machines. The games imitate slot machines. There are court cases that might influence whether this particular set of legislation goes forward to enforcement, however.

• The rear license plate on vehicles must now be fully visible to law enforcement officers. License plate frames and covers cannot conceal a number or letter, state name or registration sticker. The fine if cited can go up to $100.

• Residents will no longer be charged $1 in postage and handling fees by the state Division of Motor Vehicles after renewing registrations through the U.S. mail.

• Commercial driver licenses will expire five years after being issued because of hazardous-materials regulations. Prior to this change, commercial driver licenses expired when the drivers’ Class C licenses expired.

• The number of dealer license plates issued is now tied to previous sales volume and the number of qualified sales representatives working with a car dealer.

• Drivers’ licenses terms increases to eight years for people ages 18 to 65. A driver’s license for someone age 66 or older expires after five years. Previously, the law required a five-year license for those age 55 or older. This law takes effect Jan. 1.

• Anyone violating a domestic-violence protective order to stay away from a spouse or other companion by trespassing or remaining on the premises of a domestic-violence shelter where the protected person is staying will be charged with a felony. Domestic-violence shelters also have been given immunity from lawsuits if someone violates a protective order.

• New state ethics laws have been strengthened. It is illegal for elected state official to threaten or promise preferential treatment to someone doing business with the state in exchange for campaign contributions. Even candidates are subject to this new law.


In his initial bid for political office, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., often seemed unsure of himself.

The former NFL quarterback, while clearly comfortable in the limelight, had difficulty articulating his political beliefs and staking out positions. Back in 2006 there were jokes among reporters about the difficult task of extracting printable quotes from the Swain County native, who now lives in Haywood County.

That was then.

These days, Shuler, who turns 39 this month, seems transformed. Leading up to the Nov. 2 election, he displayed intellectual agility and political aggressiveness in debates with Republican challenger Jeff Miller, who often relied on notes to combat the incumbent’s grasp of current issues. After trouncing Miller and winning his third term in office, Shuler turned his attention toward elevating his standing in the Democratic Party, left stumbling for answers following a thrashing in the midterm elections.

This time, Shuler took a calculated loss. He challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for the soon-to-be-open position of minority leader. Pelosi, speaker of the House, has been demonized as a liberal harridan by her Republican foes. Democrats had to defend against being paired with her by opponents during the election. Even Shuler, pro-life and pro-gun Blue Dog Democrat that he is, felt the need to run ads declaring: “I am not Nancy Pelosi.”

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of his challenge to Pelosi. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”

That would be because the leadership, as personified by Pelosi, needs to be more moderate and centrist, Shuler said. Just like him.

And just like that, Shuler emerged a player on the national stage. He was interviewed on CNN and other major networks and cable shows. He was featured in news articles from sea to shining sea, quoted on the front pages of the nation’s greatest newspapers. Not bad for a boy from the mountains of Western North Carolina who could play a bit of football.

It certainly doesn’t hurt Shuler’s prospects that his now-polished speaking abilities are complemented by a winning political combination of awe-shucks country boy manners and photogenic good looks.


“Big tent” sure has a nice ring

The vote came on Nov. 17. Shuler versus Pelosi was not exactly David and Goliath, but those underdog overtones were evident in the news coverage that followed. As predicted, Shuler lost, 150 to 43, by secret ballot.

Shuler promptly expressed surprise he’d received so many votes, spinning defeat into a good college try. After all, he pointed out to various news agencies, the caucus he represents, the conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, shrank from 54 to 25 members in the midterm election.

That’s one of the more interesting aspects of covering Shuler these days: His ability to spin the news, plus stay on message. He finds a sound bite that works and delivers it, over and over again:

• The Huffington Post, Nov. 14: “You know, I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent.”

• Politics Daily, Nov. 15: “I can add and subtract pretty well. I don’t have the numbers to be able to win, but I think it’s a proven point for moderates and the Democrat Party that we have to be a big tent. We have to be all-inclusive. We have to invite everyone into the party.”

• Asheville Citizen-Times, Nov. 18: “We are strong because we are a big-tent party, not in spite of it.”

• To The Smoky Mountain News on his defeat: “We are the big tent party. I wanted to make sure our corner of the tent still stands strong.”


A liberal in sheep’s clothing?

Boyce Deitz is one of the most accomplished football coaches in WNC. He guided Swain County High School to five state championships, getting help from Shuler for three of those. Today, the shoe is on the other foot, with Deitz working for his former player as a field representative out of an office in Sylva.

Deitz is pleased, but not particularly surprised, to see his former football player blossom into his role as congressman.

“When he was in school he was a good student, but it didn’t come easily to him,” Deitz said. “Heath knew if he wanted to accomplish some of his goals, he had to make good grades.”

To that end, Deitz clearly remembers Shuler sitting in the school’s library putting in the necessary time studying. Shuler applied that willingness to work on the football field, as well as the classroom. Shuler focused on his weaknesses instead of glorying in his gifts. He strengthened his vast natural athletic talent, and became even better.

“I just see that same thing in him now,” Deitz said of Shuler’s ability to define goals and focus on them.

The longtime coach added he believes the former football star suffered a bad case of nerves early in his political career, but has since been able to settle down and find a comfortable stride.

After attending Swain County High School, Shuler became a standout football player for the University of Tennessee. He was a runner-up in 1993 for the Heisman Trophy. After leaving the NFL he returned to the University of Tennessee to finish a degree in psychology. He built a real-estate business in Knoxville, and moved to Waynesville in 2003.

Not everyone is as enamored of Shuler as his former coach. Kirkwood Callahan, a former college political science professor who serves as an officer in the Haywood County Republican Party, believes Shuler is guilty of posturing.

“If Shuler is a committed moderate why did he vote for Pelosi as speaker twice before?” Callahan said. “Shuler is what he is — an inconsistent opportunist who will enable the advancement of the liberal agenda in the House of Representatives when it is essential to retain favor with leftist party leaders. When there is nothing to lose with the leadership, he will resume his charade as a moderate.”

Callahan cited votes of support on cap-and-trade legislation (limits on carbon emissions, with permits for emissions issued that allows companies to buy and sell them) and card check (majority sign-up, a method for workers to organize into a labor union), saying it would have deprived workers of a secret ballot in union-organizing drives.


The inner game of politics

“I think when he came to Congress, people did see him as a retired NFL quarterback,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. “Now they see Heath as a national leader. He’s gone from being able to hold a football to holding a mike.”

Ross and Shuler are the newly minted co-chairs of the greatly diminished Blue Dog Coalition. They are also good buddies, with Ross characterizing the N.C. representative as one of his best friends in the Congress.

Ross, first elected to the House in 2000, has made no secret that his long-term goal is to help lead his home state of Arkansas. The only question is the timing of his move from national to state politics.

Shuler isn’t publicly stating what career trajectory he is seeking, though he seems much more enamored with national party politics than Ross. It is dead certain, however, that Shuler has crystal-clear goals in mind. And whatever his other shortcomings might or might not be, the football player-turned-congressman is like a chicken on a June bug once he’s focused. And these days, Shuler is looking very focused indeed.

“The game in Washington is about getting re-elected and gaining power,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who helps oversee a nonpartisan N.C. politics blog for the school’s Public Policy Institute. “Shuler’s move to run for Pelosi’s seat accomplishes both.”

The 11th Congressional District, made up of North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties, is essentially a conservative Democratic district, Cooper said. There might be more Democrats than Republicans, but by the same token, they are decidedly not Nancy Pelosi Democrats.

“Running against Pelosi sends a strong message to Shuler’s constituents that a vote for him is not a vote for Nancy Pelosi,” Cooper said. “That helps him carry over a major theme from the election and build a name brand for his next re-election. This move also accomplishes the second goal — power.”

The traditional method of gaining power is to pay your dues and work up a ladder based on seniority, the political science professor said. By going directly to the people, Shuler worked around this system, al la Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990s.

“By running for minority leader, Shuler’s been covered in virtually every major newspaper and media source in the country,” Cooper said. “Heath Shuler’s now a household name — and not just for football.”



What are the Blue Dogs?

The Democratic Blue Dog Coalition formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election. Heath Shuler, formerly Blue Dog whip, now is a co-chair of the coalition.


Transportation experts and town leaders plan to meet this week in Franklin to consider whether it’s feasible to turn one-way Main and Palmer streets into two-way roads.

As in many small mountain towns, visitors to Franklin find themselves motoring around a large roundabout of sorts. That’s a problem in Sylva, too, and for storeowners in these towns who feel they only get one shot at attracting potential new customers.

There is a significant difference, however, about this Macon County town that sets it apart from its neighbors: downtown Franklin saddles a steep hill. Given the limited parking, motorists are sometimes forced to hike a fair distance to their destinations. Only the truly determined are usually willing to hike uphill to get there.

Do something please, but just don’t add parallel parking to the problem, said Ellen Jenkins, the new owner of Primrose Lane, a gift store on Main Street. Jenkins fears parallel parking would reduce the number of already-limited spaces available in front of her store.

“But I would love to see it two way,” the shop owner said.

A fix won’t be easy, Franklin Town Planner Mike Grubberman said last week.

“There’s quite a bit involved,” he said.

Such as feeding the traffic into the main highway corridors of U.S. 441, U.S. 64 and N.C. 28. The Little Tennessee River also bounds the town, limiting how and where traffic could be siphoned in and out of Franklin.

“You can’t just concentrate on Main Street,” Grubberman said.

The town planner also recognizes parallel parking probably isn’t in Franklin’s future, even though it would only reduce the number of spaces available by one, he said.

“But that seems to be a go-to-guns issue,” Grubberman said.

Suzanne Harouff, who has lived in Macon County since the late 1970s and owns Books Unlimited on East Main Street, said the road in front has been one way as long as she can remember.

In Franklin, both Main and Palmer streets are one way but two lanes. Additionally, parking is available on either side of Main Street, though large vehicles actually jut into the road.

Harouff said she would like to see the town explore options. She did express concern about the large hill that marks the climb into downtown. In winter, Harouff said the hill often becomes dangerously slick, a safety problem that could be compounded in bad weather.


Recognizing that Cherokee has roads, too, a transportation-planning group for the state’s six westernmost counties opted to give the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians a voice in decisions being made about highways and byways.

The decision to include the tribe wasn’t unanimous. Robbinsville Alderman Jacky Ayers voted “no,” without elaborating why.

The tribe has lands in Swain, Jackson, Graham and Cherokee counties. The group — the Transportation Advisory Committee, made up of elected officials from those counties, plus Macon and Clay — met this week.

Ryan Sherby, who heads the group on behalf of the Southwestern Development Commission, a behind-the-scenes but vitally important state planning organization, initiated the addition of Cherokee.

Joel Setzer, a division engineer overseeing the state’s 10 westernmost counties for the state Department of Transportation, endorsed the proposal. He pointed out the tribe would, subsequently, be treated like municipalities. It will have a voice and a vote, but specific road-project recommendations must be tendered to the particular counties where the roads are located before being included for DOT review.

Ayers, while inarticulate on why he wanted to exclude the tribe, found his voice in a sudden burst of praise following the vote, characterizing Conrad Burrell as the “best board member in the state.” Burrell represents this region on the state board of transportation.

Burrell responded, after other meeting-goers had burbled their agreement, that he wanted the elected officials to note during his decade-long tenure: “we didn’t keep all the money in a single county. We try to equal it out, not just give it to one or two counties.”


The way road projects get selected and prioritized in the state’s six westernmost counties might shift slightly following meetings this week and last by local government officials and transportation experts.

The method of weighing the projects will be tweaked to heighten safety issues. Crash data compiled by the state Highway Patrol will be factored into the equation. Elected officials serving on the Transportation Advisory Committee said, however, they want to see what that actually does to the alignment of projects before endorsing the approach.

How exactly the state Department of Transportation moves forward on road building and road improving has raised pointed questions recently about political and personal gain versus public good and needs. Controversy in the past couple months erupted over two projects in particular: Needmore Road in Swain and Macon counties and N.C. 107 in Jackson County.

The transportation department has proposed paving and widening a 3.3-mile section of Needmore, a gravel one-lane road beside the Little Tennessee River. Needmore cuts through the protected Needmore Game Lands, and opponents say the environmental risks posed are simply too great (see accompanying article on page 9).

In Sylva, the transportation department this month held a public information session on how traffic on N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee could be reduced. Concepts included widening and building a whole new connector road. At least 200 people turned out for the session, and Smart Roads, a local activist group, promised to monitor and publicize the process going forward.

For all the outcries, no one from the public was present at either of two meetings where a bit of the rubber meets the road when it comes to transportation projects in the far west: Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. One meeting was for county and town planners and other government officials, a second was held Monday night for county commissioners and town council members.

Southwestern Development Commission, a regional planning group headquartered in Sylva, organized the get-togethers.


Who does the planning?

In the state’s six westernmost counties, road planning is headed up by the Southwestern Development Commission, headquartered in Sylva, which serves as the lead-planning agency for the rural transportation planning organization (RPO).

Southwestern Commission provides staff and GIS (geographic information system) support. The RPO consists of a technical coordinating committee (government officials) and a transportation advisory committee (elected officials). The government officials, as in real life, exist simply to make staff-level recommendations to the elected officials, who make the policies.


Here are the stated goals of the RPO:

• To provide a forum for public participation in the rural transportation planning process and serve as a local link for residents of the region to communicate with the transportation department.

• To develop, prioritize and promote proposed transportation projects that the RPO believes should be included in the State Transportation Improvement Program.

• To assist the transportation department in publicizing its programs and service and providing additional transportation-related information to local governments and other interested organizations and persons.

• To conduct transportation-related studies and surveys for local governments and other interested entities and organizations.

• To promote transportation as a regional issue requiring regional solutions.


Another public hearing on what, if anything, to do with Needmore Road has been scheduled for February, this time in Macon County.

An exact date and location hasn’t been announced.

The 3.3 miles of gravel, single-lane road traverses Macon and Swain counties, cutting through the protected Needmore Game Lands. The 4,400-acre tract was protected from development after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it by raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

State Department of Transportation in September held a public hearing in Swain County. That meeting fulfilled state-mandated legal requirements regarding public involvement. About 100 people attended, including many from Macon County. They turned out mainly to protest the transportation department’s proposal to widen and pave Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The work would cost $13.1 million.

This is the only stretch of Needmore Road not previously paved. The road parallels the Little Tennessee River and can provide motorists a more direct route between counties than the motion sickness inducing N.C. 28, a curvy two-lane highway across the river.

Environmentalists as a whole do support some kind of paving or capping, because they believe sediment from the gravel road is causing harm to the river’s fragile and rare ecosystem. But what has been proposed, they say, is too extensive. Additionally, the work would require the transportation department to blaze through acid-producing rock, posing a significant danger to the Little Tennessee River if something went wrong.

“It will be very important for people to attend this meeting,” said Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, a Macon County-based group dedicated to protecting just what the name indicates. “Many residents and all of the (outside) agencies involved in this project do not support the ideas of the full-blown widening and paving project.”

There are, however, residents in the Needmore community who just as vigorously do support the transportation department’s proposal, in all its grandiosity. They have cited safety concerns and difficulty traveling to and from their homes as reasons why the road needs work.

Macon County commissioners requested a public hearing be held in their county, saying they wanted to ensure residents there had ample opportunities to weigh-in on the issue.

Ronnie Beale, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said this week the decision by transportation department officials indicated the state agency is sensitive and responsive to residents’ desires.


Athletics won’t trump academics in the selection of a chancellor for Western Carolina University, committee members charged with hiring a new top leader assured worried professors this week.

“I don’t want you to be concerned,” said Jerry Baker, head of Baker and Associates, a search firm being paid $75,000 to guide the 16-member selection committee through the process. “We won’t let any one voice out shout the others.”

The comments came at the outset of a four-hour public comment session organized by the selection committee. Faculty, staff, students and alumni, community members and supporters of intercollegiate athletics were each given hour-long slots.

Vicki Szabo, a member of the history department, said recent news coverage of the search had given her and others the impression athletics might dominate, or play a larger role than merited, in the selection.

Committee members were dismissive of the news coverage in question, published recently in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

“I’d take it for whatever it’s worth at face value, it is the Asheville Citizen-Times,” said Kenny Messer, a WCU alum and past president of the Catamount Club, which helps raise money for WCU athletics.

Charles Worley, an Asheville lawyer and former mayor of that city who, in his time, has been on the receiving end of less-than-flattering coverage (which is not the same as less-than-accurate coverage), saw an opportunity to educate listeners regarding media coverage in general and newspapers in particular.

“You know how newspapers do,” Worley said in an ominous tone of voice. “They tend to pick on things and take it out of context.”

