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Colby Dunn

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Six years after the Environmental Protection Agency said it would cart away the arsenic-tainted topsoil from Haywood County’s Barber’s Orchard subdivision, the trucks are set to begin hauling out the contaminated earth by this December.

The site, once an apple orchard, is now a residential neighborhood and an EPA-designated Superfund site. It was the scene of an emergency clean-up effort in the late 1990s when it was discovered that hazardous pesticides pumped through the orchard’s underground irrigation network had, over time, seeped through rusty, unstable pipes and into soil and groundwater.

The EPA is now mobilizing to clear up contamination that’s still lingering in much of the soil in the subdivision, but the groundwater cleanup won’t be part of the effort.

“We are removing the top foot of soil from the areas that are contaminated,” said Jon Bornholm, the EPA Project Manager that’s in charge of the cleanup. “That encompasses about 80 acres.”

The quandary surrounding where to put the polluted soil, however, remains unresolved. When the EPA handed down its decision in 2004, saying that the dirty dirt must go, the issue of exactly where it must go to became a bone of contention in the county.

The suggestion to dump it into the county’s White Oak landfill drew ire from then-county manager Jack Horton, who contended that taking on the bad soil would be too costly and use too much room in the small landfill.

“There’s so much dirt that has to be taken out of Barber’s Orchard, that it would completely fill up our existing cell. What would we do with our garbage then?” he said.

At the time, some Barber’s Orchard residents favored the plan because it was predicted to cut the cleanup time — which was projected to be around 10 years — nearly in half, and many property owners were less-than-pleased with the prospect of sitting on virtually useless property for a decade.

But now, according to Bornholm, the project is slated for completion in September 2011, whether or not the waste is dumped in or out of the county.

“All of it is to be disposed of offsite and those offsite options are still being evaluated,” said Bornholm. “We’re looking at some of the local landfills, and if we can’t find a nearby landfill, then our fallback position is to take it to the Republic landfill in South Carolina.”

Republic, a sanitation company that has placed a bid to take over operations at Haywood County’s White Oak landfill, operates a mega-landfill in Lee County, S.C., that accepts waste from around the nation.

Bornholm said once the operation ramps up in earnest, workers will be at the site 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday and at least half a day each Saturday until the job is complete. The EPA estimates around 127,374 cubic yards of contaminated soil will be trucked away.

While most sites will only have the top foot skimmed off, the 16 sites that showed contamination below the one-foot mark will have two feet of soil excavated.

Altogether, the former orchard site encompasses 438 acres in Waynesville that was sliced up and sold piecemeal after the orchard went bankrupt in 1988.

The groundwater contamination that was a result of the same leaky pipes, Bornholm said, was part of a separate EPA case and no verdict has yet come down on what should be done to remedy the issue. A decision is expected by September of next year.

Preliminary work is currently underway to prepare the site for the 100 to 120 trucks that will be rolling through the facility daily during the cleanup.

Comment

It’s Thursday afternoon, and Amy Grimes has her head in a freezer digging around for a few things to add to the cardboard boxes at her feet that are already filled with food of various descriptions. A few yards away, volunteers scurry back and forth, bringing food to guests at the many table scattered throughout what was once a living room. With its cozy setting, plethora of set tables, and the inviting smell of chili wafting from the kitchen of this old house, it would be easy to mistake the scene for a mom-and-pop restaurant gearing up for the dinner rush.

But it isn’t. This is Sylva’s Community Table, where those in need can stop by four evenings a week to enjoy a hot meal, friendly company and — if they need it — some extra food to get them through. And most of all, says Grimes, handing one of the now-full boxes to a customer, they can do it with dignity.

While the Community Table has long been a busy spot in Jackson County, Grimes says her customers have changed over the last few years. As the recession has deepened,  for many the long-promised light at the end of the tunnel has not come.

As recently as last year, the Community Table hosted up 40 dinner guests each night; now they’re serving around 100 people per night on a regular basis.

“For the entire year of 2009, we served 10,335 meals,” says Grimes. “This year, through October, we’ve served over 18,000. We’re going to more than double [by the end of the year].”

The requests to the food pantry have increased as well. Grimes said she received about one request a month for take-home food two years ago, if that. Now she gets up to 80 requests for boxes every month.

Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries, echoes those sentiments. Her staff and volunteers busily pack food boxes in the basement of their Waynesville building, working to keep up with the 60-to-80-box-a-day demand they’re currently seeing.

“Last month we had 315 families in October alone,” James says.  “I don’t remember a month that we’ve had that many people.”

That change in volume has also been accompanied by a change in clientele. Historically, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries have served the traditionally disenfranchised — the elderly living on fixed incomes, those with physical or mental disabilities, the long-term homeless. Now, however, working families are beginning to represent a greater portion of the needy in Western North Carolina.

It’s a fact that is reflected across the region in the percentage of kids who receive free and reduced lunch at school.

 

Free lunches: a barometer of the times

In Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, more than half of public school students are getting their school meals free or at a reduced price. Jackson and Macon have been above 50 percent for the last few years: Jackson had right at 50 percent in the program in 2009, and it’s now climbed to just over 55 percent, while Macon is holding steady with 59 percent of its students getting free or cheaper food, up from 56 percent at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Haywood County saw that statistic climb above the 50 percent for the first time this fall. The system now has 52 percent of its student body enrolled in the federal program, a 10 percent increase from just six years ago.

Free and reduced lunch numbers are often used as an indicator of how many children are living in poverty, but what, exactly, do they mean?

To get free lunch through the federal government’s National School Lunch Program, a family must be living at or below 130 percent of the national poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $28,665 this year. To get a reduced-price lunch, which amounts to 40 cents instead of the undiscounted price of $2, total family income has to be between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level. This year, that’s anywhere between $28,666 and $40,793 for a family of four.

Lynn Harvey, Child Nutrition Director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says that these numbers aren’t isolated in the western part of the state. Children across the state have been hard hit by the slouching economy and depend on the food they get at school.

