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Colby Dunn

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The Downtown Waynesville Association is gearing up for spring, with new businesses and events in the works for the coming tourist season.

Buffy Phillips, the association’s executive director, told Waynesville town officials that she’s positive about the year’s outlook for downtown.

Though the recession has hurt some businesses in the area – Phillips lamented the increasing winter closures along Main Street this year – downtown vendors are still making it. New ones are even springing up, including the newly debuted Tipping Point Tavern and a Thai restaurant moving in to the space vacated by Ceviche’s On Main.

Downtown’s popularity as a festival venue has prompted

DWA to draft an events policy to fairly handle burgeoning requests from organizations wanting to hold street fairs, while simultaneously adding to their own events calendar.

This year, another street dance will be added to the calendar, hopefully bringing back the popular Hispanic-themed soiree put on several years ago.

Phillips said she’s also preparing proposals for grants from the Tourism Development Authority, which sets aside a special pot of money for Waynesville tourism initiatives and been a real boon to downtown since the fund was set up.

“We’re able now with this to do some phenomenal advertising for the town of Waynesville,” said Phillips. “In the past few years we’ve gotten $30,000 to $40,000 per year.”

Comment

Ingles got a green light last week from Waynesville’s town board to bulk out their Russ Avenue location, complete with gas station and convenience store, adding another expansion to the chain’s growing empire of new and revamped stores.

The store will jump to nearly 120,000 square feet, taking over the adjacent storefronts vacated by Goody’s and others, and will feature a host of new offerings, including an expanded café and wine section.

While Ingles spokesmen won’t comment on their corporate strategy, the expansion is part of a campaign to enlarge their locations across the Southeast and build new ones.

The chain just came out with plans for a new megastore on Smoky Park Highway in Asheville. What will eventually be the largest of the chain’s 203 stores has, this week, been announced in Hull, Ga., just outside Athens.

While other businesses continue to struggle, Ingles has posted healthy profits for the last several quarters. This follows two years of declining profits from 2008-2009.

From October to December 2010, the company christened one new store and opened two remodeled locations. At the same time, it reported a nearly 4 percent increase in sales, up $1.7 million over the same quarter the previous year. On tap for the remainder of 2011 are five new or remodeled store openings, plus six new gas stations, with a new wing being tacked onto its Asheville distribution center in 2012.

“We’re off to a strong start for fiscal year 2011,” said CEO Robert Ingle in a statement last month. “Overall conditions are improving, but we continue to be cautious about the next few quarters.”

Such healthy sales numbers aren’t a new phenomenon for the store. At the close of 2010, it celebrated its 46th consecutive year of sales growth. The company has managed to stay profitable, even in a continually slumping economy, which could be due in part to a dearth of comparable competition.

While Ingles has now swooped in to dominate the western counties, many of the store’s historic rivals such as Harris Teeter and Winn Dixie have been slowly pulling out of the area.

ALSO: Residents weigh in on new Ingles

The former has been concentrating its efforts and dollars on urban landscapes like Greensboro, Charlotte and their attendant suburbs, while the latter emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006 and dragged it’s operations southwards, shunning locales north of Birmingham.

Even so, Ingles announced last month that it would be pulling the reins on its ambitious course of growth and expansion.

Beyond already-planned projects, finance officials have reported that they’re going to scale down the growth agenda they pushed in 2008 and 2009.  

“The Company is being more cautious in its development plans until economic conditions improve,” said an uncharacteristic statement on its business forecasting released with first-quarter financial statements in January.

So while Canton and Cashiers — and soon Waynesville — are reveling in their new digs, the same good fortunes may not be coming to the region’s other stores any time soon.

As for the Russ Avenue build-out, Chief Financial Officer Ron Freeman said hopes are to get the project off the ground relatively quickly.

“Given the weather this time of year, it’s difficult to say when we’ll get started, which will have a lot to do with when we expect to finish,” said Freeman. “It’s too early to tell.”

The remodeled version will sit on a footprint of nearly 120,000 square feet and construction will be phased to allow the store to remain open. The portion of the shopping center once occupied by Goody’s will be razed first, followed by the northern half of the building, where the store is now located.

The average size of an Ingles store rose 10 percent over the past five years and was 53,524 square feet as of late September, according to a company regulatory filing. Waynesville will be two and a half times the average store size.

 

Plan passed by town board

The supermarket chain came before the board with its application for a conditional use zone, which would allow them to sidestep some of the town’s current regulations.

The biggest variance the store sought was for their parking lot. Current rules require parking lots to be behind new or renovated buildings, a near-impossibility on Ingles’ lot.

One of the key new features of the site plan – and a major sticking point for every board and commission the plan has come before – is a redesigned parking lot. The company’s new plan includes a plethora of trees to spruce up what is currently a treeless asphalt slab. Medians and other traffic-calming devices will also bring an element of organization to the lot which, in its present state, is a free-for-all governed only vaguely by painted guides.

Planning Director Paul Benson said that the application isn’t too far outside the city’s current ordinances, or even a far cry from what the proposed new ordinances are shaping up to be.

“I think they’re doing a pretty good effort there,” said Benson. “For a renovation of an existing site, it sure goes a long way toward meeting the ordinance.”

Ingles CFO Ron Freeman said they were happy with the process, which took just under three months to get through the town’s system.
 
“We are pleased with the Board of Aldermen’s decision,” said Freeman. “We are looking forward to bringing a better shopping experience to our customers in Waynesville.”

Comment

When Ingles pushes out of its old shell, it’s new home will bring new options to customers, like a stir-fry station, improved produce section and expanded wine and café offerings.

For many local residents, however, the store’s current incarnation is already an asset to their regular shopping routines, and any improvements would just be icing on the grocery-buying cake.

Debbie Simpson, a part-time Haywood County resident, said the store surpasses what the Publix in her part-time Florida home has to offer.

“Basically, I like the store the way it is,” said Simpson, adding that if she had to pick an area that could be stepped up, “maybe more international food” would be the way to go.

James Rich concurred with Simpson’s assessment. The Waynesville rock mason said he couldn’t find a complaint or even a suggestion to proffer for the store. Rich was put on babysitting duty, pushing a grinning, stroller-bound baby around the produce section while his wife added to an already-full cart, a usual family ritual, he said.

“You can’t make it much better than they already have,” Rich said.

Constance Ebert and her husband Millard, speaking from frozen foods where they were eyeing a bag of canary yellow banana pops, said they were pretty pleased with the Waynesville store, but Constance was able to enumerate a few suggestions for improvements.

“I think demonstrations that show how you can prepare things would be great,” Ebert said, and though she said she was pleased with the store’s cleanliness, she’d love some more healthy options, a more Fresh Market feel.

For her part, Waynesville native Dianne Pass gave the supermarket a glowing review as well, and she was pretty excited to hear some of the improvements coming the store’s way, especially the landscaping plans.

“I love this store, I can’t imagine it any other way,” said Pass a twice-a-week patron of the store, “but it’s such a beautiful area, the trees would be great.”

Town aldermen were on board with that, too, lauding the choice to add some flora to the storefront. There was some dispute about tree type, but in the end, the board was pleased by the corporation’s efforts.

“I really appreciate the fact that Ingles has been willing to make this much of an investment in shade trees and landscaping in this parking lot,” said Alderman Elizabeth Feichter.

Comment

In Maggie Valley’s Town Hall, the cooperative spirit has been in short supply of late, with disputes flaring at nearly every turn.

A chill fell over the Board of Aldermen when former member Colin Edwards took his leave last month, creating a vacancy on the board and a chasm between its remaining members.

Things got significantly less friendly at the board’s Feb. 15 meeting, where disagreements and outright arguments among board members erupted over several touchy issues.

Edwards departure – and the choice about how and when to replace him – was a cause of some indignation, with Alderman Phil Aldridge criticizing the other members over the extending the deadline for people to apply for the vacant seat.

Other aldermen said they were in favor of giving residents an extra month to put their names in the hat, but Aldridge said he was vexed by the extension when the town had five applications in hand already.

“We had more people to come forward that applied for this vacant position we have on the board here than we’ve ever had,” said Aldridge. “We’ve never had this many people.”

Aldridge questioned whether other town board members simply didn’t like those who have applied so far and were hoping to hand pick someone of their own choosing. Aldridge has lobbied for selecting the runner-up from the last town election, calling it the most “democratic” thing to do.

Whoever the appointee eventually is, they’ll only be sitting in the position for six months before the November election, where Alridge’s seat will also be up for grabs.

Though the decision to extend was made in consultation with the town board, Aldridge laid the blame for the extension squarely at the feet of Town Manager Tim Barth, even going so far as to call for Barth’s resignation.

“I guess I’m holding him accountable for this,” said Aldridge. “I think we need to look at Tim’s severance pay and his contract and go forward possibly looking for another town manager.”

 

ABC board controversy

The ire didn’t stop there, however, with perhaps the most heated exchanges coming over issues related to the town’s ABC board. Maggie Valley’s two liquor stores lost money in 2010 for the second year in a row, and blame was placed on a bad economy and overhead related to opening a second store. While revenue increased with the second store, overhead increased by even more, according to ABC Board Chairman Ralph Wallace.

But Aldridge, and Edwards prior to his resignation, suggested the stores have been poorly run, even mismanaged, and need more oversight. Both wanted to see the ABC board increased from three to five members.

However, Aldridge failed to garner support for the idea, as the board ultimately voted 3-to-1 not to increase the ABC board membership, at which point the meeting devolved briefly into a mire of bickering. Board members vacillated between hurling insults and accusations at one another, and taking it in turns to directly address the nearly full audience.

Aldridge logged the lone vote in favor of increasing the board, although Alderman Scott Pauley and fellow member Saralyn Price said they’d be for the measure at some point, but not right now.

Despite implications to the contrary, Price countered that she had faith in the scruples of the alcohol board’s members.

“The ABC board assures us everything is on the up and up,” Price said. Otherwise, Price said, town leaders would not “stand for somebody taking something and not doing things about it.”

After a shout from the crowd that cast derision on that claim, Price shot back, “then don’t vote for me ever again and maybe some other people should start running for these offices.”

 

Broken chain of command

Pauley made his appeal to the crowd, after proposing a policy to prevent members from circumventing Barth and going straight to town employees with their requests.

“We have a terrible communication problem,” said Pauley. “I’m not trying to mask it, I’m trying to fix it.”

Even in the public comment segment, citizens who showed up vented their spleen about nearly everything on the agenda, including the fact that public comment continued to languish at the end of every meeting. That means citizens have no venue for pitching their thoughts before votes are taken.

Several residents made the point that a poorly worded resolution that was passed before public comment could have been amended before it was voted on, had the board recognized audience members with raised hands looking to illuminate the mistake.

The resolution will now have to wait until next month’s meeting to be rectified.

In the end, Mayor Roger McElroy closed the tense session with a half-hearted adjournment, telling the few audience members who remained, “we appreciate your comments and will take them under consideration. Or at least I will.”

Comment

In the farthest reaches of the Cherokee Indian  Reservation, work is being done to ensure that when crime happens, the police can be there.

While most portions of the reservation are central to Cherokee itself, within easy reach of police officers and their radio systems, the slivers of tribal land that lie unattached to the main reservation are a far larger challenge to law enforcement officials.

At issue here is the police department’s radio system, which, according to Cherokee Indian Police Chief Ben Reed, is just not strong enough to reach into the Snowbird community in Graham County or the Cherokee County portions of tribal property.

Sometimes this causes problems and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s something Reed said his department is actively looking into.

“Due to the mountainous terrain, it does create issues for us to develop a radio communications system that would reach 45 miles away or 60 miles away,” said Reed. “It’s very difficult to do.”

And while this doesn’t necessarily keep officers from answering calls, it does make communication between the police department and its officers in the outlying regions more difficult and time consuming.

Reed said that his department works closely with the sheriff offices of both counties, who allow the tribal cops to use their radio systems whenever it’s necessary. But calls don’t always come into the local counties’ 911 dispatches; sometimes, they’re called straight into the Cherokee dispatch center, which makes contacting an officer in Graham and Cherokee counties onerous.

Reed said that he and the other emergency response agencies are now putting together a task force to address that very issue, and hopefully they’ll be able to come up with some solutions as early as the end of next week.

“We’re going to figure out, you know, what are our options,” said Reed. “We need to get all these things in place and see where we’re at and is it even possible?”

Whether that means erecting new towers or getting newer, more powerful radio systems for outlying officers, Reed said he’s confident they can find solutions to the problem. The real issue, however, is funding those solutions.

“That’s probably going to take a lot of funding, and where’s the funding going to come from?” Reed said. “We can search for grants and lobby for more funding through our current resources, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Meanwhile, the community is calling for a fix to the police communication problems that they see on the ground in the outer counties.

At a special tribal council meeting last month called specifically to address concerns of law and order on the Qualla Boundary, several residents lamented the slow response times to the more remote communities.

“When we talk about the jurisdiction of the land, the Qualla Boundary, it’s not just here on the main which has Jackson and Swain counties, but you’ve got Graham County and you also have Cherokee County,” said Cherokee resident Missy Crowe. “I’ve heard from the brothers and sisters way down in Cherokee County that they would call the police and they’d be lucky if they’d get an officer to respond to them.”

Reed said that, while they do have substations in both counties and six officers assigned to them — four in Snowbird and two in Cherokee County — he knows that more officers can always make things better.

“You can never have enough police officers, and although the calls are minimal in those areas, we still have to provide the community with sufficient resources to serve that population there,” said Reed, adding that his department has worked with those two communities over the last several years to identify just what residents want and need from law enforcement.

But when it comes to actually improving on-the-ground radio communication and coverage for remote communities, Reed said it’s just not something he and his officers can tackle alone.

Reed and his department are overseen by a police commission appointed by tribal council. And while he said he welcomes the oversight and needs the help, it’s no secret that the department and the commission have been at odds in recent months about the commission’s role and relationship to the police.

At last month’s meeting, Reed and members of the police commission had vocal disagreements about the commission’s actions, with Reed taking the position that commissioners were homing in on petty and restrictive issues while ignoring the bigger problems at hand. Radio communications, he said, were one of those concerns, and he reiterated that stance in an interview.

“That’s where we need help,” said Reed. “Those kind of issues aren’t easy. That’s not something that we can just look at tomorrow and say we need A, B and C done and just knock it out.”

He didn’t say whether the commission had been approached for involvement in the process, but noted that improving their radio signals was an important proactive step in the tribe’s crime-fighting approach.

“We’ve not had any major issues with it,” said Reed, “but we shouldn’t sit round and wait on a major issue to happen.”

Comment

It’s unsurprising that in the mountain town of Sylva, the music scene is a pretty vibrant place to be. With a long and strong heritage of Appalachian music, it’s only natural that a community would grow up around that scene.

But alongside that long-standing bluegrass tradition is a lively music scene that is less public but still growing, offering the area’s younger crowd an alternative musical outlet that they can help create.

Jeremy Rose has spent years doing just that. As the guitarist and vocalist for Sylva indie band Total War, Rose is a strong member of the alternative, pseudo-underground music scene that has grown from the ground up in Sylva and the university community in Cullowhee.

Though he’s quick to point out that the grassroots groundswell is essentially leaderless —“it really is just a community of people just contributing in their own way” — Rose said he’s been actively cultivating it since coming to the town as a shy college student.

“I guess I just happened to run into a bunch of people that were determined to make something to do,” said Rose, explaining how he fell into the town’s musical world.

While Rose said the cultural experiences offered up by Western Carolina University and the town’s fairly active arts groups are excellent, there has always been plethora of people who are looking for something they can be more involved in. Without a venue springing up, they’ve started doing it themselves.

It’s hard, really, to get a concrete picture of how the whole thing started, nebulous as it is, or even a solid definition of what, exactly, constitutes an “underground music scene.”

But by most estimates, young musicians and music lovers of all kinds, from metal to folk to prog-rock to traditional bluegrass, were looking for a place to practice and enjoy the craft they love. From basements to skate parks to old storefronts, bands and their fans started getting together for performances. When one show was shut down, another sprung up in any place willing to hold it, spurred by online forums and homemade ‘zines produced by Rose, et al.

These days, it’s social networking that gets the word out, and when old supporters fade or move away, new ones always seem to spring up to take their place.

Rose thinks this is one of the endearing things about Sylva’s musical life — thanks to the high turnover provided mostly by WCU students, the town is a perpetual blank canvas, with a pretty steady stream of artists willing to paint it.

“One of the nice things about around here is that people tend to be really supportive because they’re just happy that somebody’s doing something,” said Rose. “If you’re doing anything, everyone will at least come check it out.”

Unlike other, larger markets like Asheville or Knoxville, there’s a multitude of engaged and interested potential fans, which can be hard to come by in a place where live music of all genres is abundant. The problem is usually space, and finding places to play can be difficult.

Recently, businesses like Guadalupe Cafe, Soul Infusion Tea House and Signature Brew Coffee have been offering musicians and their fans a place to perform, which helps keep the shows legal. But not having official hosting places hasn’t been a problem, said Rose.

“It’s really independent of venue,” he said. “Even if there’s nothing there, we’ve always found way — you know basements or somebody’s parents house — if people wanted to do it.”

For bands like Gamenight, a Knoxville-based group, that’s what makes Sylva such an enticing place to play.

The group’s drummer Brandon Manis said they’ve been coming to the town for years because it’s just such a welcoming atmosphere. Their first show there was back in 2003, and they’ve played eight to 10 shows there since, always eeking out time for the tiny mountain locale in their regional touring schedule.

“We love that place,” said Manis. “We’ve played in a lot of places and to a lot of people we didn’t really know and people [in Sylva] are just so receptive. People just really appreciate live music there and it’s not so much just a social event. People actually like seeing live music.”

Rose said he hopes that love of live music and desire to be a part of it will continue. He and his band intend to be in it as long as they’re around. Though he doesn’t know if the town is big enough to support a dedicated venue — over the years several have popped up and withered — his hope is that the town’s young people will always care enough to make art and music a part of their lives and their community, in all manner of genres and media.

“Everybody’s into their own thing in the Internet age — you can live in Cherokee or Sylva and still follow Norwegian metal or New York hipster music — and around here people will be open about things that normally wouldn’t be their thing,” said Rose, and the continued growth of that mindset is what he and others hope for the scene they love and have made.

“It would be great if I left for 20 years and came back and there was still a sign in a window that said ‘basement sale this Saturday,’” said Rose. “Because we want people to support us, so we know that we need to be there to support other people, too.”

Comment

Crime reporting in the region has moved into the digital age, thanks to the Cherokee Police Department’s new text-a-tip program.

The system offers tipsters the option to text, via their cell phones, about crime they know about. This can be done anonymously, and the text-a-tip program has the added option of online reporting.

“It is good,” said Bo Taylor, a resident of the Big Cove community, and leader of the neighborhood watch. “Our only issue is everywhere in Big Cove is not accessible to the Internet, or has good phone coverage.”

Police Chief Ben Reed said the new program gives his department another weapon in their arsenal to use against criminals, while simultaneously offering the community another avenue to stay connected to the organization tasked with keeping them safe.

“I thought it would be a good way for the public to report crime anonymously,” Reed said. “A lot of people want to contribute and talk but they don’t want to put their name out there.”

Reed said the system is not only targeting would-be informants wishing to protect their identities, but also those too busy to use traditional means of reporting.

“A lot of people communicate though texting and we saw that it was a convenient way to target the amount of people that do text on a daily basis.”

The system itself is simple to operate – a text to the designated number along with keyword “saferez” will instantly reach the department’s e-mail system. It’s then forwarded to the appropriate officers to investigate the charge.

The data sent to police is encrypted on multiple levels, so it’s impossible for investigators to track the sender, making it a truly anonymous report. Citizens can choose to allow the department to text them a response to the tip, but their phone number still won’t be available to investigators.

Reed said that although many of the tips they get are for drug-related crimes, he wants residents to know that the system isn’t just a drug-reporting line.

“It’s important for people to know that this is designed to report any crime, not just drug crime,” Reed said. “You can report child abuse, neglect, information on theft, open investigations, assault, drug crimes, traffic crimes, anything.”

Cherokee isn’t the first to implement such a program; tip texting has become part of the reporting system at larger police departments around the country in places such as San Francisco and Boston, where police said they struggled for decades against a strong anti-snitching culture. But Reed said that his department is the first to offer the service in this area.

Cherokee offers the service through a company called TipSoft, which sells and operates a wide-ranging menu of software designed to help law enforcement officials track, report and stop crime in an increasingly digital era.

Reed said they’re employing text-a-tip as one facet of a new digital approach to crime prevention. Soon, he said, they’ll be rolling out online programs that will allow residents to access digital maps of the crime in their area and see constantly updated crime statistics for the entire reservation.

Reed said he sees far-reaching implications for these new, hi-tech crime-fighting techniques, and hopes that they will engage the younger generation to actively work against crime in the community.

“We want to target younger people as well with this by promoting it in the school system to help prevent bullying,” said Reed.

Such measures might also help relieve community tensions that have built surrounding arrests and prosecutions on the reservation. At a special public meeting on law and order held last month, Reed fielded complaints from more than a few citizens who lamented witnessing crimes in their neighborhoods but having little police response, especially in outlying areas of the reservation.

While the crime mapping and statistical services are not yet operational, the text-a-tip server is up and running, and officials said they’ve already seen an uptick in reporting, a trend they hope will continue.

Comment

Maggie Valley has extended its deadline for alderman applications by a month, despite already having five applications in hand.

The town set an application deadline of Feb. 9 after Alderman Colin Edwards tendered his resignation last month. Edwards told The Smoky Mountain News that he stepped down from the board because of irreconcilable differences with the other board members. His resignation was accepted after a 3-1 vote, over the protestations of Alderman Phil Aldridge.

The town staff and remaining alderman decided to take applications for the position, hoping to name a new member at their Feb. 15 meeting. But late last week, town officials announced a deadline extension to March 9, which Town Manager Tim Barth said was to allow more residents the opportunity to apply.

“When we were finally able to get the ad in both newspapers, it ended up giving people very little time to get their applications or resumes in,” said Barth. “The board didn’t want to limit the number of people who were interested because they want to get the best candidate available, so they decided to extend it and not try and force it.”

However, Aldridge said he is concerned that the extension wasn’t to get the best candidate, but instead to find a hand-picked candidate.