After that, chairman Steve Warren opted for a gentler approach, reminding those in the audience — and possibly his selection committee — there must be a balance struck in the hiring of a replacement for Chancellor John Bardo, who is retiring next summer after more than 15 years.

“Athletics plays a role at this university, and the new chancellor needs to understand this. And everybody else,” Warren said, before quickly adding that academics would of course remain a top priority.

Debate about the role WCU plays in the region it serves also surfaced. Many professors and staff members emphasized a unique ability of the university to help Western North Carolina and its people. By preserving the culture and environment, saving the ecosystems, and so on — plus providing “the children of the mountains” with an opportunity to receive a quality higher education near home. Some, however, spoke to the need for WCU to be visible on a national, even international scale, and to focus on being a topflight academic institution.

Fred Hinson, senior associate vice chancellor of enrollment management, has been at the university for 45 years. He spoke against hiring someone who needed on-the-job-training. WCU, along with other universities in the UNC system, are facing the prospect of draconian budget cuts.

“We’re at a stage here at the university … (where we) need experience,” Hinson said. “We don’t need a lawyer or a business leader at this time.”

Several faculty and staff members discussed problems with morale. They said a chancellor, in these hard times (low salaries in general, no pay raises in several years, a poor retention rate, key leadership positions unfilled, potentially massive budget cuts looming) must recognize and reward staff in other ways. Recognizing their hard work and dedication, allowing professionals to be professionals, and such intangibles were mentioned.

David Claxton, in WCU’s department of health, physical education and recreation, told selection committee members faculty and staff members have generally had a “great relationship” with the university’s provost (that post is currently open, too).

Claxton added, “sometimes it has been harder to communicate with our chancellor.”


Want to be heard?

There is a questionnaire posted on the Western Carolina University search committee website: www.chancellorsearch.wcu.edu. Anyone can participate. This allows for comment on the “state of the university,” preferred priorities of the chancellorship, suggested background of candidates and other pertinent issues.

The next meeting of the selection committee is scheduled for 3 p.m. Monday, Dec. 6, in the Hospitality Room of the Ramsey Center. Meetings are open to the public, and can be closed only for reasons specified in the state’s Open Meetings Law.


U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler took a calculated loss when he challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the position of House minority leader.

The payoff for losing? Shuler, the Democrat representing this region who is from Bryson City and now calls Waynesville home, emerged as an important national player in one of the biggest political games of them all. His voice and centrist position suddenly are important to the Democratic Party, which is battling internally to redefine itself following heavy midterm election losses.

“I can add and subtract,” Shuler said of the challenge to the soon-to-be former speaker of the House. “I knew we could not win. But it was so important that the leadership in the Democratic caucus should be made to realize why we lost so many seats.”

When the vote came last week, Shuler, as expected, lost big to Pelosi. But the Blue Dog Democrat garnered more than 20 percent of the votes. And he received a lot of airtime on national television and gobs of ink in prominent newspapers, coast to coast.

Shuler also was selected Blue Dog Co-Chair for Administration — a top leadership position of the coalition. The Blue Dogs formed in 1995, ostensibly to represent the center of the House of Representatives and mirror mainstream American values. The current 54-member coalition will decrease almost by half, however, as a result of this month’s election.

Next week in The Smoky Mountain News, look for an in-depth profile of Shuler and his increasingly prominent national role.


You can be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).

Pick your side.

Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.

Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.

I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.

Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.

Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”

Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?

I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).

The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.

Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.

Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.  

Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.

Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.

Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.

He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.

A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is www.tuckreader.com, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.

Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.

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


There is an interesting disconnect in how some people perceive my job and how I perceive my job. This was brought home to me recently while working on articles about efforts to revive Cullowhee.

Additionally, working on this week’s cover story about community journalism got me all fired up and excited. I remembered how much fun it was to work in Macon County as a cub reporter. Working on the cover story gave me real hope for the future of newspapers. Paper, computer screens, who cares how newspapers are published as long as we get to cover local events.

I do believe people who work for newspapers need to do a better job of (ahem) communicating. For professionally trained communicators, as a group we are simply terrible at telling our own story. We are equally bad at explaining why we do what we do and about how we put articles together. No wonder people believe there is a vast media conspiracy. In our reluctance or inability to communicate, we’ve allowed others to speak for us. And they’ve not been kind.

Here’s my attempt to take my own advice: I used the word “watchdog” in an article to describe a new group that, in my mind, is promising to do just that with Western Carolina University.

Robin Lang, the spokeswoman for the new group, said she was aware some people had reacted negatively to the word. But she did not react that way herself in conversations with me. Robin isn’t one to back down when she believes in something, and this is something she clearly feels strongly about.

As I mused on the discussions I was having with other folks, however, the answer to what was happening dawned on me. People in Cullowhee and Forest Hills are working hard to do something positive for their community. They don’t want some vagabond reporter to derail those efforts by upsetting the powers that be.

I don’t believe this is from a desire to oppress the press, but because they don’t want to alienate anybody. Particularly WCU. Though I’m not clear whom exactly they mean by that, or what they think will happen if someone there does get pissed off. It’s not like WCU can pack its bags and go setup shop someplace else. If they are worried about Chancellor John Bardo getting mad, so what if he does? He’s planning to retire next summer, anyway.

This led me to mull over how I approach newsgathering and writing. It doesn’t always match exactly with policies at the places I’ve worked, but I do try to work places that are, in the main, congenial to my viewpoint.

• I’m not covering events in an effort to influence them. I’m not devoid of opinion — journalists who say they don’t have opinions on issues are lying, to themselves and to you. Ask me what I think and I’ll probably tell you. Like a good jury, however, my inner judge demands I set my opinions aside and listen and report.

Let’s keep picking on Cullowhee revitalization for a moment. I sincerely hope efforts there work. In fact, I might even help plant flowers or something. But it’s not my job to make things work — or to dally with coverage so that it’s palatable to those in authority. If someone designated a group’s spokesperson speaks, acts and behaves like a watchdog, and I use the word watchdog in a follow-up article, well that’s how the cookie crumbles and I make no apologies. Pick a less forthright spokesperson next time if my accurate rendering is bothersome.

• I don’t use anonymous sources unless someone is in actual physical danger. The last time I relied on an anonymous source was about six years ago. I was reporting on sexual abuse in the state’s juvenile prison in Swannanoa. The boy I interviewed had been molested. He was in true physical danger if identified. Using anonymous sources in lesser cases, in my book at least, is lazy reporting. It might take longer and involve more effort, but you can generally get any story into print with identified sources. If you can’t get it on the record, that’s an indication the newspaper needs to review whether the story should be printed in the first place.

• I believe, with all my heart, in the fundamental importance of journalism. Journalists have a unique and vital role to play, particularly at the smallest newspapers. There is a tradeoff: at a mid-sized to large daily you are somewhat insulated from readers’ and newsmakers’ opinions regarding your work. The quick turnover of news — a daily newspaper simply doesn’t stay on a restaurant table for a week getting repeatedly read and scrutinized — and the very largeness of a daily newspaper’s organization makes it difficult for readers to recognize individual journalists.

That’s not the case here, or at The Franklin Press, The Sylva Herald, The Macon County News, the Crossroads Chronicle, or at any other community newspaper in the region. I can’t even slip into a grocery store in Sylva to buy bread without hearing someone’s take on that week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

I won’t lie. Sometimes this gets old, particularly when I’ve had a long day dealing with uncooperative sources, or when the words won’t come no matter how hard I glare at the computer screen. Or if I’ve made a particular egregious booboo, or if I’ve been trying to get to the gym all day to work out, and I just stopped for a minute at the grocery store and now I’m cornered with my back to Annie’s Bread display hearing about it, whatever it might be, and I’m watching the time tick away knowing I’m not going to get to work out because I’ve got to get home by a certain hour.

But, and this is the truth, I am also extraordinarily glad people feel free to speak their minds or email me about coverage, and I hope this column doesn’t give the opposite impression. The comments force me to assess what I’m doing, how I’m doing it and whom I am doing it to. This might not always be comfortable, because, bottom line, sometimes I’m wrong or misguided or I’ve screwed things up, but overall it is a fine thing.  

We (listen up, my newspaper friends) need in turn to pay readers the respect of being equally engaged. And to understand that being objective and uninvolved doesn’t mean standing passively by and not telling our stories in turn. If we don’t speak, others will speak for us. Chances are, we aren’t going to like what they say.

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


By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn

William Shelton knows one positive aspect about losing his bid for re-election to the Jackson County Board of Commissioners: as a farmer, he can now turn his full attention to keeping Shelton Family Farm healthy and afloat.

Shelton this week shepherded a request through the board urging Congress not to hurt small farms like his while they work to toughen regulations governing the nation’s food supply through the Food Safety Modernization Act.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Shelton told his colleagues on the board and the 40 or so people who attended the meeting. “If you hold small farms to the same standards, it ends up punishing the small farmers and enterprises that do produce safe food.”

Resolutions containing identical language have been passed by other boards in Western North Carolina, including Haywood County this week and Macon County in September.

“No provision of this act shall be deemed to apply (a) to any home-business, homestead, home or community gardens, small farm, organic or natural agricultural activity, (b) to any family farm or ranch, or (c) to any natural food product, including dietary supplements regulated under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994,” the key paragraph requests.

Small farmers across Western North Carolina have spoken out against the Food Safety Modernization Act. They fear added expenses and piles of government-required paperwork.

Bill Holbrook, a Haywood county farmer who has testified in Washington against the measure, spoke to Haywood county commissioners at their Monday meeting, asking them to voice their opposition to it.

“It’s going to be difficult for many men and women to pass this food safety as small farmers,” Holbrook said. “All the water’s got to be tested, no animals are allowed in your field,” he said, adding that these are just a few of the difficult conditions farmers must meet every year to stay certified.

“Some of these are good things,” Holbrook said, but some – like the requirement to account, in writing, for everyone who enters their fields, would be “impossible for us to maintain.”

The cost, Holbrook said, is burdensome, as well. A small farmer would, under the bill, pay the same fee as a mega-farm, which can run to more than $1,000 a year.

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is co-sponsoring an amendment to exempt facilities with gross incomes of less than $500,000. Additionally, small producers who mainly sell to restaurants and consumers would be exempted from some of the regulations.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., also has promised his support to small-farming operations faced with potentially onerous and expensive government regulations.

The purpose of the proposed federal legislation is to protect the nation from outbreaks of food-borne illness. Local farmers (joined by their counterparts across the U.S.) assert that the bulk of the unsafe food has been produced and distributed by large corporations. But the act itself threatens to shutdown the smallest operations, they say.


It’s a dizzying prospect, but a group looking at future traffic patterns and demands in Macon County is considering including as many as four roundabouts in a recommendation to county and town leaders.

Additionally, Macon County’s second roundabout is being built as part of the Siler Road project, now under way. There is a min-roundabout (perhaps a practice one?) already built near the county library. This means Macon County residents and visitors could have as many as six circular routes to navigate when all is said and done.

The $6.8 million Siler Road project will provide additional access to the Macon County campus of Southwestern Community College and to the county library.

The Macon County Transportation Steering Committee has suggested using roundabouts at U.S. 441 Business and Maple Street, and at three intersections: Wayah and Porter streets, Wells Grove and Clarks Chapel roads and Depot and Wayah streets.

The roundabouts are simply possibilities and are open to debate and discussion, said Ryan Sherby, the rural planning organization coordinator for Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties.

The transportation steering committee is trying to decide what best to do about traffic in “areas of concern” in Macon County that were identified by the state Department of Transportation. Members will make a final recommendation to county commissioners and elected leaders in Franklin and Highlands.

Sherby said the roundabouts and other preliminary recommendations will be reviewed — and he hopes something approved — during a meeting toward the end of the month. A workshop for the public will be held in January, he said.

“There are times when a roundabout might be an appropriate intersection treatment as opposed to a signalized intersection, when considering capacity and safety,” Sherby said. “Although, on a cost comparison, lots of factors come into play such as utility relocations and potential additional right-of-way costs.”

Macon County Manager Jack Horton previously worked in Haywood County as county manager. There are now two roundabouts in Haywood, but when Horton was serving as manager the very prospect of what one resident dubbed “dummy circles” being built sparked a minor brouhaha.

Today, as Horton recently noted, very few complaints about the roundabouts are heard in Haywood County. And, they seem to perform exactly as proponents promised, safely and efficiently moving traffic through two busy intersections.

Macon County Transit Director Kim Angel raised concerns to her fellow steering committee members about the elderly population in Macon County — and this county is, in terms of median age, one of the “oldest” in North Carolina — being able to successfully round-the-roundabouts.

In a follow-up conversation this week, she reiterated those concerns, saying she was most troubled by the possibility of a roundabout near the county’s senior center, where Franklin High School is also located.

As the transportation committee works on figuring traffic needs through 2035, one potential hotspot is being worked into plans: Traffic changes from the new Wal-Mart Super Center planned for the intersection of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads.

Luckily, “(the project) surfaced during the process,” Sherby said, adding that transportation department officials have shared their traffic plans concerning the new Wal-Mart with the committee.


It’s a Monday night in early November and the meeting is, in one word, boring. As a result of the recent elections, the makeup of the Macon County Board of Commissioners will soon change. The members clearly don’t intend to make momentous decisions, or even meaningful small ones, before that transition happens.

Despite the lack of news being generated, there are no fewer than six journalists covering this meeting, where the biggest event that will take place is the scheduling of another meeting in December. The reporters scribble diligently in their notebooks, peck away on portable laptops and spring up occasionally to take photographs of people speaking to the board. Nobody pays them any mind.

That’s because having this many journalists camped out in the boardroom is not an unusual sight in Macon County, and hasn’t been for at least three decades. The county has an astounding number of community newspapers based within its borders — four — plus two regional newspapers (The Smoky Mountain News and the Asheville Citizen-Times), a local radio station providing news coverage, an Asheville-based television station eager for man-bites-dog stories, and a blogger (Thunderpig) who streams every county and town of Franklin meeting live via the Internet.

In this corner of the world, at least, the news industry is thriving, though times are tough, and every ad sold represents a minor achievement against the prevailing economic tide. It’s hard to get blood out of a turnip, and a lot of local businesses are struggling. This, in turn, has hurt the news industry, here and across the nation.

So how is it that Macon County — and Western North Carolina at large — can continue to support so many fish in such a tiny pond? And what does it mean for communities, both locally and regionally, to have such a smorgasbord of information to choose from?


Adjusting to the marketplace

It’s Thursday at The Macon County News and Shopping Guide in Franklin, and that’s a good day on which to visit. The weekly newspaper publishes on Thursday, so the few staff members on hand are relaxed and relatively jolly.

In theory, The Macon County News cuts a regional swath. And it does, at times, venture to cover news events beyond the county’s borders. But in the main, this is a local newspaper that expends most of its resources on its home turf.

Betsey Gooder and husband Gary started the weekly in 1983. Gary Gooder died in February 2006, and his son, Colin, took over as editor. As a team, Gary and Betsey Gooder were very clear about their intentions — they wanted to publish a weekly newspaper that provided local news free of charge. USA Today had entered the marketplace in 1982, and the couple was influenced by the concept of presenting information in short, easily digested forms.

Colin Gooder is harder hitting than his father was. He clearly enjoys stirring the pot some, and he’s been more aggressive as a newsman. The Macon County News serves as an excellent example of how a single individual can have a tremendous influence over a small news organization. Which perhaps goes a long way toward explaining the continuing allure of community journalism for some news professionals.

“The success of the paper was due to the dedication of Mom and Dad,” Gooder said. “And it continues to be successful because Mom is such a dynamite salesperson.”

Betsey Gooder, at age 70, has a good grasp of the Macon County market and the overall newspaper industry in WNC.

There’s more competition than ever,” she said. “We just have to work harder.”

Betsey Gooder doesn’t worry much about the competition, though, particularly the Asheville Citizen-Times or other larger news organizations.

“Their ad prices are so out of line,” she said. “They don’t adjust to the marketplace.”


The ties that bind

When there are four newspapers based in a county of just more than 33,000 people, the organizations have ties to the community that extend beyond news coverage.

Vic Perry, the county’s clerk of court, worked at The Franklin Press at one time, as did other family members. Mike Decker, Franklin’s assistant manager, was a reporter for The Press. So was Alisa Ashe, who heads up a child victim advocacy group and counseling center in Macon County. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reporter worked there, too, from 1992-1996).

Kevin Corbin, a Republican tapped to fill Jim Davis’ two-year term as commissioner —Davis is headed to the state Senate — started working at The Press when he was aged 14 or 15, and continued doing so during summer breaks until he finished college. At age 23, Corbin became the youngest elected official in the state after being elected to the county school board. He served in that position for five terms — 20 years, including a long stint as chairman — before growing weary in 2006 and opting not to run for probable re-election.