“Since late 2008, we’ve seen about at 10 percent increase in the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals,” says Harvey. “North Carolina now ranks second in the number of children and adults who are food insecure. That essentially means that these are children who literally do not know where their next meal will come from. That makes [school meals] a real lifeline for them.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, around 15 percent of the nation — 17.5 million people — are struggling to put food on the table, which translates into scores of children depending on outside sources of food to stave off their hunger.

Ginger Moore, the cafeteria supervisor at Jonathan Valley Elementary School near Maggie Valley, has seen this truth firsthand. She and her fellow cafeteria workers have noticed that, especially after long holiday weekends, many students come back desperately hungry.

“When a 6-year-old can eat four bowls of cereal, you know they’re pretty hungry,” she says. That, in part, is why the school has teamed up with Asheville’s Manna Food Bank to offer what they call Manna Packs. It’s a simple pack of kid-friendly food, like instant macaroni, that can feed a child through a weekend where they might not otherwise find a hot meal in front of them.

Back in Jackson County, they’re doing the same. Kids that teachers, counselors, cafeteria or social workers notice may need some food at home are getting sent away each Friday with a few things to sustain them through the weekend.

 

Poverty strikes children hardest

While the number of children slipping into poverty and hunger may be on the rise, the disproportionate effect of poverty on kids is nothing new. Dr. Lydia Aydlett is a psychologist specializing in children who has been working with kids and families since the 1970s. According to Aydlett, when the poverty rate increases, kids are the most at-risk.

“Children are going to be poorer than the population as a whole,” says Aydlett, and this is particularly true for Western North Carolina. Haywood County, for example, has a relatively low poverty rate of 14.5 percent, which includes everybody, from the nursery to the nursing home. But for the county’s kids — everyone under 18 — just over 23 percent of them live in poverty.

Macon County is much the same. They have a pretty low overall poverty rate — about 13 percent, the lowest among Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — but nearly 24 percent of children there are in poverty, the highest among those four. This means that, while everybody suffers when a recession drags on, unemployment remains lackluster, and the available balance in nearly everyone’s bank account is dwindling, the consequences for the youngest are exponentially more dire.

“Living in poverty has some pretty grave consequences for kids,” says Aydlett. “In general, they’re likely to have poor education, they’re likely to have greater health problems, they’re likely to have lower cognitive skills, and that’s children across the board living in poverty. For little kids, the youngest kids, they’re the most vulnerable because their brains are still forming. As their brains are forming, they’re dependent on a good environment and good nurturing for them to reach their potential. And when kids are in poverty, there are huge family stressors.”

Being food insecure, then, isn’t just bad for the body, it’s bad for the whole child, says Aydlett, because parents are more likely to succumb to those ‘family stressors,’ to be more concerned with keeping children fed and clothed than tracking or nurturing their development. When a family is working just to survive, there is no time or energy left on which to thrive.

“Child development goes way down the list of important things when parents are worried about where the next meal’s coming from or how they’re going to pay the heating bill,” says Aydlett. She says research has borne out the theory that parents who are more financially secure are able to devote more time to their child’s development.

“There are all kinds of studies about language differences of parents who are in poverty and parents who are not,” explains Aydlett. “Parents who live in poverty tend to give children orders or directions, where middle-class families, they’re more likely to say, ‘well what did you do at school today, let’s talk about this.’ There is more conversation, more elaboration, more attention.”

 

Study reveals upside of economic security

A 2003 Duke University study done in Cherokee after following the casino opening found much the same result. Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.

“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”

However, Aydlett notes, being poor doesn’t, by default, deprive children of the nurturing they need to develop into healthy adults.

“It’s parent involvement. What really seemed to happen [in the Duke study] is that the money allowed the parents to be more involved, to monitor more, so you’re going to have bad outcomes, you’re going to have kids who are in trouble even in very wealthy families if they don’t have input and don’t have those relationships.

“If you’re poor but have a tight-knit family in a healthy community, even though you’re poor you’re likely to be OK,” she said.

That combination is what many programs in the community — like Head Start and even the free and reduced lunch program — aim to provide to low-income families.

 

Life on the edge of poverty

Charles and Karen Tucker say their family is benefiting from such programs. The Tuckers are regulars at Sylva’s Community Table, and they say it’s been a lifeline for them in raising their five children.

They’ve lived for years on the edge of sustenance, always working but never with much extra. But when the recession hit, Karen’s hours were cut at Roses, where she’s worked for 10 years, and the help they’d always occasionally taken from the Community Table became vital.

“We pretty much just live paycheck to paycheck,” she says. She is at the Community Table tonight, having dinner with her husband, still in her ‘Roses’ uniform polo and khaki skirt. Finishing her last few bites of cole slaw, she praises the efforts of organizations like the Community Table that have helped her family get by.

“If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t make it at all,” says Tucker. She says that she and her husband, with help from their church and other community organizations, have raised their children without a poverty mindset. Although scraping by was tough, and continues to be, she has high hopes for her kids’ success. Her eldest son is in the military in Oklahoma, her oldest daughter is happily married and living in Georgia with three children of her own, and their 17-year-old daughter is currently investigating colleges.

“I’m really pushing my girls to go to college, because I don’t want them to end up like I have,” Tucker says. “It ain’t easy, I can tell you that. I mean, we’ve managed all these years, but it’s just a big struggle.”

Part of the challenge for groups trying to help families like the Tuckers is overcoming the stigma associated with asking for help, and Lynn Hunter with the state’s child nutrition program says that’s one of their greatest goals: getting food to kids who need it without exposing them to shame or ridicule.

“For any human being, when their self-esteem is compromised because they’re participating in a food assistance program, that’s a very painful thing,” she says. To combat that, Hunter and her team are pushing a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in schools statewide. If offers a low-cost breakfast to kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced price, and a discounted or free breakfast to those who do. But, Hunter says, it does much more to promote togetherness and health among all students, while quietly giving the hungry just what they need.

“It helps to remove some of the stigma associated with being the only child who arrives early to have breakfast at school,” says Hunter. “We’re trying to create an environment where all children participate, all children can enjoy.”

Schools are already halfway to this goal, no longer publicizing children who receive free or reduced lunch and offering whole-family applications for assistance, so older, more independent students don’t have to ask for themselves.