The town currently has five applications, two from former alderman hopefuls from the last election, which Aldridge believes is more than enough, and indeed a far better response than he expected.

“I thought they were all good,” said Aldridge of the applicants, “and one of them was the highest vote-getter [in the last election aside from those who were elected], which would have been the most admirable way and the most democratic way to go about this.”

Aldridge clashed with the other three aldermen at a special-called meeting earlier this month over accepting Edwards’ resignation, as well as the operation of the town’s ABC board. That issue — and specifically Chairman Ralph Wallace’s decision to remain the chair — was what other aldermen said was the only reason given to them for Edwards’ abrupt resignation in January.

Edwards himself was appointed to the board before he won his seat in the last election.

Barth said the decision was about timing rather than choices, and said a March deadline would allow a broader range of citizens to apply. Alderman will interview selected candidates before voting on a choice at their March 15 meeting.

The appointee will sit in the position until November, when an election will be held to determine the seat.

Comment

It’s no secret that the state budget is in a tight spot. In the few weeks the General Assembly has been in session, a raft of new laws already have hit the legislative floor, most proposing cuts in varying degrees of severity.

But perhaps the most debated has been Senate Bill 13, a Republican-penned proposal called the Balanced Budget Act of 2011. The bill calls for several money-moving measures that would dip into special pots of money in an effort to relieve the deficit — the most controversial being a proposal to raid the coffers of the Golden LEAF.

Golden LEAF has handed out hundreds of millions in grants during the past 12 years. Its purpose: use proceeds from the lawsuit against tobacco companies to help tobacco-dependent communities transition away from the ever-diminishing returns of the once-bumper crop and into other economic markets.

As the crown jewel of King Tobacco’s reign, few areas have benefited from the funds as much as the western counties. Haywood County alone has received more than $2.7 million in grants from Golden LEAF to fund projects such as the new Regional Livestock Market, a covered arena at the fairgrounds, a sewer line upgrade along Champion Drive in Canton and the Buy Haywood program, which helps local growers market and sell their products.

Jackson County has gotten more than $3.5 million to fund projects, though a good share of that was for regional efforts such as WNC EdNET, a program to bring broadband technology into public schools in six western counties.

Over the years, Golden LEAF has taken in $867 million and doled out just more than half of that as grants and scholarships, keeping the rest invested. Every year, the pot gets another influx of funds from the structured tobacco settlement, and that money is invested for future use.

For WNC, said L.T. Ward, that money has been invaluable, and losing it would be a hefty blow. Ward is the vice president of WNC Communities, the group that, among other things, is the driving force behind the Regional Livestock Market that’s scheduled to open next month in Canton.

The market will offer a place for local cattlemen to sell their livestock, something that’s currently missing from the regional landscape. Such a market is vital for the many former tobacco farmers who have now turned to cattle to replace their lost or dwindling profits.

That particular project got $600,000 from Golden LEAF, and more than that from the Tobacco Trust Fund, whose yearly allocation is also on the chopping block in SB13.

“If the Golden LEAF was not there, the numerous innovative ideas that are continuing to come forward would not because of lack of funding or encouragement,” Ward said. “We obviously would’ve been short of budget considerably.”

But lawmakers in favor of the bill — Republicans all, the vote was split directly down party lines — are quick to point out that no one is proposing a permanent shutdown of Golden LEAF. It’s more, they say, like a one-time emergency payment.

“We’re just taking this year’s allocation for the Golden LEAF,” said Rep. Jim Davis, R-Franklin. “The Golden LEAF still has $560 million. Their principal is still there.”

And while Davis stopped short of praising the fund outright, which many Republicans, particularly those outside rural areas, are wont to refer to as pork spending and corporate welfare, he was adamant about the proposal’s status as a temporary budget measure to cover this year’s shortfall.

But for those closest to Golden LEAF and its benefits, they’re afraid that the one-time measure will be a gateway to endless diversions of the foundation’s money away from the economically depressed communities it was created to help.

And it’s important to note that the money would be diverted for this year’s budget, which is already balanced. Next year, a $2.4 billion deficit, according to the most recent estimates, still lies in wait.

 

Robbing Peter

If you’re looking for a more vehement opponent of SB13 than Dan Gerlach, it would likely be a futile search. As president of Golden LEAF, he’s understandably worked up about the idea of swiping the foundation’s annual paycheck, and he’s worried that it won’t stop there.

He’s sympathetic, he said, to the legislature’s plight. There’s a pretty big gap between what they’ve got and what they need, and the cash to fill it has to come from somewhere. But he’s concerned that funneling it away from long-term economic drivers such as  Golden LEAF will only lead to more fiscal heartache in the future.

“The thing we’re defending against is the precedent that it would set,” said Gerlach. “Once you start diverting funds from their original purpose into the state’s general fund, it’s easier for this to happen again and again and again. We’ve been good stewards of this money, we should be allowed to continue to do so.”

That is precisely the argument that Democratic lawmakers are making, that while once in an emergency might be appropriate, it opens the floodgates to a slippery slope of fund rediversion that will eventually bleed the original funds dry.

“The first dip into that money is the hardest,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill. After that, he said, a dip back into the well becomes easier every time.

 

Unintended consequences

For Rapp, however, opposition isn’t just about the slippery slope argument, but about the unintended consequences that he sees this bill fostering.

“The funds just are not going to make that significant a difference in the overall savings, but it sends that chilling effect. We’re losing funding from a key economic development source, so it’s especially hurtful for us,” Rapp said.

That chilling effect he’s talking about is one Mark Clasby knows well. Clasby is the economic development director in Haywood County, so he spends a lot of his time courting businesses from around the region and around the nation to set up shop in Haywood County. And diversions like this that take money away from funds that could — and do — entice businesses into the region create a sense of uncertainty that could frighten away potential industry.

“Golden LEAF has been instrumental in recruiting businesses,” said Clasby.

“If you don’t have that kind of funding, then you have almost stagnation. You don’t have the opportunity to have development so you can create new jobs so you can make life better for individuals.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. Brian Balfour, an analyst at conservative thinktank Civitas, has long followed — and opposed — Golden LEAF precisely because it does offer government incentives to businesses.

“I would argue that the use of these incentives causes more uncertainty,” said Balfour, because it creates an economic picture that’s at the mercy of politicians, rather than the market. “It creates an uneven playing field. What that does is it politicizes more of the entrepreneurial decisions and the way the economy grows.”

Instead of incentives, said Balfour, what the state’s economy really needs is deregulation.

Proponents of funds such as Golden LEAF, however, would counter that, after tobacco’s quick exit, WNC in particular desperately needed some help to fill the massive economic gap the departing crop left in its wake.

To hear George Ivey tell it, Golden LEAF, along with the Tobacco Trust Fund and the NC Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, have been invaluable in helping revitalize rural areas left destitute by tobacco.

Ivey is a grant writer, consultant and project manager in Haywood County who has been closely involved with many of the area’s Golden LEAF recipients, including the Regional Livestock Market.

“Those three funds are really the primary funders of a lot of projects throughout the state and throughout this region,” said Ivey. “Without them, I honestly don’t know where you turn, because they both have the money and understand the role that farming plays, not only for farmers but in the larger community.

“Those three funds understand that tobacco is gone but agriculture is still the No. 1 driver of the North Carolina economy.”

And that’s pretty much the argument made by the foundation itself: we’re helping to revitalize the rural economy at no cost to the taxpayer; let us keep doing it. Indeed, it is the ready defense Dan Gerlach has for his foundation’s mission and existence.

“Our investment earnings have been over $214 million on the investments that we make,” said Gerlach. “We have paid for grants that didn’t have to come from any taxpayers pocket.”

The subtext there is clear: isn’t a 12 percent return that’s being put back into economic development better than just dumping cash into the general fund?

And that’s a hard argument for Republican lawmakers to counter. In fact, few are trying to do so. But many are pointing at the $2.4 billion hole that’s looming on the horizon in next year’s budget, making the strong point that it has to be filled somehow, and it’s easy to see why Golden LEAF is an enticing cash cow indeed. Compare that to cutting teachers, for example, or community college budgets.

“We have to get our fiscal house in order,” said Davis. “It’s going to be painful, and our job and our mission is to spread the pain.”

 

 

What is the Golden LEAF fund?

A quick look at the history of Western North Carolina will show that there is no crop more important than tobacco. The plant has left an indelible mark on the mountain landscape, first with the streams of money it brought, and then the economic hole it has left.

Today, though tobacco itself no longer occupies a place of prominence, its economic effects are still rippling through the mountains, mostly in the form of grant money from Golden LEAF.

For the last 12 years, the region’s tobacco-dependent communities have been reaping the spoils of a massive lawsuit brought by 45 states against major tobacco companies over healthcare costs caused by tobacco use.

In North Carolina, that’s totaled nearly $1.7 billion so far, with 50 percent going straight to the Golden LEAF. The foundation — officially dubbed the Long-Term Economic Advancement Foundation — was set up to funnel that money back into the state’s tobacco-dependent communities.

While other states dropped their settlement cash straight into the general fund from the outset, North Carolina shied away from that approach, setting up Golden LEAF and other stewards — notably the Tobacco Trust Fund — to look after and dole out the settlement cash to tobacco-dependent areas in an effort to foster economic growth.

 

Local spending

Haywood County Agriculture and Activities Center Association, Inc.: $275,000

Construction and upgrades at the multi-purpose arena at the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

Haywood Community College: $1,573,109

Establishment of the Western Regional Advanced Machining Center at the Regional High Technology Center (RHTC).

Haywood County: $60,000

Created the Buy Haywood Market Development Project to develop a comprehensive plan to brand Haywood County tomatoes and peppers.

Haywood County Schools Foundation: $250,000

Expanded the machinist training program at Pisgah High School to meet the demand for highly skilled machinists.

Haywood County Economic Development Commission: $85,000

Funded the Buy Haywood Market Development Project which helps develop markets for Haywood County farmers.

Haywood Vocational Opportunities, Inc.: $300,000

Helped Haywood Vocational Opportunities, Inc. (HVO) expand its operations and secure additional contracts for production of medical supplies.

Haywood County Economic Development Commission: $15,000

Funded statewide feasibility study to identify demand for a poultry and rabbit processing facility in WNC.

Haywood County Schools Foundation: $50,182

Purchased an office mill and lathe for Pisgah High School metals program.

Town of Canton: $100,000

Expand and upgrade the Canton’s wastewater infrastructure in the I-40 Corridor at Exit 31.

Southwestern Community College: $75,000

E-commerce marketing plans and strategies for a three-county area.

North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching: $930,186

Funding for the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching’s continuing effort to increase the number of National Board Certified Teachers.

Jackson County: $135,000

Funding for the Jackson County Green Energy Park.

Western Carolina University: $200,000

Western Carolina University’s innovative product development plan for the health care industry.

Western Carolina University: $37,000

Support for the Kimmel School Construction Training Program at Western Carolina University.

Southwestern N.C. Planning & Economic Development Commission: $2,205,539

Funded high-speed broadband connections to schools and counties in a six-county area.

Total: $6,291,016

Comment

In modern America, the term ‘women’s work’ is not exactly a complimentary phrase. It’s less descriptive, more derisive, not so much an adjective as an epithet.

It’s a wordplay not lost on the curators of the exhibit by the same name that’s taken up residence at Western Carolina University’s Mountain Heritage Center. The display showcases Appalachian women who have, over the last century, ventured outside the traditional vocations of their gender, catapulting them to prominence and success in a range of fields.

There’s a corner devoted to Samantha Bumgarner, a Jackson County native and the first woman to be recorded singing country music; a panel paying homage to Gertrude Dills McKee, the state’s first female senator; and half a wall in honor of the legendary Monteith sisters, Edith and Edna, one of whom was the Jackson County postmaster for 45 years, against all gender odds.

The gallery showcases these women’s spunk and tenacity, as well as their commitment to Western North Carolina, that set them apart from other women of their eras.

Those unique stories of perseverance in the face of mainstream ideas and norms, said curator Pam Meister, are exactly what set Appalachian women apart in the last century, and it’s exactly what she and her colleagues wanted to celebrate with his exhibit.

“There are amazing stories to be told,” said Meister. “North Carolina’s very first woman senator grew up in Dillsboro and lived in Sylva. The very first woman to be a licensed dentist from North Carolina is from Sylva. The very first woman ever to be recorded singing country music and the first person of any gender to be recorded playing banjo is a Jackson County native,” she rattled off, listing just a few of the women who made the region what it is today, and who made such an exhibit worthwhile.

The showing is not, however, only about women flying in the face of tradition, but embracing tradition even as they embraced non-traditional careers and passions.

On display is a magnificent and intricate quilt, hand-stitched by the Monteith sisters, juxtaposed against a series of forceful letters written by Edna Monteith lobbying for her reappointment as postmaster.

Covering one wall is a plethora of photographs that features Appalachian women that spans the last 150 years, all doing work of some kind or another. Meister calls this the “Family Photo Gallery” because it mirrors the wall of family photos found in many homes and illustrates the wide range of work long undertaken by Appalachian women, whether traditionally in the realm of the gender or, in the case of Monteith, Bumgarner and Dills McKee, decidedly less so.

The working legacy of Appalachian women, said Meister, is their ability to take to what work needed to be done, mixing the traditional with contemporary, male work with female.

“We wanted to do something that would show the scope [of women’s work],” said Meister, noting that, as they researched and stories developed, connections between working women that spanned generations began to appear, highlighting the strong culture of working women in Appalachia that began centuries ago. “Strong Appalachian women have been there from the time of the Cherokees right up to the present.”

Emma Wertenberger, who works with the Appalachian Women’s Museum and contributed a great deal to the exhibit, said that illuminating the corners of Appalachian female life that were outside the norms was an important part of it.

“We know what the traditional roles were,” said Wertenberger. “But what never gets focused on were the women that were in non-traditional roles.”

It’s those women, she said, and how they were able to blend the long-held realm of women’s work — still difficult and intense work by any standard, especially in the mountains — with successful forays into fields dominated by men that paved the way for modern Appalachian women who are now, with ease, able to do the same.

“Samantha Bumgarner was the mother of all of female Southern women who sing and make money off of it,” said Wertenberger with a laugh.

And indeed, the women who line the walls of the exhibit show that neither the workplace nor the home are the sole preserve of one gender. And the long and storied fight that they represent has laid the framework for the tradition of strong Appalachian women to continue to grow.

Comment

Tribal leaders and prosecutors in Cherokee will now have stronger tools to mete out justice to criminals on the reservation, thanks to a bill signed into law by President Obama last year.

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, approved by Congress and the president in July of last year, gives tribal governments and court systems such as the ones in Cherokee increased power and flexibility in fighting crimes that are committed on their lands.

In the past, the jurisdictional tangle surrounding justice for crimes committed on the reservation, along with limited allowances on punishments, have meant that criminals don’t always get the penalties they may deserve for offenses in Cherokee.

Under old law, the harshest sentence a tribal court could impose for any charge was one year in prison and a $5,000 fine, which pales in comparison to the maximum penalties allowed at the state and federal level.

Now, tribes are free to approve penalties of up to three years and are allowed to stack up to three charges. That means that, if adopted by Tribal Council, multiple severe offenders could see as much as nine years of prison time.

To Tribal Prosecutor Jason Smith, this is a huge accomplishment for tribal justice and will change the face of many of his cases.

“It’s the biggest change that the new law has brought about as far a criminal liability is concerned,” said Smith. “I’m hopeful that it will allow the tribal court to prosecute and to punish a broader range of crimes more appropriately, to more appropriately and effectively deal with more serious crime than they have done in the past.”

 

A convoluted court

Committing a crime in Cherokee – and being prosecuted for it – isn’t as cut and dried as it would be outside the reservation. Not everyone who breaks the law in Cherokee can expect to go to tribal court for it, nor can everyone expect that they’ll be held accountable by state or federal law enforcement. As Smith puts it, “jurisdiction is a huge quagmire. It’s not as simple as that.”

To begin with, only enrolled members of the Eastern Band, enrolled members of other federally recognized tribes and non-U.S. citizens can be punished by tribal courts. In Cherokee, they have an extra provision for others who want to fall under the tribe’s authority – a waiver of jurisdiction, in legal speak – but it’s entirely optional and not without controversy.

Everybody else – which includes non-Indian local residents, American tourists, casino patrons – will get pursued by the long arm of some non-Native law, be it local for piddly offenses such as speeding, state for bigger but still victimless crimes, or federal for more major crimes or those perpetrated by Indians against non-Indian victims, and vice versa.

To call it a quagmire is putting it kindly, but according to Smith and Don Gast, his cohort in the U.S. Attorney’s office who prosecutes Cherokee’s federal cases, they do a good job of working within that framework.

According to Gast, his office doesn’t decline tribal cases in the same way they would with non-tribal cases. Of the many cases that come across a normal federal prosecutor’s desk, many are just too small-time to warrant attention in federal courts.  Gast doesn’t do that with cases that come to him from Cherokee.

“We don’t decline cases in our districts on the basis of crimes being not big enough in scope like we do on state cases,” said Gast, because they realize that for these cases, many of which are violent crimes such as rape and child abuse, federal court is their one chance to bring the alleged criminal to justice.

 

Bringing order out of chaos

Such crimes are the very reason the Tribal Law and Order Act was created. An Amnesty International study found that Native American women were more than twice as likely to suffer domestic abuse than other women in the United States, and a separate Department of Justice study found that one third of Native American women will experience rape in their lifetime.

Although neither of these unusually high statistics is caused by the difficult maze of prosecution and justice tribal jurisdiction creates, both named it as a barrier to lowering those high rates.

In light of that, the other important provision the law makes is a recommendation for formalized procedures for sending cases to federal court and closer communication with the local U.S. Attorney’s office. There’s even a provision for cross-training a tribal prosecutor as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, or SAUSA, who would be able to follow cases off the reservation and into federal court and prosecute them there.

In Cherokee, they’re keen to see more cases federally prosecuted. At a special meeting on law and order held last week, more than one member expressed frustration at what they perceive as a high number of cases that don’t get taken to federal court, leaving victims without justice.

Council Member Teresa McCoy believe that some of the burden for making sure fewer cases fall through the cracks should fall to the council.

“Well, if we’re telling our public it just wasn’t big enough for the feds to take, then our laws should handle it,” said McCoy, advocating for adoption of the stiffer penalties the new federal law allows and possible banishment from the reservation for non-tribal members who can’t be prosecuted in tribal court.

“Every time there’s a dismissal there’s a victim and that victim got no help,” she said.

“We still have a way to help ease the pain of the public.”

 

No state “safety net”

Gast wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment. He’s firm on the fact that he prosecutes any and every tribal case that comes before him unless it’s out of his jurisdiction or it’s a bad case. And, he said, because of the nature of many of the crimes – domestic, child and sexual abuse, among other violent crimes – there are more bad cases than a normal federal prosecutor, who mostly deals with proactive cases like sting operations, would see.

The sad truth, said Gast, is that often victims won’t or are afraid to speak, recant their stories or don’t want to prosecute their attackers. And this is true across the nation, not just on the reservation.

He maintains that, while tribal cases may be declined more often than non-tribal federal cases, that declination rate isn’t really any higher than the rates for similar crimes in state courts. Unreported or unprosecuted violent crimes are part of a broader, national trend that often has nothing to do with the prosecutor and everything to do with the victim.

“The mission of the U.S. Attorney’s office is to prosecute crime,” said Gast. “And in Indian country, the scope of that mission is broader because we don’t have the safety net of the state court.”

Still, in Indian Country, many would like to see the cracks that criminals have long slipped through closed, in whatever way they can.

Though Gast doesn’t see a need for it, Smith said he’d like to look into the possibility of a SAUSA for Cherokee. “It’s certainly something I think a lot of the public here would be in favor of,” said Smith, an observation that was proven true by public sentiments expressed at last week’s meeting.

But overall, Smith echoed Gast, noting the good working relationship that he enjoys with Gast’s office, a benefit not enjoyed by many western tribes, who are laboring with overworked prosecutors in huge districts.

“We’re in better shape than a lot of places and a lot of reservations because we have that cooperation and we have had with the U.S. Attorney,” said Smith. “But could it be better? Absolutely.”

Comment

Cherokee got a special visit last month from Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, as part of a fact-finding trip around the United States.

Making her stop at the special request of several tribal council members, Manjoo was welcomed by the chief and Tribal Council before touring the reservation and meeting with survivors of violence.

Manjoo visited the tribe as part of her mandate from the UN High Council on Human Rights. She looked specifically at the high rates of violence against women that occur within native American communities and talked to local women’s organizations as well as law enforcement and tribal officials about why such crimes are more likely there than within the general populace.

One problem facing tribal nations around the country is the matter of jurisdiction – tribal courts have no jurisdiction over non-Indian American citizens. And while such criminals can be tried in federal courts, some slip through the cracks.

For those that are pursued in tribal courts, the maximum sentencing limits – three years at most for certain multiple-charge crimes – pale in comparison to the much longer maximums available in state courts.

Manjoo addressed this problem during her visit and said that she hoped to include possible solutions in her final report, due to be given in Washington, D.C. this week.

“Jurisdictional issues are one aspect of the challenges that you face in terms of accountability and impunity, but I’m sure there are many other challenges and opportunities that we will be exposed to,” said Manjoo, in an address to Tribal Council.

She applauded the council and others working on the reservation with victims of violence for their efforts to hold the Eastern Band to the standards of international law when it comes to due diligence and prosecution. She said, however, that the effort must be deeper than just dealing with the after-effects or working with tribal women on prevention. To really eradicate violence against women, said Manjoo, girls must be protected and educated early on, and prevention – along with prosecution – should be a priority for both men and women.

“My mandate goes broader than women, and the goal of elimination of violence against women is a goal that I think all of us subscribe to, and eventually we will not require a position of this nature in the UN system,” said Manjoo.”

Manjoo is the third special rapportuer to occupy her position, and the findings from her two-week tour – which also included stops in Florida, California, Minnesota and New York – will be presented in full at the next meeting of the Council on Human Rights in Geneva later this year.

Comment

Canton will be opening its doors to new business when a long-awaited upgrade to its Champion Drive sewer line is completed next year.