Corbin does not remember local reporters failing to cover a single school board meeting during that time.

“I haven’t thought about it before,” Corbin said. “It’s been like this as long as I remember. In my adult life, there always have been at least two newspapers. And I always read them both.”

That way, Corbin said, he gets different takes on the same events. And that’s nice, he said, but unremarkable, at least in his life as a Macon County resident and elected official.


‘Planned abandonment’

John Morton last year wrote an article headlined “Not Dead Yet: Despite the gloomy news about newspapers, many smaller dailies still make money” for American Journalism Review, a monthly trade magazine.

In the article Morton, a former reporter turned president of a consulting firm that specializes in analyzing the news industry, noted 70 percent of newspapers with an average circulation of less than 12,000 remain profitable, though at a smaller profit margin than they once enjoyed.

Normally, he wrote, large dailies get 50 percent or more of their advertising from classified ads, with automotive, real estate and help wanted making up the three primary legs of that advertising stool. Small dailies, by comparison, get about 30 percent of revenue from classified, and they didn’t take as significant a hit overall in classified as large metros.

“What I wrote about smaller dailies is even more true about community weeklies, especially if they don’t have a nearby daily swamping their market,” Morton said via email. “Most dailies have stopped doing that to save money. Saving money, I fear, is going to be the death of some small dailies. I’m not sure that hyper-local community weeklies represent the only future for the newspaper business, but I am sure that these kind of publications do have a future if they do their job right.”

The lone daily newspaper in this part of WNC is the Asheville Citizen-Times (where this reporter worked from 1996-2007, including as a general manager and as a member of the newspaper’s operating committee). The Gannett Co. product has suffered massive layoffs during the past few years. At least four more employees were cut at the newspaper this month alone, and open positions on the editorial side have been frozen until further notice. Gannett has discussed having its employees take one-week unpaid furloughs, as they did last year, to help increase profit margins.

Citizen-Times Publisher Randy Hammer did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Not too many years ago, the Citizen-Times covered a 17- or 18-county region, depending on which editor was in charge. Through at least the early 1990s, the newspaper covered the far western counties of the state aggressively. Up to three reporters were based in a bureau in Haywood County, and one of the Citizen-Times’ reporters, Bob Scott, who is now a Franklin alderman, worked from an office in Macon County, covering the farthest western reaches.

Prior to the recession, in the late 1990s, the Citizen-Times began a process dubbed “planned abandonment.” The newspaper instituted a deliberate and outlined retreat from the region, citing costs versus revenue return. Today, the newspaper doesn’t have a reporter in the state house. It has a single reporter, who lives in Haywood County, tasked with handling major news events occurring west of Buncombe County.

“The Voice of the Mountains,” a newspaper that once had at least three bureaus and was discussing opening another in McDowell County, today has none.

“When I was the western bureau chief of the Asheville Citizen, the company expected two or three stories from the seven westernmost counties,” Scott said. “There was a great emphasis on being WNC’s leading news outlet. However, due to those pesky budget cuts, the Citizen doesn’t seem to be that much interested in the area unless it is a major story.”


What happened?

“So here’s the deal, the Internet killed about 90 percent of what made big dailies so vital,” said Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a professor in the journalism school. “We don’t get our ‘news’ from the morning newspaper anymore. We get it from a variety of other sources. But, the only place to get your in-depth, community, local, down-to-your doorstep news is your local community paper — be it online or print. And the fact that so many folks still crave tactile experience with a ‘paper’ — the old portable, clippable, hold-and-fold legacy media, is a testimony to human nature and the survivability and sustainability of the community press,” sad Lauterer.

It doesn’t get anymore “community” than at some of the upstart independents, including The Smoky Mountain News, birthed to fill the regional news void opened when the Citizen-Times pulled back.

In the southern part of Macon County, Kim Lewicki and husband Jim started Highlands’ Newspaper in July 2003. The scrappy, free weekly newspaper successfully clawed a financial toehold in the highly lucrative upscale Highlands market, which had previously been the sole domain of The Highlander Newspaper, owned by the Athens, Ga.-based Community Newspapers Inc. (CNI), also the parent company of The Franklin Press and many of the region’s weeklies.

The Franklin Press’ publisher, Rachel Hoskins, who serves as CNI’s regional publisher overseeing newspapers in Highlands, Franklin, Bryson City, Cashiers and Spruce Pine, declined to comment for this article.

“Macon County’s demographics are diverse due to the migration here in the spring, summer and fall and the growing number of full-time residents,” Kim Lewicki said. “Couple that with the geographic layout — hence seclusion and isolation of communities like Nantahala, Franklin and Highlands — and you have niches for news, community news, specifically, about which the population is keenly interested.”

In this brave new world where community journalism rules, there are downsides to the local-local-local approach to which most weeklies and bi-weeklies adhere.

“Salaries are generally lower, especially at weeklies,” Lauterer said. “Hiring standards are therefore generally lower, so you often get a lower grade of writing and photography. Yes it is true. But not always the case, as we have seen by looking at fabulous community papers across our state and region.”­­


Farewells and hellos from Commissioner Tom Massie highlighted this week’s lame-duck county board meeting in Jackson County.

The ousted elected official, taking advantage of the final meaningful business meeting of this particular set of commissioners, wished his successors luck and good fortune.

Republicans Doug Cody (replacing Massie), Charles Elders (replacing William Shelton) and conservative-but-officially Independent Jack Debnam (replacing Chairman Brian McMahan) were in the audience, seated demurely toward the back of the room.

“This is an interesting job,” Massie said. “While I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the past four years, it has been a privilege I’ll always cherish.”

There will be a meeting to take care of housekeeping details at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 6. At 6:30 p.m., an organizational meeting by the new board of commissioners will convene. Cody, Elders and Debnam will join current commissioners (both Democrats) Mark Jones and Jay Cowan. The two men have two years remaining before they are up for re-election.

Voters in Jackson County on Nov. 2 upended the 16-year stranglehold Democrats enjoyed on the commission board. Now the new commissioners’ promises of fiscal conservancy and putting builders in the county back to work are about to be tested.

Massie told his replacement(s) being a commissioner, in the best of times, is challenging.

“And these are not good times,” he said.


Once upon a time, in a previous incarnation as a musician, I developed a routine that allowed me to focus and settle my nerves before performances.

I was a brass player — I played the euphonium. This is a lovely instrument that is pitched in the same range as the tenor voice, a cello or trombone. Unfortunately the instrument is relegated almost exclusively to wind ensembles and brass bands. When I realized teaching or playing in a military band didn’t hold particular appeal, I took up a much grubbier existence as a journalist; later, I added farmer.

My pre-performance ritual wasn’t complex. Helpful rituals never are, or they become an end instead of a means. Nor is a ritual useful if it evolves into what I think psychologists mean by “magical” thinking. Step on a crack; break your mother’s back — that kind of reasoning. Which, when taken to extremes, isn’t a game anymore. Magical thinking is obsessive and stressful.

Rituals, by comparison, are calming and soothing. Early on, I discovered doing the same tasks in the same sequence before going on stage settled me. The ritual I’d developed put me into a performing groove. I could feel my brain “click” into place.

I’d unzip the soft case, remove my horn with the right hand, pull it out and cradle the instrument in my left arm, and reach into a certain pocket where my mouthpiece was always kept. I’d take the mouthpiece out with my right hand, put it in the horn and give the mouthpiece a little turn so that it fit securely. I’d raise the horn toward my lips and take a deep breath, mentally picturing a column of air flowing down into my diaphragm, expanding my lower back.

I’d start my warm-up. The warm-up changed over the years. But the way I got to the warm-up became routine. It was my ritual.

I was thinking about all this in the barnyard this morning. My fingers were numb from cold. Ice-coated grass crunched under my boots. The water buckets had a coating of ice, too, that I knocked out so the animals could drink. To the southwest, the Balsam mountain range glowed plum-like in the morning sun.

I once read chores are important because they give a person reasons to get up in the morning. Feeding the livestock gives me reason to get up in the morning. And it has evolved into a ritual of sorts. My day clicks into a groove.

There are rituals inside of my ritual, and I’ve been trying to decipher them. I believe it goes something like this.

The animals are a single barnyard unit. Yet they also function in groups — goats, sheep, dogs and chickens. Additionally, each is an individual.

I interact with them as a unit, as groups and as individuals. Between us (among us?) we’ve developed seemingly unending patterns and rituals. As individuals, as groups, as a unit. While I am in the barnyard, I influence but do not fully stop the interactions also taking place among them — as individuals, as groups, and as a unit.

This morning, as usual, I opened the stalls and ensured the goats went to their respective places. I fed them pellets. I fed the two guard dogs, and carried hay and pellets down the hill to the sheep. I checked the sheep’s water supply, filling the basin with fresh water. Next, the billy goat and his neutered male companion got pellets, hay and water. I threw scratch to the chickens and fed the barn cat. When the does were finished eating their pellets, I opened the stalls and put hay in their rack.

Simple. But then, good rituals always are.

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


Ronnie Beale is an amiable chap, and for the past few years he’s injected a bit of humor into what is often the tediously dull process of overseeing county government.

“If you want to stay and see the rest of the sausage made, you are welcome,” Beale told two veterans Monday night after the two men completed a presentation before the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

Chuckling at Beale’s small witticism, the men took advantage of the opening and left, escaping the remainder of the meeting.

Beale, a Democrat, is currently chairman of the board. Macon County, along with most of the counties in Western North Carolina (though not Jackson County, where voters decide), allows commissioners to elect their own chairman. Following a dustup on Election Day, it’s debatable whether Beale will retain the top leadership post.

It took only one loss, and the makeup of the board swung right. From Democrat 3-2, to Republican 3-2: Bob Simpson is out, Ron Haven is in, and Beale — though he retained his position as commissioner — is likely gone, too, as chairman.

Thy will be done, Beale told fellow commissioners and the few folks on hand Monday night to watch a lame-duck commission meeting. The voters have spoken and we’ll abide by their wishes, he said.

To that end, new commissioners will be sworn in Dec. 6. There will be an 8 a.m. meeting held by current commissioners, which in addition to Simpson includes Jim Davis, who is headed to Raleigh after besting Sen. John Snow in N.C. Senate District 50. The county’s Republican party will select his replacement to the commission board. Two years remain to Davis’ commission term.

Current commissioners will take care of some housekeeping details in the morning. They will recess, and a second meeting will be held that evening, at 6 p.m.  That is when the newly constituted board will gather to select a chairman and vice chairman.


Sheryl Rudd, just that morning, said she had fussed at her husband, Dieter Kuhn, for leaving a vehicle parked for too long outside their Sylva business. The loading of 150-pound kegs was finished, and Rudd wanted him to move the vehicle promptly so customers could make their way inside.

If, however, the couple had gotten a $50 citation for parking more than the 30 minutes allowed outside Heinzelmannchen Brewery on Mill Street, Rudd told town commissioners last week she’d have paid willingly. The new parking ordinance is working great, and should continue and, possibly, even be extended to include other streets in Sylva, Rudd said.

Rudd’s comments come a couple of weeks before commissioners will hold an official public hearing to get feedback such as this on the town’s parking ordinance. They plan to go back into the original ordinance as passed this summer and add key language inadvertently left out that rendered it unenforceable, and include East Jackson Street in the sections of town it covers.

Parking spillover from the ban has created problems for City Lights Bookstore on East Jackson Street.

The ordinance was originally designed to ban business owners on Main and Mill streets from taking up precious parking spaces in front of downtown businesses. Loading and unloading is OK.

R.O. Vance, a longtime hardware owner on Main Street, almost was included in the proposed revised ordinance by name as commissioners tried to ferret out the best method of allowing him come and go freely on appliance-repair calls.

As the clock ticked and the board continued dissecting the matter in ever-increasing detail and possible convolutions, Commissioner Christina Matheson finally burst into laughter. At least everyone would be able to tell she and her fellow board members truly care about the people in town, Matheson said, amused.

And where they park.

Vance didn’t end up named in the ordinance. Instead, Town Attorney Eric Ridenour, in a burst of legal razzle-dazzle, wrote a resolution on the spot designating a former police-car spot on a nearby side street to Main Street as the new R.O. Vance Memorial Parking Space. The resolution will be considered for vote at the next board meeting.

That should prevent Vance’s fellow business owners from calling and complaining that the hardware owner has been parking in the designated police spot, which the police have said they didn’t need anyhow, Commissioner Harold Hensley said. Vance had been parking there because he didn’t want to take up a Main Street parking space.


Jack Debnam says he’s simply trying to get his feet on the ground and figure out what needs to be done first before he and two other newly elected commissioners take control next month.

Debnam, running as an unaffiliated candidate, successfully unseated Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. Unlike most of the county commission boards in the area, Jackson County voters — not fellow commissioners — elect their board chairman.

As the top leader of the board and its only full-time member, Debnam, a real estate agent who owns Western Carolina Properties, will make $16,190 a year. Part-time commissioners (the other four men on the board) in Jackson County make $11,519.

Jackson County voters on Nov. 2 sent incumbent Democrat commissioners a strong, definite message. Now, the new guys have to decipher exactly what that message meant. At least they do if they want to remain in voters’ good graces.


What’s next?

“There’s a scene at the end of the movie, “The Candidate,” when Robert Redford has been elected to the Senate and he says, ‘What do we do now?’ My guess is that a lot of candidates — both local and national — can relate to Redford’s character,” said Chris Cooper, a political science and public affairs professor for Western Carolina University.

In addition to Debnam, Republicans Charles Elder (replacing Democrat William Shelton) and Doug Cody (replacing Democrat Tom Massie) will join current commissioners Joe Cowan and Mark Jones. Democrats Cowan and Jones are up for reelection in 2012.

This marks the first time in 16 years Republicans have been able to seize seats on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Debnam, while unaffiliated, received support as a conservative candidate from the Jackson County GOP.

“The public sent a clear message that they want change — change in Jackson County, change in Raleigh and change in Washington,” Cooper said. “Watching President Obama try to capitalize on the ‘change’ platform, however, shows how difficult it can be. Add to that, that our local officials still have to contend with Democrats on the commission … it might be tough for the Republicans to execute the plans they campaigned on.”

What did they campaign on? Doing everything differently than their Democratic predecessors, essentially. There were promises to:

• Review Jackson County’s rigorous land regulations, and get the local builders building again.

• Examine the county budget for fiscal waste, department by department.

• Decide whether to add on to Smoky Mountain High School.

• Move forward with a promised recreation center in Cashiers.

• Consider allowing voters to decide whether future commissioners should not just reside in the district they run for, but also to let voters in those districts decide the winners. This has been a front-page issue, and received the editorial support of the Cashiers Crossroads Chronicle, a weekly newspaper serving the southern end of Jackson County. No more voting at-large, in other words, but by district.

Also on the table? A decision about property revaluations — as in, when best to do them.


A chicken in every pot

“I feel sorry for those guys, I really do,” Shelton said. “I think it is going to be a pretty short honeymoon. If there isn’t a chicken in every pot in six months, people will be mad.”

Shelton argued the ousting of the board’s majority was not an indictment on the land regulations commissioners passed. Rather, he pointed to a county pay-raise study that resulted in the highest paid employees receiving raises: lower-paid employees — not so much.

Shelton also threw in the county’s unsuccessful battle with Duke Energy over saving the Dillsboro Dam, plus an overall national and state sweep by Republicans.

Whatever the reason, the conservatives have taken charge in Jackson County.

Debnam, asked if the board would fire County Manager Ken Westmoreland, showed a certain political agility in his response. In other words, he didn’t really answer the question.

“It’s not going to be up to me,” Debnam said. “There are five commissioners … we are going to scrutinize several positions.”


Steep slope/land regulations?

“They’ll probably all be reviewed at the beginning of next year,” Debnam said. “… I’m not looking to repeal everything.”

Debnam made noises about holding a meeting with the two newly elected commissioners and the two remaining Democrats from the old guard, saying he could do so legally now without calling an open meeting. Whether that skirts the spirit of the law is certainly debatable.

The new board chairman said he’s met with McMahan (“he was gracious and helpful,” Debnam said) and he is meeting with various county officials.

The new commissioners will be sworn in at 6 p.m. on Dec. 6.


Up to 1,700 jobs, perhaps a whole campus eliminated — the dire picture painted this month by Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina system, on the state of higher education during these tough economic times isn’t pretty.

Locally, staff and faculty at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, Southwestern Community College in Sylva and Haywood Community College in Clyde are preparing for significant budget cuts.

Most likely, a 10-percent reduction is coming. State colleges and universities across North Carolina, however, are outlining what they’d do in response to higher and lower reductions, as directed by the UNC system and The State Board of Community Colleges.