Amy Grimes of the Community Table is aiming for the same goal, trying to give help that isn’t a package deal, with shame and exclusion thrown in for free.

“It’s hard to come and ask for help anyway, so we want this to be the most welcoming, dignified environment,” says Grimes.

Many of her newer clients, she says, have never had to ask for help before and feel uncomfortable coming in. They are still working but aren’t making a living wage, and it’s those people who feel most heavily the stigma of taking help.

“They apologize for needing help, but everybody needs it sometimes,” says Grimes.

In Haywood County, Lisa James sees the same thing.

“We have seen an increase in the people who are unemployed who, in the past, have been giving to us,” says James. “Now they’re coming back and having to ask for help themselves.

“We’re seeing people who are working at $7 an hour, who were making 10 and 12. Minimum wage just doesn’t cut it.”

So as the economy continues to prove sluggish, organizations like the Community Table and Haywood Christian Ministries are striving to navigate these new waters, this paradigm shift from generational poverty to situational poverty that’s creeping steadily across greater parts of the community.

Aydlett firmly believes, even if there is no economic turnaround in sight, that the community can still help even the poorest children succeed if they are vigilant.

“Children show resilience if somebody — it doesn’t have to be parents — but if somebody really loves them, really thinks they’re the best thing since sliced bread,” she says. “We need to make sure kids have connections to grandparents, aunts or uncles, neighbors, somebody that can help provide love and support for those kids. Everybody needs that kind of person.”

 

How you can help


In Haywood County:

Haywood Christian Ministries

150 Branner Avenue

Waynesville, NC 28786

828.456.4838

Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes

 

In Jackson County:

The Community Table

127 Bartlett Street

Sylva, NC 28779

828.586.6782

Donations taken: food and financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes

 

In Swain County:

Bryson City Food Pantry

c/o Bryson City Presbyterian Church

311 Everett Street

Bryson City, NC 28713

828.488.8433/828.488.2480

 

In Macon County:

CareNet

130 Bidwell Street

Franklin, NC 28734

828.369.2642

Donations taken: food, clothing, financial gifts

Volunteers needed? Yes

Comment

A proposed update of Waynesville’s progressive land-use ordinance that has been several years in the making is close to becoming law, as planners gear up to inform the public at two information sessions next week.

The new ordinance will update a plan that hasn’t been changed since 2003, which Waynesville Planning Director Paul Benson says is too long.

“It was due,” said Benson. “It [the ordinance] was adopted in 2003 and, honestly, wasn’t that well developed. There’s been a pretty steady drumbeat of complaints about parts of the ordinance, particularly the parking-in-front portion.”

Benson is referring to a clause in the ordinance that requires new buildings and larger renovations to locate their parking either behind or to the side of the building to present a more pedestrian friendly, urbanized feel to new development in the town.

According to Benson, 85 percent of the ordinance will remain unchanged since, he said, the ideas behind the 2003 version were solid, if the execution was sub-par.

Among the substantive changes to go into effect, perhaps the most powerful is the creation of Condition District zoning, which allows the board of aldermen to create a negotiated, site-specific zoning districts on a case-by-case basis, allowing them to make exceptions for certain developments that meet particular criteria. This change has, however, already been enacted ahead of the rest of the new ordinance after Ingles lodged a special request with the board.

Other changes will include less vagueness in design standards, increased protections for open space in high-density residential areas, and more relaxed slope regulations to allow denser development on slopes with less than 25 percent grade.

Another key feature will be an update to the parking regulations, which would vary by district and building type. For regional business districts like Russ Avenue, the new rules would allow up to 50 percent of required parking to be out front.

The new standards will also give developers some leeway in their landscaping choices, particularly around where to put plants in parking lots.

Benson said he hopes that the meetings, to be held Nov. 30 at the Waynesville Recreation Center and Dec. 2 at the Waynesville Fire Station No. 2, will allow residents who might be impacted by the changes to get their questions answered.

“It’s an opportunity for people who are interested to come in and learn about it and have input,” said Benson, “and for people with specific issues to come in and see how those are being handled.”

The sessions will begin at 6 p.m and will feature a presentation detailing the changes as well as displays and opportunities for residents to comment and ask questions.

Benson said he also hopes to have a form for questions and comments available both at the meeting and online, so those who are interested can formulate and submit questions after the meetings close.

 

Public meetings:

• 6 p.m. on Nov. 30 at the Waynesville Recreation Center.

• 6 p.m. on Dec. 2 at the Waynesville Fire Station # 2.

Comment

It’s no secret that real estate isn’t what it used to be. It would be difficult to find an industry hit harder by the global recession, and although the bloodletting seems to be slowing, things still are not — and may never be — what they were in the heady pre-recession days for Realtors.

As one Realtor astutely observed at a meeting of the Haywood County Board of Realtors last week, “We probably won’t ever see another 2005.”

And it is with that new economic climate in mind that the board came together to discuss a new idea that might offer some stability for a somewhat-uncertain future — regionalization.

The idea under consideration is for the Haywood County Board of Realtors to merge with Asheville, Hendersonville and Brevard to create a mega-realty board, pooling resources and offering a little security in case real estate plunges into a dreaded double-dip. The concept didn’t sit terribly well with some Realtors at the Nov. 9 meeting. They were concerned about a merger robbing Haywood county’s real estate community of its unique flavor. Wouldn’t this be one step toward making the county just an extension of Asheville? Wouldn’t this just fold Haywood’s unique needs into the overpowering interests of Buncombe County?

And the board’s leadership isn’t denying that this is a possibility. But facing another recession — or even just a bump in the road — may be a bigger problem for the Haywood County Board of Realtors, who wouldn’t be able to indefinitely operate at the same level if their membership numbers keep dropping.

“If the real estate market doesn’t improve, then neither will my membership,” said Lisa Brown, the association executive for Haywood County. Which is why they board is looking into merging now, when it is financially stable and can make a decision based on information, not desperation.

“If we want to go to a regional Realtor association, it will be because we want to, not because we have to,” Brown said.