The update, which town officials say has been on the list of top priorities for several years, will cost $1.2 million and should take a little more than a year to complete.

Town Manager Al Matthews said that the current system is already overtaxed, and that’s preventing potential new businesses to set up shop in the corridor that runs from Interstate 40 into downtown Canton along Champion Drive.

“The line is drastically undersized for the new growth and development along Champion Drive,” said Matthews. “It [the upgrade] is a fairly broad-reaching economic development tool as well as meeting those needs that are in existence now.”

According to Matthews, the current line is at such capacity right now that even existing businesses in the area are unable to expand and maintain sewer service.

Once the larger line is in place, however, it will serve the new livestock market and provide capacity for both business expansion and new businesses alike.

The crux of the problem, said Matthews, is an over-extension of the line’s original intent. For example, the portion that serves the multitude of businesses between Sagebrush Steakhouse and Arby’s was only originally intended to serve the steak restaurant. But when Canton saw explosive growth along the road, the sewer capacity didn’t expand along with it.

Now, with the birth of a new urgent care center on the road imminent, appropriate sewage capabilities are urgently needed.

As Matthews said, the concept has been bandied about for some time, with the idea being that larger, big-box stores may look to Canton – almost equidistant between Waynesville and Asheville – as the prime location to draw shoppers from the outskirts of both cities. The industrial park that is also tied onto the line is another prime candidate for expansion and additional business creation.

Now, said Matthews, the area will once again have the trifecta necessary for new building of any kind – open real estate, water services and sewer capabilities.

Funding will be coming from several different sources, including a $100,000 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation and a $600,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Center. Matthews said the county has agreed to pay a share of the costs, though to what extent is as yet unclear.

County Commissioner Kevin Ensley expressed support for the project, deeming it beneficial for the whole of the county in terms of economic growth and development.

“When a sewer line goes in, then business will follow,” said Ensley.

Work on the improvements is slated to begin within months, said Matthews, who hopes to have a permit for the construction in hand within 60 days.

Comment

Haywood County cyclists – and would-be cyclists – will soon be able to breathe a little easier and peddle a bit more freely, thanks to a comprehensive plan in the works to address a range of cycling issues.

The plan, spearheaded by local group Bicycle Haywood N.C., will look at a number of issues facing the area’s cyclists including safety, accessibility and awareness among both cyclists and drivers.

The idea got its genesis when members of the newly formed group decided last year that Haywood was lacking in formal communication among cyclists, the community and local and governmental organizations that could be working with them, like the Department of Transportation and the Haywood County Recreation and Parks department.

So, said George Ivey, the group’s vice chair, they sought out funding and approached the various groups about codifying a bicycle plan for the county, the first in Haywood and one of the few targeted towards the state’s more rural areas.

The plan is founded on what the group calls its five “Es:” engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation and planning.

Ivey said that while engineering is an important component — encompassing things like designated bike lanes and racks in downtown areas — educating the public about bike safety while cycling and road awareness is just as vital.

One of the goals of the plan is to educate drivers to get accustomed to bikes on the road, and show residents that cycling can be a viable option for them in a number of different ways, as a commuter, a recreational rider or anything in between.

“I think the plan’s going to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” said Ivey. “For some people, it may be a way for their kids to commute to school. For adult commuters, hopefully it will make it a lot easier for people to commute to work or the bank or the post office.”

Haywood County Recreation and Parks Director Claire Carleton agrees. She said that, from a recreational standpoint, the benefits of a bike plan could be brilliant for Haywood County families.

“It would be such an asset for the citizens living in Haywood County, as well as tourists,” said Carleton. “If it connected with local greenway trails and the plans that we have for that, it would provide such a wonderful network for families to take part in.”

And because there are such multi-facted uses and benefits of cycling in Haywood – and because of the challenges presented by the region’s geography and topography – Ivey said his group isn’t trying to get too specific in what they want. Instead, it is working with a plethora of outside groups and citizens to come up with a plan that provides residents with the most flexibility and usability.

Currently, the group is accepting applications for someone to spearhead the planning efforts, which will begin in April. But Ivey said he’s hopeful that the collaboration and cycling interest will continue happening long after the plan is in place.

“None of us expect every single road to have bike lanes, but we do want to have those options nearby,” said Ivey.

And according to Carleton, that meshes beautifully with the comprehensive plan drafted for her department several years ago that highlighted the need to move towards more cycling-friendly planning, both in terms of road building and growth corridors, as well as emphasis on education and increasing cycling use and awareness.

The plan is being funded largely through a grant from the French Broad Metropolitan Planning Organizations, along with matching pledges and a smaller grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

Bicycle Haywood N.C. meets to discuss the plan at 6 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month at the Waynesville Inn at the Waynesville Country Club.

More information can be found at bicyclehaywoodnc.org.

Comment

For Darcy and Kevin Sisson, living in Waynesville makes perfect sense.

She works in manufacturing in Asheville, his employer is Swain County’s Nantahala Outdoor Center. Waynesville offers the couple a central location, a town large enough to have an active civic and social life of its own, and quality schools for their kids. Throw in lower tax rates than one finds in Buncombe County, and you have the ideal locale for such a family.

The couple and their three children represent a growing segment of the population in Haywood County, according to Mayor Gavin Brown and Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s economic development director. Haywood County is, more and more, becoming a bedroom community.

Last month, Brown and Clasby pinpointed the change during a meeting of the county’s Economic Development Commission. And in doing so, additionally pitched the idea that “bedroom community” should no longer carry the stigma the words once did.

 

Commute becomes part of day

“To be honest with you, it’s worked out better than I thought,” said Darcy Sisson, noting that she’s started using the commute time to make calls for work or catch up with friends. “They always know between five and six, I’m usually in the car,” she said.

Sisson emphasized that she and her husband might work elsewhere, but Waynesville is home. And for them, that doesn’t just mean the place where you lay your head at night.

“We try to be involved in the community,” Sisson said. “We have our friends there, we belong to the Haywood Fitness Center and things like that, we do a lot of stuff downtown. That’s really where our life is.”

According to statistics compiled by the Employment Security Commission, three quarters of Haywood County residents commute outside the county to work. This doesn’t exactly classify the whole of Haywood County as a textbook bedroom community, but with three quarters of residents working elsewhere, it does make the county into at least a partial bedroom community. If true, this means Haywood County faces different challenges than the county has faced before.

Brown sees it less in terms of sheer statistics, and more as a social descriptor of the community’s changing face.

“It’s not a number so much as a description of what your community is,” said Brown. “It’s just more a reflection of the way our economy has changed in the world and in the United States in general. Some people would see it as bad, I know. And they do. And there’s logic to that.”

But he sees this as an opportunity to engage people who have, for whatever reason, chosen to live in Haywood County, even though their work is elsewhere. Doesn’t that make them prime candidates for a larger degree of community involvement and devotion, the fact that they’ve chosen to call the county home?

 

Where the action happens

Haywood County is centrally located, right in the heart of big employers in Cherokee, Sylva and Asheville. So if people choose to live here, the challenge lies in getting them to engage in the community, have a stake that will keep them there, even if their out-of-county job changes.

“It’s the stability factor that’s important to me,” Brown said. “The last thing you want is some generic community that people are moving in and out of all the time.”

The key, he said, is to provide services and quality-of-life options that entice people to come and stay because they love the community, not because they work in it.

So things such as local art groups, quality health care facilities and better options for fitness, dining and civic life are all an important part of getting commuters to put down roots.

“If we provide those kinds of things, then people choose to not make their job the primary thing in their life,” Brown said.

Comment

When Jackson County opens its new library, it will be with a little more than just the usual fanfare. Thanks to the efforts of the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet, the occasion will also be marked by a performance of “Smoky Moutain Fanfare,” a new piece of music commissioned especially for the library’s christening.

The score was penned by composer and teacher David Sampson, a friend of the quartet and a sought-after composer from New Jersey.

Quintet member David Ginn said inspiration for the concept struck him as he was driving by the new facility in mid-construction; he realized that such a monumental and unique project needed something equally unique to commemorate its birth.

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“A project this special, it’s got to have it’s own fanfare,” Ginn recounted, and shortly thereafter, he took the idea to his four fellow members.

Trumpeter Brad Ulrich was scheduled to have dinner with Sampson around the same time, and after a mention of the idea and a little more discussion, the seed of an idea began to spring to life. The rest, said Sampson, is history.

Of his composition, he said he hit the books — and the Internet — for some Appalachian research before diving into the piece. He wanted, he said, for it to have the same unique mountain flavor that makes the Smoky Mountains so appealing and steeped in history and tradition.

Sampson listened to bluegrass, gospel hymns and the shape-note singing that found its genesis in the heart of Western North Carolina. He tried to translate that down-home, celebratory flavor into notes that brass instruments could understand.

“There is certainly a hint of North Carolina,” said Sampson. “Anytime you expand a place that’s designed for learning, it’s a time to celebrate.”

Although he relied on his research to guide him when crafting the tune, Sampson said the process itself was an exercise in spontaneity — once he started banging out the melody, the rest of the piece seemed to tumble out after it.

While he put his heart and soul into the music as its creator, Sampson said he left room — as he always does — for the performers to impose their own take on what he’s come up with.

For this particular fanfare, Sampson said he has such confidence in the talents of the players that he’s sure they can’t help but make it better.

“I know these musicians are very high level,” said Sampson. “When you’re dealing with a group that has a lot of experience, if they bring that to my music it’s going to make my music even richer.”

And he’s not remiss in his judgment of the quintet. All five members are seasoned performance musicians with university-level musical training; many members still actively teach the craft at nearby Western Carolina University.

They’ve traveled extensively, performing not only around the region but around the globe, in locales as diverse as Russia, the United Kingdom and China.

And while Ginn said they haven’t put the finishing touches on their performance of the fanfare just yet, they’re very excited about the one-of-a-kind opportunity to play such a piece. In fact, said Ginn, the June opening of the library may be the song’s first and only chance to come off the page, so they want to get it just right.

“It’s almost like a limited edition,” said Ginn. “I don’t know that this is something that will be performed again in the future.”

The library, Ginn said, is such a special project, built by the hard efforts of countless volunteers, that the quintet is excited to play its part in the excitement of finally seeing it come to fruition.

“There’s a lot of people that have volunteered and dedicated their time to making the library happen, so this piece is kind of dedicated to them also,” said Ginn.

Sampson, whose full resume includes commissions from such impressive outfits as the National Symphony Orchestra and the International Trumpet Guild, along with a plethora of grants and endowments, said he’ll be there for his piece’s inaugural performance when the library opens to – and with – great fanfare in June.

 

A way to support Jackson’s library

Watercolor drawings of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, painted by local artist Eva Scruggs using walnut stain, are now on sale as note cards. The depiction is modeled after a 1914 photo of the structure. Boxes are available at Used Book Store in Sylva, with proceeds going toward the new library complex attached to the historic building.

Comment

This year in Cherokee, a major change will quietly work its way into law, causing little fanfare but marking a historic shift in policy towards the casino profits that, for 15 years, have been divided among all members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

After April, teenagers will be required to go through financial training, before getting their share of the money, a measure that’s the first of its kind among Native American nations.

Principal Chief Michell Hicks says he’s pretty pleased with that decision, and the advantage it gives the tribe.

“Cherokee is way ahead of the game,” Hicks says. “The Eastern Band stands out in front.”

Hicks interacts with other tribes at conferences and events around the country, but knows of none that require this level of financial planning for the recipients of casino profits.

He — and the Tribal Council — hope that it will bring increased responsibility and burgeoning bank accounts to the tribe’s newest adults, who have not always had a history of cultivating either.

 

Big money (and big responsibility)

It’s ten minutes past three on a cold, Friday afternoon, and five high school seniors are gathered around a conference table at Cherokee High School, laden with backpacks and clearly very ready to get away from school work and into the weekend.

In the vast majority of ways, they appear to be like every high school senior in every town across America. They have the kind of names that characterize their generation — Kayla, Katlin, Skylar — and the attendant trappings, too. Cell phones flip back and forth idly in more than a few hands, more than a few thumbs swiftly click across tiny keyboards.

But in one unique way, they’re less similar to their peers in other places than a first glance might betray: these particular kids will mark their 18th birthday with more than some kudos, a voting card and maybe the keys to a used clunker. Quite a bit more, actually.

Since the end of 1995, every enrolled tribal member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has enjoyed a cut of the earnings from the boundary’s biggest breadwinner — Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Back then, that amounted to $595 a year. By 2010, it had jumped to $7,347 annually.

Today, the total payments for someone who have received the money from the outset works out to $92,000, no paltry sum. Children have their portion held in trust until their 18th birthday, and invested – “conservatively” says Chief Hicks – by Tribal Council and a special committee. And as the casino grows, so will revenue, and so will the trust fund for minors.

So when that monumental day comes to these six teens — and the other four-and-a-half-thousand odd tribal members who are still minors — a sizeable chunk of money will be laid in their newly adult hands.

“The first thing one goes out and gets is a brand new car,” says Jeremy Wilson. “This is the first question everyone who is about to get their big per-capita check is asked: ‘What kind of car you going to get?’”

Wilson would know, too. He’s 22 now and he got his money in 2007, so he had 12 years to consider what four-wheeled treasures such a cache of cash could purchase.

When he got the money, he did buy a new car — a Honda, relatively low in the flash department but still with a respectable level of youthful hipness — but with the remaining $35,000, he made a rather more adult decision. He invested it.

Is that normal?

He’s not sure. He can’t speak for everybody, says Wilson diplomatically. He was pushed towards the decision by his mother and elders in his life. But he will say that he was fairly unique among those he went to school with.

“When you’re 18 years old, and you are holding a check for $50-70,000 in your hands, what is the first thing you are going to think of?” he asks, almost rhetorically, answering himself: “it most likely won’t be mutual funds or Roth-IRAs.”

 

The Prodigal Spender

If you spend long enough talking to nearly anyone in Cherokee about kids and their per-capita checks, there is a certain sentence that will always enter into the conversation, in some incarnation or another. You will hear it from local leaders, young adults like Jeremy Wilson, school officials, financial counselors — the underlying theme in the current of conversation that will, without fail, bob to the top of the stream. It goes something like this: “you always hear about the kids who got the money and frittered it away on flash,” or some variant thereof.

According to Tribal Council Member David Wolfe, it’s why the idea of mandatory financial education was broached in the first place. And it was, in fact, an effort by young people themselves.

The teens at Junaluska Leadership approached the tribal council asking for help for themselves and their peers.

“They’ve heard the horror stories,” says Wolfe. “As the money in the trust fund has grown over time, now it’s getting to be a huge pot of money for them to be responsible for at 18.”

Keith Sneed, who works with Qualla Financial Freedom and has a vested interest in the issue, puts it in terms of cars. There is a multitude of bad stories, he says, about the giddy purchase of a set of wheels at sticker price and nothing to show for it years later but an old car.

“That’s all he’s going to have is an old Ford pickup,” says Sneed of the proverbial teen about whom there are so many cautionary tales.

It would be an understatement to say that Sneed rather dislikes that scenario. It is his dream to see every per-capita check recipient parlay that money into a million by age 40. And he genuinely doesn’t think that’s an unreasonable goal, which is why he started Manage Your ECBI Money.

In the simplest terms, it’s an online financial management course, and as of April, passing it with 80 percent is mandatory for anyone who wants their money at 18, as is high school graduation. For those that forego either, they’ll have to wait until age 21 to get their check.

Sneed is no fool when it comes to knowing what does — and does not — get through to teenagers.

According to Jason Ormsby, Cherokee High’s principal, he’s started heading up a yearly program called Mad Money, where he and volunteers from the community come together and simulate real life for an hour, throwing ninth graders into an imaginary financial world where they must manage their own money and deal with financial problems that are thrown their way.

“It’s real world scenarios in about a hour — your whole life in about an hour,” says Ormsby succinctly. And, he says, the simulation’s proven a success thus far.

Sneed is a far cry from teenagerhood himself, but he has spent the lion’s share of his life in the presence of the young, as a school teacher and now a financial outreach worker of sorts. And, making the adept observation that his interactions with youth these days trended towards the technological — e-mail, texting and the like — he saw an opportunity emerging to realize his dream that could actually work.

So he pitched it, and pitched it hard, enlisting the help of the First Nations Development Institute, who offer support and grant funding to initiatives by and for Native Americans, as well as the expertise of financial experts from every side of the economic world — bankers, investors, money managers and their ilk. And when he’d gotten a product he liked, he took it to the Tribal Council, who voted to make it mandatory.

 

It’s all in the approach

At this point in the tale, it should be noted that this isn’t the tribe’s inaugural foray into giving their young members some guidance in the ways of wise money management. It is the first time it’s been mandatory, but there have long been voluntary options for fiscal training.

Jeremy Wilson says he got some, in the form of the College Experience Program put on by the Tribal Education Department. A guy from First Citizen’s Bank came in, he says, and talked to Wilson and his youthful compatriots about financial options, wise investing and other similarly responsible and important economic topics.

“The only problem was, we were young,” says Wilson, by way of explanation for the less-than-lasting impact the surely admirable efforts had.

“This was nothing but sheer boredom to us, and even though a lot of people get onto us about how important it is for us to listen and pay attention, those people need to realize that you have to have the right strategy for the right audience,” says Wilson, offering a comparison to put a finer point on the problem. “If you are going to talk to a bunch of 15- to 18-year-olds about portfolios and showing stocks and numbers in a Powerpoint, you may as well talk to your grandfather about how to work an iPad.”

And it’s a salient point. If the youth of Cherokee have been playing the part of the prodigal son for the last 16 years, the well-intentioned programs and educational options of teachers and other adults were little more than the father’s pontificating to the son’s party-ready ears.

That, says Sneed, is why he’s looking to the kids themselves to craft a program that’s a little more, well, down with the kids.

“We’re asking the questions that they ask, not what their parents want to ask,” Sneed says. He brought young people into his office to meet with bank presidents, let them open up about what they didn’t understand in a more familiar environment on their terms, because, he says, “an 18-year-old walking into a bank president’s office is intimidating. It’s intimidating for grown people.” And the feedback from those interviews and many more like them built the groundwork for the Manage Your Money course, which is the first of its kind. They even have a series of YouTube videos featuring young tribal members and a hip-hop soundtrack that tout the merits of the program.

Sarah Dewees, a lead consultant with First Nations who helped Sneed develop the curriculum, says the efforts are groundbreaking.

“EBCI is actually on the cutting edge,” says Dewees. “They’re the first tribe that I know of to do an online financial course,” though she says many are re-examining their policies about minors and their monies, now that the amounts are beginning to grow.

She too, thinks the program is becoming necessary, not because Cherokee teens in particular have a hard time managing money, but because kids in general do.

“Any young person who is given a big responsibility or a large amount of money needs help to think about the best way to manage it, and when you’re young, you don’t really have a long-term view,” says Dewees. That’s the sentiment in Cherokee among those working to put that education in place, and those who wish they’d had it.

Getting back to 22-year-old Wilson, he has a lot of faith in his peers, but there’s only so much you can expect from an 18-year-old if you don’t give them any guidance.

“Our youth are smart, they really are,” says Wilson. “They just need to be given the right tools and strategies to help them become financially savvy.”

Chief Hicks says that this, more than anything, is the goal for young people, and the goal of this new law — equipping them to make better investments that will serve them longer than a new car.

“I’ve always been a believer that we need to continue to raise the bar on financial responsibility,” says Hicks. He says that financial programs like Sneed’s are, and have been, the key to changing the way young members think about where their money goes. That, says Hicks, is the long-term goal: change thinking to change actions.

“We want them to simply make the long-term investment, whether that’s a home or some other long-term investment, [to think] ‘you know this big nest egg, I’m going to do something with it,” says Hicks.

 

The conscientious kids?

Cut back to the high school, where our six seniors are sharing their plans for their per-capita money. Given Wilson’s assessment of his classmates attitudes towards investing the cash just four short years ago — “it’s not a popular topic”— it’s a little surprising to hear six teenagers talk about what they’re going to do with tens of thousands of dollars and not hear a single mention of the word Porsche.

In fact, the buzzwords that are bandied about are fiscal terms like “stocks” and “property” and “savings account.”

At the head of the table is Troy Arch. He’s antsy to leave for some other extracurricular activity, and when asked what his plans are, he quickly shoots back, “invest it in stocks.”

What kind of stocks?

“I don’t know, just some kind of stocks.”

Well, at least the intent is there, even if he hasn’t gotten the specifics nailed down yet.

Down the table, Kaitlin Bradly interjects confidently, rattling off what she thinks today’s Google stock price is.

She seems to be the ahead-of-the-curve type — the only one here who has already gone through the online course — and she’s in favor of settling her money in several different bank accounts, choosing the ones that have the best interest to drop the bulk into.

Skylar Bottchenbaugh, one of two 18-year-olds in the room, wants to invest his, too, though he’s got a more concrete goal in mind than simple savings.

He’s headed to Texas upon graduation, where he’ll study to be an auto mechanic.

“I want to invest into my own garage,” he says, and he’s gotten feedback from his family and college advisors that investing his big check first is a good way to start on that dream.

Of course, he adds, he’s going to buy himself a car, but not a new one, “because you’ll end up trading it in sooner or later. Probably a Kia or something.”

Again, not quite the expected car of choice for a teenager sitting on 70 grand.

In terms of pure intent, these students are a far cry from the anecdotal teen who has historically featured so heavily in the minds of those trying to help educate them. And that may be, in part, because that education is working, that programs like Mad Money are already getting through.

But another factor in play here may simply be time. Per-capita checks have been handed out now for just over 15 years, which is as far back as most of these students can remember.

All of them will say that the decisions of those that came before them had a hand in crafting their outlook today. They have seen firsthand how easy it is to flush away a few thousand. And so have their families.

“My parents have kind-of had a say in mine,” says Kayla Smith, also 18. “They see how everybody else spends theirs just randomly — two months and it’s gone.”

Yes, agree the others, we’ve seen that, too. And we do not think it is a clever idea.

To stick with the Biblical analogy, they’re playing the part of the other brother, watching unimpressed as the prodigal parties to the pig pen, determined not to share that path themselves.

Some of them, though, are similarly unimpressed that their responsibility — or intent towards such — hasn’t translated into a greater degree of respect from authorities. They don’t think money management should be mandatory for everyone, just those who drop out or flunk out. Yes, they’ve all chosen to study up on savings and investment, to seek sound financial counsel. But they resent the fact that they’re being forced into it.