“We are hearing talk of impending heavy slashing and have been asked to prepare scenarios of how we would deal with 5-, 10- and even 15-percent cuts,” said Rose Hooper Garrett, public information officer for SCC, via email.

A year ago, the UNC system took a $70 million cut, or less than 3 percent.


Sorting it out

“At this point, it’s too early in the process to provide the actual impact of what a 10-percent budget reduction would do to the overall operations of WCU,” said Chuck Wooten, vice chancellor for administration and finance for the university.

“It’s fair to say that most likely we will have fewer class sections, more students in each class, more dependence on part-time faculty, reduced funds for faculty travel and professional development, fewer funds for general operations such as supplies and equipments, elimination of vacant positions, possible elimination of positions that are currently filled, and reduced funds for general maintenance of the physical plant of the campus.”

Here’s what is happening: North Carolina is facing a budget deficit of $3.5 billion.

At 5 percent, the UNC system would cut $135 million and likely eliminate 800 jobs. At 10 percent, the UNC system would cut $270 million and eliminate 1,700 jobs.

“We’re really going to impact the academic side,” the Associated Press quoted Bowles as saying.

Rose Harrell Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, said the community college would lose more than $1,306,478 with a 10-percent reduction.

“For comparison, the college received an increase of $1,213,111 in state funding this fiscal year because it had a 10.77 percent enrollment increase,” Johnson said. “If the budget reduction becomes reality, the college will lose its enrollment growth budget increase and potentially more.”

Among other measures, Garrett said SCC has been considering tuition increases.

“At the system office we will look at operations, contracts and personnel,” she said.


Preparing for the worst

Wooten said WCU anticipated budget reductions by making a number of decisions in the 2009-2010 fiscal year to take in budget reductions totaling about 8 percent, which eliminated 93.92 positions.

“After satisfying budget reductions for 2010-11, $4,404,792 remained for use against future budget reductions,” Wooten said.

WCU would see reductions of $8,638,874 at the 10-percent level and $4,319,437 at the 5 percent level, he said.

“WCU’s plan, which was submitted to the Office of State Budget and Management, would first offer up the full amount remaining from previous budget reductions ($4,404,792) to satisfy the 5-percent budget reduction plan, and campus divisions and departments have identified additional budget reductions ($4,234,082) to satisfy a 10-percent budget reduction plan … (this) would potentially eliminate 41.08 positions in the 2011-2012 fiscal year budget.”


From the we-really-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up file, election workers in Jackson County didn’t bat an eye when a woman this election cycle brought her dead husband along to vote.

Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections, said the sadly mistaken woman showed up for early voting at the Scotts Creek site and told an election worker her husband wanted to vote, too.

The election worker, mystified, looked around. But she didn’t see anyone resembling a husband. Perhaps he needed help with curbside voting, she asked?

Not exactly. Instead, the confused woman whipped out a small urn from inside her pocketbook and told the election worker her husband’s name. Sure enough, the man’s name was listed on Jackson County’s voter rolls — along with a notation that the gentleman was deceased.

The election worker explained that in Jackson County (at least not right out like this in the open) dead people couldn’t legally vote. But the suggestion was made, and found agreeable, that he could “help” her vote, if she’d like.

She did like, and the woman and her (ahem) husband voted. The election workers gave her a “My Vote Counted” sticker for the urn when the vote had tallied.

The dead-man-voting account is rivaled by another election-day story from Polk County. An election worker there went to help someone with curbside voting. The man who wanted to vote wasn’t wearing pants. We were unable to ascertain whether wearing pants is a legal requirement for voting in North Carolina. An election worker in Polk County who answered the phone snottily said she didn’t consider the matter news.


An unhappy reader this week took me to task for writing harsh words about my 17-year-old cat, Edgar, after the little jerk sank his one remaining fang in my wrist and I wrote about the experience.

That love bite — acquired while rescuing him from a tomcat — required me to take two different antibiotics for 10 days (that’s four pills a day, each big enough to gag a horse). And, additionally, cost me $226 for medical treatment, medicine and a probiotic that the physicians’ assistant (wrongly) assured me would prevent virulent, unending, burning diarrhea, triggered by the antibiotics.

“I feel very sorry for Edgar and feel he would have been better off euthanized as a kitten (so do I, right now) than to have spent his 17 years in a home where he was not wanted loved, enjoyed, (you don’t need that last comma there, by the way) or appreciated.

“His biting and clawing you while you were rescuing him from the tomcat was because he was frightened, agitated, and confused (the comma after ‘agitated’ should be stricken, too. Write a testy email, get a free grammar lesson — nice deal for you.

Wrong on comma usage and wrong on behavioral interpretations: that makes you wrong twice, by my count. I’ve lived with Edgar for 17 years and have special insight into his psyche. Edgar went after the tomcat because he believes he is still Billy Badass rather than a geriatric pussycat. He bit me because I ‘prevented’ him from, in his itty-bitty, teensy-weensy cat brain, beating the snot out of that tomcat, which is named Jack (as in, Jack the Ripper. Who weighs, I don’t know, 50 pounds or so?))

“And, as you are hoping, I too hope he will leave this earth soon so he will not have to spend too much more time with you (I second that sentiment … diarrhea nonstop for three days was insult on top of injury). At the age of 17, you can probably find a decent veterinarian who will humanely euthanize him (hell no, I’ll just shoot him — I’m broke now. Can’t afford to pay a veterinarian bill, but bullets are cheap. Of course, burlap bags are cheaper still. Could put him in a poke and throw him into the river … ) so that you will not have to bother with him any longer.

“Your article also proves that people place no value on something they do not pay for (someone gave me Edgar, as this astute reader notes. But, I’d argue I’ve done nothing but pay: veterinary bills, food, having his little balls clipped off when he was about one year old, yards and yards of litter, cat treats, toys, cat beds, etc).

“That is another example of why ‘free’ animals usually end up in less-than-desirable situations like poor Edgar did (poor Edgar, my foot — poor Quintin is more like it. I didn’t bite him, remember? He bit me.)

“Please have the good sense never to take another animal into your home. You very clearly are not a pet person.”

(Sorry, too late — In addition to Edgar, I got two other cats in my recent, um, let’s call it a divorce, shall we? I lost the two dogs, though, you’ll be happy to know, and six rabbits, 15 hens, 45 hives of bees, and a partridge in a pear tree (I made up that last bit). Flip of a coin and all that. Apparently it didn’t flip my way, did it?

Sheesh, that makes a total of three cats residing in my home. Which makes me a cat lady, doesn’t it?

(I was always afraid that, in the end, here’s how I’d end up — a creepy cat lady. One of those sad women who becomes the main feature of a newspaper article after the police come in response to neighbors’ complaints about odor. Then, the TV people read the article and show up, too. And, before I know it, I’m on ‘Hoarders,’ the A&E Television Networks program, and there are psychologists in my home trying to help me give up just one cat of the now 200 living there. ‘But, you see,’ I try to explain, ‘It all started with Edgar …’ Of course, 10 more years have passed, but Edgar is still alive, he is 27 now, the little bastard just won’t die, you see, he just won’t die …. Ahahahahah (me screaming here) and they have bound me in a straightjacket, and have hauled me off to Broughton mental hospital in Morganton, but they feel sorry for me and bring Edgar along, too, so at least I’ll have one of the 200 pussycats for comfort. There I am, for the rest of my life, sitting there drooling with Edgar on my lap the whole time, 10 more years have passed, he is 37 now, and we die the same day … and they bury us together so we won’t ever be apart.))

A question for you, dear reader: Were you born without a sense of humor, or did circumstances suck you dry as a lemon? So that you won’t continue to fret (or cast aspersions upon my head, or write me again), I admit to liking Edgar. Even loving him. He’s outlasted my human relationships. But, just because he’s a cat, Edgar doesn’t get a free pass to bite the hand that feeds him.

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


It just wouldn’t be the Jackson County we’ve all come to know and love if there wasn’t some kind of community-action group watchdogging Western Carolina University’s attempts to create its very own incorporated town.

But it’s Jackson County, so of course, there’s now such a group — with the working name of the Cullowhee Coordinating Committee.

“The school, in the past, has behaved as if this is Cullowhee,” Robin Lang, the group’s spokeswoman, said one day last week, gesturing toward the university.

But, she argued, that’s not all of Cullowhee. The people who live in the area are Cullowhee, too. So are the local businesses, and the many people who have invested time and emotional energy into the university and into the area around WCU. All of these people and institutions, Lang said, deserve to be heard before something is done to change what they claim as theirs, too.

Some issues the group might look into:

Possible legal sales of alcoholic beverages — how will local restaurants compete if they can’t do the same? Are there Cherokee archaeological sites? Any Indian burials around WCU, or perhaps an old village or two? Environmental questions also abound — does the proposed Town Center have wetlands within its 35-acre tract, like some are claiming gave way during the building of the Ramsey Center? Are there ways to accomplish revitalization goals along Old Cullowhee Road without annexation?

A bit of background.

WCU, under the leadership of Chancellor John Bardo, is attempting to pair with its tiny neighbor, the 1997-incorporated Village of Forest Hills, to create a college town that would probably be called Cullowhee. Forest Hills is made up of fewer than 400 residents, most being current or retired faculty and staff of the university. (In an interesting twist of irony, the Village of Forest Hills  — which has no town hall or services to speak of, though it does contract some police protection — incorporated for one simple reason: to stave off students from taking over the community.)

WCU wants Forest Hills to voluntarily annex university land as the town center. There, Bardo has said, there would be commercial development, with leases extended to restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and such, as well as condos and a few university offices. That vision has not included much in the way of local businesses — franchise restaurants have been mentioned, not such campus fixtures as the Mad Batter Bakery and Café or its ilk.

WCU bought 2.2 acres on Centennial Drive in January 2007 that houses the Mad Batter, a Subway sandwich shop, and several other commercial businesses.

Forest Hills Mayor Jim Wallace indicated last month that town aldermen were expecting to receive information from WCU soon on how the town could best accommodate a mixed-use land plan.

Tom McClure, director of the office of partnership development for the WCU Millennial Initiative, said there are some “internal discussions” taking place, and that it could be a matter of weeks before the necessary documents are ready for review.

McClure said he has prepared a draft, but that it is not yet ready for review. McClure said a 20-year or more development agreement is key. A “planned-unit development” would eliminate the need for each new business involved to get individual approval from the town.

Chancellor John Bardo has said WCU will ask town leaders to adopt wholesale the university’s design for a town center.

WCU’s desire to create a commercial hub and vibrant college town hinges on its tiny neighbor. Cullowhee is not currently incorporated as a town, and as a result, stores and restaurants can’t sell beer, wine or liquor drinks. That has proved a major stumbling block in attracting commercial ventures typically associated with college towns.


Get involved

The next meeting of the Cullowhee Coordinating Committee will be Thursday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m. in WCU’s Honors College conference room. The meeting will last an hour.


Don’t rush when hiring a new chancellor to replace John Bardo, one board of trustee member for Western Carolina University cautioned the university’s other top leaders last week during a two-day annual retreat in Cullowhee.

Echoing the sentiments of the search firm — Baker and Associates, which has offices in Winston-Salem and Atlanta — hired to help a newly constituted search committee find exactly the right candidates for chancellor, former Asheville Mayor Charles Worley urged his fellow board of trustee members to “be sure we’ve got the right one — even if it takes a little longer.”

The selection process is estimated to take five to six months.

Bardo announced Oct. 11 he planed to retire. He spent more than 15 years as WCU’s chancellor.

“It is very important that you keep control of the process,” board of trustee member George Little said, adding cautionary words to those by Worley. “That’s why you’re there (on the committee) as a board member — so that we will have the best candidate.”

Six board of trustee members, including Vice Chairman Worley and Chairman Steve Warren, were placed on a 16-member committee tasked with nominating candidates to the full WCU board of trustees. The board will forward the names of at least two nominees, probably three, to new University of North Carolina system President Tom Ross. The UNC president will present his top selection to the full UNC Board of Governors for consideration and approval.

Ross, acting as president-elect (Erskine Bowles is retiring this year, at age 65, as UNC system president), will “charge” the WCU search committee Nov. 16. That date also represents the first meeting of the new committee.

In addition to the trustees, the committee is made up of WCU faculty, students, community members, alumni and administration.

Warren said the search committee would actively solicit ideas on what is wanted from the next WCU chancellor, through a Website being built and more. He wants to see a “statement of position” for the chancellor crafted before candidates are identified.


Internal appointments made

In other WCU-related news, Bardo announced last week that Dianne Lynch, chief of staff for WCU, would assume the role of acting vice chancellor for operations, effective immediately. The move, Bardo said, is in response to several interim appointments at the university’s executive level and in recognition of his own pending retirement.

“I have made this decision because I anticipate a challenging legislative session and I expect to be spending a considerable amount of time in Raleigh once the legislature convenes in late January,” said Bardo, who owns a house near Raleigh. “This interim appointment ensures that Dianne has the delegated authority to make and/or approve institutional decisions for non-academic areas of the university that may become necessary when I am not on campus, and until the chancellor’s search is completed and that individual has been named.”

Bardo’s retirement announcement meant the suspension of national searches that had been under way to fill two top university leadership positions. Chuck Wooten retired as vice chancellor on Jan. 1, and internal auditor Robert Edwards last week was tapped interim vice chancellor for administration and finance.

Additionally, searches were taking place for a replacement for Kyle Carter, who left WCU’s provost office to become chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke on July 1. Linda Seestedt-Stanford, dean of WCU’s college of health and human sciences, is serving as interim provost.


The search committee

• Steve Warren, chair of the board of trustees who will also chair the selection committee.

• Charles Worley, trustee, an Asheville attorney and 2001-2005 mayor of Asheville.

• Gerald Kister, trustee, a 1969 graduate of WCU and resident of Columbia, S.C. Former chief executive officer of La-Z-Boy Inc.

• Joan MacNeill, trustee, a Webster resident who is the former president and chief operating officer of Great Smoky Mountains Railway.

• Virginia “Tommye” Saunooke, trustee, a Cherokee resident and an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who serves on Tribal Council. Earned two degrees at WCU.

• Teresa Williams, trustee, a Huntersville resident who serves as board secretary.

• A.J. Grube, head of WCU’s department of business administration and law, and sport management.

• Erin McNelis, current chair of the WCU Faculty Senate. Associate professor of mathematics and computer science.

• Billy Ogletree, head of WCU’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

• Daniel Dorsey, president of the Student Government Association. A senior from Decatur, Ga., majoring in communication.

• William Frady, chair of the WCU Staff Senate. Manager of instructional and student computing in the Division of Information Technology. Holds two degrees from WCU.

• Carol Burton, associate vice chancellor for WCU’s undergraduate studies. Holds two degrees from WCU.

• Betty Jo Allen, president of the WCU Alumni Association. A resident of Lincolnton and a 1968 graduate of WCU.

• Kenny Messer, former president of the WCU Alumni Association and past president of the Catamount Club Board of Directors. A Greenville, S.C., resident who is an executive with Milliken Corp.

• Phil Walker, former chair of the WCU Board of Trustees. Senior vice president with BB&T, a 1971 graduate of WCU, and chair of the recently completed campaign for WCU, which raised more than $52 million in private support.

• Scott Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of Advantage West, the regional economic development commission of Western North Carolina. Hamilton lives in Henderson County.


Are you ready to rumble? Because here we go again: The great debate in Jackson County on whether traffic congestion along N.C. 107 in Sylva should be fixed, and if so — how — is back.

Since the summer of 2008, the state Department of Transportation has conducted separate traffic studies, each intended to explore different fixes to the same problem.

The preliminary results of one of those studies is about to go public: potential redesigns of N.C. 107, Sylva’s major traffic corridor, which takes in the primary portion of the county that is experiencing business growth. The targeted stretch extends from U.S. 23 Business in Sylva to Western Carolina University.

On Tuesday, Nov. 9, state DOT officials will hold what’s being dubbed an “informal meeting” in Sylva. They intend to publicly layout what they claim must be done if N.C. 107 is truly going to be fixed.

There are six concepts on the table. Three of those concepts would include building an additional road, the controversial Southern Loop, since renamed the friendlier-sounding (and the transportation department claims, more accurate) “N.C. 107 connector.”


‘Here it is’

The connector, as originally conceived, would blaze a new road through the mountains. Five miles of construction destroying homes, farmland, and taking in streams and forests — a proposal, that on the face of it, is simply too destructive for serious contemplation by many in the county, including those who stand to lose their homes.

Opponents won a small battle when the transportation department broadened its language describing the N.C. 107 connector as a “multi-lane” freeway to include the possibility of a smaller, two-lane road, at least for the purpose of study.

Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the group that acted as the brake on the transportation department’s original plans for a multi-lane bypass, has started revving its engines.