According to Brown and Asheville Board or Realtors president Jamie Blue, that is one of the unique things about this proposal: all four of the boards involved are coming to the table financially healthy, so no one member will dump its debts or dire financial troubles on the others.

Another defining feature is equality. Under the proposal, a regional board would be comprised of three members from each board. This equal voice would could alleviate some of the concerns that Haywood Realtors have about being railroaded by Asheville, although there are some questions as to where the thirteenth, ‘tie-breaking’ member would hail from. But both Brown and Haywood board president Carolyn Lauter said equal voice was a non-negotiable point.

“We felt this was extremely important when we started talking,” said Lauter. “I think that’s what everybody was very concerned about. “

And that concern isn’t unfounded. The Asheville board would be bringing in more than 80 percent of the assets. And even post-recession, its membership is still two to three times larger than any of the other three boards.

Haywood Realtors also expressed fears that they would lose their local identity, which they’ve worked hard to craft and maintain over the years.

Blue, the Asheville board president, said he understands that fear and it’s something they’re actively working to address.

“That’s one of the things that we’re talking about and we’ll work through,” said Blue. “What’s important to be done in Haywood County? What programs are they involved in, where does money need to be allocated to continue those traditions? Because if you don’t, you defeat the purpose. That’s what we’ve been collectively talking about. “

And though it’s true that there is some risk involved for the smaller parties in a proposal like this, the flipside is all of the big-board perks they’ll now be privy to. Those include a full-time government affairs officer to pitch their interests with local governments.

Brown points to this as one of the major up-sides to regionalizing the real estate business in Western North Carolina.

“There are things that I cannot offer as a small association,” Brown said. “We have big association ideas that we want to offer, but we are somewhat limited because of our size.”

That will all probably change if they lock into the regional board.

This, however, begs the question: what’s the draw for Asheville, whose board has been actively courting the other three for a merger? They already enjoy the large-city benefits that their size would afford to the other, smaller boards.

According to Blue, it’s all about the money for Asheville Realtors. Their dues, he said, are significantly higher than other boards, and his members would be keen to see cuts to cost without cuts to their services.

“What we see is an opportunity that we can combine forces and have more services to offer to our members at a lesser cost,” Blue said. “Really, the driving impetus behind us is that we would have more for less.”

Asheville members, however, aren’t completely convinced either. Blue said that, overall, they’ve been asking for more information before they give their yes or no. And although their concerns are different, Haywood County Realtors seem to be saying the same thing: we don’t hate it, but we don’t know enough to love it, either.

“We’re just all gathering information at the moment. It’s not really anything that you have enough information to make a decision on,” said Marty Prevost, broker-in-charge at Main Street Realty in Waynesville. Prevost said many of her colleagues seem to feel the same way. “Everybody sort-of feels the same way. We’re still gathering information.”

The concept of regional real estate really is nothing new for this region — all four boards already collaborate on a regional multiple listings service, or MLS, that has worked splendidly for all involved, said Brown.

This merger, however, is more invasive than an MLS, as it would take full control of the board’s affairs out of their hands. But Brown said she and her leadership believe that, in an uncertain market, only the foolish ignore options without investigating them.

“Let’s sit at the grown up table,” Brown said. “Let’s hear the proposal, let’s see what’s in it for the association. We’re doing our due diligence.”

The choice, then, will be left with the Realtors, and if the process goes as planned, they may be voting by early next summer.

Comment

Ingles is now one step closer to giving their Waynesville store a revamp, thanks to a decision taken by the town’s aldermen last week.

The board granted Ingles request for a conditional zoning district, which would allow the supermarket chain to go ahead with their redevelopment plans without any delays in the process.

Conditional zoning districts are slated to be part of the town’s updated land-use ordinances that will be open to public comment later this fall. Ingles, however, couldn’t wait that long, so they petitioned the board to make a decision now.

After meetings between town officials and Ingles representatives, the board seemed convinced that the grocery store wasn’t seeking to get in under the wire by pushing through a project before the updated ordinances are adopted.

Mayor Gavin Brown said that, initially, he’d harbored reservations.

“At first I had some reservations about what we were doing here,” Brown said. “At first I was a little suspect of having all that authority and all that power. The nice thing is that if we don’t like it, we don’t have to do it. It’s really our decision to make within the confines of the ordinance itself.”

Michael Egan, attorney for Ingles and also an expert on zoning, spoke on behalf of the store, assuring the aldermen that the request wasn’t frivolous.

“They didn’t just file this application out of a spirit of playfulness. It’s very important to them. It’s critical to them to get started as soon as they possibly can,” said Egan, who has helped Brevard and other local municipalities put together similar measures.

“It’s a terrific tool,” said Egan. “It’s probably the best tool that local governments now have.”

For the town, adopting conditional zoning will allow them to make exceptions to current zoning on a case-by-case, plat-by-plat basis.

“It’s very site-specific,” said Paul Benson, Waynesville’s planning director. “You can tailor it to an individual and so that makes it really a popular tool.”

It is also a powerful tool, giving the planning board and the board of aldermen the power to change and negotiate around current zoning regulations for specific businesses or individuals.

There are, said Benson, some restrictions, though.

“The most specific restriction is they can’t ask for a use that’s not allowed in the underlying zone,” Benson said, which does limit the amount of leeway that a board can offer.

For Ingles, the crux of the issue is timing. Under the current regulations, they couldn’t redevelop the site — which is in the Russ Avenue Town Center District — much beyond minor renovations without bumping up against the ordinance’s confines. Within those boundaries, developers said, it would be impossible for them to update, since the store lies on what Benson calls a “flagpole lot.” That makes parking in the back or side of the building — a stipulation for buildings in the district — difficult.

Ingles hasn’t come out with definitive plan for what it wants to do with the site, and Benson said the town won’t know for sure until their application arrives. That’s when the real negotiations over what will and won’t be allowed in the conditional zone — or even if they’ll be allowed one — will begin.

The possibility of expansion eastward into the adjoining storefront once occupied by Goody’s has been mentioned, as has the idea of a gas station, which is the formula Ingles has been following for its newer stores. At Tuesday’s meeting, store representatives pledged that the expansion would bring up to 60 new jobs to the community, in addition to temporary contracting jobs that the redevelopment would create.