“I think it’s unfair that they make us take this test,” says Bottchenbaugh. “We’ve waited all this time to get it. It’s our money, we should be able to spend it the way we want to, even if it’s blowing it in a few days.”

Some of that viewpoint, of course, is a by-product of youth, the compulsion to bristle against anything that’s compulsory.

And Sneed says he thinks the tribe would be remiss in not giving every kid the chance to acquire some solid financial skills, because, he says, in every group, regardless of outside influence, there will always be a few on each extreme of the spectrum — some who blow through the money recklessly, some who care for it wisely. The crowd he’s after is the middle, the average kid who might do great things with it, if only they knew how.

“There’s going to be a few that, no matter what you do, they’re going to throw their money away,” says Sneed. “The majority need direction and help, and that’s what we’re trying to provide: direction and help.”

Chief Hicks has a response for that mindset, as well: they will still get their money, just a few years later. And, he says, the idea in that was to, at least, provide every young person with three extra years of “natural experience” before coming into such wealth.

In other tribes around the country, the concept of staggered payments – breaking the lump sum into smaller chunks to be paid out at age 18, 21 and 24 – has been introduced for precisely that reason. And Hicks says it’s been bandied about for years among the Eastern Band. Even with the new course in place, it’s an idea that he’s certain isn’t dead yet and will swing back into the dialogue at some point.

“I think it’s going to be a topic that comes back alive as the money increases,” says Hicks. “Our students could save $10,000 if we did staggered payments.”

 

Hope for the financial future

Whether or not attitudes are already changing among Cherokee’s youth, Sneed says he hopes the direction and help will begin to show itself four, five or 20 years down the road, when today’s teens — and by extension the community around them — are more financially stable than their predecessors.

For the chief, it’s his hope as well, that the young people of the tribe would make sound investments now that would carry into the future. And while he thinks that gaining experience, education and training off the boundary is important — he, Sneed and Wolfe have all done so — he doesn’t see return and reinvestment of that same money into the reservation as an impossibility.

“I definitely think that’s an area that’s wide open,” says Hicks of entrepreneurship on the boundary, and he says that, even now, the tribe is making efforts to close the gap between current entrepreneurs, many of whom are older, and younger minds and money trying to learn the ropes.

In Wolfe’s eyes, he sees the long-term benefits of this program and others like it coming back to boost the whole community. He sees it as a “nation-building” effort.

“Before this, we didn’t have very many going to school and college. I think that’s a great sign of things to come out of these investments — to promote secondary education, that we can build on it,” says Wolfe. “That’s the type of scenario that we’re trying to create in a nation.”

And it’s hard to tell if our six teens represent a wholesale change in the attitudes of youth across the board. There is some element of self-selection — why come talk about your per-capita plans if you have none or don’t care to make any?

Principal Jason Ormsby, who has a more on-the-ground perspective, says he has seen a change in the attitudes of his students as a whole.

“I see more and more kids investing it, going on to college or buying a house, using it more wisely,” Ormsby says, and he hopes his students take the new education they’re about to get to heart.

“I’d like for them to take some of it and have a good time, you know buy themselves something, but I’d like to see them invest it and go on to school and see what happens then. Just don’t be in a hurry to spend it on stuff that’s not really that important.”

As someone who’s looking back from just a few years down that path, Jeremy Wilson’s parting wisdom to today’s 18-year-olds runs in the same vein.

“Don’t let per-capita consume you, don’t let it be your main concern, because there are too many areas in our communities that are in need of dire attention,” counsels Wilson. “If we can improve how we manage our money, we won’t need to look forward to the next per-capita check because then we will know we’re doing just fine, and we can then focus on more important things.”

Comment

Maggie Valley Alderman Colin Edwards resigned last week, prompting a special called meeting where barely-concealed animosity among the remaining board members threatened to bubble up into outright conflict.

Alderman Phil Aldridge voted against accepting Edwards’ resignation — the only member to do so — and also voted against the appointment of Alderman Scott Pauley as new mayor pro-tem.

“I’m voting against it, I’m not in favor of it,” said Aldridge. “We have a very dysfunctional board, I’m sorry to say.”

Edwards himself was not present at the meeting. The only reason he offered for his departure was his displeasure at serving with other aldermen, though over what issue the rift opened, Edwards didn’t specify.

“I had a difference of opinion with other board members on the Maggie Valley board of aldermen,” said Edwards. “I felt like I could not sit in that position no longer, so I tendered my resignation.”

Alderwoman Saralyn Price and Mayor Roger McElroy said after the meeting the only reasoning Edwards gave them was he wanted ABC Board Chairman Ralph Wallace to step down from his position.

Aldridge said he thinks the board should pick the next most-voted-for candidate from the last election, which in this case would be Phillip Wight. Aldridge said going with the next highest vote getter from the last election is the Democratic thing to do.

That’s not the method the rest of the town board has chosen, however.

“Rather than going back to the results of the election, they felt it would be better to see who was interested and to interview those candidates,” said Town Manager Tim Barth.

Barth said the board plans to appoint a new member at the board’s Feb. 17 meeting.

Comment

Haywood County has landed a $1 million grant to turn the methane pouring off a no-longer-used landfill into energy.

The money comes from the N.C. State Energy Office as a part of their Energy Efficiency and Conservation Plan, which offers funding for local projects aimed at energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy conservation in transportation and greenhouse gas recovery projects like the one pitched by Haywood. The $20.9 million pool of money is part of the federal government’s stimulus package.

The county tried for funding in the grant’s first round last year, but was turned down. When the state announced it would open up a second round of applications, county officials resubmitted, this time with much better results.

According to David Francis, Haywood County tax administrator and solid waste committee member, getting such a large chunk of the change was a very lucky break for the county.

“We got lucky,” said Francis. “There was only $2.5 million out there in the second round.”

The funds will go to a project already on the county’s agenda – reclamation of the methane currently rising off the county’s closed Francis Farm landfill, located on the outskirts of Waynesville. Twenty-one methane vents were recently installed at the landfill to direct the escaping gas and point it skyward, instead of horizontally, where it was killing off plants.

Since methane takes the path of least resistance, steps had to be taken to direct the gas and protect the surrounding landscape, Francis said.

Methane is a byproduct of decomposing trash. The volatile pollutant contributes to global warming, so capturing it in some way is far better for the environment than merely releasing it into the air. Under this plan, it would be directed through pipelines connecting the 21 vents and hopefully pumped to the county’s nearby school bus garage, where it will either provide direct heat or power a generator to heat the facility.

Francis said the award is a real boon to the cleanup efforts at Francis Farm, which were being funded out of the county’s pocket. Past commissioners had not set aside funds to properly mothball the old landfill, which requires a measure of environmental remediation.

“This was part of the plan all along to do this,” said Francis. “How this grant helps us is it gives us the funds to do this.”

County Manager Marty Stamey echoed Francis’ sentiments, saying that the grant would provide a needed measure of relief to the county’s budget.

Now, the county will only pitch in $123,000 to complete the project, plus the savings gained through cutting heating costs at the bus garage.

“It’s one of the best grants we’ve ever gotten,” said Stamey.

The system is planned to be in place by Dec. 31.

Jackson County began capturing the methane from its closed-down landfill several years ago. There, energy from the methane is used to heat greenhouses and fuel blacksmith and glassblowing operations. Artists and growers rent studio and greenhouse space at the Green Energy Park, but the project has continued to run a deficit, causing Jackson's commissioners to question its viability.

Comment

John Gernandt loves the word tactile. It’s not so much the word, really, as the whole concept. People, he says, love to pet things. It is in our nature. We are, by default, a touchy species.

He is saying this as he sits on a low wooden stool, running his fingers along the pock-marked texture carved into the sides. See, he says, it’s tactile, human.

Gernandt is a master carpenter, a third-generation furniture maker, and the piece he’s sitting on is one of his own, on display in his downtown Waynesville gallery, Textures on Main.

His creations are dotted around the gallery, and though they’re all different, most are easy to pick out as being crafted by his hand. The workmanship is excellent and has built him a reputation in the world of custom furniture-making. His portfolio includes works done for millionaire clients, as well as some done for locals. He’s not an elitist in that sense, as evidenced by his belief that furniture – even art – should be touchable.

He’s a strong proponent of the handmade revolution, and speaks with passion about populating modern life with objects made by actual craftsmen. He counters what he sees as the myth that handmade or custom is necessarily more expensive.

“My furniture doesn’t cost a dime more than if you go to a nice furniture store, and it can’t, because that’s my market,” says Gernandt.

There is, he says, something to be said for having and using things that someone has poured time and thought and talent into.

“When you sit down at a table where there’s handmade dishes and glasses and chairs, it’s a good feeling,” he says. “And it’s heirloom furniture.”

And that’s what he’s in the business of building: heirloom furniture.

He has a workshop in the basement of his Main Street gallery where he uses only domestic woods to craft his works, 80 percent of which are commissions.

There are curving templates of every shape and size hanging on the walls of the workroom, which he proudly says are all what he calls human curves. They are all modeled after curves one might find on actual humans, none are made by protractors or compasses. “I think they’re just stale,” he says of such mechanical curves. And that’s part of what Gernandt says is appealing about his work. It’s human, tactile.

As an example, he points to a particular table back upstairs in the gallery. Its legs have a slight outward slant which, he says, came from the person who commissioned the piece. He had her lean forward as her husband traced the curve of her lean, and that is the curve of the table. There are examples of that everywhere, he says.

In terms of strict classifiers, his style is contemporary, and that is what he markets himself as. But he doesn’t see contemporary as a strict genre to which he must conform. He is adamant that contemporary is the culmination of all traditions that have come before, and he takes great pleasure in studying them then incorporating them into what he does today.

“I enjoy studying furniture history,” says Gernandt, pointing out a King Louis ankle wrap on a cabinet standing against the wall. That’s part of the fun, incorporating elements of history into new creations.

Gernandt’s own personal furniture-making history started early, age 9 to be precise. His grandfather was a furniture maker, and he loved working with the older man. As a young boy, he approached him with the notion that he, too, would like to make furniture for a living. His grandfather considered and pointed the young Gernandt to an unsanded chair.

“’There’s a chair down there, sand that,’” he said. “‘It’ll take you eight hours a day for five or six days.’” And when he completed the job, his grandfather awarded his stamp of approval, conceding that maybe his grandson had what it took to make it a career.

He did do a stint away from the craft for a while, getting a degree in education before returning to furniture artistry for good in his twenties.

Then he and his wife Suzanne, a textile artist, moved to Western North Carolina with their children because, he says, it’s at the heart of craftsman culture in America.

And business has been good for them, though, of course, not perfect.

He is hopeful that there will always be a market for quality crafted pieces like his, pieces that have a story and a history.

He’s very excited about the idea of apprenticeships to keep the craft alive, and hopes that what he’s able to pass on to future furniture makers is the idea that what makes them important and unique is their creativity.

He’s aware that, in terms of cost, he can’t compete with flat-pack factory furniture, but there is something more valuable, he says, about creativity and craft.

“I think people are starting to understand the importance of creativity in their life,” says Gernandt. “You feel better about your life, and there’s value in that. There’s real value in that.”

To see more of the work of John and Suzanne Gernandt, visit www.texturesonmain.com.

Comment

Haywood County commissioners have cut five full-time jobs and frozen four open positions to stave off a projected budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

It marks the third straight year commissioners have cut county jobs to counter recession-driven budget deficits. Commissioners held a work session on the issue last week, where County Manager Marty Stamey suggested the job cuts to keep the budget in check.

The job cuts will target county departments involved in the construction trade. Building is still off from pre-recession levels, with a requisite drop in workload for county building inspectors, erosion control officers and well and septic tank permiters. Those departments are also bringing in less in fees. Stamey showed commissioners financial data to demonstrate the decline in building and real-estate-centric services.

The cuts will take the county down to 507 full-time positions, the smallest number of staff they’ve employed since they started keeping count in 2005. The employee count peaked out in 2009, when the county employed 557 full-time staff members, and the number has been dropping steadily every year, to 534 then 516.

Making the cuts would, he said, save the county $200,000 in the 2011-12 fiscal year, while keeping the four unfilled positions frozen would save an extra $250,000, for a total of $450,000 in savings.

Stamey recommended freezing the assistant county manager position, a title he formerly held until being promoted to the top job last fall. Other open positions that will be frozen include project specialist, IT technician and a human resource specialist.

Commissioners questioned Stamey about what effect these cuts would have on county staff, whether they would require layoffs or could be achieved through early retirements.

“Do they have people that are close to being ready to retire?” Commissioner Mike Sorrells asked of the three departments going under the axe. Stamey answered that, yes, some did, but it remains to be seen whether all five positions can be eliminated with retirements or relocations.

Commissioner Bill Upton expressed his reservations, saying he wasn’t sure how much further they could go following last year’s cuts.

“Down the road, it’s going to be tough, because I thought last year we got down to the bare bones and this is probably getting into the bone a little bit,” said Upton.

“We’re drilling into bone,” replied Stamey, who said that remaining county staff have been working increasingly hard over the last two years to makeup for the shortfall caused by losing colleagues.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick noted that in governmental situations it isn’t as easy to adjust budgets to revenues as it might be in business, because there’s still a certain threshold of services that need to be provided, regardless of how many people use them.

That is, in part, why trimming any more fat will be difficult going forward, and with $3.7 billion in state budget cuts looming, Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said he was uncomfortable with the unknown of what that might do to county budgets.

“The unknown here is what bothers me, what kinds of costs will be going to counties,” said Swanger. “It remains unknown what effect it will have on our budget, but it will not be a positive effect.”

Comment

Haywood County is seriously considering turning over operations of the county landfill to a private company in hopes of saving money.

The proposal also includes selling space in the landfill, allowing other locales to ship their trash here for a fee. Commissioners have been exploring the idea for nearly a year, and are now closing in on a final plan.

In a work session on the issue last week, commissioners reviewed proposals from private companies interested in taking over the landfill. Of the three companies that showed interest, only one presented a plan that would save the county money, according to Tax Administration Director David Francis.

The clear front-runner among the proposals was from Cleveland, Tenn.-based Santek Environmental Services, a big player in the trash business with 14 disposal sites in eight states.

Santek pitched a full takeover of the county’s White Oak landfill, including the environmental monitoring that has caused the county woes — and fines — in recent months. The company would also install new scales and a scale house for weighing, which are needed to continue operations, Francis said.

The landfill’s roads are notoriously bad and difficult to navigate for residents coming to dump trash. Santek would build a public drop-off station to close the working face of the landfill to traffic. They would also install a truck wash to prevent larger trucks from tracking dirt and other contaminants into the environment when they leave.

 

Selling off landfill space

The real money spinner of Santek’s proposal, however, is letting out-of-county garbage be dumped into the landfill for a fee.

But selling landfill space is a contentious issue. Detractors are concerned that such a move would be the first step towards making the site a kind of megadump, a stream of unsightly truckloads of trash rolling through the county.

The companion concern, of course, is longevity. At current capacity, Solid Waste Manager Stephen King has said that the site could last the county another 30 years. Santek has promised to maintain that number, even with the increased volume.

Bringing in more trash from outside not only provides a revenue stream, but it also allows the landfill to realize an economy of scale. To some extent, overhead to operate the landfill is the same regardless of how much trash is coming in. More volume means each ton of trash costs less to handle.

The county generates 150 tons a day of its own trash. Santek said once the landfill hits a critical mass of 325 tons per day, the cost to the county might start going down.

Once the 325-ton mark is reached, Santek will foot the bill for landfill expansion and closing costs associated with the end of the landfill’s life — two of the largest trash-related expenses.

The county would need to save $454,500 every year for the next 30 to cover the landfill’s projected closing costs. Since the county can’t borrow against the landfill, it must all be saved in advance.

So commissioners were suitably impressed by Santek’s promise of such large savings without losing landfill life.

“So we’re looking at a situation that we can potentially save Haywood County taxpayers a tremendous amount of money and still guarantee the same life?” asked Commissioner Michael Sorrells, to which the answer was yes, according to Santek’s proposal.

The county’s staff analysis of the proposal put savings at $480,000 for a 20-year contract and $462,000 under a 10-year agreement.

Initially, commissioners seemed wary of the promise to maintain a 30-year life. If they can, the question was posed, why can’t we?

And the answer boiled down to expertise.

“They have more available resources than we actually have,” said King, noting that the cost of improving county resources to that level of efficiency would be exorbitant.

The other major asset the Santek plan will pay for is landfill expansion, which Francis said could cost $15.5 million over the next 30 years.

All told, the Santek proposal would save residents $24 yearly on their annual fees compared to maintaining the status quo of county operations.  

Francis cautioned commissioners that, while the Santek option appears to offer significant savings, it won’t fix every problem at White Oak.

“This is not a silver bullet that will solve everything,” said Francis. “There will be some time there that they need to get up to that 325 [tons].”

 

Santek’s track record

As the 39th largest waste company in the nation, Santek already runs several other landfills.

Bradley County, Tenn., contracted with the company over a decade ago, after the City of Cleveland, their biggest landfill customer, started trucking their waste elsewhere, leaving the county hemorrhaging money on the site.

County Mayor Gary Davis said that he was initially reluctant to open the dump to out-of-county waste, but saw few alternative options to keep the budget from dipping into the red.

“I was torn. I want the landfill to last forever, but at the same time there has to be enough going into it to produce the revenue to offset those costs,” said Davis, though he said he’s happy with the way Santek’s been operating, and even happier with the no-cost situation it puts his county in. “Bradley County has no cost, period.”

Crawford County, Ohio, went into business with the company because of repeated run-ins with the Environmental Protection Agency and the small matter of an $8 million debt on their landfill.

Crawford County Commissioner Mo Ressallat said his board felt uncomfortable with competing against the private sector, so when the choice came down to going into the trash business to stay afloat or turning over operations to Santek, they chose the latter.

“It was the cost factor,” said Ressallat. “Because we thought the government really shouldn’t be doing business, competing against the private.”

He said that since then they’ve been pretty happy with the arrangement.  “It’s been a good marriage, really.”

In Rhea County, Tenn., the county waste disposal department was running at a $370,000 loss in 2010. But waste officials maintained that it wasn’t the fault of the Santek-run landfill, which they say is profitable. The county’s nine convenience centers were, apparently, to blame, and all are run in-house.

Back in Haywood County, that’s a concern for commissioners, too. Santek’s proposal, unlike some others, didn’t touch the transfer station, so the county will have to make a separate decision about whether or not to close it.

At the work session, Francis clarified that the station would always stay open to individual residents, but “large haulers,” like commercial dumpers and municipalities might no longer get to use the facility, which is another controversial element to the plan.

The Solid Waste Committee is expected to bring recommendations to the board in early February.

Comment

If you had to pick a concept to describe Mary Catherine Earnest, it would probably be local. The owner and co-founder of Haywood County’s Blue Rooster Southern Grill is a proud local girl, through and through, and she said that’s exactly what she wants her new Southern culinary endeavor to be.

“My family came over the mountain from Transylvania County in 1849,” explained Earnest. “I’m a real local person, I grew up in Waynesville. That’s a big source of pride, to be able to be here, to be a local person that’s starting a new business.

“My family’s been in business here for a long time, so I want to work very hard to uphold that tradition.”

And with the November opening of her restaurant in Clyde’s old Wal-Mart shopping center, she proudly joined the ranks of other small-business owners looking to serve the local community.

Asked why she chose to open a restaurant in such tumultuous economic times, Earnest said this was really the most logical step in her career.

She’s been in food service for most of her life, graduating from A-B Tech’s culinary program in 1994. For the last eight years, she’s been one of the top salespeople at Sysco, the commercial food distributor. While she said she was happy — and successful — there, she wanted something new, something of her own. And to Earnest, the uncertain economy made it an even more appropriate time to take such a big step.

“I believe that it’s kind-of a more important time than ever for us to take charge of our careers rather than sit back,” said Earnest, so she and her partner Steve Redmond put together a plan, secured a location and opened for business.

She said business has been encouragingly steady since they opened, and they’re eager for the influx of customers that the Wal-Mart revamp promises.

Since Haywood County commissioners have committed to moving hundreds of their staff to the old storefront by the fall — when the building will house the Department of Social Services and the Health Department — the Blue Rooster will have a whole new crop of full-time and hungry workers as neighbors. Earnest hopes that more than a few of them will become regulars. In fact, it was a part of the business plan from the beginning.

“We’re near all the biggest employers, and of course the big project that the county’s working on, that was a huge part of our plan,” said Earnest, adding that she wouldn’t have embarked on the project if she wasn’t certain the county was going to add to her client base with the project.

When she started toying with the idea, though, Earnest said there were several restaurant concepts that they were working with. They finally settled on Southern cuisine because they couldn’t think of anything that fit the space, the place and their own tastes better.

“Southern cooking is my personal heritage,” said Earnest. “I’m a good Southern girl, that’s the food I was raised eating and cooking. It just turned out that that’s the genre that fit that location.”

She said that being right in the middle of the county is a pro for the business, too, because they’re offering down-home food that you can’t really get in that area.

“Being away from Waynesville proper, you know, with the lake right next to us and of course the hospital, the college, Lowe’s, and all the churches that are out there, we’re right in the middle of Haywood County. And I think Southern comfort foods in Haywood County, that’s what people want to eat.”

Apart from having local clientele, the restaurant is looking to provide local food, too. For someone who spent nearly a decade sourcing good foods and ingredients for other restaurateurs, Earnest said she and her staff are prepared to use the best local food in whatever ways they can.

“In food service, about 150 miles is what we consider local,” said Earnest, and she’s happy to report that they’ve been able to source natural chicken and natural ground beef from inside that range, as well as some other ingredients. And when the spring rolls back around, they hope to be plating up offerings from even closer to home.

“We’ve already had lots of farmers that come eat with us that are saying, ‘hey, we want to do your tomatoes,’” said Earnest, “and that’s really exciting.”

But until then, she said that everyone at the restaurant is happy to be in business, offering their neighbors something they couldn’t get before and cultivating relationships with customers they hope will be dining there for years to come.