The citizen-action group has pretty much lain dormant for the past few years. But this week it held an organizational meeting at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. Members are promising to once again bring accountability to the process, and to insist on the inclusion of a wide array of community voices before any decisions are made.

“DOT has forgotten we’re paying attention,” said Jason Kimenker between serving up cups of lightly curried butternut squash soup to his lunch customers at the Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro, smack dab beside the section of N.C. 107 that is being eyed for improvements. “We have simply been waiting to find out what they were going to do. And, here it is.”

But whether Smart Roads can inspire hundreds of Jackson County residents to participate in what’s often a tedious and mystifyingly complex process — as it once did — remains to be proven. The first test comes next week, at the transportation department’s information session.


Meeting is a response to public pressure

Joel Setzer doesn’t actually have horns and a tail, though to hear some critics of the transportation department, that might come as something of a surprise.

In reality, Setzer is a polite, well-spoken Jackson County native who made good and became the very top dog for the 14th Division of the state Department of Transportation. That means he’s division engineer for a 10-county region that includes Jackson County and encompasses the westernmost tip of North Carolina. Today, Setzer lives on the land he was raised on, commuting a few miles each day from Cullowhee via N.C. 107 to his tidy office — replete with pictures of family members and trout — located in the division’s headquarters near Webster.

“This, in essence, is to help answer the question — ‘Can you fix 107?’” he said of the upcoming meeting.

What happened, Setzer said, is the transportation department really listened. No, really, he said, truly they did.

They heard residents (lots of them, hundreds of them at a time at some points), keep asking whether another road (N.C. 107 connector) was necessary. There were questions about traffic counts, about politics versus need, about desires to build roads positioned against a more environmentally friendlier concept of working in the existing footprint.

That led to the information session (not a public hearing) to share what is known at this point. This, Setzer said, is not required of the transportation department — but the project is controversial, and there have been a lot of questions raised.

The central, nagging question? Whether the transportation department is really doing what the community wants in considering a connector, or by making significant improvements to N.C. 107. Or, are these men and women primed to build roads when a few cars back up on the highway, simply shoving their pet projects down the throats of a reluctant citizenry, all the while egged on by a shadowy yet powerful coalition of would-be developers?

Connecting a network of side roads and linking rural routes to relieve pressure on N.C. 107 is the solution the Smart Roads group advocated when it was active. That option was not included in this study.



What’s on the table?

Here’s what’s being dubbed the six “concepts.” They make only limited sense without accompanying illustrations and maps and explanations from engineers. Those will be forthcoming, Setzer promised, at the information meeting:

• Concept 1 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with no N.C. 107 connector, approximately 6.2-miles long.

• Concept 2 — Traditional widening and intersection upgrades with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 6.2 miles long.

• Concept 3 — Superstreet concept (think Cope Creek, along U.S. 23/74, where turnout lanes are now) with access management/non-traditional intersections and no N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 4 — Superstreet concept with access management/non-traditional intersections and with the N.C. 107 connector in place, approximately 7.5-miles long.

• Concept 5 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with no N.C. 107 connector.

• Concept 6 — Non-traditional improvements and other access management strategies in selected locations with the N.C. 107 connector in place.

Right off the bat, it is critical to understand that each of these six concepts were drafted using a “D” level of service: “A” would represent the best operating conditions; “F” the worst. “D” is generally considered acceptable in urban areas, the transportation department noted in a document outlining the concepts for N.C. 107.

Setzer acknowledged that even the level of service used as the baseline in drafting these concepts is arguable. And, surely, will be argued.

One additional, very important point: Setzer said he must know what “the county’s vision” is today. Build, don’t build; improve, don’t improve — “people are going to have to say, ‘What is an acceptable level of service?’” Setzer said.

“There needs to be a community discussion on what it would take to fix 107 … and I don’t think you can proceed without knowing where the duly elected officials stand. We need to know what the vision is. Without that, we’ll simply be spinning our wheels.”


What Smart Roads advocates want

If you want to get involved, it pays to know what you are getting involved in. Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance promotes these alternatives:

• Expand and connect existing roads to accommodate present and future traffic.

• Implement access management concepts and other “traffic calming” solutions for N.C. 107.

• Encourage walkable communities, making it easy for people to get where they need to go without driving.

• Build and expand bike lanes and support the Jackson County Greenway plan.

• Develop public transportation and utilize pre-existing railroad lines.

• Advocate for DOT to use earmarked funds for transportation alternatives.

• Preserve the Tuckasegee River corridor for public use.

Interested? Then learn more at http://wnc.us/smartroads.


Understanding N.C. 107

N.C. 107 is the only major north-south transportation route in Jackson County, and serves as a “collector” for numerous secondary roads, many of which are dead-end roads that have no “connectivity.” It joins Sylva in the north with Cashiers in the south, traveling through Webster, Cullowhee and Tuckasegee in between.

There is dense commercial development along U.S. 23 Business and N.C. 107 between U.S. 23-74 and N.C. 116. About 95 driveways intersect this 3.3-mile roadway segment. Smoky Mountain High School, Fairview Elementary School, Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are located along, or near, N.C. 107.

N.C. 107 is a five-lane, curb-and-gutter roadway with narrow 10-foot wide travel lanes from U.S. 23 Business to approximately 1,000 feet south of Fairview Road. From there, N.C. 107 transitions to a four-lane, median-divided facility. Under 2008 conditions, the five-lane section is at, or over, its traffic-carrying capacity during peak traveling hours. By 2035, the entire five-lane section will be operating over capacity.

SOURCE: N.C. Department of Transportation


Get Involved

WHAT: Informational meeting on fixing traffic problems on N.C. 107 in Sylva.

WHERE: Balsam Center (Myers Auditorium lobby), Jackson County campus of Southwestern Community College, 447 College Road in Sylva.

WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 9, from 5-7 p.m.

WHY: To share six “concepts” that could fix perceived traffic-flow issues.

WHO: Sponsored by the state Department of Transportation.


Every column should have a point, and here’s mine, right in the first paragraph (this to save you from having to read through to the end if you are in a hurry, or if you are a dog person and not a cat person) — nothing will come of nothing.

Admit it. Shakespeare himself couldn’t have phrased that better.

Here’s the point expressed another way: you get what you pay for.

And if one cliché is good, two must be twice as good: Nothing in life is free.

I write this while admiring the red streaking that radiates along my left arm from the wrist area, like the October sky toward evening when the sun begins to set.

My cat, an evil beast I’ve had for 17 years and, despite my hopeful scrutiny each morning, shows no indications of willingly leaving this earth soon, bit and clawed my wrist Friday afternoon. While I was rescuing him from the jaws and claws of a very large tomcat, that could have dispatched my geriatric cat — Edgar — with one swipe of his huge tomcat paw.

What was I thinking? Fortune knocked. And I, idiot that I am, slammed the door in her face.

Eighty-percent of cat bites become infected, the physicians’ assistant told me Saturday at the urgent care center in Franklin. Where I went with great reluctance on that beautiful autumn day. Which should have been spent outside, as I’d intended and made plans to do.

She assured me that yes, I really needed treatment, and no, I couldn’t have just ignored the streaking and hoped for a magical (read, free) cure.  

Nothing will come of nothing? Try $123 at the care center, and $103 to the pharmacist.

Within 20 minutes of my showing up for treatment, an animal-control officer was on the scene. I explained to this young man, who works for the Macon County sheriff, that yes, it was my cat that had bitten and clawed me; and no, Edgar doesn’t have rabies; that yes, he was up-to-date on his vaccinations (which might not exactly be true, I don’t remember when he was last at the veterinary clinic, but I am confident the little bastard — oh oops, did I actually write that in bold black-and-white letters in a family newspaper — isn’t rabid.)

Here’s the kicker. Macon County’s sheriff, Robby Holland, gave me the cat all those years ago when he (Robby, not the cat) was getting his start in law enforcement as the county’s first animal control officer.

I was equally green, having recently become a reporter for The Franklin Press. We were both in our 20s, and we became friends. And no, that doesn’t influence my news coverage, or his devotion to the law, if it comes to that. I like his campaign opponent, George Lynch, a lot, too.

Robby, however, played a dirty trick on me all those years ago. I still owe him. And I figure he owes me, too — $226 for Saturday, plus nearly two decades worth of payments for cat food, toys, litter and trips to veterinarians.

I remember Robby showing me the most beautiful kitten I’ve ever seen. A lovely gray-and-white ball, so young, the kitten was being spooned baby food for sustenance. Beauty and vulnerability be damned. I should have been wary. The kitten had been living with Robby and his wife, Marci, and Robby had been roughhousing with the tiny creature while trying to find a Good Samaritan (read, sucker) to adopt him.

“But Quintin, I’ll have to take him to the pound if you don’t adopt him,” Robby said plaintively, the tiny kitten cupped alluringly in the palm of his hand and thrust forth for my review.

I didn’t ask why he and Marci didn’t keep the kitten. My other cat, I told myself, needed a friend. I have never been more wrong. She neither wanted nor needed a friend. Minerva hated Edgar until the day she died. With never-wavering passion and intensity.

That’s the end of this column. The point is in the first paragraph, but I’ll give you another jellybean for having read this far: never look a gift cat in the mouth. Because even if that cat has only one fang left in his head, given an opportunity he’ll sink the filthy, yellow thing in your wrist. It will get infected. And cost you a bunch of money, and ruin your weekend to boot.

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


One of three board members overseeing the Whittier Sanitary District resigned this month, saying he could not “in good faith” continue to serve with a group not in compliance with state law.

“In addition, refusing to file the necessary Internal Revenue Service forms to declare wages and benefits taken from the citizens of Whittier is wrong,” John Boaze, the board member, wrote in his resignation letter.

Boaze has persistently carried on a one-man crusade to force the Whittier Sanitary District board to adhere to the same rules governing other public boards, which he says they’ve openly flouted. Open meetings, audits, public records — rules like that.

To date, those with authority to intervene haven’t seemed to be listening.

That situation, however, might have shifted, at least marginally, in the wake of Boaze’s resignation.

The N.C. Department of the Treasurer, in an earlier response to Boaze’s complaints, sent the Whittier Sanitary District a strongly worded letter advising it to comply with state accounting practices. Last week, the Treasurer’s Department confirmed it’s monitoring the situation.

“If it is determined that the district is not consistently making an effort to follow sound accounting practices or general statutes, division staff do have authority to control the financial operations of the district,” said Heather Strickland, deputy director of communications.

Jackson Manager Ken Westmoreland said he had consulted with Kevin King, his counterpart in Swain County, to see what — if anything — needed to take place.

“The Whittier Water and Sewer District is an independent legal entity and if organizational change is to come about, it will have to be from state pressure in some form,” Westmoreland said.


Why the complacency?

Boaze likely encountered entrenched bureaucratic hesitancy for this reason: it’s all so danged confusing, and very few Whittier residents actually rely on the system — particularly when compared to the inordinately large number of governmental entities playing starring roles in the small, unincorporated community’s serial water-and-sewer drama.

Once someone pulls the first thread on this ball of twine, no telling what might come unwound.

The Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t oversee sewer needs in the Whittier community – the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which operates in Jackson County, controls that service for Whittier.

The Whittier community encompasses land in both Jackson and Swain counties, meaning county commission boards in both have a hand in the district.

Though the Whittier Sanitary District doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day duties of handling the community’s sewer needs, the district does have responsibility for drumming-up customers for a new wastewater treatment plant, built to the tune of about $5 million. The board, to date, has failed to attract customers. The plant, which has the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day, currently serves 12 customers.


Not a happy camper

TWASA, forced kicking and screaming a few years ago to take control of the wastewater treatment plant, isn’t happy. When extra money being chipped in by Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians dries up, it appears the plant will be a massive drain on TWASA. Something akin to a fiscal sewer, as it were.

Jackson County is on its final year of a three-year agreement to provide $100,000 annually to TWASA. This $300,000 is on top of an initial $750,000 investment.

TWASA has encountered difficulty wresting the same amount in promised dollars out of the tribe, which has cited a different budget cycle than everyone else, among other reasons for the missing contributions. The check has been in the mail for about two years, with the first $100,000 payment promised to arrive any day. The tribe, like Jackson County, already paid about $750,000 to help build the plant.

Additionally, the Church of God added $500,000. Located near Whittier, the Church of God sports its own mini-version of the Methodist’s Lake Junaluska Assembly in Haywood County.

TWASA Executive Director Joe Cline says his board will decide at the beginning of the coming year whether to keep on keeping on when it comes to the wastewater plant. It might well decide, No thanks. In that case, who will operate it?


What the heck do they do, then?

Back to the Whittier Sanitary District board, and the reason it exists. The district’s board is tasked with overseeing the water system serving the Whittier community. There are about 100 customers relying on that system.

But, of course, it isn’t that simple. The Whittier Sanitary District board doesn’t actually maintain or operate the water system, either — that’s done by the Eastern Band, which has tracts of tribal land in and about the Whittier community. No one knows how much longer Eastern Band leaders will want to continue this task, which aids not only its neighbors but also those tribal members who live in the area.

Add one more item: Cline is on record saying TWASA does not want Whittier’s water system. The wastewater treatment plant is providing enough headaches, thank you very much.


In the “Oh, oops” category this week we have the town of Sylva, which, after extensive review, work and dispute ordered police officers this summer to begin ticketing business owners and their employees who take up precious parking spaces on Main and Mill streets.

Leave your vehicles elsewhere, they were told, or pay a $50 citation penalty. Two or three downtown workers were indeed ticketed by police after business owners ratted out fellow business owners for breaking the law. Feelings ran high.

There’s one small problem.

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, though plenty of other legalese was.

Town Attorney Eric Ridenour, during a town board meeting last week, sharpened his sword and committed public hara-kiri, complete with obsequious apologies for making the mistake.

But, interestingly, unless you were in the know already — or cared to stay afterward and grill the town’s commissioners and attorney — it was impossible to comprehend what had taken place during that portion of the meeting. Commissioners, and Ridenour, didn’t spell out what exactly had doomed their new ordinance and rendered it unenforceable. Clearly, however, everyone on the board had the head’s up before the situation went — technically, at least, if ever so obscurely and mysteriously — before the public.

Commissioners set a date for another hearing to pass a no-parking ordinance. Complete, they hope this time, with the key clause about the people targeted.

“You’re not going to print that?” Ridenour asked when queried after the meeting about what they’d all been talking about in such vague terms.

After explaining the situation, the attorney said he was deeply embarrassed by the mistake. In clarifying the paragraph during the draft process, the key language was inadvertently eliminated in the final version. Ridenour said he plans to personally repay business owners who were fined. That includes the penalty assessed to Dodie Allen, an auctioneer and perennial Republican state House candidate, who protested vigorously after being ticketed when she left her brightly painted “Follow Me to Victory” van parked outside her Main Street store.

Actually, another individual in town anonymously paid Allen’s citation, so Ridenour plans to reimburse them instead.

It was Allen’s protests that unveiled the error, Ridenour said. Allen took her complaints to The Sylva Herald, and owner Steve Gray reviewed the ordinance (as journalists should but rarely actually do) and discovered it applied to absolutely nobody, including Allen. He informed Ridenour of the oversight.


Fix a problem, create a new one. That’s how the cookie has crumbled lately in Sylva.

When the town board ordered business owners and their employees to keep their cars out of coveted parking spaces on Main and Mill streets so shoppers could frequent shops, the parking problems shifted to nearby side streets.

This, of course, was before Sylva town commissioners received the startling news they’d passed an unenforceable ordinance (see accompanying article). But, since they plan to correct that booboo soon, business owners in the newly congested parking area are left wondering what can be done to help them out, too.

Parking has become a particular issue in front of City Lights Bookstore, an independent bookseller on East Jackson Street. Chris Wilcox said he’s seeing downtown employees fill the limited number of spaces available in front of the bookstore. He and his employees park at the nearby Methodist Church, and they are trying to let customers know that they can park there, too, except during church events.

Town commissioners aren’t unsympathetic. They’ve acknowledged during the past two meetings that City Lights and other side-street enterprises are getting parking fallout from the new ordinance, passed (well, passed but unenforceable) this summer.

It looks like side streets could be added to the ordinance, or, as it were, Ordinance Take 2. Commissioners seem loath to rush into things. Once burned, twice shy?


“I know parking is a very sensitive issue,” Reuben Moore, a division operations engineer for the state Department of Transportation, astutely noted at last week’s town board meeting.

This before telling commissioners the parking on Main Street is creating some visual danger at crosswalks. As in, motorists can’t always see pedestrians stepping off onto crosswalks.

Additionally, there are simply too many crosswalks in Sylva, Moore told commissioners.

“We really have crosswalks that are on top of one another,” he said.