Egan said that the major negotiating points of the new conditional use would likely be parking and landscaping, and said that they hope to have an application for conditional use filed with the city in time to make an appearance on the Dec. 20 planning board agenda.

“The engineer is working on those plans right now and we hope to have that application in by the end of the month,” said Egan.

The next step is for the town to evaluate the store’s application and start talks to work out exact terms. Benson said that, if the timing is right, that process could be well on its way by early next year.

Comment

Chances are, the identity of your garbage truck driver doesn’t always cross your mind. You probably give him a friendly smile if you happen to meet over the remnants of last night’s macaroni, but the odds on knowing his life story — or even his name — are pretty slim. He’s the guy who packs off your trash and carts your recycling away. But you may not know that, depending on where you live, he may also be packing heat.

That issue came up recently at a Canton town board meeting, where it came to light that town employees may, in fact, be carrying concealed weapons. Or not. Actually, no one’s quite sure.

“We had a written policy about the use of town vehicles,” said Town Manager Al Matthews. “In that policy, we said no alcohol, no illegal substances and no unlicensed weapons.” But in a routine update of the policy at a town board meeting, someone noticed a loophole. So unlicensed weapons are definitely out; but what about licensed ones?

The answer seemed to be an implicit “yes.” The town never said no, so if any of the 3,000-plus Haywood County residents with a concealed carry permit is in their employ, there’s a chance.

This verdict did not sit well with Alderman Eric Dills.

“If you have a concealed weapon permit, you can carry a concealed weapon with you to work for the town,” he said, voicing his considerable displeasure with the situation. “You can’t go down to Blue Ridge Paper and punch in with a pistol. It’s just a safety issue. It needs to stop. It needs to end.”

Matthews said he doesn’t know how many employees carry concealed weapons on the job, noting sagely that it would be hard to know as they are, in fact, concealed. But, he said, it’s never yet been a problem.

“There have been no issues of people carrying or possessing or any complaints regarding that,” he said.

Matthews and Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell said that they’re gathering information for the next board meeting, putting out feelers to other towns to see what their policies are.

“We don’t want to be a trailblazer with this,” Matthews said.

They just want to set their rule by the bar others use, protect themselves against tragedy and liability. “It’s a very litigious society,” Matthews said.

If they’re looking for a standard in Western North Carolina, however, they’ll be a long time searching. A Smoky Mountain News check of other local governments found their policies range from long-held prohibitions to non-stances.

Waynesville prohibits it outright. If you’re on any piece of property that is owned, leased or controlled by the town, carrying your firearm – licensed or not – is illegal, regardless of whether you’re an employee.

“It wouldn’t make any difference if they had concealed carry permits or not,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “It would still be prohibited on property owned, leased or possessed by the town. The two exceptions, he mentions, are law enforcement officers and the houses owned by the town that employees live in as part of their compensation.

Haywood County feels the same. Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey said they’ve long had in their policies prohibitions on packing.

“No one can carry a concealed handgun on property owned or operated by the county,” said Stamey.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, Sylva has no mention of weapons in its personnel policy, according to Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower, who said she also isn’t sure about how many of their employees are licensed to carry in the first place. It’s just never come up.

Bryson City Town Manager Larry Callicutt says that city’s position is roughly the same. They’ve got 33 employees, including their five aldermen, and the only restriction they’ve got is a ban on concealed weapons in town buildings. But any of those employees could easily be in town vehicles or on town duty with their concealed firearms. They’ve never been told not to.

Callicut also says he has no idea as to how many of his employees have permits, but his guess is at least a few.

“I’ve got one,” he says, with the caveat that he doesn’t bring it into the building.

According to Jennifer Canada with the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, local governments have long had the right to clamp down on whether their employees can bring weapons to work.

Under North Carolina General Statute 14-409.40, local governments can forbid their employees to carry firearms anywhere on any of their property or whenever they’re on town business. Many cities, towns and counties passed such ordinances soon after the measure was adopted in 1995 to protect their employees and citizens from danger and themselves from litigation, she said.

And, as Canton’s Matthews pointed out, in today’s world, it’s a necessary precaution.

Second Amendment scholar and expert Robert Cottrol, a professor at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., said that even though the town might not be held liable in theory, the issue really hasn’t been tested in the high court.

“I think that’s a difficult question,” said Cottrol. “But if you follow what is the course in other areas — for example, if you are an employee and you’re driving a company vehicle and you get into an accident, obviously the company might be sued.”

Could that line of reasoning also apply to local governments in cases of firearm harm or misuse, even if the person isn’t given the weapon by the government or told they should use it? According to Cottrol, the answer is maybe.  

“The person is not necessarily carrying as part of his particular duties,” said Cottrol. “But nonetheless, the employee was in a particular place with the permission to be armed.”

Even, he notes, if the permission was only by omission – never saying no could imply yes. He also notes, however, that on the other side of that argument is that local government isn’t responsible for its employees actions with their firearms any more than the state can take the blame for what’s done with guns they permit.

“The state has given you a license to carry, but the state assumes no responsibility for your actions if you carry,” said Cottrol. “But the courts haven’t addressed it … at this point, I think these are still very much open questions.”

And that is what aldermen and town officials back in Canton are concerned about, and what other cities and towns may need to address, in case an improbable accident or unthinkable tragedy one day became a reality.

 

What the law says

NCGS 14-409.40(e) A county or municipality may regulate the transport, carrying, or possession of firearms by employees of the local unit of government in the course of their employment with that local unit of government.

Comment

This fall, while Haywood County students are focused on homework, football, the opposite sex and the many other preoccupations of youth, their teachers and administrators are mapping a plan to make them more successful and competitive when they leave Haywood’s hallowed halls of learning.

2010 is a year for Long Range Strategic Planning in the school system, and if you gave only a cursory glance to the state of schools in North Carolina, you’d think they have their work cut out for them.

Haywood County Schools alone have seen $5.2 million in funding cuts since January 2009. Instead of increasing teacher assistants as planned, they are losing them left, right and center to lack of funding, struggling to keep hold of the 68 that remain. Meanwhile, the economy outside the school budget has worsened as well, and more than half of Haywood County students are now eligible for free or reduced lunch, a measure the school uses to gauge poverty levels among its students.

But Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said he doesn’t look at it like that. He knows that the increase in poverty and need among students and the decrease in funding is — and will continue to be — a challenge.

“We know our population is changing,” Nolte said “We know that our free and reduced lunch rate has changed about 10 percent in the last 11 years.”

But he’s also optimistic that the changes that have happened since the last long-range planning sessions in 2005 have not all been for the worse.

“The world really is different,” Nolte said. “I mean we’re changing at a very rapid rate. It’s just amazing. When these recommendations were made (in 2005) I had dialup at my house and could not get cable. I hope the (new) recommendations are different, because we don’t want recommendations for 2010, we want people to think about ‘OK, what’s it going to be like in 15 years or 17 years and what should we be striving for?’”

To do that, Nolte and his team have identified five areas they want to plan for, and then called on the community to help them map out the steps to get there in the long term.

The school system asked anyone who was interested — parents, community leaders, business people and just interested residents — to volunteer for committees that would spend anywhere from weeks to months suggesting what they think schools and students need to be doing in the future.

They try to stay within the state objectives and keep the school’s mission statement in mind, but Nolte said school administrators try to give the committees free-rein in dreaming up their recommendations, hoping to stir up innovation and creative thinking that wouldn’t happen under strictly-imposed guidelines.

But Knox Hardin, the school system’s testing director and co-chair of the committee tasked with producing globally competitive students, said that the state of affairs in the county, state and nation has put something of a damper on how far recommendations can go.

“Five years ago, we were not in the economic situation that we’re in now,” said Hardin, who co-chaired a similar committee during the 2005 planning process. “We have been asked to try and at least give half of our recommendations that we make that would not be dependent on funding. Five years ago, we could look pie-in-the-sky.”

Besides wholesale changes in the economy and the system’s funding base, this year’s plan will likely be vastly different from 2005 because the school system itself is moving in a new direction. Just over two years ago, the system adopted a new mission that places passion and productivity at the heart of all they do. And Nolte hopes that the committees will keep this in focus when they’re looking into the future.

“One of the things we talk to (the committees) about is as you’re developing recommendations, please remember our missions,” said Nolte. “Is this something we would fight for, lobby for, advocate for, spend for? Is it a productive way to do it? Does it promote student success in some objective measure that we have for students?”

Looking back at the 2005 recommendations, some did clearly fit those criteria. Out of 20 recommendations that the school system adopted, it only fully achieved nine, which included a major reduction in dropout rates, gym remodels at both Pisgah and Tuscola high schools, and beefing up technology education, both in quantity and quality.

Two of the recommendations — increase teacher assistants in grade K-3 and build an additional middle school — weren’t met at all. In fact, they actually lost teacher assistants and are struggling to keep the ones they have, although Nolte said this is simply a matter of money, or the lack of it.  

Of the other nine goals, all were met partially, but to varying degrees. Some, like activity bus replacement, were halted with the budget drop. Others, such as computer, router and server replacement have been nearly met, with a good computer replacement cycle in place with only a lag in server replacement.

Still others, however, were sort-of met but lack a good bit before they could credibly be called successful. For example, the directive to provide staff development focusing on the Spanish-speaking population included only one summer “staff development” and a 30-minute refresher course, with a few “scheduled meetings” tacked on for good measure.

Hardin said that now, when the committees meet, they look back at these, assessing where they succeeded, where they failed and what failures should be tackled again.

“The ideal goal is to come up with suggestions that can help improve academic performance and have future-ready graduates that are ready to go into the workplace or ready to go into the next step beyond high school,” Hardin said. “We need to have our kids prepared to do the best at whatever they do when they leave school.”

Nolte echoes this sentiment, saying that he hopes the plan will provide a path towards making all of Haywood County’s schools better in what may continue to be very tough times.

“The recommendations are a real, tangible guiding beacon. They give real direction to your decision making,” said Nolte. “We really do believe that everything’s important. We really do believe that you’re not a great school system if you only do one or two things well and other things are really crummy.”

Comment

Haywood County commissioners are reining in their grand plans for Waynesville’s old Wal-Mart, working with designers and almost everyone else involved in the project to try and get it close to the projected budget.

At a work session last week, commissioners heard from Padgett and Freeman, the Asheville architects in charge of the project, who suggested cuts in everything from plumbing to decorative masonry.

“We basically went in with the county manager’s office and the staff and the users that are moving into the facility and started with them on how to redefine the scope of work,” said Scott Donald, principal architect with the firm.

Donald said that, after getting bids for the project that were astronomically higher than the budget, a decision was taken to adjust the project’s scope, slashing everything that could go without affecting the building’s functionality or getting rid of programs or jobs.

“It’s stripped as far as we can strip it without redesigning it again, and that would mean taking out programs or leaving the departments behind, leaving them where they are,” said Donald. “But I don’t think that’s an option either. We’ve cut as much as we know how without actually scaling back the floor plan.”

For their part, commissioners were happy to hear about any measures that would shave off the $2 million needed to bring the project within budget.

“This is one of those cooperative efforts,” said Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get it within budget, to make it to where it’s more efficient, more cost-effective. All the staff understand that and, as Mr. Kirkpatrick (chairman of the board of commissioners) said, as long as its functional, that’s what matters.”

Part of the problem, however, is the size of the building itself. Big boxes aren’t easy to partially renovate, and while Donald and his team have suggested leaving portions of the 115,000 square-foot space un-renovated, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make large, wholesale cuts to the amount of revamped space without getting rid of jobs or programs that are slated to be housed at the facility.

“It’s a big project for very little money,” said Donald. “It’s a lot of square footage that we’re trying to renovate and the budget just isn’t there for that size of space.

The other large hurdle, however, is the financing. Most similar projects would be phased in, allowing gradual financing and more room — and time — for slight budgetary tweaks. But as a condition of the USDA loans the county secured to fund the renovations, phases are out. It must be done all at once, which also presents a challenge to architects and commissioners, who are forced to work with what they have at the outset.