“We already have regulars, I mean what does that tell you?” Earnest said, excitedly. “That’s just a wonderful thing, to be able to work my dining room every day with my neighbors and my friends. My 86-year-old grandfather lives less than a mile from the restaurant and eats with me everyday.

“We’re not perfect, but we’re doing things right.”

Comment

Swain County has lost more than $17,000 a month from their coffers, and that financial gouge may become a lot bigger following a suit filed by Graham County last month.

Graham and Swain county are at odds over property taxes collected from the Tennessee Valley Authority for the Fontana Dam and its hydropower equipment and generators. For 67 years — since the dam was built — the two counties split the revenue equally.

But Graham argued it deserves more, since more of the dam and generators are on its side of the county line. Graham succeeded in convincing the N.C. Attorney General’s Office of their position last fall, resulting in a new formula for divvying the TVA proceeds. The result: Swain gets $17,700 less a month, which is now going to Graham instead.

The October ruling stated that, according to the original channel of the Little Tennessee River, which has long been the boundary between the two counties, more of the dam and its taxable equipment belongs in Graham. And the Attorney General agreed that, if this was the case, they should get more of the money, as well.

Upon hearing this, Graham County commissioners decided not to rest on their laurels content with their newfound cash flow. They marched right up to the Graham County Superior Court and filed suit against their neighbor for 67 years of back tax revenue that Swain County gained on the erroneous measuring formula.

The suit doesn’t put a number on how much they want back, but Graham officials have pegged it at $15 million, according to an article published in the Graham Star last month. Graham named the Department of Revenue as a co-defendant to ensure they provided a formula and a number for how much Graham would be owed.

Raleigh mayor and tax attorney Charles Meeker is leading the charge as Graham County’s attorney, and he said that discussions about a possible filing started to be bandied about following the Attorney General’s October ruling.

He said the county is simply trying to recoup what was always rightfully theirs, but has long been distributed inequitably.

“Because of incorrect information from the TVA, the Department of Revenue had not distributed those payments correctly for years,” said Meeker. “We don’t know the exact amount, but the lawsuit requests the Department of Revenue to make that calculation.”

Swain County has yet to respond to the suit, but has requested a 30-day extension to file their response.

Swain County Manager Kevin King told the Graham Star last month that his county would be looking into a countersuit, seeking damages for the 51,000 acres of land lost to the Fontana Dam’s impounding in 1943. King maintained that they were never fairly compensated, especially stacked up against the mere 4,000 acres lost by Graham County. He said the county is planning a robust battle against the suit. They are due to respond in mid-February.

Technically, the TVA payments to the two counties are called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, since government entities are not required to pay property taxes. But like property taxes, the payments by TVA are based on the value of the hydropower operation determined by the N.C. Department of Revenue and the tax rate set by the county.

Comment

Haywood County’s seniors are one step closer to having more affordable housing options.

County commissioners last week agreed to sell the old hospital to Fitch Development Company for $1.275 million. They will then undertake the mammoth task of turning the old four-story brick hospital into one-and-two bedroom apartments for senior citizens who need affordable housing.

The number of units isn’t finalized, but County Manager Marty Stamey has said that current plans call for 53 units.

The building currently serves as offices for the Department of Social Services and central offices for Haywood County Schools, which are moving out.

County Attorney Chip Killian said that, after interviews and negotiations with Fitch, he’s confident that they’re the right firm for the complex job, which will require jumps through a number of funding and regulatory hoops. To make the project economically feasible, Fitch needs to land housing tax credits, a small county loan and national historic designation.

“These things are very complicated,” said Killian. “I think everybody feels real good about Fitch Development Company in that they’re very motivated and competent to do this kind of project.”

The hospital is a historic entity that holds a place in state history as North Carolina’s first county hospital.

Killian told commissioners that, with their approval, the purchase price is set but closing won’t take place before March 2012.

The Smoky Mountain Center, which occupies a building at the rear of the site, will remain.

Comment

Remodeling work to the old Wal-Mart building in Haywood County could begin within weeks after commissioners approved a contract to transform the space into county offices.

The board heard from Scott Donald of Padgett & Freeman Architects, who are spearheading the revamp of the building. The now-empty storefront is due to be repurposed into headquarters for the department of social services and its 143 employees, as well as the health department, the planning department and building inspections, among others.

Architects were instructed to redesign the project after the county couldn’t get contractors to offer bids that were close enough to their budget. After cutting some features, they called for new estimates from contractors again late last year.

Donald reported that, after pulling down all the “low-hanging fruit” they could find, they’ve negotiated a price of $5.398 million for the remodel, which, he said, comes in around $9,000 under budget. The total project cost, including architect fees and purchase of the building is $12.5 million.

The board unanimously approved a motion to award the contract to Murray Construction of Monroe, which means that Donald and county staff can hold pre-construction meetings as soon as USDA officials, who are providing financing, come to have a look at the property later this month.

According to Donald, construction on the project could be underway as early as the first week of February. He also noted that the contractor was confident in their ability to finish the job in eight months, a month sooner than the plan called for. This would recoup some of the time that was lost when the project was rebid.

DSS is currently housed in the old county hospital, but the aging building was falling apart. Commissioners decided it would be cheaper to move into a new space than bring the old hospital up to par.

Comment

Haywood County selected a new manager at their Wednesday meeting, promoting current interim manager Marty Stamey.

The board decided to make it official with Stamey, long-time assistant county manager, voting unanimously to give him the position permanently.

Stamey took over as interim after former County Manager David Cotton resigned in November. It was the second time Stamey had been tested in the position. He filled in last year when Cotton was out on medical leave in the midst of annual budgeting, where Stamey first proved his acumen for leadership.

Commissioners praised Stamey’s performance over the two terms as interim and lauded his skills, which they said rendered a search for someone more qualified unnecessary.

“We have all worked with Marty Stamey extensively during the past several months. We have all been very pleased with his performance and consider him to be very, very qualified for the position of county manager, so much so that we do not believe a search would produce a more qualified person for county manager,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger.

Other commissioners echoed Swanger’s sentiments, pointing to Stamey’s years of service and rapport with employees and the community as qualities to recommend him for the post.

Former chairman and current Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he felt “no need for the county to expend additional monies or time and efforts if we have someone here on our staff that is fully competent to handle the job.”

Commissioner Kevin Ensley also sang Stamey’s praises, adding his pleasure that a Haywood County native was taking the position for the first time.

Commissioner Bill Upton also made a cheeky nod to the new manager’s local roots, noting that he’d had nary a run-in when Stamey was a student during Upton’s tenure as Pisgah High School principal.

With two masters’ degrees and a wealth of experience in health care and emergency management services in the county, Stamey brings education, experience and a local eye to the position. He was named assistant county manager in 2007, following a stint as the head of emergency services for the county.

Stamey himself thanked the commissioners and praised his staff, saying they’re who he was really confident in and expressing hope that he could meet the high standards set by commissioners.

According to Stamey, the position is an honor and a vote of confidence in his leadership, but won’t amend his or the county’s day-to-day operations very much. Stamey’s salary will be just over $124,000, the same as his predecessor. It was upped to that figure when he stepped in as interim last autumn.

He said that one of the big challenges coming up will be tackling the budget as state and national funding dry up and more responsibilities are pushed onto counties.

He said he’s pleased with the promotion, but cautioned commissioners when he was named interim to take time before deciding whether to give him the post permanently in case his style was different than what they were looking for.

“I told them to wait, and let’s see how I do,” said Stamey. “Then they could decide whether they were going to do a search.”

But when asked whether this changes his work load or the way he views his position, Stamey said the title doesn’t really matter.

“It doesn’t change anything at all,” he said.

Stamey’s former position, assistant county manager, will remain unfilled and frozen indefinitely.

Comment

A single piece of paper can bring all sorts of different things to our lives: the excitement of a love letter or the heartbreak of a Dear John, the frustration of a speeding ticket or the accolades of a diploma, the joy of a birth certificate or the sorrow of a last will and testament. But for one Franklin woman, a single piece of paper brought her the beginning of four decades of artistry and a craft that, she said, she never tires of.

Marcia Roland is a scherenschnitte artist, a specialist in the folk art of paper cutting. Her pieces range in design from simple two-dimensional scenes to intricate, many-tiered 3D works, mostly cut from plain white paper.

Roland said she picked up the hobby nearly 40 years ago when she saw a Scandinavian woman paper cutting at a craft fair at the Asheville Civic Center. She bought one of the artist’s pieces – a boy with a goose and tree – and took it home, where she started experimenting with creating her own replicas. After many attempts, she was finally able to make a scaled version of the 18-inch model to fit into a legal envelope and she promptly started cutting them to use as Christmas cards that year.

“I made close to 50 of those for our Christmas cards and sent them to people and it was at that time that I kind of got hooked,” said Roland. “Then I started to do some research and I discovered the information on the history of it, and then I started to look for patterns.”

Most of what she found was two-dimensional; simple flat patterns and silhouettes. But Roland really loved the 3D work, so she took the flat patterns, modified them, cut them twice then stitched the pieces together with a sewing machine, which is much the same process she still uses today. Her works are one part pattern, one part artistry and one part engineering, as it takes some tinkering and tweaking to finally create templates that are balanced enough to support themselves without being top-heavy or stand freely withouth collapsing. But Roland said that the tweaking is part of the craft’s draw, as is the beauty and delicacy of the art it produces.

Scherennschnitte isn’t a new process. Though there are few remaining examples due to the short life paper, by its nature, enjoys, there is evidence of intricate paper cuttings dating as far back as ninth century China. The practice really saw its vogue, however, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when peasant children and housewives in Germany began cutting intricate folk scenes and designs into carefully saved scraps of excess paper. They were used in children’s games and as inexpensive decorations to adorn the walls and mantles of homes. The word itself – scherenschnitte – is the German term for a silhouette, and can be literally translated as ‘scissors cutting.’

The tradition lived on and was imported to the United States in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, where it found its way into things like lace paper doilies, Valentine’s cards, bookmarks, book plates and Christmas ornaments.

Today, artists around the world employ the process in fine as well as folk art, keeping the tradition alive and adapting it to modern artistry.

Marcia Roland doesn’t see herself as a professional artist, but she has long continued her paper cuts because she loves the process and is always finding inspiration for new pieces. Most of her art features folk scenes and outdoor depictions or is holiday-themed, like a series of nativity scenes or a three-dimensional menorah. But Roland said she just cuts whatever inspires her, whether it be a butterfly on a newspaper advertisement or a catalog photo of a wooden nativity, both of which she’s turned into scherenschnitte designs. Sometimes, she said, she takes cues from her own life, too, about which subjects to cut next.

“I have two grown sons, so at one time that’s what got me to try something with hunters, so I’ve done a few of those,” said Roland. “My husband’s job has taken us all over the country, and that also inspires some of the designs.”

A selection of Roland’s work is now on display at the Macon County Library, where she’s shown it several times since moving back to the area eight years ago. And while for decades, she only made cuttings to give away to friends or keep privately, she’s now taking the age-old art of scherenschnitte to the world, demonstrating at the county fair and loaning her work for display. She has recently considered, she said, holding a class to pass the craft on to others.

And even now, 40 years later, Roland said she intends to continue cutting paper, always seeking a new challenge in the ancient craft that has never gotten old.


On display
Marcia Roland’s work can be seen through the end of January at the Macon County Public Library in Franklin.

Comment

By definition, the lottery is a gamble. There’s no guarantee of winning, no assurance that you’ll look back on your ticket purchase without regret.

Sure, it can pay out big sometimes, but you could just as easily come up empty. And in North Carolina, for the school districts the education lottery helps fund, it turns out the story of what happens to that money might be much the same.

For the last five years, regulations on what can be done with lottery money have been pretty strict. But with state and local budgets in crisis, the General Assembly last year lifted some of those strictures, allowing schools to pay other expenses that were losing state funding with lottery money; a consolation prize for losing the big pot. So many districts started clutching money they once spent freely, fearing state budget cuts that are just over the horizon and wondering if they’d made the right choices with lottery money given to them in the past.

SEE ALSO: GOP may loosen rules on lottery proceeds

In Swain County, lottery money has always gone to debt service, paying down notes taken out for school improvements. County Manager Kevin King said that’s what they’ll continue to put those dollars toward for the foreseeable future. The same is true for Macon and Jackson counties.

In Haywood County, however, they’ve taken fuller advantage of what the funding rules allow. The way lottery money allocation works today is pretty simple: school districts get a percentage funding based on their ADM, average daily membership, which is basically how many students are attending their schools. Districts used to get extra money based on their property tax rates, which put western counties with historically low rates at a disadvantage. However, after years of lobbying by school officials, the General Assembly removed that inequity during its last session.

 

Lottery money ‘icing on the cake’

But regardless of where it comes from, lottery funds have, in the past, been earmarked only for capital improvements. That means new buildings, repairs to existing facilities and, as in Swain County, debt service for similar projects that have already been paid for.

Back in Haywood County, they decided to use their funds to install artificial turf on their sports fields, a project that’s taken their yearly lottery funds, which average about $600,000 annually, since they started receiving them.

After last year, though, when the extent of state budget woes became increasingly clear, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said they started saving as much of that money as they could, aware that the state would have to find $3.7 billion dollars in cuts somewhere, and schools might be first on the chopping block.

“You … want to save the lottery money because it’s the only source that you have as an emergency source,” said Nolte, noting that, after paying the remaining two turf payments that are still outstanding, Haywood’s lottery fund balance would leave about $600,000 to fund teaching positions or address liability issues and emergency facility needs, which is as low as he’d like to see the fund get.

“We’re down pretty close to a pretty uncomfortable level of having a reserve there,” Nolte said.

But when asked whether, retrospectively, the turf still seem like a sound decision, Nolte defended the choice. He said the school system used the money for one of the few things it was allowed to spend it on.

“It [lottery funding] was never intended for emergency crises, it was never intended to pay for teachers, it was never intended to buy paper. That [capital expense] was the only thing we could spend it on at the time. It was a very logical expenditure,” said Nolte. “If we had a crystal ball and we knew that two to three years later we would be in an economic crisis, we may have not done that project.”

But, as Nolte points out, crystal balls were in short supply, and in what seemed like a healthy economy, they would have been decried for saving the money then.

“Back when we did the fields, there was no opportunity to spend the funds in another manner. If we had saved those funds back then, people would have said, ‘what are you saving for?’” said Nolte. “At the time that we made those expenditures it was a very popular decision.”

Now, however, there is no decision more popular than holding onto what you’ve got, in case things continue to decline.

 

Hold on tightly

That’s the opinion voiced by several commissioners at a recent Haywood County Commissioners meeting, where they expressed concern about what’s happening to the county’s lottery money.

Commissioner Bill Upton, who was formerly a principal and superintendent in the Haywood County school system, questioned school officials on the wisdom of using lottery funds to fix decrepit bleachers instead of saving the money in case it’s needed for teacher positions next year. Commissioners eventually approved the bleacher repairs, which had been flagged as a safety hazard by the school’s insurer for several years, but their reluctance to dole out lottery money on non-essentials was clear.

“The ballgame’s changed and that’s my big concern,” said Upton in an interview. “In the past, you know, you had to use lottery monies for projects and all. I think that’ll change.

“The unknown is what bothers me, and you hate to make decisions that will come back and hurt you this summer [when the state budget is set].”

According to North Carolina State Superintendent June Atkinson, a lot of districts around the state are thinking along the same lines. She said that few chose the option to use lottery money for teacher funding or other non-traditional uses last year. There were more hoops to jump through, including extra scrutiny at the local level, and there was still some federal funding available that gave many districts a buffer for state losses.

But this year, said Atkinson, those federal appropriations will be long gone, to the tune of $1 billion statewide, and the $3.7 billion hole at the state level is going to hit schools hard. This year, she expects many more districts to take the General Assembly up on any offer of unrestricted lottery funding they choose to make.

“In the leadership in our schools, people are making a concerted effort to stretch every dollar as far as they can go. When those federal dollars dry up, I’m sure school districts will be looking at those lottery funds,” said Atkinson.

However, she doesn’t think the lottery will ever become a staple to school funding — no matter how many restrictions are removed — because it’s just not enough to make up for what’s being lost.

“The lottery really is just icing on the cake,” said Atkinson, “because it is an unstable source of dollars. It changes based on the whims of people that buy lottery tickets … the percentage of the lottery dollars is such a small amount of money in comparison to the total amount [needed for school funding].”

And, just as in other retail sectors, those ticket-buying whims have been severely curtailed by the economy. Lottery revenue saw about a $44 million drop last year, and if those patterns continue, schools will have even fewer dollars to deal with.

But as for the money that’s left, Atkinson said she’s confident that lottery funding in the future, at least in the short-term, will surely be re-routed to needs other than capital projects, which would leave the state’s school facilities languishing.

 

Feeling the budget squeeze

Nolte said they’re already experiencing that squeeze in Haywood County.

“We swallowed very hard and did not do a building replacement at Waynesville Middle because we knew we might need that fund for schools or teachers,” said Nolte. That decision, he added, was pretty unpopular.

But they’ve been told to brace for a 10 to 15 percent cut from the state this year, so they’re hanging onto what they’ve got.

Nolte said he knows people might look at Haywood’s past lottery decisions as questionable, but would counter that argument by pointing out that the school system has long been recognized as fiscally responsible, running every project on time and on budget.

“I know that people want to make the arguments of bleachers versus teachers, or they want to make the argument of athletics versus academics, or they want to make the argument of don’t do anything to buildings, just keep people in jobs,” said Nolte. “But I hope people understand that we make the best decisions we can make with the information we have at the time.

“It’s real easy to second guess, and I just hope that people understand that we’ve got a long history of making very good decisions when it comes to capital expenditures. We’re taxpayers too, so we want to be very prudent with the revenues that are allocated to the school district.”

Statewide, Superintendent Atkinson hopes that lottery funds will help schools survive, but concedes they are a band aid on a hundred bullet wounds, and schools will have to shore up for a hard hit that’s coming soon, prioritizing student success over all else in the face of a bleak financial future.

“We’re at the point where we can’t make cuts without harming students. North Carolina ranks about 42nd in the nation as far as school funding. We’ve mad a lot of progress, and I just hate to see our not being able to continue that progress,” said Atkinson. “Money does matter.”

 

Staff Writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

Comment

With the GOP takeover of the state General Assembly, lottery money and how schools use what they’re given will come under new scrutiny.

“I wouldn’t have voted for a lottery, but it is the law now and it needs to be done properly,” said Jim Davis, an incoming freshman Republican senator from Franklin.

Davis unseated Democratic incumbent Sen. John Snow in November, helping Republicans — for the first time in more than a century — take control of the House and Senate.

“I think the research will show the poor counties have a higher per-capita lottery purchase, and those people can’t afford (to play the lottery),” Davis said. “But it is here now.”

Davis, a former longtime Macon County commissioner, is an unwavering, unapologetic supporter of local control. Though Davis said he finds Haywood County’s decision to use lottery money for football stadium upgrades difficult to rationalize, “if the school board wants to do that and commissioners OK the choice, they ought to be able to do that.”

Incoming state senator Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, said he would support allowing schools to use their lottery funding for items other than capital improvements again this year.

“I wouldn’t just limit that to lottery funding,” Hise said. “I think that we have to give local school boards more options in using their funding. We know the level of cuts, and as we get more specific information, we hope to be able to give as much flexibility to state departments and others with their own budgets.”

That would be a welcome change to Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman.

“I would love to have more lottery dollars,” Brigman said. “The formula definitely needs to be revised.”

Money from the North Carolina Education Lottery is divided among school districts based on enrollment. Counties with a higher tax rate used to get a higher percentage of lottery money, meaning Western North Carolina with its historically low tax rate got penalized. That was changed by the General Assembly two years ago.

— By Quintin Ellison and Colby Dunn

Comment

Everybody loves a classic. At least that’s what the minds behind Franklin’s Overlook Theater Company were banking on when they put together the lineup for their 2011 season.

They’ll be putting on shows that embody every definition of the word classic, from the Broadway staple “Guys n’ Dolls” to adaptations of some of the world’s most beloved children’s books in “Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss” and “Narnia,” a two-act version of the Chronicles of Narnia.

The company will be taking on musical classics as well, opening the season with “Delovely,” a celebration of Cole Porter’s timeless tunes, following the yellow brick road to a production of MGM’s “The Wizard of Oz” and listening to the hills come alive with the Julie Andrews hit, “Sound of Music.” They’ll end the season channeling a modern comedy classic with a rendition of Disney’s side-splitting tale of sorcery in the Middle-Eastern sands, “Alladin.”

Creative Director Scotty Corbin said that the troupe arrived at the idea after seeing the stress and worry that the still-slumping economy is bringing into American life. He wants the company’s shows this year to be a haven where people can come enjoy the good, simple fun of a timeless production, a space to step away from the stress of modern life, if only for a few hours.

“Everything has to do with a good, old-fashioned time in the theater,” said Corbin. “We want this year to be able to provide a place where people can laugh and clap and have a good time in the theater.”

And maybe, he said, even be a part of it themselves.

The company was started back in 1996, when Corbin and a few friends decided to stage a show in a barn, to general appreciation from attendees and performers alike. The show grew into a tradition, that grew into a passion, that grew into a company that now has a state-of-the-art venue to call home. They bounced around to different stages around the Macon County area, but with the opening of the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts, they’ve found a permanent nesting place that is ideal for their busy calendar.

Putting on such a full season of ambitious shows takes a veritable army of cast, crew and volunteers that are a mix of amateur, professional and semi-professional thespians. For a full-on Broadway musical like “Guys n’ Dolls,” the company will need up to 80 people to pull off the show every night, and they’re proud to say that they pull participants from all walks of life.

“A lot of these young people who come, they started at a young age and every year we see the improvement that takes place,” said Nikki Corbin, who heads up marketing and publicity for the company. “It’s allowing people the opportunity to be able to perform and to be able to do something that we love to do, to discover the talent within.”

The company, she said, is committed to fostering that artistic discovery and expression within the community, offering a shared experience for the audience, the cast and crew and the local community.

That, said Scotty Corbin, is what drives their desire to keep costs low. The shows they’re gearing towards children and families — “Aladdin” and “Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss,” just to name a couple — are just $10 per adult ticket. For larger, mainstage-style productions like the “Wizard of Oz” and “Guys n’ Dolls,” they’ll top out their ticket prices at $13 in an effort to keep it affordable for anyone who wants to have the magical experience of live theater.