Commissioner Harold Hensley continued to push for a “please-don’t-run-over-the-pedestrians” sign at the end of Main Street. This where two lanes drop to one, and cars jockey for position — all while unaware pedestrians attempt to pass from one side of the street to another, via a crosswalk.

After a bit of minor and friendly negotiating, the town agreed to eliminate one parking space in return for the transportation department putting up a warning sign. That will make it easier, Moore said, for motorists to see pedestrians.

Additionally, a committee will be formed to review the overall crosswalk dilemma.


State Senate races here in the mountains could determine whether a historic shift occurs in North Carolina’s overall political landscape.

Many experts are predicting that voters in North Carolina might punish Democrats and incumbents for the shaky economy. Republicans have not controlled the state Senate in more than a century. That could change in a matter of days as Republicans need to pick up just six seats to gain a majority. Nine seats are needed for Republicans to gain control of the state House.

“This is shaping up to be a very rough year for Democrats, just as it was a rough year for Republicans in 2008,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

For the state Senate, two of the mostly closely contested races are here in the mountains between incumbent and Democrat Joe Sam Queen and Republican challenger Ralph Hise for District 47, and incumbent and Democrat John Snow and Republican challenger Jim Davis for District 50.

A statewide poll by Public Policy Polling earlier this month found 50 percent of likely voters would support Republicans, 42 percent would support Democrats, and just 8 percent of voters remained undecided.

More specifically, some polls are indicating leads for Republicans in both District 47 and District 50. N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation, a statewide research and education group serving business and industry, noted Queen fell narrowly behind Hise, the mayor of Spruce Pine, in two polls in June. One taken in mid-September had Hise 10-percentage points in the lead.

“Sen. Queen has proven himself a tenacious politician, but is facing a substantial headwind this year that could return the seat to Republican hands,” John Ruskin, executive director of the foundation, said in a recent news release.

A poll Oct. 8 showed Snow trailing Davis by 16 percentage points.

“If this district goes Republican, the entire portion of North Carolina’s Senate district map west of Charlotte, with the exception of a single senate seat in Buncombe County, could turn red,” Ruskin said.

Jim Blaine, head of North Carolina’s Senate Republican Caucus, credited the surge in the polls to the two GOP candidates’ hard work. He also cited a desires by mountain voters to receive an equitable distribution of state tax dollars when compared with the amounts received by those in the eastern portion of the state.

Not so fast, responded Andrew Whalen, head of North Carolina’s Democratic Party, who is deeply familiar with Western North Carolina and its voting patterns from two successful stints as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler’s campaign manager and, most recently, as the congressman’s communications director.

“Early voting numbers show Democrats are leading out west, in ballots returned,” Whalen said. “I’m confident that Sen. Snow and Sen. Queen are going to be reelected.”


Sen. John Snow, a Democrat from Cherokee County, first won N.C. Senate District 50 by beating longtime incumbent Sen. Bob Carpenter, a Republican from Macon County, by fewer than 300 votes in 2004.

Snow took over a district made up of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, part of Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Transylvania and Swain counties — the southwestern tip of North Carolina, as far from Raleigh in the Tar Heel State as it gets. Snow defeated Republican challenger Susan C. Pons in 2008 to keep the seat.

Jim Davis, however, believes voters in the 50th District are ready to elect a GOP candidate again, a conservative from Macon County, no less.

He might be right.

This part of the state — particularly Macon County — is increasingly right leaning. And Davis is campaigning ferociously and running a hard-hitting advertising campaign accusing Snow of fiscal waste. He surged to a 16-percentage point lead earlier this month in a poll conducted by SurveyUSA for the Civitas Institute (a conservative public policy organization in Raleigh).

“Davis has greatly increased his lead over Snow since May when the two were virtually tied, and continues to garner more support from Republican and unaffiliated voters who are abandoning the Democratic party this election season,” said Chris Hayes, Civitas Institute senior legislative analyst, in a recent news release.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said he believes the tight race, as evidenced by polls, is more a function of national and state trends than individual actions by the candidates.

Davis, an orthodontist, has become familiar to voters in Macon County for a decade or so of service on the county’s board of commissioners. The Franklin resident is an unabashed supporter of local — and not state — control, and acknowledged a certain irony in his seeking a state Senate seat.

But, Davis said, being a state senator would give him the ability to help return some of that control to local hands, exactly where he believes decision-making truly belongs.

The economic problems North Carolinians face are directly attributable to the Democratic party, Davis said, which has controlled the state Senate for more than a century and the state House for all but four of those years.

“And what do they have to show for their century of rule over North Carolina?” he asked, answering the question himself: out-of-control cycles of taxing and spending, job scarcity, and an unfriendly business environment. Because of these problems, he said he’d be a better choice for senator than his competitor.

But Snow isn’t rolling over and playing dead, regardless of his challenger’s strong hand and surging lead in the polls.

Snow, a former prosecutor and district court judge, is intimately familiar with his eight-county district, where he heard thousands of legal cases in three decades of legal work. He believes voters know him, too, and what he stands for.

“In this last Senate term, we have had to make tough decisions faced with the worst recession since the Great Depression,” he said. “We have made the deepest budget cuts in the history of North Carolina, and per-capita spending under the budget stands at a 14-year low.”

Still, Snow said, the Democratic-controlled legislature worked to protect teaching jobs, and K-12 education. He said the key to recession recovery will be education, and that the most important issue is to create new jobs.

Snow cited university and community college funding, small-business refundable tax credits, restored funding for small business centers in the community colleges, job training programs and more as reasons voters should return him to Raleigh.


For being just 3.3 miles in length, the improve-or-don’t-improve Needmore Road debate has generated reams of comment.

Try 772 signatures on a petition supporting some type of paving or resurfacing. And at least 66 written comments sent in to the N.C. Department of Transportation (public comment on the issue closed last week). This on top of a two-hour public hearing which 100 or so people attended, and a smaller information session in Macon County, sponsored by an environmental group, which drew about 30.

The reason? Needmore Road cuts through the Needmore Game Lands, located in Macon and Swain counties. The 4,400-acre tract was protected after a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved it from development after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Power.

What’s at stake? Whether to pave and widen this gravel section of Needmore Road to a minimum of 18 feet, with construction work on the roadway’s shoulders, as endorsed by the transportation department.

All of the major environmental and conservation groups in the region have endorsed paving, citing protections to the Little Tennessee River, which is beside the road and is the unfortunate beneficiary of dust and sedimentation. The groups have stopped well short, however, of endorsing the road widening as proposed. That would involve cutting into and removing acidic rock, which carries an inherent danger to the environment and, particularly, to the nearby river they want to protect.

Macon County commissioners have asked state transportation department officials to hold a public hearing in their county — the previous one held was in Swain.

Julia Merchant, a spokesperson for the department, said a decision on the request is in the works.

Additionally, “a post-hearing meeting is scheduled for Nov. 30 to review every comment received and (to) make a decision about what the next steps are,” she said.


I was sorry to hear that Spring Street Café in Sylva had closed. Emily Elders opened the restaurant about a year ago. It was downstairs from City Lights bookstore, a happy marriage of good books and fine dining. Eat and read: my perfect life in a nutshell.

Spring Street focused on using locally grown organic foods. It was hip, and fun, and seemed well thought out and executed. I thought the recipes, service and atmosphere generally on target. So what went wrong? Well, these are still hard times, as Emily reminded us in an announcement she sent out about being forced to close.

“While no words can express our collective sadness at seeing our dreams come to an end, there are some important things we wanted to share with you,” Emily wrote. “In spite of all of our best efforts, this economy is, well, difficult, to say the least. It’s hard on everyone here in Sylva and throughout Jackson County. We hope that you will follow our lead in supporting your local businesses in every way you can, particularly over the next few months.”

I, for one, have been slipping when it comes to concentrating my dollars locally. Emily’s reminder is a timely one, particularly as we head toward winter. When shopping, try to shop locally, I’m reminding myself … again. I shouldn’t have forgotten in the first place. And, patronize small, independent businesses.

We all have our individual definitions of ‘local.’ To some, it is made up solely of the town or county in which they live. Locally, to me, however, means Asheville west. I’ve lived or worked in every county and town in that geographic region, and I view our local economy as encompassing this same area.

If I thought more about it, I’d probably include a slice of north Georgia in that mental map, too — at least Rabun County, because it kisses the Macon County line, and U.S. 441 is such an easy and quick route from one county to the other. And for those of us living on the Blue Ridge escarpment — in Cashiers and Highlands — it is equally natural to consider Transylvania County and Pickens County, South Carolina, ‘local.’ In fact, I think one should.

Wherever we are talking in WNC, or northern Georgia or upstate South Carolina, running a small business is tough stuff. I know this firsthand: until recently, I was an organic farmer and beekeeper, and my livelihood was directly tied to people’s willingness to buy what I sold. No sales equaled no money. That meant no food on the table. There was a wonderful simplicity to my lifestyle then.

I learned a lot not working for others. Those three-and-a-half years represent the only period that I’ve worked for myself. (At least since I started gainful employment all those years ago. My first job was as a not-very-adept waitress at the Fryemont Inn in Bryson City. Spilled tea on the mayor my first week or so, in fact, and cried bitterly. Life can be very hard when one is 14.)

Working for myself enabled me to learn many valuable lessons. I discovered one’s bank account doesn’t automatically take a jump for the better every two weeks. In fact, the opposite is usually true. I learned humility. Oh, and upon losing the farm (isn’t my life a wonderful cliché?), I discovered what the Greeks meant when they discussed hubris. But that’s a topic for another day. Or, perhaps not: self-revelation can be a real bore for everyone but the individual involved. I’ve learned that, too.

One thing, however, I’m happy to have discovered is that Western North Carolina is a wonderful place to own and operate a business. People are supportive. Fellow business owners are generally helpful. There is a lot of encouragement.

The darker side? This region is downright scary come winter. The customer base dwindles to practically nothing after Christmas. Paying bills, buying food, putting gasoline in the car, these things can become very difficult, if not impossible, when cold weather sets in.

This is what Emily reminded me of, during a time when it would be natural if she thought only of the loss of her dreams.

So I’m hoping you give it thought, too. Define what local means. Buy locally when possible. It might help prevent another sad situation, such as the loss of Spring Street Café in Sylva.

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


Neglect has its advantages. At least it does if you are talking about preservation.

On back street in Sylva — the proper name is Mill Street, but few use that term — many of the buildings still bear the names of the businesses once operated in them, circa 1920 or so.

That includes a former hotel, “The Paris,” which once occupied the building now housing the Tuckaseigee Trader. Owner Steven Lott said if the Downtown Sylva Association is, as reported, in search of ideas on how to dress up this area of town, he believes it would be — his words — “really cool” to bring back that 1920s-era feeling.

“If you stand back at the railroad tracks and look, there is a lot of history,” Lott said.

Railroad tracks run through Sylva, setting something of a permanent boundary on one side of back street. The tracks restrict parking to limited slots in front of the stores, mainly, and in a public parking lot on the other side of the tracks.

In recent years, back street has seen something of a return to its heydays. There are few vacancies, several thriving businesses, and still more doing OK and attempting to ride out these sour economic times.

Renovation work has taken place, cleanups have been done, and the street scene is generally much less grim than it was 15 or so years ago. But more still begs addressing, said Julie Sylvester, head of the Downtown Sylva Association. And with any luck, a state grant might just cover the costs.

The Downtown Sylva Association is a membership organization dedicated to bettering the lives of business owners in downtown Sylva. It is tasked with helping businesses thrive and prosper.

Details of what exactly to apply for are sketchy. The money is available through the state’s Main Street program, of which the Downtown Sylva Association is a part. Last year, the Main Street Solutions Fund boasted a coffer of $1.95 million. The fund is intended to support small businesses in three ways:

• Providing direct financial benefit.

• Retaining and creating jobs.

• Spurring private investment.

Certainly sounds like a good match with back street and its many needs, Sylvester said. She believes it might be helpful to move some of the unattractive air conditioners off the fronts (or is it the backs?) of the buildings onto the roofs. This would require, of course, buy-in from the building owners involved. Also, maybe get rid of — or hide, or otherwise disguise — some of the unsightly cables and wires dangling from buildings and utility poles. And what about pressure washing the buildings, or putting awnings up? An overall facelift sounds good, Sylvester said in conclusion.

Great ideas all, Lott said, sounding enthusiastic via his cell phone one day this week while he drove toward Cullowhee. The air conditioner that cools his business is located directly over the store’s entrance. When it rains, customers get doused going in and going out, he said, throwing his support behind the possible removal of the units onto the roofs of back street’s buildings.

The Downtown Sylva Association will be gathering ideas for the next few weeks. The actual deadline for the grant money hasn’t been announced. But, once it is, Sylvester said the grant would have to be written and submitted quickly. She envisions forming a committee soon to work on the proposal.


Got Ideas?

Let the Downtown Sylva Association know what you’d like to see happen on back street. Email the group at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or call 828.586.1577.


On this, the seven candidates for the Macon County Board of Commissioners agree: the problems of a dour economy, and the subsequent need to watch every dollar spent and encourage any economic growth possible, is the No. 1 responsibility facing the next set of commissioners.

The number two issue? That, most likely at least in the minds of voters, would be the steep-slope debate. The question on the table is whether Macon County — site of the 2004 Peeks Creek landslide tragedy, albeit this was a natural disaster and not a manmade one — should regulate building on steep mountainsides.

Three seats on the five-member board are open, with the top vote-getters in District I and District 2 winning the seats – one in District I, which represents Highlands, and two in District 2, the overall Franklin area. The other two board seats come open in two years.

Macon County is an increasingly conservative-voting county. The old “outsiders”-can’t-win-truism of most counties isn’t true anymore here, either. Current Commissioner Jim Davis, a Republican now vying for a state Senate position, broke that rule by being elected way back in 1996 to the commission board.

In District I, Democrat Daniel Allen “Ricky” Bryson, a former commissioner, is trying to regain his previous seat on the commission from incumbent Republican Brian McClellan. During a recent candidates’ forum sponsored by The Macon County League of Women Voters, Bryson spoke of his experience (unfortunately for him, that doesn’t delineate him from McClellan) and the fact that when he was commissioner, funds had been routinely set back to offset bad times such as these. He also cited strong support for economic development, schools, and spoke against unfunded mandates passed down by the state.

Bryson did not mention one point in his favor that conservative Macon County might hold against McClellan: a driving while under the influence charge the incumbent commissioner picked up last year. McClellan didn’t mention it, either.

Instead, McClellan talked of the need to offer incentives to companies willing to settle in Macon County. The more jobs, the more breaks from the county, that’s the general idea.

“We need to do that in order to be competitive,” McClellan said.

He also advocated zero-based budgeting, or making each county department start from ground zero when building and justifying an annual budget.

There also wasn’t much fierce talk in the battle for District 2. Ronnie Beale, a Democrat presently serving as chairman, like McClellan, spoke of the new economic development guidelines passed 18 months ago to allow for incentives. He said Macon County is finally getting the tools needed to help attract new jobs.

He spoke of stopping a “brain drain” in Macon County, in which the brightest young minds leave for jobs elsewhere. And he touted the new Iotla Valley Elementary School building. A construction contract was recently awarded to an Asheville company.

Democrat and incumbent Commissioner Bob Simpson spoke similarly, but added that during his tenure, the board of commissioners had helped oversee a new space for Southwestern Community College to operate in Macon County.

Simpson staked out a safe political agenda by expressing his support for children, the elderly, and fire, police and emergency services when it comes to budgeting priorities.

Charlie Leatherman, a Republican former commissioner trying to regain a seat on the board, used several of his four minutes available to emphasize his support for education. Leatherman, it should be pointed out, is an educator — he works for Macon County Schools and serves on the SCC Board of Trustees.

“We don’t have jobs for these kids who are graduating,” Leatherman said. “We don’t have jobs for those people who have lost their jobs.”

Ron Haven, a Republican, said he wants to apply what he’s learned as a business owner to Macon County government. He pointed to the need for a department-by-department budget analysis to find areas to cut waste. Haven also flatly came out against study of a steep-slope ordinance, saying this simply isn’t the time to worry about such things, given the dire economic issues.

Vic Drummond, an unaffiliated candidate, is unapologetically right leaning. He, like Haven, wants to see work stop on a steep-slope ordinance. (He made the small gaffe of saying that no houses in Macon County had been lost to landslides, leading several onlookers to whisper audibly to one another, ‘Hasn’t he heard of Peeks Creek?’)

Other candidates cited a desire to see what the planning board offers up in the way of steep-slope controls before condemning study of the ordinance out of hand.

Drummond criticized taxes being raised during a recession, and made a bid for revaluation of property in the county to take place next year instead of 2013 (it has been postponed from 2011).