Among the suggested cuts are technical savings, like plumbing and electrical work that could be done differently for a reduced cost. But aesthetic choices, like $25,000 of extra stonework on the building’s exterior, were pulled as well. Donald and his team have found savings in every possible corner of the project, he said: $25,000 for synthetic stucco instead of the real deal, $60,000 for axing a tongue-and-groove ceiling that would require a costly extra sprinkler system, $300,000 for using vinyl flooring instead of linoleum, and the list goes on.

In total, architects project that instead of the low bid being around $7.2 million, it should be closer to $5.1 million, only about $400,000 over the $4.7 million budget.  

They accepted information from everyone who had a hand in the job: county commissioners, the county manager’s office, engineers, subcontractors and even the original bidders. In the end, they came out with around 23 pages of recommendations, none of which the commissioners took issue with. In fact, they asked Donald if he and his team could look into pumping more savings out of the project.

Although Donald said he would look into it, he’s skeptical about what further cost reductions can be found.

“They were wanting us to look at even further items and we’ve done that,” Donald said. “We’re getting to the point now where it’s just that not much money is involved with small changes. It has to be something big to get the big money out of it, and that’s the hard part.”

As for the timing of the project, the need for a re-bid will only put completion between seven and eight weeks off schedule. That timeline was somewhat aided by the fact that it was operating around a month ahead of schedule and assumes that the bidding and contracting process won’t have to leap any more hurdles along the way.

When completed, the building will house the county’s Department of Social Services and Health Department, which have long been awaiting relocation from their current, aging homes elsewhere in the county.

Commissioners have not yet voted on the measures, but have a mandatory pre-bid conference with potential contractors scheduled for Nov. 17, with bids due Dec. 9. The projected completion date for the project is September 2011.

Comment

After four years in its service, the man who has stood at the helm of Haywood County will be moving on in December.

In a Nov. 3 letter to county commissioners, County Manager David Cotton tendered his resignation, effective the next day.

In his letter, he gave no indication of his reasons for leaving the post, occupied by only one other person since the county manager system was adopted by Haywood County. When contacted personally, Cotton also declined to elaborate on his departure.

In his letter, he expressed pride in the work he has done with the county, saying he considered his time in the post “a privilege.”

“It is my sincere hope that when the body of work we have accomplished over these past four years is judged that a clear measure emerges — that we acted with the best interest of Haywood County in mind,” Cotton wrote.

Board Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick wished Cotton well in his departure, but was also tight-lipped on the reasons behind it.

“We appreciate what David’s done for us and wish him well in the future,” Kirkpatrick said. “I know there are many county manager and city jobs that are opening up and I believe he’ll fill one of those adequately and effectively.”

Kirkpatrick said that, while he wasn’t forewarned of Cotton’s imminent exit, it wasn’t an altogether shocking revelation, either.

“We’ve not necessarily been expecting it,” said Kirkpatrick, “and I can’t say that it’s a tremendous surprise. It’s just something that we’re having to deal with at this time.”

The newly-elected board that is scheduled to take office next month will discuss the county’s next move, but Kirkpatrick said they’re in no hurry. In the interim Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey will step up to fill the role, likely doing double duty until a new manager is found.

Stamey isn’t new to the county manager’s post; he filled it for several months last year when Cotton stepped back on a leave of absence. Kirkpatrick said that the board was, at the time, pleased with Stamey’s work as interim and he has faith that Stamey will fill the gap effectively for as long as is necessary.

“I don’t think we will be in an extreme rush,” said Kirkpatrick. “[Stamey] did a great job for us during David’s absence.”

Contractually, Cotton must give the county a 30-day notice, so he is scheduled to stay on board until Dec. 4.

Comment

In a downtown Canton alleyway, a rusty junction box juts out awkwardly from the sidewalk, long since abandoned to its purpose, while a few yards away broken bricks, orange traffic barrels and twisted lengths of caution tape lay in a heap atop a few pieces of old plywood. On the side of one building, a bright blue tarp hangs crookedly, covering pieces of exposed structure, with bricks on strings dangling precariously from its edges.

But this is not a construction site. This is what town officials call Colonial Alley, and its been sitting like this for a year now.

Greg Petty, owner of The Lunchbox, shares a wall with the alley, and he’s tired of patrons wondering what, exactly, he’s up to under that tarp or suspecting him of being closed. He has been asking the town for months now to deal with the disrepair and clutter in the alley.

“We’ve taken every step in the world to try to get it fixed,” he said, including attending town meetings and making specific requests of aldermen and Mayor Pat Smathers, but apparently to no avail.

“We were told that it would be done and it hasn’t been,” said Petty, who notes that he was told in July that work would begin within weeks.

The trouble began in November 2009 when Petty and Wilbur Davis, owner of the other building adjacent to the alley, noticed leakages on the walls they shared with it. The culprit was an outside wall, erected when a former storefront was leveled to make way for the alley itself. Those outside walls had, over time, begun to crack and separate from the walls of the remaining building, allowing moisture to creep in.

So the city took steps to repair the problem, and began pulling down the outside walls. However, laborers realized halfway in that the problems were deeper and outside their scope of expertise. Instead of being a quick fix, an engineer needed to be summoned, the project bid out and a licensed and experienced contractor would have to take over the job.

And it’s all these extra steps, said Assistant Town Manager Jason Burrell, that have taken much more time than expected.

“This is one of those things that, when you’re a government entity, you have to jump through some hoops,” said Burrell. Where a private citizen or business could see the problem and have it repaired nearly immediately, a government has to take steps to ensure that they’re getting the best deal possible for the taxpayer, he explains.

Burrell said that, after getting a structural engineer’s opinion on what the project actually needed, the town put the project out to bid twice but has had trouble generating interest among contractors who have the right mix of willingness and expertise.

When the town finally received a bid for an acceptable amount from an acceptable contractor, Burrell said that he and Town Manager Al Matthews took it to the aldermen immediately. That bid was approved four weeks ago.

But, said Burrell, when they went to execute the contract and get work going, they again ran into problems.