“It’s all about letting the community have a great experience together,” said Scotty Corbin. “We want to make it extremely affordable so as many people as possible can come. You can bring your entire family hopefully for the price of one ticket at a larger venue.”

For every show, they hold open auditions that will be listed in advance online and announced through their e-mail list, and Corbin encourages anyone who is interested to come out and give it a shot.

In addition, they’ve got a local talent show that’s become a staple of their season, and, he said, they’re excited to see the quality performances that locals bring to the table this year.

As they go into the 2011 season, Scotty Corbin is excited about where theater in Western North Carolina is going, and he hopes that this season of classics will help solidify his company as a classic part of the region’s entertainment scene.

“Not only is it an entertainment venue, it’s a place where people can come nurture their talents and grow and learn,” Corbin said. “The sky’s the limit the way we’re looking at it. We just want everything we do to be as top quality as we can possibly be and hopefully each time make it better.”

For more information, visit www.greatmountainmusic.com or call 828.349.5856.

 

Show schedule:

• “De Lovely,” (a dinner show featuring music of Cole Porter) Feb 3, 4, 5

• “Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss,” March 1 and 3

• “The Sound of Music,” April 14, 15, 16, 17

• “Who’s Got Talent,” a local talent competition, May 31

• “Guys and Dolls,” June 23, 24, 25, 26

• “Narnia” (a two-act play based on the Chronicles of Narnia), Aug. 4, 5, 6, 7

• “Who’s Got Talent,”  Sept. 27

• “The Wizard of Oz,” Nov. 3, 4, 5, 6

• Disney’s “Aladdin,” Dec. 13 and 15

Comment

Swain County’s West Elementary School will be getting a classroom expansion thanks to $1.8 million handed to them by Swain County commissioners in a special session on Monday.

The elementary school will gain eight new classrooms to deal with its burgeoning student population, though most won’t be completely new space.

“We’re replacing four modular classrooms,” said County Manager Kevin King. “We’re taking the trailers out and replacing them with classrooms,” which is in line with the steps a 2007 steering committee recommended the county take to alleviate the crowding that has plagued all of its schools over the last decade.

Next on the list of committee recommendations is Swain East Elementary, followed by a suggested new high school to be built on a plot near the current school purchased several years ago. Commissioners, however, didn’t discuss the timeline for bringing other suggested improvements to fruition.

Although the committee was formed and recommendations made four years ago, the projects were stalled slightly when financing options became scarce.

With the unanimous vote at Monday’s meeting, however, the board successfully secured a financing contract and will now be bringing in Kearey Builders of Statesville to start the construction.

Comment

At their last meeting of 2010, the Haywood County Commissioners made what might seem like a rather mundane decision. They chose to release a slew of minutes from their closed sessions over the preceding few months.

While the information the minutes revealed was relatively unremarkable — details of negotiations around the price of Clyde’s old Wal-Mart site, discussions about litigation at the fairground over some allegedly unpaid bills, easement purchases and other fairly ordinary transactions — the simple fact that they were released without request is a small victory for the cause of more open government.

To Marty Stamey, interim county manager, it’s not a remarkable step at all.

“It’s been that way as long as I can remember,” said Stamey. The board, he said, reviews closed session minutes regularly and, if there are no legal barriers, releases them to whoever would like to see them.

That’s not surprising, given the background of Chairman Mark Swanger, who won the North Carolina Press Association’s First Amendment Award in 2006 and spent much of his professional life combating corruption in a 32-year career with the FBI.

But while it may be a matter of course in Haywood County, the practice isn’t necessarily standard protocol elsewhere. In Macon County, County Manager Jack Horton — who held the same post in Haywood County — said they usually only give out closed session minutes when a request is made.

Swain County’s manager Kevin King confirmed that the modus operandi is much the same there. If the county manager’s office gets a request, they’ll filter it through the county attorney, but proactive steps aren’t the norm.

Amanda Martin, attorney for the North Carolina Press Association, said that the story isn’t much different across the state, although it should be.

“It’s not that normal, but it’s what should happen,” said Martin. “They [local governments] should have some procedure in place to routinely review and release information that can be released. I would say it’s unusual, but that that is the proper procedure rather than waiting for someone to ask for them.”

Martin posits that the motives behind keeping closed session minutes closed aren’t necessarily sinister, but often stem from laziness or fear of stirring trouble.

“That’s the path of least resistance,” said Martin. “It would be an extra step to have to undertake. They also probably know that there aren’t going to be any problems until someone asks.”

Under North Carolina law, public bodies can go into closed session for nine reasons that are spelled out by statute. No action may be taken in closed session, and minutes must be kept. Closed session minutes can be released whenever the issue at hand has been dealt with.

There are some things that will never come before the public eye, like personnel records and issues, but nearly everything else that’s done in closed session can, legally, go public at some point. When and whether that’s done is up to the governing body, in this case, the board of commissioners.

In Haywood County, Stamey said the board is almost always in favor of making things public, and he can’t remember any incarnation of the board thinking differently.

“You have to do things with transparency,” said Stamey. “You can’t just go in there and do things and never tell people what you did.”

And according to Martin, that view is laudable and is an important step towards more open, transparent governance.

Comment

Haywood County residents looking to brave the ice and leave their firesides this January can find an afternoon of respite from the winter in Waynesville’s second annual Winterfest.

The festival, themed Fire and Ice, is hosted by the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and will be held at the Waynesville Inn and Country Club on Jan. 15 from 3-7 p.m. The event will feature an ice carving competition, a fashion show, a dog sledding race to benefit local animal charity Sarge’s, and an Iron Chef-esque cooking competition featuring chefs from around the region.

The idea is to make the county, and Waynesville in particular, a year-round destination, not just a summer and fall spot. Currently, there’s not much besides a bit of local skiing to draw visitors in the coldest months, but the chamber’s executive director CeCe Hipps wants Winterfest to be one of the first steps in changing that.

“The main reason that we were doing the Winterfest is to bring people into this area in the winter time to make it a four-seasons destination,” said Hipps. “Our hopes would be that in 20 years from now, it would be the size of the Apple Harvest Festival.”

With that ambitious goal in mind, Hipps and her crew have made a few changes to the festival this year, the most notable being a cut in ticket prices. Pre-purchased adult tickets will be just $10, while they go up to $12.50 at the door.

That buys admission to the festival but doesn’t pay for anything inside like food, drinks and souvenirs. It will pay for watching things like the ice carving competition, one of last year’s festival highlights and a sight to behold as skilled chainsaw artists go head-to-head carving up blocks of ice into glistening sculptures. The artists, Hipps said, come from around the region, including Asheville artist Jeff Pennypacker.

Another new draw at this year’s event will be Star Chef competition, which will feature eight as yet unnamed Western North Carolina chefs who will compete for a spot in the final two-chef competition. Competitors will be picked in the days leading up to the event based on their submission of a recipe that included two cups of mashed potatoes.

A fashion show and dog-sled race, open to all dog owners and their furry companions to benefit Sarge’s, and a fashion show will round out the afternoon.

Hipps said she realizes that coming out on a chilly winter afternoon isn’t exactly what a lot of people have in mind, but she hopes that residents and visitors alike will bundle up and come out for the fun.

“The biggest thing is I just want people to give it a chance, give it an opportunity. It’s in the afternoon so it doesn’t mess with your evening activities,” she said.

While the festival will be more an afternoon of activities than a full-blown, vendor-filled festival like autumn’s apple event, Hipps said that’s what they’re aiming for in the future. There will be one candle maker there, and the ice carving itself is a spectacle to see. All told, it takes the artists two hours to coax their creations from the ice, and it’s an entertaining process. But, she said, in future they hope to add more events and attractions to fill out the day.

“This is the start of it, but we anticipate that it will grow, not only from population but from activities and events that go on as well,” said Hipps. “We have some ideas for future expansions, and Waynesville Inn is great location.”

For more information call the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce at 828.456.3021 or visit www.Haywood-NC.com.

Comment

Battles in Congress are nothing new. Practically every day that the legislature is in session, there is a fight, argument or debate about something, some more trivial than others. But there’s one issue that residents of Swain County are watching intently, because the outcome of this fight may cost them $40 million.

The issue is earmarks. The new congressional leadership says it doesn’t like them, and some members are looking to axe them altogether. If that happens, county’s massive $52 million North Shore Road settlement is in danger of being classified as an earmark, which means the lion’s share of the money may never arrive.

Leonard Winchester, chairman of citizen group Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County and active participant in the settlement process, said he thinks that’s unlikely. But it’s still a possibility.

“I think it’s more a matter of when, not if, “ said Winchester, of whether the money will arrive.

He thinks that the money will come through, but in the worst case, the county may have to go back to the bargaining table with Congress. Again.

The real issue, said Winchester, is education. The problem is just convincing Congress members that the settlement isn’t an earmark, it’s a debt owed to Swain County.

When the North Shore Road between Bryson City and Tennessee was flooded in 1943 as part of the war effort, there was little complaint in such dire times. Especially because the county came away with a promise from the federal government that a new road would be built. That was a pretty crucial promise, considering the county still owed $695,000 on the road when it was flooded.

The war came and went, as did two subsequent decades, and the county continued paying the loans for 30 years at the expense of the taxpayer for a road that seemed as though it would never come.

Cut to 2010, and fight still raged, both between Congress and the county and within the county itself. Today, many said, the road isn’t needed and cash would be a better deal. Others were adamant that the road was owed and should be built.

But when Congressman, former football star and native son Heath Shuler stepped in, he proved – along with his tireless efforts to persuade his fellow congressmen to his side – to be the missing piece.

A settlement was finally agreed to: $52 million over 10 years, with the county able to use the annual at its own discretion.

The county already has $12.8 million, and the next chunk has been added to President Obama’s 2011 budget. But the subsequent funds will come only if Congress doesn’t slice them out with other earmarks that may go under the blade in tough economic times.

Winchester said he thinks the county has the right amount of power on its side. Not only is Rep. Shuler plugging hard for the money, the Secretary of the Interior and the parks service are behind the measure.

“The Secretary of the Interior does not consider it an ear mark,” said Winchester. “But politics is an ever-moving target. I don’t think that it will be classified as an earmark. Certainly it’s not in Rep. Shuler’s mind or in Sen. Hagan’s mind. But there’s also other things that contribute significantly towards it not being considered an earmark,” and he’s hoping the clout from the interior department will prove enough to pull the settlement out of that category.

Even the money in the President’s budget is somewhat in jeopardy, since no budget has been passed and Congress has kept the country running by passing a series of continuing resolutions. They funnel money to necessary departments but don’t fund non-necessities of the budget — like the settlement.

For his part, Rep. Shuler said he’s committed to bringing this money back home, crusading against its classification as an earmark.

“No matter what happens with the appropriations process, there is a clear path for us to make sure Swain County gets this settlement funding,” said Rep. Shuler in a statement. “With strong support from President Obama and the Department of Interior, we will make sure that Swain County gets the funding it is due.”

Winchester said he’s actively trying to educate key Congress members, but isn’t too worried about losing the funding altogether, a possibility that he sees as highly unlikely. The economy, he maintains, will not be broken forever, and when the financial ship rights itself, Swain County will be on board.

“Once the economic conditions improve, it’s entirely plausible that the rest of the payments will be paid off in one payment,” Winchester said. “But we have to be at a point where the economic conditions are not so severe that everything that goes before Congress has to be compared with how important it is to the defense of the country.”

Opponents of the cash settlement say they are unsurprised by this unexpected turn. County Commissioner David Monteith, who was outspoken against the settlement throughout the process, said he opposed it for that very reason: because it takes control completely out of county hands.

“I was opposed to the settlement to start with,” said Monteith. “It was a bad deal because things like this can happen. It was real idiotic.”

The fight, however, is not quite over. The 112th Congress has yet to come in session, and the proposal to slash earmarks doesn’t have universal support among even one party. But Winchester and Shuler said they both recognize that it’s a battle of education, and to win, they have to get the sentiment of those outside the region on their side.

Having the interior department in their corner is the first step, said Winchester, but it doesn’t stop there. It is a complex issue that, at first blush, seems like a money-funnel straight from Washington for a road that will never even be built. It’s easy to see how Congress sees earmark all over it, and Shuler and his compatriots will have their work cut out for them in the new year.

“That political battle is not something we can say is behind us,” said Winchester. “Once we get that behind us, I think we’ll be OK.”

Comment

A new tavern is set to make its debut this week in downtown Waynesville, featuring barbecue, beer, and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere in the Main Street space that was formerly Headlights Bar and Grill.

Tipping Point Tavern is a joint venture between Sweet Onion owners Dan Elliot and Doug and Jenny Weaver, along with now former manager Jon Bowman. He has left the restaurant to run Tipping Point full time.

The location is somewhat of a homecoming. Prior to Headlights occupying the space, it was Wildfire Restaurant. Wildfire was the first restaurant opened by Doug and Jenny Weaver in Waynesville, prior to the opening of the Sweet Onion.

The idea for the new restaurant has been taking shape for around three years, when Bowman came on at the Sweet Onion. The concept, he explained somewhat cryptically, “started with three men on a boat in Lake Santeetlah,” and has grown into an operation that will include house-made sausage, pastrami and, one day, their own beer-brewing operation.

At least that’s what Bowman said he’s looking towards.

“The word artisan is the way I like to describe it,” said Bowman of the menu, drink selection and overall atmosphere. “We felt like there was a need for it, that it would be hugely successful and that it was the right place at the right time.”

The tavern takes its name from the term popularized by writer and journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name, the concept being the moment when an idea or trend becomes unstoppable.

Bowman said that he hopes the new restaurant will be just that, a tipping point for more family-friendly artisanal drinking and dining in the downtown area.

This venture will follow in the heels of the Weavers’ successful venture in Sweet Onion, which they opened after bidding farewell to Wildfire.

The menu will feature typical pub fare – fish and chips, wings, nachos and the like – as well as barbecue that they think will rival any in the area.

Bowman said the hope is to offer a diverse range of beer on tap, as well, with a mix of domestic, local and European brews up for sale that will be constantly tweaked and updated.

They’ve planned to open the doors on Wednesday, Dec. 22, and will be open Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. until. Sundays, Bowman said, are still up in the air.

“We want people to come here and know that it’s going to be a relaxed, comfortable, friendly, just good-times place,” he said. “Families can come in here, we’ll have good beer and we’ll have the best barbecue in Western North Carolina.”

Comment

To Vida Cody, Dec. 6 didn’t seem unlike any other average Monday. She was the finance manager for Swain County, and with the new board of commissioners due for a swearing in, she expected an hour-long pause in her otherwise-busy day.

So when the usually routine appointment for finance manager was called and no nominations came, Cody was a little surprised. As the silence lengthened, a call for alternate nominations was made. A motion to appoint County Manager Kevin King interim finance manager was given, seconded and quickly ushered through unanimously.

Cody, a 14-year county employee who has spent the last three as finance manager, said she didn’t see it coming — especially since the county was coming off one of its best audit years in a while.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Cody said. “I just kind of had to get up and walk off because I thought, ‘did I just lose my job?’”

As it transpired, she had. The finance manager is one of several positions that serve at the pleasure of the board, and a new board can choose to reappoint those holding those jobs or, as in Cody’s case, not do so. No explanation or reason is required.

Cody, however, said that she was sacked for a very specific reason: campaigning during this November’s election.

After her initial departure, Cody said County Manager King gave her a letter from the law firm Melrose, Seago and Lay that gave a detailed review of the county’s personnel policy for campaign-related issues. Kim Lay is the county’s attorney.

Lay, the attorney who drafted and signed the letter, stated that “while current policy does not expressly prohibit employees from campaigning for candidates on their own time, it does require the employees to act appropriately and professionally in such campaigning, even on their own time,” and that county staff should not “openly campaign for anyone in a way that would negatively impact the relationship between the current Commissioners and the public in general. “

The campaigning in question was, apparently, a magnetic bumper sticker supporting Hester Sitton for clerk of court and Johnny Ensley against incumbent sheriff Curtis Cochran, and a trip taken to the Almond polling precinct on Election Day, which Cody took off. She set up shop with her pick-up truck and signs promoting Ensley, but said she didn’t approach anyone.

When King handed her the letter, Cody said, he told her it was the reason behind her dismissal.

“He said, ‘if you want a reason, this is the reason you weren’t reappointed,’” Cody said.

She, however, doesn’t agree with the assessment and intends to file a lawsuit claiming that her constitutional rights were violated.

“I was just insulted,” Cody said. “How can you tell me that I am not allowed to campaign for somebody off work time?”

Government workers are, however, often subject to more restrictions and scrutiny in election season. Swain County has no explicit policy against off-work campaigning like many states, and it has nothing similar to the Hatch Act that forbids a lot of partisan activity among federal employees. A memo was circulated, however, encouraging employees to use caution with their election-time activities.

Officially, the separation letter given to Cody cites only the statute that outlines the at-will nature of the finance manager’s position; the officer serves – or doesn’t – at the board’s discretion.

County officials acknowledged giving Cody both that letter and the letter from Kimberly Lay, but stopped short of saying that politics was the impetus for her ousting.

County commissioner David Monteith said that the decision not to reappoint Cody wasn’t discussed by incoming commissioners beforehand and wasn’t a retributory attack.

“I just chose not to make a motion or a second,” said Monteith. “Evidently everybody else chose to do the same thing. It was nothing personal.”

Monteith said they haven’t yet discussed appointing a new finance manager and are relying on King to fill the gap until the can make a decision going forward. King once held the finance manager’s position in Swain County.

Cody, meanwhile, has found a lawyer and is looking for a new job. When asked for her take on the ideal outcome of the pending suit, she confesses uncertainty about even wanting her job back.

“Are they going to do it again?” Cody wondered. “If you put me in a position and the next election comes up, are you going to fire me again? I don’t want to be scared all the time that I’m going to lose my job because I want to support someone.”

Comment

Clyde’s old Wal-Mart is now on track to get a new life after Haywood County commissioners voted Monday to sign a contract with Murray Construction of Monroe for the renovations. The project had stalled earlier this fall after the first round of bids came in millions of dollars over the $4.7 million budget.

After scaling back the project and putting it back out to bid, the county got back nine estimates that are almost all within $1 million of the budgeted cost. The final winning bid was just over $5.2 million and was only $14,000 below the next closest competitor.

Scott Donald of Padgett and Freeman Architects, who are leading the project, said that he thought the bids were all competitive and fair.

“We were able to bring down the project almost $2.1 million,” Donald told commissioners, who then voted unanimously to begin negotiating immediately.

The space will be home to the county’s Department of Social Services and health department, who will soon vacate their home at the county’s old hospital.

Comment

A wide selection of bleachers at nearly every secondary school in Haywood County will get some repairs and replacements thanks to lottery funds approved by county commissioners, but the decision was not without contention from some on the board.

Commissioner Bill Upton, long-time superintendent for the county’s schools, raised questions about the wisdom of using lottery funds for bleachers when the state is facing a $4 billion budget shortfall.

Upton expressed concern that, in the new budget, local schools will get state teaching money slashed and may need to rely on those lottery funds, which were last year freed up by the General Assembly to pay for teachers.

“Ultimately, you’ll come to the commissioners if you need more teachers,” Upton told Tracy Hargrove, the schools’ maintenance head who came to ask for the funds.

Hargrove countered with a safety argument, telling commissioners that the school system has been cited by its insurance company since 2007 for faults in the bleachers and couldn’t really justify leaving the repairs until later when they are so frequently used.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick told Hargrove he agreed with the measures, but was also concerned about the political and financial implications of the decision if teacher funding is, in fact, cut again in next year’s state budget.

“We don’t want to get into a political battle over, well the commissioners won’t give us money for the teachers when we’re approving improvements to bleachers,” said Kirkpatrick.

Michael Sorrells, the newest commissioner and long-time school-board member, came out in favor of the schools’ request, posing the question of what would happen if the repairs weren’t made.

“We’re just taking a chance,” answered Hargrove. “It’s got to be done at some point. We’re just taking on the liability if we don’t do something.”

In the end, the repairs passed unanimously, but Upton said he just wanted to make sure the county and its schools were thinking far enough in advance.

“It will get political when we start sending teachers home, and we will in Haywood County. I just want to make sure we think about all these things before we make a decision,” said Upton.

Comment

Haywood County commissioners will be stepping in to save the county’s fairground from the bank’s clutches after a vote at their Monday meeting.

The fairgrounds have two loans taken out on their buildings, and since the county slashed the $150,000 annual stipend it once gave the fairgrounds board several years ago, their ability to make payments has suffered. When a balloon payment for the remaining balance on the loans — just over $337,000 — came due in March, the fair board was able to work out a deal with the bank to make interest-only payments until Dec. 25 of this year. The plan, then, was for the county to step in, purchase the buildings and pay off the loans with 40-year USDA loan that they’d already applied for.

But when the federal budget stalled earlier this year, it put the brakes on USDA funding until a final version was passed that would lay out how much, if any, money would be available for cities and counties.

When it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen in time to pay the fairground debt, county officials started devising an alternative plan.

First Citizens Bank, who holds the loans, couldn’t offer any more leeway to the fairgrounds board and there wasn’t enough money in the coffers to pay them. So they county has signed a memorandum of understanding with Haywood County Fairgrounds, Inc. to loan them the $337,100.59 for a principal payment, which they will hopefully recoup by receiving the USDA loan early next year to purchase the buildings outright. The county already owns the land they sit on. The fairgrounds board will pay the interest.

“In today’s world, we can’t just keep making interest payments, because the banks are accountable,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley told fellow commissioners. “We’re kind of in a tough spot because, by the end of this year, the bank will call our loan.”

County Finance Manager Julie Davis said that the plan will work out nicely if the USDA money pans out, because at a 40-year amortization it will have a limited effect on the county’s budgets year-to-year. But, she said, not getting that funding isn’t out of the question.

“That’s a definite possibility,” Davis said. “The board has been thinking about that. We don’t have a plan at this point, but the options are that we do nothing or get a conventional loan,” which would be far more than they want to spend with the shorter terms on such loans.

For now, though, the fairgrounds are out of hot water and the county is keeping its eye on the USDA federal budget and its hopes up for a loan in the new year.