Is Mary Rock paranoid, trying to garner a sympathy vote? Or is her opponent for sheriff, incumbent Jimmy Ashe, really targeting her by destroying campaign signs?

Over the past week or so, three signs — the large ones, which cost about $100 each — encouraging voters to cast their support for Rock have been defaced or cut up. One near Cullowhee Valley School, where early voting is taking place, has been hit twice. This last time nothing was left, she said, but the backboard.

(Rock called The Smoky Mountain News on Monday to complain after being requested to let this newspaper know if something additional happened. This after two signs were ruined at an earlier date).

Rock said she might simply take a spray paint can and scrawl the words, “Vote for Mary Rock” on the backboard. That, she said, would be difficult to destroy. It certainly would be cheaper. And, something that easily could be done before the November election. You wouldn’t believe how much time it takes, she said, to get those campaign signs back after you order them.

Ashe did not return a call by press time Tuesday requesting comment.

Rock, 43, is a professional bail bondswoman making an initial bid for public office. She wants to become the first female sheriff in Jackson County. Doing so won’t be an easy task — Ashe is a two-term incumbent and Democrat in a Democrat-heavy county. Rock is running unaffiliated with any political party. But really, she is a Democrat, too, and is registered with the board of elections as such. Rock picked this route to give voters more time to get to know her, because she figured she’d get knocked out of the race in the May primaries if she ran as a Democrat.

Rock said she believes Ashe, his supporters, or both are trying to get her to “have to deal” with the sheriff’s department. The proper route for Rock would be to file complaints at the sheriff’s department, which she said would simply set the stage for further discomfort or even harassment.

“I can see why no one runs for public office,” Rock said of her experience.


Sam Greenwood has been around the governmental block a few times. He twice served as Macon County’s manager, and after retiring he promptly returned to the ranks of bureaucracy again, this time as the town of Franklin’s manager.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that Greenwood, that grizzled veteran of local government, has been working to position Franklin ahead of a probable state change that would complicate how towns annex. Which would mean the creation of new hurdles for towns seeking to broaden their tax bases. And that could result in less money for towns to provide services to its residents.

This is more or less why Franklin in July annexed more land and businesses, in preparation for this next phase: to extend its extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ), or the area of land — the urban-rural fringe, as it has been called — in which town leaders can plan and regulate development. State law allows towns that are Franklin’s size a one-mile ETJ. With the latest annexation, Franklin extended where the ETJ could go, because the one-mile measurement starts at the town’s official borders.

Those being placed in a new ETJ don’t have to pay town taxes. That’s a point Franklin Town Planner Michael Grubberman takes great pains to emphasize. Additionally, it is those future businesses — some perhaps not yet even envisioned — that will be expected to adhere to the same appearance standards as businesses built in town.

This extension of the ETJ, in large part, is also intended to knit together the disparate parts of Franklin. Pockets of annexation have taken place over the years. A business — the Ford dealership on U.S. 441 north of town is a good example — would ask the town to annex, and of course, provide it town services. Franklin would oblige. In doing so, gaps were left between the official borders and these newer additions.

“The town grew in dribs and drabs,” Greenwood said.

(An involuntary annexation of 88 land parcels is also under way in Franklin. An information meeting is scheduled for Nov. 22 at 5:30 p.m., and a public hearing will be held the following month. In a memo, Grubberman noted to the town board that the annexation involves “commercially developed parcels that are contiguous to the main body of town as well as parcels that we already surround that are not annexed, or that are partially annexed.”)

The ETJ, as proposed, does not a tidy one-mile circle make. Greenwood, Grubberman, and the town’s elected officials are focusing on controlling the commercial corridors: U.S. 441 south; U.S. 441 north; along the upper reaches of Highlands Road; out U.S. 64, and so on.

“We’re pretty much looking to shoot one mile out down the corridors,” Greenwood said.

At least one business owner, Debbie Drake (no kin to the other Drake family in Macon County) of Carolina Motel south of Franklin, believes this is a good idea. A native of Pennsylvania, she moved to Macon County after a layover in Florida. Uncontrolled, unfettered growth, Drake said, is a blight on a town’s beauty.

“If you don’t take steps to control zoning and the people moving in, you have the masses of people doing whatever they want to do,” she said. “And this is such a beautiful, quaint town.”


Want to know more?

A public hearing on the proposed extraterritorial jurisdiction for Franklin is scheduled for Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at town hall.


Jackson County commissioners passed a slate of sweeping development regulations in 2007 designed to rein in what they saw as runaway development. Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting not only the environment and but also the quality of life from irresponsible mountainside construction.

The end of the laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County, that had paved the way for a proliferating number of gated communities over the past decade, angered real estate and building interests. The homebuilder’s lobby pledged to oust the four commissioners who voted in the regulations.

They failed to do so two years ago, however, when both Commissioner Mark Jones and Joe Cowan were re-elected. This year, they have their shot at Shelton and Massie. While Brian McMahan was the lone vote against the regulations in 2007 — and works for the county’s largest gated community Balsam Mountain Preserve — he has been subject to the same attacks as his fellow commissioners.

That didn’t stop the three of them — Shelton, Massie and McMahan — from taking the stage at a candidates forum sponsored by the Jackson County Homebuilder’s earlier this month.

Their opponents, however, declined an invitation to a forum hosted by Jackson County environmental groups.

What could have been tit-for-tat forums — dominated by the opposing forces of developers and environmentalists — instead fell flat. Since challengers stayed away from the environmental forum, the sitting commissioners were left preaching to the choir, and a small one at that since there was little motivation among the general public to attend a one-sided forum.

The sitting commissioners criticized the challengers for failing to show.

“I wish they could have been here tonight. I wish we could have had some good dialogue on the economy and the environment,” McMahan said.

“I think our opponents are conspicuously absent,” William Shelton said.

“I am sorry you didn’t have the opportunity to hear from our opponents, to hear what they believe in,” Tom Massie said. “We don’t know where they stand on these kind of issues.

Shelton and Massie have rejected the accusation that the development regulations passed in 2007 are to blame for the slump in real estate and development.

“We have tried to beat the drum that the policies in Jackson County are not what has killed our economy. These ordinances did not kill the economy,” Shelton said.

Massie said the challengers on the ticket want to “roll back the ordinances.”

“The subtext of their message is they don’t like the ordinances and they want to go back to the way it was four years ago. But we’re not going to go back to the way it was four years ago,” Massie said.


Ambivalence toward development, and who should pace and manage growth in a manner that preserves the natural beauty of the mountains, has surfaced as the central debate in the race for Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners.

Three seats are open on the board. This includes the top the chairman’s position. Commissioners must live within their voting district to seek election, but are elected by countywide voting, or at-large.

In most Western North Carolina counties, the races for commission seats are fairly easy to categorize and subsequently, to analyze: newcomers — generally supportive of land regulations — versus long-timers — generally oppose land regulations.

Jackson County, however, is more complicated than generalizations allow. Two of the most ardent supporters of the strict development regulations now in place are scions of old mountain families: Tom Massie and William Shelton, both incumbents.

Additionally none — not one — of the commission candidates is in favor of a total absence of development regulations. Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated (all are represented in this year’s race), each in some manner, and at some level, acknowledged the necessity and responsibility of overseeing growth.

Other issues are also on the table this year: the deal struck with Duke Energy over the Dillsboro dam; pay raises that seemed to mainly benefit the already-highest paid of the county’s employees; and budget issues.

See also: Jackson forum allows for more candidate scrutiny ... sort of


Regulating development

Background: Three years ago, Jackson County commissioners enacted sweeping steep-slope and subdivision ordinances. Many in the development and real estate industry were angered by the regulations, which were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. Others protested that too many subdivisions — 238 — were exempted. The “vested rights” were to protect developers caught mid-stream by the new regulations, but were ultimately granted to developers in the planning stages. This, in turn, angered those wanting stricter growth controls.

When it comes to growth, the most hands-off candidate is Charles Elders, Shelton’s Republican opponent and a former commissioner. Even Elders, however, gives a nod to “some regulations” being necessary to protect the mountains. He is calling for a study of the current set to see if they need revision.

Shelton, a Democrat, voted for the regulations now in place. He said they weren’t developed willy-nilly, but followed a great deal of public comment from a cross-section of the county’s residents.

“I supported the temporary moratorium on new subdivisions because I felt the county needed time to develop the minimum standards without the planning department becoming overwhelmed with new applications that were simply trying to get into the system before any regulations were passed,” Shelton said.

Additionally, blaming a local governing board for a national recession doesn’t make sense, Shelton said.

But Republican Doug Cody, who is battling Massie, a Democrat, thinks the regulations should be examined “in considerable detail.”

“I also think that there should be input from a larger cross section of the community,” Cody said. “For example, I feel that there are creative ways to construct very low-density housing on steeper slopes without harming the environment.”

Massie pointed out the regulations were actually developed by members of the county’s planning board, which included a representative of the Home Builders Association. And were tweaked by commissioners. He characterized the advisory board as “reasonable, concerned citizens.”

What wasn’t reasonable — in his mind, at least — was what happened after the moratorium was placed on new developments conceived after February 2007.

“The regulations did not cause the slowdown in construction or real estate sales,” Massie said. “However, the hysteria generated by elements within the real estate and construction industries may have done more to damage that sector of the economy than the actual moratorium.”

If there is a man in the middle on these development issues, that is Chairman Brian McMahan, a Democrat. He, among the candidates, cast the sole ‘no’ vote on current development regulations. He also opposed the moratorium on subdivisions.

“Did we really accomplish anything with a moratorium but alienate and frustrate many in the public?” McMahan queried rhetorically when asked about his vote.

But McMahan’s position is more complicated than simply dismissing the regulations that were passed, because he supports — and has been consistently on record as doing so — most of what is in place.

“I found it to be true that everyone was in favor of having stable slopes,” he said. “Everyone wanted some assurances that their neighbor’s property would not slide down the mountain and destroy or damage their property.”

Everyone also wanted safe and good access and roads, McMahan said, and “appropriate” buffers.

“I stopped in my support … when the ordinances went a step beyond those health, safety and protections aspects and started trying to regulate aesthetics, which is what ‘looks good.’’

McMahan also disagreed with lot-size requirements, which he said effectively limited some development possibilities.

His opponent, Jack Debnam, who is unaffiliated with any political party, is having a difficult time delineating himself from McMahan on this issue because, frankly, their views on the subject are so similar.

Debnam supports the development regulations, but argues that he doesn’t think “we needed to cover everyone with the same blanket set” of rules. He, too, believes the moratorium was a terrible mistake.

“The implementation of the moratorium, in my opinion, gave us a five-month jumpstart on the rest of the nation in our economic downturn because of the question of what could happen next,” Debnam said.


Dillsboro Dam

Background: Jackson County tried to exercise eminent domain and take the dam in Dillsboro away from Duke Energy to make it the focal point of a new riverfront park along the Tuckasegee. The county lost the battle in court, and was forced to cough up a half-million dollars in legal fees. Per Duke’s wishes, the dam now has been torn down.

Elders said he believes a little more skill at the negotiating table would have served Jackson County residents better than the bare-knuckled battle that took place with Duke.

Well, Shelton responded, of course it’s always nice to sit back and scrutinize someone else’s decisions: “Hindsight makes it easy to say that we should not have fought the fight, now that history shows we lost,” he said. “However, at the time I thought it was worth the gamble. If you look at the amount gained through the settlement against the amount spent, then you have pretty much a zero-sum game.”

Cody, like Elders, doesn’t approve of the “adversarial approach” taken by the county. His problem on this issue? Neither does his opponent. In fact, Massie voted against continuing “the legal wrangling” once the county’s appeal was denied.

“I felt it was a desperate, costly, gamble with little hope for success,” Massie said.

McMahan disagrees with that assessment, saying the fight made Duke pay more attention to the demolition than it might have otherwise. Such as sediment removal, and riverbank restoration. He agreed with Shelton that, ultimately, the situation was about break-even.

Not so fast, Debnam said.

“‘A wash?’ he said, “$500,000 out-of-pocket to area attorneys, who knows how many hours of county employee time, and we get what the stakeholders had agreed to. I think that should be considered ‘a bath.’”


Pay raises

Background: The county instituted a pay plan for employees. Some have since protested that the only employees who truly benefited were already those who were the highest paid.

Why in the world pay someone to conduct a study when the Institute for Local Government could have been consulted, and for free, Elders wanted to know. Additionally, Shelton’s challenger said it was disappointing to watch as the lowest paid tier of employees didn’t seem to reap rewards — only those at the top.

This issue is a tough one for the incumbents. Well-intentioned the study might have been, but the effort to bring a level of fairness to the pay scale that is based on experience, education and length of service didn’t exactly work out as thought. This truth Shelton acknowledged.

“In hindsight, I feel that our board made a mistake by voting on this policy without taking into account … the ‘career ladder’ portion,” he said. “That said, I still believe that we have a fair system in place that, in the long run, will serve the county well.”

Cody, like Elders, believes paying for a study was unnecessary, and that it unfairly rewarded those at the top tier.

Massie, like Shelton, seemed uncomfortable with what took place.

“I still support those raises,” Massie said, “but I should have better understood the impact the ‘career ladder’ … would have on pay levels of the employees with the most seniority. Had I fully understood that, it might have impacted my decision.”

McMahan, alone of the incumbent commissioners running for office, is unapologetic on the issue. The old pay plan didn’t adequately compensate some employees, and the county had too much turnover of critical personnel, he said.

“In a two-year period, the board met at seven different occasions in which the plan was discussed publicly in some way. No member of the public ever voiced the first complaint until after the plan had been presented, funded and implemented,” McMahan said.


Managing the dollars

Background: Being an incumbent is tough. You actually have a record to defend. But here’s one issue on which Shelton, Massie and McMahan are difficult to fault. Neighboring counties had huge budget shortfalls, layoffs and other fiscal nightmares. Jackson sailed through, with very little belt-tightening.

All in all, Elders acknowledged, the county is in pretty good shape. Wouldn’t hurt to build the tax base up, he said, and get an economic development commission re-established to focus on job growth.

Shelton said the current board “trimmed down the budget incrementally” during two budget cycles.

“This past year, we cut our budget by close to 10 percent across the board, with the exception of the fire departments,” he said. “Jackson County has a healthy debt-to-asset ratio in comparison to surrounding counties, and has a strong fund balance.”

Cody isn’t prepared to credit the incumbents even for a strong budget performance — he believes the only reason this county functioned better during the extended recession is because property values were so high.

“In my opinion, the county officials overspent while the national and local economies were slowing down,” he said.

But Massie said Jackson County certainly has done a very good job of managing its budget, thank you very much. Line items were reduced, overall expenditure reduced, money was placed in a rainy day fund to help offset future problems.

“I think that the fact that Jackson County has not had to do layoffs, furloughs and severely cut services is a testament to the sound leadership of the county manager, finance director, department heads and employees,” McMahan said.

(Note: For those not-so-good at picking up on subtleties, this is an oblique defense of the county pay raises — the highest paid who got more pay under the study did a good job on the budget, ie., county manager, finance director, and so on.)

Debnam simply refused to acknowledge that even Jackson County’s budget might be sound, and that commissioners did a good job on this part of their job. Or anything else particularly.

“Until I can get in office and have a cost accounting done, I will not know what kind of job has been done,” he said.


More information

Some candidates weren’t there, but if you want to know where the ones who did attend a forum put on by regional environmental groups stand on certain issues, here’s a video clip courtesy of the Canary Coalition: www.youtube.com/watch?v=raasOuOc7_0


I’ve been thinking recently about what makes Sylva so cool. In my view, it has only been in the last 10 years or so that Sylva has hit the bull’s eye. Previously, it was no more cool, than, say, Robbinsville, Waynesville or Franklin. Sorry folks, you are all nice enough, but you ain’t cool.

Bryson City, my hometown, is sort of cool, but only just a tiny bit. And, honestly, probably despite the wishes of most who live there. Bryson City has been dragged toward coolness, I think because people persist in opening up bike shops, and coffee shops, and so on. There’s even a brewery. What’s next, a head shop?

Anywho, back to Sylva. A bustling farmers market on Saturdays helps Sylva. So does Eric’s Fish Market, and the nearby Heinzelmannchen Brewery. The restaurants — Guadalupe Cafe, Lulu’s, Spring Street and so on add a lot, as does City Lights, the independent bookstore. A good coffee shop, such as the one below our office on the first floor of the Spiro Building, helps, too.

The Smoky Mountain News, come to think of it, undoubtedly adds to the ambiance, because every cool town needs an alternative newspaper. Though, honestly, I don’t find my new employer particularly outrageous or provocative. Kind of left leaning, yes, and the writers do sometimes pen their excessively purplish prose in the present tense, an affectation that drives me nuts.

I have observed a lot of the staff wear running shoes to work. And, on my first day helping layout the newspaper, which required me to go to the main office in Waynesville, I noticed Amanda the bookkeeper was wearing no shoes at all. I certainly never saw anyone without shoes during my many years at the Asheville Citizen-Times.

I remember at yet another newspaper company where I worked — Community Newspapers Inc., the one that owns most of this region’s weeklies — one of the owners sent an intern in Highlands back to the house to change because he wore shorts in to the office. I don’t think the owners of the Smoky Mountain News would even blink if I showed up in shorts.

It occurs to me, by extension, I’m cool now, too, because I opted to join The Smoky Mountain News as a staff writer instead of returning to the Asheville Citizen-Times. Though I’m fond enough of my previous employer and keep in touch with former colleagues, I recognize that on the neat-o-meter, working for the largest newspaper publishing company in the nation (Gannett) is really not very cool. It’s akin to working for Wal-Mart, or the state Department of Transportation, or the FBI.

There’s yet another business in Sylva that helps make this town cool. And I’m here to tell you, they are not — as rumored — pulling up stakes and moving to Asheville: at least not completely.

(This is what’s nice about working for an alternative publication. I wasn’t allowed to report on rumors at Gannett, or for Community Newspapers Inc., but the business involved needs some help on this one, and what the heck — Amanda isn’t even required to wear shoes.)

Annie’s Naturally Bakery, which has helped anchor Main Street in Sylva for the past eight years, is staying put … for the most part. The word on the street has the bakery abandoning Sylva.

Annie told me they are indeed moving the wholesale portion of the business. The bread baking will be done in Asheville, as will the wholesale delivery. Most of the 75 wholesale accounts they have are in that area, anyway, not here in the far-western counties. Too much money is being lost in buying gasoline, and through wear-and-tear on the delivery vehicles.

But the Main Street shop is staying in Sylva. Cookies, pies, cakes, all will still be made right here. And the cool people can continue to see, and be seen, in Annie’s.

“We promise not to abandon Sylva,” she told me.

Well, I think that’s great. I like Annie’s Naturally Bakery. And I promise not to leave for a while, too. It’s really quite fun to work in the coolest town of them all.


Residential density is coming under scrutiny in Sylva after town leaders learned they require larger lots than most similar-sized towns.


Dodie Allen might be an unlikely hero for those business owners and downtown employees in Sylva who believe a new parking ordinance impairs their ability to make a living.


A partnership between Western Carolina University and a Brazilian-based company could eventually result in up to 300 new jobs for the region — if Vale Soluções em Energia, as hoped, agrees to build its yet-to-be-designed turbines here.


A national search for a new Western Carolina University chancellor will start immediately following longtime leader John Bardo’s announcement this week he would leave the institution’s top post and join the faculty.


John Bardo, chancellor of Western North Carolina since 1995, announced this week he would step down. It’s been an extraordinarily long tenure for a university chancellor, and Bardo simply said it is time for a change at the top.


The “buzz bus” soon will be ferrying students from bars in Sylva back to the Western Carolina University campus.


There is a story about Katharine White — an editor and writer for The New Yorker magazine — that I enjoy recalling this time of year. This is good fodder for mulling over while you plant bulbs or move perennials. Both are timely tasks right now for our section of the world.

Katharine White, her husband, E.B. White, wrote, would pre-select a day each fall for planting the spring bulb garden. Bad weather didn’t matter.

“The hour had struck, the strategy of spring must be worked out according to plan,” he recalled in his introduction to “Onward and Upward in the Garden,” a book of his wife’s gardening articles he selected and edited.

Katharine White would dress in a raincoat, a little round wool hat, a pair of overshoes, and then go and sit at the edge of the plot in a folding canvas chair — a director’s chair. From this vantage point, she would direct her gardening helper on precisely where to plant new bulbs and basketfuls of old ones.

E.B. White recalled, “As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion — the small, hunched-over figure, her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.”

I fully comprehend Katharine White’s passion for planting. It is easy to garden if working land you anticipate spending the rest of a lifetime, hopefully a long one, enjoying. But the true test comes with impermanence. When the gardener doesn’t know whether she’ll be there next spring, next year, in five years, or a decade.

Fortunately, the madness for gardening usually overcomes doubts and wisdom. It is October, so we dutifully — even joyfully — plant bulbs, and the garlic that won’t be harvested till late next summer. Or we set out young perennial plants, knowing full well none will put on much of a show for several years.

Who will be there to enjoy them? The gardener, or perhaps someone else? No one? In the end, it doesn’t much matter. Writers write, painters paint, gardeners plant.

Henry Mitchell, hands down my favorite writer on the subject, wrote in one of his last columns for the Washington Post: “You wonder after many years if any of it was worth the bother. The answer is, I think, more or less yes. … Entire sections (of the garden) have to be rethought and old friends given up. All seems to be nothing but change and irregular advances and collapse, as if paying little attention to the gardener, who is seen to be far less consequential than we had supposed.”

Mitchell died shortly after he wrote these words, while helping a neighbor plant daffodils. I suspect Mitchell would have been touched and gratified by such a fitting demise, but also a bit amused by just how apropos his ending was. He is so good, I feel compelled to quote him at length on the subject of gardening faith. Or gardening madness, if you will:

“So there is no point dreading the next summer storm that, as I predict, will flatten everything. Nor is there any point dreading the winter, so soon to come, in which the temperature will drop to ten below zero and the ground freezes forty inches deep and we all say there never was such a winter since the beginning of the world. There have been such winters; there will be more.

“Now the gardener is the one who has seen everything ruined so many times that (even as the pain increases with each loss) he comprehends — truly knows — that where there was a garden once, it can be again, or where there never was, there yet can be a garden so that all who see it say, ‘Well, you have favorable conditions here. Everything grows for you.’ Everything grows for everybody. Everything dies for everybody, too.

“There are no green thumbs or black thumbs. There are only gardeners and non-gardeners. Gardeners are the ones who, ruin after ruin, get on with the high defiance of nature herself, creating, in the very face of her chaos and tornado, the bower of roses and the pride of irises. It sounds very well to garden a ‘natural way.’ You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners.”

Winter looms, all is impermanent, we rent instead of own, the transportation department might build a road where our house is, the bank might foreclose, the river might rise, we could die tomorrow.

I say, what the hell — let’s all plant hundreds and hundreds of bulbs anyway.


Is going into business with a Brazilian company within the mission of Western Carolina University? Dean Robert McMahan says so, and he bases that decision on the university’s adoption of the Boyer model.

WCU formally adopted this new tenure model, which is based on a book by Ernest L. Boyer titled, “Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate.”

In his influential 1997 work, Boyer proposed scholarship should include discovery, integration, application and teaching. All four areas should be rewarded when considering tenure for professors, he argued.

The Boyer model, McMahan said, allows — even encourages — an “externally engaged university.”  

“It represents a broadening of the traditional university definition of scholarship to include application,” he said. “It is intended to broaden the scope.”

This means that professors seeking tenure can demonstrate other accomplishments besides the traditional route of being published in academic journals.

“Application” allows for service to the community. It is within this context that WCU leaders believe it is appropriate to meld faculty and staff with Vale Soluções em Energia in a public-private partnership.


A company with South American roots will set up U.S. headquarters on the campus of Western Carolina University in a partnership to design, develop and build turbines.

A public announcement about the deal is scheduled for next week. The Smoky Mountain News, under the state’s Public Records Law, requested and received a memorandum of agreement between Vale Soluções em Energia, based in Rio de Janeiro, and WCU.

Vale Soluções em Energia is a subsidiary of the Brazilian-based Vale Group, the second-largest mining company in the world.

About 20 Vale Soluções employees will work on WCU’s campus. The college will provide the company a suite of offices on the second floor of the Centers for Applied Technology building, said Robert McMahan, dean of WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology, called the Kimmel School.

Vale Soluções em Energia is operating in this country as the newly formed TAO Sustainable Power Solutions.

The company and the university plan to develop turbines to power generators that will use renewable fuel sources such as ethanol, McMahan said.

Vale Soluções em Energia and WCU in June signed a minimum four-year agreement. In addition to a number of confidentiality and intellectual-rights agreements, WCU agreed to appoint “as appropriate” qualified key company personnel to faculty positions.


Human-rights issues?

Any concerns about WCU entering into a business relationship with a Brazilian company that has global mining interests are misplaced, McMahan said.

The WCU dean said he was not aware allegations existed in Brazil and other countries of conflicts between Vale Group and indigenous people, environmentalists and trade unions. McMahan said WCU had not formally checked the organization’s background, but added that during the year or so of negotiations with Vale Soluções em Energia officials, he’d developed a positive feeling toward the company. McMahan said he believed that “due diligence” by WCU leaders has taken place, and distanced the university from the parent company.

“We are not working with Vale,” McMahan said. “Vale is not involved. This is VSE and their subsidiary, TAO Sustainable Power Solutions … there is no direct connection with Vale and their mining.”

Additionally, McMahan said, the work involving Vale Soluções em Energia employees and WCU faculty, staff and students is environmentally friendly.

Chancellor John Bardo approved the deal. The state Department of Commerce is aware of WCU’s plan to work with the company, the dean said.

One Sylva environmentalist, however, asked about the possibility of a WCU-Vale Group connection, expressed concern the university would enter such a relationship, even if — as McMahan stated — it were a tenuous one.

Vale Group is the largest producer of iron ore and iron-ore pellets. It also mines for manganese and manganese alloys, nickel, copper, coal, potash and kaolin.

“The entire coal cycle is a human-rights violation and an irresponsible environmental abomination,” said Avram Friedman of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based group that works on clean-air issues.


The plan

Though downplaying any connection with Vale Group, McMahan pointed to the company’s consumption of “enormous amounts of fuel” in remote areas around the world as a significant reason generators fueled by renewable resources were envisioned.

Additionally, the generators are supposed to help power the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, McMahan said.

The WCU dean, at Smoky Mountain News’ request, said he’d asked the company to contact the newspaper Monday. The company had not responded to this request for comment before press time, midday Tuesday.

A U.S. engineer working with Vale Soluções em Energia lives in Franklin. He alerted the company to the existence of the Kimmel School, McMahan said.

WCU, among other attributes, will bring engineering skills to the task of building turbines for the generators, McMahan said. The company intends to make significant investments in the project. A dollar amount has not been decided on, he said.

Ultimately, WCU hopes to demonstrate that Western North Carolina would be a viable setting for the company to manufacture the generators.

Within Kimmel School is the Center for Rapid Product Realization. Unique in the University of North Carolina system, the center is designed to help students learn how to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations, and to help grow the region’s economy.

See also: Foray into turbine business part of WCU’s mission, college says

Kimmel School is supplied with state-of-the-art equipment, such as a $150,000 scanner. The scanner was put to use recently in scanning antique furniture for Hickory Chair. This helped the Hickory company in its effort to reproduce similar-styled pieces for market.

“There are unique capabilities here that exist only in a few places in the country,” McMahan said, explaining WCU can help a company or entrepreneur move from “idea to application.”

During the past five years, WCU has worked with more than 250 companies and individuals in WNC and the Southeast.


Who is WCU doing business with?

Vale Soluções em Energia, a subsidiary of Vale Group, is a Brazilian-based mining company with global interests. Brazil’s government privatized Vale, previously called Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, in 1997. It now operates in 35 countries and on five continents.

In this country and in the United Kingdom, Vale (pronounced vah-lay) Soluções em Energia has recently spun-off into TAO Sustainable Power Solutions (U.S) and TAO Sustainable Power Solutions (U.K.).


Town and county leaders will meet with the N.C. Highway Patrol this week in Franklin to discuss where in Macon County the state agency can build a radio tower.

Something of a brouhaha erupted last week after town leaders learned the Highway Patrol planned to erect the 471-feet structure — that’s 111 feet longer than Franklin High School’s football field — on the town’s outskirts. Alderman Bob Scott, between fussing about the tower’s proposed location being in a residential area and possibly within the flight path into the county airport, joked that perhaps town workers could festoon the tower with Christmas lights come December.

Other town leaders also complained about the site, and took their concerns to county commissioners for support.

Town Manager Sam Greenwood said Tuesday the Highway Patrol seemed open to considering alternative sites. A meeting has been scheduled for Thursday. Last week, Sgt. Jorge Brewer, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol who is based in Raleigh, said the state agency was aware of concern about the proposed location.

If built where currently sited, the tower would be on state Department of Transportation-owned property on Ivar Street just off N.C. 28.

In a letter written late last month to the Highway Patrol, Franklin Land-Use Administrator Michael Grubermann noted “there are no less than 18 occupied residential buildings within a 470-foot fall zone from that specific location … there is a concern of ice-sheet fall from the towers to the structures below. The elevation and location of the site with the height of the tower itself will promote ice accumulation during snowfalls and sleet.”


Back about a decade ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor.

Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the river.

The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away.

Ten years and some $5 million later, a wastewater treatment plant now serves all those needy entities.

Blame the economy, the parties involved certainly do; but the bottom line?

• Assessments about growth turned out to be wrong, at least to date. There are just 14 customers being served by a plant with annual operating costs of roughly $180,000 a year. The plant is capable of treating 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day — and the treatment facility was built with future expansion in mind.

• Jackson County residents continue to kick in $100,000 a year to subsidize the system. The county agreed to help pay for the system for three years, and has one more year to go.

• The Eastern Band also made the same deal, but the tribe — citing an unfinalized budget, and a different fiscal-year budget than other local governments, among other reasons — hasn’t yet made a payment. It is now $200,000 behind on its $300,000 pledge. The first $100,000 of the tribe’s commitment is in their current 2010-11 budget, which began Oct. 1. A payment is expected soon, Vice Chief Larry Blythe has assured parties involved.

• The Whittier Sanitary District, a three-member board that continues to oversee water for the community and is tasked with getting more customers for the wastewater treatment plant, instead hasn’t even met basic requirements the state sets for governing boards.

A letter last month to the district from the Department of State Treasurer complained that no budget has been adopted, the district operated at a net loss with actual expenses exceeding budgeted amount, board members were reportedly receiving utility services free of charge, an audit hadn’t been done as required, and the financial officer wasn’t bonded as the law stipulated. The district has since cut out the perks for board members but is still working at coming into compliance on the other matters.

All of this has created a hardship for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority (TWASA), which became the reluctant manager of Whittier’s sewer system. TWASA was formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, with the idea that one large entity would do a better job than the county and towns (there are four in Jackson) working alone could.

“It’s at the point we will have to decide whether to keep operating the plant, or turn it over to the Whittier Sanitary District,” said Joe Cline, executive director of TWASA.

That decision, he said, will be made around the beginning of the new year.

When the subsidies from the county and tribe dry up, the 14 current customers won’t be enough to cover the system’s costs.

Bill Gibson, executive director of the Southwestern Development Commission, a regional council for the state’s seven westernmost counties, is a dealmaker. And he was the man who helped put together the money needed to make the wastewater treatment plant a reality.

This was a complicated project, one of the most intricate deals Gibson has been involved in since taking the lead role for the commission in 1976. There were numerous private and public parties involved. Millions of dollars were needed.

Land, owned by the Jackson County Economic Development Commission, was available in an industrial park in Whittier. And in 2001, the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center agreed to give the project a $3 million grant.

Getting the necessary permits to build took two years. Among the delays — an archaeological site and the need to tunnel pipe under the Tuckasegee River.

During this time, prices on building supplies went up. The grant wasn’t large enough to cover the bids coming in. More money was sought and received from Jackson County, the Eastern Band and the Church of God. Total, Jackson and the Eastern Band invested about $750,000 each into the project. The Church of God, about $500,000. The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center added $200,000 more to its original grant amount, Gibson said.

For Jackson County’s part, Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said, the elementary school’s failing septic system presented a problem that had to be solved. Gibson estimated it would have taken more than a $1 million for the county to buy land and put in a new septic field and sewer system.

“Even with a new septic field, you are buying time, but it would eventually fail, too,” he said.

Though additional money was made available, some things had to be cut to make the sewage treatment plant a go.

“Some of the reason we don’t have the customers we thought is that we had to cut out some lines,” Gibson said.

The initial estimates were for 40 customers to tap in. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so, Gibson said, had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in their own septic systems.

Westmoreland recently noted the Whittier Sanitary District hasn’t been very aggressive in recruiting new customers.

There are a lot of ‘ifs’ before the building of a wastewater treatment plant in Whittier can be deemed a failure or success. If the economy rebounds, if investors see a reason to build on U.S. 441, if residents in Whittier tap in to the system, the plant will serve the purpose intended. Everything is in place for that to happen — in addition to sewer lines, there is also water, natural gas and high-speed fiber optic.

But 14 customers? That won’t turn the system into what was envisioned: self sustainable and justifiable.


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