Comment

In the storefront of Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, shelves and tables are laden with handmade baskets that shimmer dully with a multitude of brown hues. From deep walnut umber to the blanched eggshell of white oak and the glinting toasted saffron of maple strips bent into tiny, v-shaped curves, these baskets represent a brilliant array of every brown, tan and cream imaginable.

But they also represent generations of knowledge and craftsmanship passed down within the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from parent to child, master craftsman to student.

And while the knowledge and practice lives on and thrives on the boundary, the plants and trees vital to maintaining the art are becoming increasingly scarce, dying out and being ravaged by the blight of insects and encroaching development.

Just across the Oconaluftee River, Butch and Louise Goings are sitting at a plastic table in the Cherokee Reservation Extension Office, talking about the craft. They have been seeking out basket-quality white oaks for years, and Butch Goings says he’s long noticed the viable trees thinning out.

“The white oak is really getting scarce,” he says.

He has now harvested unsuitable trees his basket maker mother-in-law passed up years ago because ideal trees started becoming difficult to find. Goings is sporting a red pullover and clutching a white coffee cup, smiling faintly as he jokes with his wife about his role in the basket-making process. He is a wood carver, chiefly, and it is his wife Louise who is the real basket maker. He’s never minded gathering and chopping the white oaks saplings that make his wife’s baskets, but that’s as far as he goes, he jokes. Louise Goings, is, he says, particular about her splits. She likes to do them herself.

She laughs but does not disagree. She likes things the way she likes them, and even on the splits she doesn’t cut herself she still likes to clean them up a little bit.

She learned the craft from her mother, who took Goings and her siblings out into the woods to look for straight, high-limbed white oaks. Back then, Goings says, you could gather virtually anywhere without fear of confrontation. Today, she and her husband don’t seek out their own white oaks, partially because of their scarcity and partly because of the changing social climate.

“Boundaries became more permanent, “ Goings says, explaining what has changed since her childhood. “Back when my mother grew up and when I grew up, you could go on your neighbor’s land and look.”

Not so today. Over the last few decades, land ownership has become more concrete and the hallmarks of modern progress have taken their toll on traditional basket-making resources. River cane, which is the oldest Cherokee basket-making material, fell to agricultural land clearing and dam building, while the white oak has been lost to land development as well as the restrictions that comes with an increasingly privatized view of land ownership.

Louise Goings now relies on a supplier, named only as James, who has his own mysterious ways of finding good material in the limited stands of white oak that are left. It also probably helps that he likely has special relationships with an array of private landowners and organizations like the U.S. Forest Service that would be hard for individual basket makers to cultivate.

James, Louise Going says, knows and supplies virtually all of the white oak basket makers on the Qualla Boundaries, though he is a relatively elusive presence. David Cozzo jokes that, in his six-and-a-half years working with Cherokee artisans, even he’s never met James.

Cozzo is the project director at the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources. It’s a long name that stands for a simple goal — saving the source materials that will keep the traditional arts alive.

RTCAR started in 2004 to combat the swift depletion of resources such as river cane and white oak by pulling in grant funding to help protect the plants that are left as well as trying to reintroduce them into the environment and encourage them to grow in new spaces.

They’ve found partners in existing environmental protection groups like the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee. These conservation organizations were already working to guard species like river cane that are natural water filters and, when planted at the river’s edge, create what ecologists call a riparian buffer that protects water from the assaults made on it by land runoff.

RTCAR gives them an extra incentive — and extra money — to double their efforts.

“We bring a cultural reason,” says Cozzo. “Folks here need it. It’s not just about a place, it’s about a history. A lot of people are getting excited about [river cane] now because it’s also got a strong ecological value.”

Callie Moore is one of those people. She heads up the Hiwassee River Watershed Coalition, which, much as their name suggests, is active in restoring and maintaining healthy creeks and rivers in the watershed. It started working with RTCAR and, last year, launched a pilot project to grow  a new stand of river cane. It was a relatively ambitious project because, while they conserve a lot of existing cane breaks, cultivating a completely new brake is pretty uncharted territory.

That’s because, although it’s useful for the arts and the health of waterways, river cane isn’t exactly a commonly cultivated plant. You can’t eat it, you can’t build with it, it grows on arable land but it’s not exactly a crop – in essence, no one has ever documented how or why it grows or experimented with intentional cultivation.

So, Moore says, they did a lot of research and got a wildly varying degree of advice from a range of experts, some more complicated than others. One expert said he’d done it, but then proceeded to describe an arduous process including soaking the plants’ roots and hanging them in bags, among other things.

In the end, they settled on the advice of one of the landowners they already worked with in their conservation project. His land boasts one of the highest quality cane breaks in the area, and he told Moore and her staff that his octogenarian grandmother used to plant river cane all the time. It just needs to be done in the rain.

Seeing nothing to lose in the situation, they tried it and, to their delight, it seems to be working.

“We watered it,” says Moore, “because that’s the big thing that everybody’s been saying, ‘you’ve got to keep it wet.’”

Although it initially seemed like a failure — the plants looked as though they were dying — they’ve since begun sprouting like mad. Moore is delighted, but says there was no secret to the success.

“We didn’t do anything special. We had no ceremony. We had no secret ingredient,” Moore says, but they’re hoping they can repeat the feat.

Another large front in the battle to save river cane for artisans is just access. There are a lot of healthy cane breaks within easy reach of the Qualla Boundary, but not many landowners would be open to artisans arriving unannounced and harvesting the plants. That’s where groups like Moore’s can step in and serve as a go-between for the weavers with the landowners that they already know well and work with. Since they started approaching locals several years ago, they’ve been able to gain access to a good percentage of the river cane that they know of in the area.

Elsewhere in the region, RTCAR is working with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, doing much the same thing. LTLT actually owns a substantial amount of land that has river cane growing on it, and it has signed a memorandum of understanding with the artists for harvesting. They’ve also gotten three rounds of grant funding through RTCAR to keep their cane healthy and thriving, although it’s a fraction of what used to cover the area.

“These cane breaks that used to cover hundreds of acres are down to about 1 percent of their former extent,” said Dennis Desmond, the land stewardship director for LTLT, which is why the groups are so keen to keep what they’ve got.

Not all of RTCAR’s partner efforts have been such triumphs, though. Back at the Extension Office, Butch Goings crosses his arms and laughs wryly when Cozzo mentions their efforts at growing white oaks for basket making. To give some exposition to this inside joke, Cozzo disappears into his office and returns with a photo of a field of PVC pipes planted like trees among tangles of branches at their roots.

He explains that the idea was to cultivate the perfect basket tree – as straight as possible with branches starting as high on the trunk as possible, because branch structure reaches to the heart of the tree and beyond the first branch, the wood is unusable. The concept was a good one: grow the saplings in pipes to maintain the vertical integrity  and prevent branches from developing.

But the result was a bit of a disaster.

“They grew too fast,” explains Beth Ross Johnson, a community development specialist with RTCAR. “The wood was really stringy is what everybody said.”

So now they’re looking for alternative methods to save and grow the white oak population, though, Cozzo muses with a laugh, it wasn’t a total loss. They’ve got a great source of firewood for the winter.

After trying their own campaigns with mixed success, RTCAR this year decided to reach out to artisans from other traditions whose art and source material were also fading away. What were they doing to hold onto their traditions? And was it working?

So in mid-November, they invited speakers from around the country to a symposium designed to open dialogue about salvaging waning traditional arts and resources.

They spoke with sweetgrass basket makers from South Carolina who have seen some success in their public campaign to save the coastal grasses and heard from other Native American tribal artists about their plights.

Kelly Church, a fifth-generation black ash basket maker from Michigan’s Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa, told of her tribe’s fight against the Emerald Ash Borer, an insect that is threatening to eliminate the species entirely. She’s pursuing a seed-saving crusade and shooting videos of artisans at their trade, in case the tree — and with it the art — die out entirely and have to be regenerated in the future.

In Cherokee, artisans like Louise Goings aren’t as concerned about losing the knowledge, mostly because they’re actively guarding against it with in-school programs and in-home instruction by individual craftsmen.

Her own son, she says, is a talented basket maker. Although he isn’t pursuing it as a career or even a regular hobby, he kept up with it, even as a teenager, she jokes, because he realized quickly that baskets equal money.

“They do it whenever they think they need a dollar,” Goings jokes of her children, but says she hopes they keep the tradition alive. And she’s confident they will. She herself started weaving baskets at the tender age of nine, and although she grew bored of it as a teenager, she came back to the craft in her early 20s and has been weaving ever since.

And the folks at RTCAR realize that maintaining this knowledge is the other key component in keeping traditional Cherokee arts alive.

“You can save all the material you want,” says Cozzo, “but if people don’t know how to use it, you’re just doing plant preservation.”

Which is why the knowledge of artisans like Louise Goings is so vital in making sure that the efforts of RTCAR and others aren’t just preserving plants, they’re preserving arts, history and culture that can’t be replaced.

Comment

In a crowded high-school classroom last Friday, under bright fluorescent lights, a little over 50 people crammed into hard, plastic chairs and desks or stood tucked into corners. A mix of the young and old, students, teachers and adults, they had come to hear from Emily Dickinson, to catch a few words from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Naomi Shihab Nye. They had come to witness the first Haywood County district Poetry Out Loud competition, where 15 high school students stepped, for a minute, out of their own lives and channel the heavy hitters of poetry, both living and dead.

It’s all a part of the national Poetry Out Loud program, a poetry recitation competition now in its sixth year that brings high-school students across the country into the world of spoken-word poetry.

The Haywood competition was a culmination of competitions held in classrooms across the county, each English class picking its best performer to send to a school-wide competition, and those winners advancing to the district challenge. The district victor was Tuscola senior Anne Kram, who took the prize for her gripping rendition of Sanctuary by Jean Valentine.

In addition to bragging rights and a basket full of poetry-related swag from local businesses, Kram will now journey to Raleigh in March to go head-to-head with other poetry aficionados from around the state. If she gets as far as the national competition in April, there’s a $20,000 pot up for grabs.

But that’s not why Haywood County’s high schools got involved in the program, said Tuscola High School English teacher and district program coordinator Helen Pollifrone. She said teachers were tipped off to the idea by the Haywood Arts Council, which has supported the program throughout the year. When the school system decided to apply for — and subsequently won — a two-day poetry workshop with Haywood County poet Michael Beadle, the spark of excitement for poetry lit in their students, Pollifrone said.

“That’s what really got the kids excited about the whole recitation thing,” said Pollifrone. “When this first started, we thought we might have a couple of students. And all of us were really surprised at how many students were just thrilled to do it. And picked poems that are tough.”

Although sending a student to the state competition is exciting for the district’s teachers, Pollifrone said the best outcome was that ardor for learning and poetic expression that it kindled in many students.

“I think they got a whole new appreciation for poetry,” Pollifrone said.  “So many of our students thought of poetry as something they had to read, something they didn’t feel connected to.”

But now, she said, students are already coming to her discussing what poems they’ll select for next year’s competition.

This renewal of interest in poetry is one of the main aims of the national Poetry Out Loud program, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Poetry has been creeping back into the mainstream cultural consciousness thanks to the slam poetry movement and the raging popularity of hip-hop music. Poetry Out Loud was born on the coattails of that success, created to inspire students not only to love poetry but to love performance and conquer the fear of public speaking.

The program not only offers a venue for competition but gives teachers a wealth of curriculum and lesson-planning resources to back up the short recitations with real knowledge. Help like this, said Pollifrone, is one of the best things the program has offered them. To be successful, she said, students don’t just have to hone their performance skills, they have to really know their poet, must truly learn about their poem.

“It wasn’t just standing up there and reading a poem,” said Pollifrone. “You had to recite it, so you had to memorize it. They really, really had to know their poems to get up and do that. They had to get to know their poem, they had to get to know their author in order to really put the voice to it.”

And, she said, some of the most successful students were also some of the most surprising.

“Some of the students that got up just did these dramatic recitations,” she said. “We were shocked. Some kids who normally aren’t the leaders in the classroom academically, it allowed them to shine in a different light.”

For most of students, the competition is now over, but they’re still so excited about it that they’re already looking to next year’s competition, asking how they can improve and scanning the Poetry Out Loud eligible poem lists for the perfect piece. And Pollifrone said that, if for that alone, the program is worth keeping.

“That, to me, is a success,” she laughed,  “if it has kids wanting to go out and read poetry.”

 

Haywood students taking part:
Students from the Haywood Early College program, Pisgah High School, and Tuscola High School participated. Contestants included Ellis Forga (THS); Nicole Garrison (HEC); Kayla Ginley (THS); Mitchell Griffin (THS); Katie Harris (PHS); Ann Kram (THS); Ashley Lee (PHS); Kayleigh McAlister (HEC); Kaity Messer (PHS); Nick Messer (PHS): Caleb Pulliam (HEC); Katie Putnam (PHS); Ben Sears (THS); Jeffrey Shook (PHS); Ananda Shuckstes (HEC); Georgia Simson (THS); Sarah Sisk (THS); and Kate Stone (THS).

Comment

Almost a century after its inception, Lake Junaluska Assembly is still a pillar of Haywood County’s heritage, an organic, integral part of its landscape. During those years, the conference center has grown and changed with the region and the times.

But as it enters its 98th year, a new leader will take the driver’s seat, opening a new chapter in the storied retreat’s long history.

After 11 years on the job, Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jimmy Carr is passing the torch to Dr. Jack Ewing, who currently heads the Foundation for Evangelism.

Carr, a Mississippi native, took the job in 2000 after a long career of ministry in the Methodist church. He’s stepping down now, he jokes, “Because I’m old enough to retire.” But really, he set out to stay 10 years and now, after his 11th year of service, said he’s ready to turn over the reins.

Carr’s tenure at Lake Junaluska has been defined by change, both at the conference center and in the wider world. He led a series of successful capital campaigns that helped give the center’s aging buildings a few much-needed facelifts as well as adding a new face to the landscape with the Bethea Welcome Center.

He has also navigated the Lake through some tough economic waters over the last few years. After shelling out money to shore up a leaky dam, the news came several years ago that funding from the United Methodist Church, which owns Lake Junaluska, was changing. The annual stipend that the center relied on would still come, but couldn’t be used for programs anymore. Beginning in 2010, it had to go straight to capital improvements or debt service, of which the Lake now had a considerable amount. The church also charged the center to be self-sufficient by 2013. Coming during a tough economic era, it made for challenging times at Lake Junaluska.

But Carr said that, as the face of the Lake and its focus was changing to meet the ever-changing needs of the church, he just kept returning to the building blocks of his ethos for the center.

“I knew that we needed to put emphasis on two or three things — strengthening the ministry area, leading Lake Junaluska in being a place of hospitality for all people, being more diverse and inclusive in our staff as well as our programming, and taking care of the resources that the church had here,” said Carr.

 

Reaching out

In the past, Lake Junaluska has catered chiefly to the United Methodist population, bringing in conferences, retreats and meetings as the largest retreat center the church has in its collection. But as the Methodist money began drying up, Carr knew he must change course to keep the Lake alive and thriving.

So he and his staff began courting outside visitors and worked to spruce up and modernize facilities that hadn’t been touched up in years. Of the nearly 200,000 visitors that Lake Junaluska hosts annually, a good number of those are now non-Methodists, whether they’re locals using the walking paths or attending events like the Independence Day and Easter celebrations, or outside church groups coming to use the facilities for retreats and conferences.

And Carr, a soft-spoken Mississippi native, said that changing to suit the needs of a changing church and a changing economy were vital. The new marketing emphasis is not only good for Lake Junaluska but also for Haywood County, who has long reaped the benefits of the conference center.

Carr said that throughout his tenure — but especially in this changing economic climate — the partnerships built outside the center’s walls are increasingly vital.

“The leadership in the county understands the significance of Lake Junaluska, and what we’ve tried to do is make Lake Junaluska even more available to the people of Haywood County,” said Carr. “We’re not a competition to anybody here. Lake Junaluska is a destination. People come here because they’re coming here for some reason. When they get here, they spread out into the broader business community.”

And the more people Lake Junaluska can bring in and spread out, the more the county benefits.

While the economic impact of the retreat center is hard to gauge, Mark Clasby, executive director of Haywood County’s Economic Development Commission and a board member at Lake Junaluska, said that the lake is an asset that has grown in value to the county under Carr’s leadership.

“Lake Junaluska is a real asset,” said Clasby. “They are extremely important to the economy here. With all the programs they bring in a number of people, and as an employer they’re one of the largest employers in the county. They’re an important part of the county, and Jimmy has certainly continued that relationship.”

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Lake’s board and resident bishop of the church’s Western North Carolina conference, also listed Carr’s skills in the community and willingness to change with the times as qualities to recommend him.

“This has not been a 10 years without challenges,” said Goodpaster. “All of the facilities like Lake Junaluska that depend so much on people coming here have just had to make changes in how we do things. He [Carr] has really done a great job recognizing the need to connect with everyone here in Haywood County.”

 

Change is challenging

But for all the good that Carr has done, even he realizes that they are not out of the woods yet and there is much work still to be done if the century-old staple of the Methodist and Haywood County landscapes is to continue to grow without the church subsidy it long relied on.

“We can see the difference without the funding,” said Carr. “But it’s allowed us the opportunity to identify better ways of doing things, different ways of doing things, different ways of organizing. I think it’s too early to know the end of that, but I sense a strong commitment on the part of our board to find ways to continue the ministry.’”

But Carr said that his greatest asset in the job and what he will miss on his departure is the staff and board he works with. And to his successor, he wishes nothing more than such great colleagues as the conference center continues to navigate challenging financial waters.

“I think the thing I’ll miss the most is the staff,” said Carr. “I could never have done my job without them. I would wish for Dr. Ewing a continued strong board working with him and staff working with him to make Lake Junaluska stronger.”

 

A New Era

When Jack Ewing first set foot on Lake Junaluska’s shore, it was love at first sight. It was 1973, and then-newlywed Ewing came to the conference center to keep his wife company on a retreat. They were enamored, falling for the beauty and tranquility of the place, and haven’t missed a yearly visit since.

Thirty-three years later, he was tapped to become the Methodist center’s newest executive director, and the now-Dr. Ewing said he couldn’t be happier to be taking the helm of his beloved home.

“I was thrilled because we love Lake Junaluska,” said Ewing. “It has been the stable force in our life.”

While his predecessor Jimmy Carr came to the position from a life and career in ministry with the United Methodist Church, Ewing comes to the job after spending much of his professional life in Methodist education, serving as the president of two Methodist colleges in the last 16 years. That tenure included serving as president of Dakota Weslyan in South Dakota from 1994-2000 and Mount Union in Ohio from 2000-2005. Ewing came to Lake Junaluska to work for the Foundation for Evangelism in 2005.

Ewing comes from a family chock full of Methodism — the tally of close family members who are Methodist ministers is exhaustively long — and he has long idolized the jewel facility in the Methodist crown. But he’s coming in with no illusions about what this job will entail. He knows about the tough economy and knows that Lake Junaluska has to continue its evolution if it’s going to stay relevant.  

“The reality is that we are in a world which is changing,” said Ewing. “What people want is changing and what people are willing to pay for is changing, and that includes the United Methodist Church.”

Although, like Carr, Ewing doesn’t come from a background in hospitality or business, he’s confident that his skills will lend themselves to crafting Lake Junaluska into a vibrant, self-sustaining ministry center. In fact, he said, since taking the job, the more he’s considered it, the more his skills seem to suit the Lake’s needs. Because, after all, a college is not so different from a retreat center.

“Rather than students who come for a semester at a time, you have students who come for a weekend or a week at a time,” said Ewing. And, as a former college president, he’s no stranger to courting funds and honing business plans, either.

“We’re going to have to raise a lot of money to improve facilities and fund programming at Lake Junaluska,” said Ewing. “I think that my experience in higher education will serve me well in that capacity.”

He won’t officially take the leading role until Jan. 1, but Ewing listed a look at the financial model as one of the first bullets on his to-do list. He’s a firm believer in reinvestment, and wisely spending money to make it will be top of his agenda, too.

“Successful organizations adapt and change,” said Ewing. “I’m a person who is a strong believer in investing those things that will make an organization, a location attractive. There are investments that we’re going to make to make it attractive, which I believe will make it so that more people will want to come and experience Lake Junaluska.”

Goodpaster said he and his board are excited about where Ewing is taking them.

“We were very impressed with his background as a college president and all that means with fundraising and recognizing the complexities of balancing a budget,” said Goodpaster. “And then, I think, his passion and desire to see Lake Junaluska really expand where we’ve been and take us to another level.”

Goodpaster recognizes the hard road ahead, but the promise of good leadership from Ewing makes him hopeful that Lake Junaluska’s long history of success in Haywood County will continue.

“It’s a challenging time but we’re very hopeful,” said Goodpaster. “We’ve had a great 100 years and we’re looking forward to the next 100. I really think that the best days are still out there.”

Comment

Maggie Valley is in the midst of a makeover. The town is taking steps to spruce itself up, modernize and, just maybe, attract a few new visitors and investors.

Last month, the town’s aldermen voted unanimously to accept a set of aesthetic standards that proponents hope will change the face of the town, giving it a look dubbed ‘mountain vernacular’ that will nestle a little more naturally into its mountain home.

The standards will go into effect Jan. 16 for new buildings and property renovations. The changes have been over two years in the making.

Maggie Valley Planning Director Nathan Clark said the reaction in the community has been mostly positive. They were already moving towards the look the town finally decided on, anyway.

“A lot of the vision for this type of mountain vernacular style of design is kind of present all throughout the valley already,” Clark said. “A lot of people already have it in some way.”

While the town created committees to define what, exactly, entails “mountain vernacular,” it’s hard to craft a quick description that captures the look. It’s part rustic, part bungalow-esque, part down-home polish, and even the town’s own literature on the matter classes it as beyond definition.

“Mountain vernacular is not a style of architecture,” Clark told aldermen in a presentation at the meeting. “It cannot be defined in simple terms or achieved by following a certain set of strict design requirements. Mountain vernacular is as much of a process as it is an end product.”

He gave the Maggie Valley Police Department as a prime example of the style.

Clark maintains, though, that not having a set list of criteria to go by is actually a better way to approach design standards because it allows for consideration of every case on its own merits. He told the board that the idea was “ballparks, not bull’s-eyes.” They’ve got a design primer that will answer basic questions, but the larger questions will be settled by a review with the town’s planning department, a session with the newly-created appearance commission and a final look from the board of aldermen.

Overall, response to the new standards was positive. There was some vocal objection to such an intrusion by government into private-sector affairs, but Mayor Roger McElroy defended the measures as necessary for a town that desperately wants to see growth and renewal.

“If we’re going to have people come in here and spend substantial money building a place when they know that someone can come in and build something very inappropriate right next door, they’re not going to do it,” said McElroy.

And that’s what Maggie Valley has been searching for in earnest in its post-Ghost Town era: a way to get people interested and keep them that way.

The new aesthetic standards are only one front in Maggie’s battle against its own decay. Earlier this fall, the town and local business owners dropped thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs into the frozen ground, hoping that when they spring up next spring, the waves of color undulating down Soco Road will entrance the droves of tourists that haven’t yet been snared by the town’s other charms.

Clayton Davis, long-time horticulture agent for Haywood County and 50-year valley resident, pitched the idea of year-round color to the aldermen a few months ago.

Here’s the idea: plant a variety of foolproof flowers that blossom in separate seasons throughout the town, the result being that, with a little money and a little effort, you get a town full of color all year long. And a built-in tourist attraction.

“The idea is to start in the spring with the daffodils blooming and the tulips to have a constant flow of color of either flowers or foliage,” explained Davis, who got the idea from a visit to Summerville, S.C., decades ago.

“Everybody planted azaleas, and in the month of April it was just gorgeous,” Davis said. “And i thought we could do something like that with color.”

The three- to five-year plan involves knockout roses, which bloom from early summer to the first frost, followed by nandina and holly to brighten up the winter months.

Davis said he’s  been “pleasantly surprised” by the keen interest from business owners who are happy to bury anything in their yards that will bring flocks of tourists their way.

Davis said he went for plants that are more or less one-time care species, sort-of a plant-and-forget campaign.

“We want plants that are what we call bulletproof,” Davis said, explaining that daffodils and tulips are some of the best species for the job.

“They grow wild in Europe,” David said, “ and I’ve seen them back at my old home place in Swain County where I lived as a boy where they were planted over 70 years ago. And even though the houses are gone and the trees are overgrown, they’re still growing there.

“Annuals have a definite place in the landscaping, but you have to plant them every year. But perennials, both bulbs and shrubs, if you plant them now, they’ll come back.”

And that’s the goal with both the plants and the planning standards: make Maggie Valley a place people want to visit and return to.

Planning Director Clark concedes that these tactics are quite the departure from the traditional way of doing things in the valley, but he believes it’s worth it to revitalize the flagging town.

“This is a very drastic change in the way things have been done in Maggie valley throughout history,” Clark said. “It’s time to re-assert ourselves and our place as a destination regionally.”

Comment

The inside of Waynesville’s 44 Church Street does not, today, bustle with life, warmth and the scintillating scent of food wafting through the air, as it once did. The former home of the storied Lomo Grill is cold and empty; the open wood oven is not fired up, and chairs and tables are stacked in a corner, across from an empty bar and a kitchen counter cluttered with what looks like detritus from a hardware-store explosion.

Downstairs, old water heaters sit forlorn and disused by the back door and small buckets catch dripping water.

But this is not the start of another sad story on small businesses shuttering. This is the opposite story, one of success leading, hopefully, to new success.

When Lomo Grill, a 16-year resident of downtown Waynesville, closed its doors and papered its windows in November, owners Ricardo and Suzanne Fernandez ended the restaurant’s prosperous run right in the midst of that success. They were juggling the restaurant with two other ventures – Chef Ricardo’s Sauce, a business that grew unexpectedly out of the chef’s famed tomato sauce, and a farm that specializes in peonies and fig trees. While they loved the restaurant, said Suzanne Fernandez, the sauce business was exploding. Their product was picked up by Earth Fare and Whole Foods, and the juggle, she said, became too much. It was time to choose, and when they decided to close the Lomo Grill chapter of their lives, all they needed was a buyer for the space.

Enter Kaighn Raymond, an Atlanta chef renowned for opening award-winning restaurants in the Southern metropolis. Raymond had long dreamed of opening his own place and his eye on Waynesville from the time his parents moved here. He and his wife, Tania even got married in Maggie Valley. But his culinary career required him to stay in Atlanta, building up enough experience and capital to branch out of the city and into his own venture.

“I’m able to finally get out of Atlanta and do what I really want to do, which is opening my own place in a small town,” said Raymond as he worked on repairs in the former Lomo Grill last week.

His new spot, which will be called Frog’s Leap Public House, will feature, he said, a local atmosphere with tasty, local food at affordable prices. He’s interested in serving farm-to-table fare that showcases local farmers as much as possible, offering a simple menu that captures the flavor of its location.

“When people leave, I want them to have a real sense of what Waynesville and Western North Carolina are about,” said Raymond.

But first, there is work to be done. Raymond is giving much of the restaurant an overhaul in anticipation of a spring opening. As he walked through the empty restaurant, he rattled off a laundry list of renovations and repairs, from floors and ceilings to new dishwashers and upgraded bathrooms. The drip buckets aren’t for leaks, but are catching the aftermath of an overall hose-down Raymond had given the kitchen with a pressure washer. The old water heaters had been replaced with new, and new coats of paint were starting to make their way up walls in the basement.

Although he concedes that it’s a massive undertaking in an economic climate that is less-than-friendly to new restaurants, he’s excited to be at last starting on his dream. And he thinks the combination of his culinary success and business knowledge — his father was a career banker — will give him and edge and maybe help him stay afloat.

For their part, the Fernandezes are pretty thrilled, as well, to have finally sold the property. Now they can devote their full attention to their new ventures.

“We are so grateful for the experience of being in downtown Waynesville for as long as we were, and we really love our customers and still keep in touch with many of them,” said Suzanne Fernandez. “We just decided that, after 16 years of the restaurant, that it’s time to devote more time to these two things.”

Ricardo Fernandez, the culinary creator that was behind Lomo Grill, said he won’t really miss the day-to-day life of a restaurateur; he’s got plenty of food-related fare to keep him busy.

“My hands are always here at the farm, working and propagating and also producing the sauces and going to food shows, so there’s always involvement in creating new things related to food,” said Fernandez, adding that he may even entertain a foray into cookbook writing. But, really, he said, the bottom line was that the sale was necessary to keep the other businesses thriving.

“We needed more time to develop this marketing and the only way to do it was through selling the restaurant,” he explained.

And with over 350 varieties of peonies in the ground at their farm and two new sauce varieties on the way, the couple thinks they will have their hands more than full for the foreseeable future. They’ve said they don’t intend to leave the area that has been their home for so long.

“We feel like we were very much a part of the evolution of Waynesville to what it is today,” said Suzanne Fernandez. “We believe in Waynesville.”

Her husband echoed those sentiments.

“We will continue trying to expand what we have here,” he said. “We have 36 acres and we’re pretty happy where we are.”

Kaighn Raymond isn’t complaining, either. Once a visual artist who left the craft to pursue artistry in food, Raymond believes in making beautiful, affordable food, and he’s ready to be doing it in his own place.

“I told my father, ‘when I’m 40, I’ll be ready to open my own place.’ Well, I’m 41 now,” Raymond says, laughing. “Although it will be tough, by doing things the best we can, we’ll succeed.”

Comment

Eight inches. 10 inches. 12 inches. Wintry mix. Ice. Snow.

If the winter of 2009-2010 was characterized by anything, it was that word: snow. In Western North Carolina, a record winter blasted citizens across the region with barrages of snow and icy winds for months on end, disrupting school, blocking roads and generally making a mess of a region unaccustomed to the deep chill of snowed-in winters that are usually the sole preserve of our unfortunate neighbors to the west and north.

So as this winter begins to settle in, the region is tentatively gearing up for another season of icy assault as the first few flurries begin to fall.

At Division 14 of the N.C. Department of Transportation, they’re taking a proactive approach, trying to beat the storms to as many punches as possible. Though many in the state and nation depleted their stocks of that all-important salt mixture that makes snowy roads passable, Mark Gibbs, the division’s maintenance engineer, proudly reports that he and his crews made their salt stores last through the winter, if only just.

They were scrambling to keep up with demand, said Gibbs, “because of the amount of storms that we had back-to-back and the amount of time that we had to spend doing snow and ice removal operations.”

But he is confident that, if they made it through last year, they can do it again.

“We paid contractors to truck salt in from as far away as Fayetteville,” said Gibbs. “Last winter is one of the worst winters that I recall in my DOT career in the last 17 years, and if we don’t run out of salt in a situation like that, I don’t think that we will.”

For the transportation department, he said, the goal this year is to get out early, laying down salt brine on the road as soon as they get wind of coming weather. This not only keeps the snow and ice from sticking, it saves money and precious salt, using a liquefied form to stretch it further.

Then, when the weather does hit, he’ll have crews out working the road 24 hours a day in two, 12-hour shifts until everything is clear.

“We have had some times when our folks have had to work 30, 40 straight days in a row, so it’s quite an event for us to try and stay ahead of it when you have multiple storms, back-to-back like we had last year,” Gibbs said.

Especially with rigorous standards like those that DOT personnel must meet. The state mandates that roads on what the department calls the “statewide tier,” which are interstates such as I-40 in Haywood County, must be cleared within 12 hours of a storm. According to Gibbs, that means that “once the last flake of snow has fallen, we have 12 hours.” They get 24 hours to clear regional tier roads like N.C. 107 and U.S. 441 and 72 hours to clear secondary roads that have the four-number, state-road designation. And while that may seem like a somewhat less-than-exacting standard, Gibbs said it’s still pretty tough when applied to every road in their 10-county coverage area.

“If you think about a large snow event where you get a foot of snow, three days – 72 hours – is really not a lot of time to hit all our roads, including secondary roads,” said Gibbs. But, he adds, they hit the mark during all but one storm last year, so he’s got high hopes for this winter.

 

School days or snow days?

It isn’t just the roads that suffer when weather turns wintry, though. Schools are some of the hardest hit by snow and ice, and after the salvo of storms that was last winter, it seemed that the regions students spent more time watching for school closures than actually at school.

That tricky scenario, said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent at Haywood County Schools, is one that school officials across Western North Carolina spend a lot of their time dealing with, especially faced with the prospect of more dire winters to come. In Haywood County, their experiences last year prompted them to change tack, adding some flexibility to their bad-weather response plan.

“The biggest thing that we did was add a three-hour delay schedule,” said Nolte. “That’s the most substantive change.”

It will give officials another tool in their bad-weather arsenal, a bridge between the traditional two-hour delay and full-on school closure.

In Jackson and Macon counties, they long ago split the county into several districts that follow geographical lines. That allows students truly affected by weather to stay safe and stay home, while those at lower altitudes who may see nary a flake on the ground can enjoy a normal school day.

“For inclement weather, we found years ago it was better to separate the two [districts],” said Steve Jones, assistant superintendent at Jackson County Schools, “because when we said ‘Jackson County schools: two-hour delay,’ Smoky Mountain district could have come.”

Macon County did the same thing, giving their zones in Nantahala and Highlands virtual autonomy over their transportation, allowing them to close their schools without affecting the broader district.

“We stretch in such a wide direction north to south, so it can be snowing in Nantahala and sunshining in Franklin,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman. “It’s very tricky in this area of the state because of our variations in elevation.”

Which is why, given the wildly fluctuating Western weather, schools in the region have been sending a vehement stream of protests and requests to Raleigh, asking that control of the calendar be put back in local hands.

“We try to build more snow days into the calendar, but there’s only so many days you can build,” said Swain Superintendent Bob Marr. “I have done everything I know to do to get that calendar law changed.”

His county was lucky, he said, to be granted a calendar waiver that allows them carry on with school past the state deadline next year. Other school systems were not so fortunate and are, this year, balancing safety and class time within calendar constraints that don’t match winter reality of WNC.

“There’s a lot about the calendar that’s completely out of our control,” said Haywood’s Nolte. “One of the things that we have advocated with the state legislature is that the state allocate “just-weather days,” days that are just for weather.”

Because now, schools facing tough weather have to use days other, more temperate districts get to use for professional development, special programs and make-up testing.

“That’s inherently unfair and a huge disadvantage academically,” laments Nolte, who, like Marr, wants control of the calendar back in local hands.

For now, though, they’ll have to stick with what they’ve got – sending out patrols in the morning’s wee hours, checking out roads and, like the DOT, trying to stay ahead of the weather.

In Haywood County, they run on a basic formula: if more than 10 percent of bus routes are blocked, schools close. They delay if the forecast predicts a morning warm-up, which, Nolte realizes, can make for some unhappy parents in the county’s snowless locales.

“We hope that people understand that we have a large county geographically,” Nolte said. “It looked very different at my house this morning than it did at my office, and they’re less than 10 miles apart.”

In Jackson, Macon and Swain, they just take the call, in consultation with emergency services and local law enforcement, and, if possible, only close affected districts.

But though they’re pressed to get in the required classroom face time, Macon Superintendent Brigman said that, even if worse winters are to come, they’ll always put safety first and deal with the calendar later.

“We can always make up a school day,” said Brigman. “We can’t replace someone’s health or their life.”

Comment

Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger has found himself in a comfortable old seat after taking over the chairmanship at the board’s Monday meeting.

It was the first meeting of the newly-elected board, though it bears only one new face — Michael Sorrells, who snapped up the seat vacated by the departing Skeeter Curtis.

Ahead of the vote for chairman, Kirk Kirpatrick, who spent the last term as chair, asked not to be nominated again. He cited a busy family and work schedule that would leave little room for the extra work of chairman.

“I do enjoy it but it is difficult,” Kirkpatrick told the crowd before pulling his name from consideration. He was, however, voted vice chairman, a position he accepted.

After a quick, unanimous vote, second-term commissioner Swanger was appointed to the post, which he held during his first term from 2002-2006. He also has a tenure as school board chairman under his belt, garnered during his six-year service there.

Swanger expressed thanks and support for Kirkpatrick before taking the helm of the meeting.

“Over the last two years, he has done an exceptional job and had he chosen to continue, I would have enthusiastically supported him,” Swanger said.

When asked where he intends to lead the board over the next two years, Swanger cited the economy as continuing to be the most pressing issue facing Haywood County.

“I think that probably the biggest challenges we’ll have, of course, are the budget issues and finding ways to provide services to the citizens of the county,” said Swanger in an interview. “The recession is allegedly over, but revenues certainly don’t support that notion.”

Swanger said that the board will have to navigate the uncertain waters of the state budget, which is likely to change — and possibly change the game for counties and how they operate.

“It will be a challenge, and much of that challenge will depend on the state budget, how it affects counties,” said Swanger. “Will there be a transfer of responsibility from the state back to the county, will there be cost sharing that was not previously a part of the challenge?”

One of the other big projects on the new board’s plate will be getting the Department of Social Services and the health department into their new home in Clyde’s former Wal-Mart while pushing through the revamp of their old digs into housing for low-income seniors. Swanger said he hoped the new board would make this a priority.

As he takes on this new role, Swanger, who just turned 60, said he’s not sure if there’s an end in sight to his public service career.

“I’ve been in public service my entire adult life, with the military and FBI and school board and two terms as county commissioner,” said Swanger. “I don’t know when I’ll say enough’s enough. I’ll just have to see.”

Comment

Jackson County’s new board of commissioners took their seats for the first time Monday night, but only after the old board bid farewell to a standing ovation from a packed house.

The formerly all-Democrat board went through a shake-up in the November election, with two Republicans and a Republican-backed Independent sweeping in to take three of the five seats, including the chairmanship.

Brian McMahan, the departing chairman who was defeated by incoming chair Jack Debnam, expressed gratitude to county staff and his fellow commissioners before adjourning the meeting with the famous words of another Democrat, Ted Kennedy, on his 1980 defeat in a presidential nomination bid.

“The only thing I feel tonight really is a sense of gratitude and thankfulness that I’ve been in the position to serve the county for the last four years,” said McMahan, ending with “for all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

Before the meeting’s close, several citizens took the podium to let the outgoing board know that they didn’t lay the blame for economic problems and county job loss on their shoulders, and the nearly full commissioners’ room rose to its feet on their departure.

Soon after, however, the new board stepped in to take their oaths of office and start their reign, of which Ken Westmoreland, long-time county manager, will not be a part. Westmoreland officially announced his retirement at the meeting, though he acknowledged the news had been public for nearly a week. Westmoreland maintains that his departure is not entirely of his own volition, though new chairman Debnam has not confirmed that he and other members asked the manager to step aside.

Although no substantive votes were taken at their first meeting, the new board pledged in campaigning to re-examine the county’s steep-slope regulations and county officials’ pay rates.

Comment

When Terry Stephenson bought a piece of hillside property on Lower Alarka Road in Bryson City, he expected it to slowly develop into a homestead for himself and his 11-year-old daughter. What he didn’t expect was the headache that the undeveloped hillside has become since he became embroiled in an argument with Bryson City’s Great Smoky Mountains Railway over his right to cross their tracks.

The railroad has 10 acres of Stephenson’s property that encompasses their tracks and the accompanying 100-foot right-of-way granted to railroad tracks, originally intended to allow freight and passenger rail companies space in which to store extra equipment. Stephenson said he would be unconcerned with the tracks if they didn’t cross the single dirt road that is the only entrance to his property.

The crossing that once existed there was excavated and replaced by the railroad, who then offered Stephenson a private right of way agreement that reinstated his right to use the crossing. But Stephenson only got a few words into the 14-point agreement before realizing that he would be coming out bearing the brunt of the burdens if he signed.

“There’s nothing in there for me at all,” said Stephenson. “It might as well have been printed on toilet paper.”

His chief grief with the company is the $3,000-a-year crossing insurance that the agreement stipulates, something he maintains has not been required of anyone else who has been granted a crossing.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t have crossing insurance,” Stephenson said, “and they want me to maintain a $2 million policy and make them the beneficiary.”

The agreement would also stipulate that the crossing is non-transferrable, so when he property passes to his daughter or the next owner, they wouldn’t have the right to use the crossing without entering into a separate, new agreement with the railway.

Stephenson said he has no intention of signing the agreement, but he also knows that the cost of taking the railroad to court over the issue might be cost prohibitive.

“You’re fighting everybody fighting the railroad,” said Stephenson, “but it’s like paying a toll to get to my property, and every month I’ve got a payment to make, whether I can get to it or not.”

When asked for their take on the dispute, Great Smoky Mountains Railway General Manager Kim Albritton responded only that she was “not interested in discussing it with you.” Subsequent calls and e-mails to the railroad’s management were unreturned.

When Stephenson got nowhere in his negotiations alone, he tried bringing the issue before the Swain County Commissioners, who pledged that they would attempt to mediate the situation.

But, said County Manager Kevin King, the county was similarly stonewalled.

“We basically called the train and wanted to discuss that issue with them and they indicated that this is a legal dispute and at this point they would not sit down and talk to the board,” said King. “We asked for a meeting, they declined, and that’s all we can do.”

But even if he tries to fight the railroad, Stephenson will likely have a long and difficult road ahead of him, and there is a chance that the law might not be on his side.

“North Carolina case law generally grants railroads broad discretion to regulate the use of their rights of way by others,” wrote Raleigh attorney Jeffrey Bandini in an explanation of railroad real estate laws called Railroad Property. “This control is justified to ensure safe travel on the rights of way and to protect the physical integrity of the facilities built on the rights of way and the land upon which the facilities are located. Accordingly, whether a railroad company owns its right of way in fee simple or easement, third parties must obtain permission from the railroad company to enter the right of way for any purpose.”

Plainly speaking, that means that Stephenson will have a hard time countering the agreement, since the state has long given railroads a great deal of license in how to use their own rights of way.

Stephenson, however, isn’t averse to a crossing agreement, but feels that what the railway is putting forward is beyond unreasonable.

He said he’d be happy to pay his part for the upkeep of the crossing, but thinks that $3,000 a year is slightly exorbitant, given that his taxes are barely $800.

“I’m not trying to be hard,” Stephenson said, “I just need to get to my property. “

Comment

Haywood County’s old hospital is set to get a new life after commissioners agreed last week to sell the building for use as low-income housing for the county’s senior citizens.

Following discussions in closed session at their Nov. 15 meeting, Commissioner Mark Swanger made a motion to sell the building to Fitch Development company for $1.275 million.

The sale, however, is contingent on the development company reaching several different benchmarks before the deed is handed over.

“There’s a lot of things that have to happen,” explained interim county manager Marty Stamey, one of which is garnering a historic property designation and listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The company would have to apply for tax credits from the N.C. Housing Finance Agency. If the buyers can jump through those hoops, the county has agreed to front them a 20-year, $159,000 loan at 2 percent interest to get the project off the ground, and increase its competitiveness for the tax credits. Under current plans for the building, that would amount to $3,000 per unit.

Those figures might change, as the final number of units to be housed in the former hospital hasn’t been determined.

This offer is contingent on the fact that all these things come into play,” said Stamey, “but [on the current timescale] the developers would start environmental remediation and construction in April 2012.”

The building is currently home to the county’s Department of Social Services and the Board of Education. While DSS has found a new home in Clyde’s former Wal-Mart building, the Board of Education will now have to find a new space before construction gets under way.

The current plan for the building calls for 53 units. As construction draws closer, an analysis will be done to assess the current needs of the county. The results of that study may change the type and number of units.

The offer from Fitch was one of two bids presented to commissioners and offered the highest purchase price for the property.

Stamey said he sees this as a win-win for the county, who will not only get a good price for the building and pull in more tax revenue, but a valuable piece of Haywood County history will be preserved and maintained. And, elderly residents will find the housing they need.

“There’s a serious lack of elderly housing that’s affordable for seniors in our area,” said Stamey. “A lot of counties and municipalities are doing this across the state, and one of the worst things you’d want to see is for the hospital to sit up there and be a dinosaur and just deteriorate away. It has so much historic value to so many people.”

Built in 1927, the massive brick building was the first county hospital in North Carolina. It was renovated in 1955, but a full-scale renovation would, today, cost about $6 million, more than the county could afford on its own. The sale would not include the site’s excess parking or the building that now houses the Smoky Mountain Center.

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