“We went to do that pretty much the next day, and honestly, we haven’t been able to get up with the contractor,” said Burrell. They called him, sent him a letter, even sent someone to his house, but all to no avail. In essence, that puts the town back at square one.

But to Petty, this doesn’t fly. While he’s concerned with the project’s completion, he said he’s been told several times that a clean-up effort would be taken up immediately. He is still waiting for action.

Matthews agreed that the alley’s appearance was less than ideal.

“It looks bad,” he said. “There’s no doubt it looks like a construction site. But we’re going to get some casual labor, we hope, to pull off the old stucco and start at the top and get the top caps back on, back in place,” which would eliminate the need for the unsightly blue tarp and its fringe of swinging bricks suspended 10 feet off the ground.

Petty said he hopes that’s true, but if no action is taken soon, he intends to climb up himself and at least replace the blue with a clear, more attractive tarp.

“I don’t have a gripe with anyone individually,” Petty said, “but something needs to be done. It needs to be fixed, and I think anyone can see that.”

Comment

While Haywood County’s bid for privatizing the White Oak Landfill is still being considered, the site has now drawn the eye and ire of residents on its borders who fear contamination of their wells by its contents.

The citizens, led by White Oak resident Sylvia Blakeslee, have approached the county to request that 32 of the wells in their community be tested for heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Blakeslee said she and her neighbors in the White Oak community are concerned because of the recent infractions the landfill faced, including waste being found outside the liner that was, at best guess, up to 10 years old, according to Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King. Blakeslee said they’re also worried by the relatively unstable geologic structure beneath the landfill, pointing to a 1990 hydrogeologic report that warned of “high potential for groundwater contamination.”

“My well is the most critical,” said Blakeslee, who produced a topographic map marking the locations of several wells along the edge of the landfill. “That’s why I’m concerned.”

Her request, however, wasn’t granted by the county, who passed it on to the Asheville regional office of the state Division of Water Quality. They, in turn, realizing that the matter was under the jurisdiction of the state’s solid waste group, tossed it up the chain once more. The request landed with Ervin Lane, a compliance hydrogeologist for the North Carolina Division of Waste Management.

He hasn’t come up with an answer yet, but said he’s looking at testing data from the last 10 years to as recently as April to see if the wells do need to be tested.

“We just look at the data to determine if we think that there is an immediate threat,” said Lane, adding that “the landfill is not really in close proximity of where the wells are located, so we have to just take it step by step.”

King, however, doesn’t see a need for the wells to be tested. He said test wells that actually border or sit within the bounds of the landfill have never turned up any abnormal or increased results for heavy metals or VOCs, and even the ground underneath the off-liner waste wasn’t contaminated, much less the groundwater.

“There was no evidence at all that it even contaminated the ground,” said King. “The clay acted like a natural barrier. We tested a foot underneath the waste and all the way around it and didn’t even find any contamination in the dirt itself.”

But, he said, if Lane returns with evidence that the wells need to be tested, then he will take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of residents’ groundwater.

For her part, Blakeslee said her intention is not to stir trouble. However, when she heard of a possible plan to privatize the landfill, she shifted into gear, poring through papers and thoroughly researching the landfill’s history and possible future.

That’s when concerns about her groundwater and that of her neighbors began to surface. Fearing a rush decision on the site’s possible sale by county commissioners, she passed around a petition and forwarded the paper, with its 40 signatures, to County Manager David Cotton. Her fear, she said, is finding waste in her wells after privatization and being stuck to deal with the consequences on her own.

“I don’t think I have any contamination. I don’t want to have it,” said Blakeslee. “I just want to find out before they sell it [the landfill] off, because then what recourse do I have?”

She concedes that neither she nor any of her neighbors have found or noticed contaminated water, and King and Lane were both unsure of the residents’ motivations for requesting tests now.

But, as Blakeslee said, many of them are concerned about what will happen if site operations are turned over to a private company. Even if their wells get turned down for testing, she said, she will continue to lobby commissioners to research thoroughly any proposal to bring outside trash into White Oak.

“The way to solve it is not to throw it off on somebody else,” said Blakeslee. “Because this has got far, far reaching consequences if the wrong decision is made.”

In a committee meeting on Monday, county commissioner Mark Swanger assured staff and residents that they were in no rush to pawn off the landfill and would wait for all the information before making any recommendations or decisions.

Blakeslee said that’s all she’s asking from the county commissioners: the best, most-informed decision.

I just want them to make the right decision,” she said. “We have a beauty spot and we don’t want it to turn into a boil then a cancer.”

Comment

In the clear chill of a mid-October midnight, all is quiet, but in Clyde, a hunt is on. Within the walls of the county’s oldest house, the Cold Mountain Paranormal Society is holding an investigation — in laymen’s terms, they are ghost hunting.

This particular evening, the Shook House is their haunt, and they’re hoping to encounter some spirits of the past in this gem of Haywood County history.

{gallery}shook{/gallery}

The house itself was built in stages, starting in the first few decades of the 1800s and continuing renovations and additions until the 1890s, when Levi Smathers and his family owned and expanded the home. The third level of the house served as a Methodist chapel and pulpit for the traveling circuit preachers in the early days of the county.

On the wide-board walls the scrawled signatures of many are still evident, like a centuries-old guestbook preserved in the planks. One of the home’s claims to fame is the lauded and legendary visit by Francis Asbury, traveling preacher and early Methodist church father. And while his name is not to be found on the chapel walls, his letters confirm a visit to the area in 1812.

But on this night, the quest is not for God, but for ghosts — or at least their early manifestations. As the paranormal crew lays their cords and sets up their infrared cameras, the group’s leader, Tony Ruff, explains what, exactly, they’re looking for.

Tony is a lifelong Haywood County resident, and both the high-tech equipment and the idea for the group’s inception are his.

“We kind-of hope to find any paranormal activity,” Ruff says, going on to explain the three basic stages of paranormal apparition.

The first is orbs.

“Some people say that’s the first stage of a spirit trying to manifest itself,” says Ruff, bedecked this evening in a “Ghost Hunters” T-shirt in honor of the occasion. An orb, to the untrained eye, looks like a little white circle, the halo of light that develops when a drop of water hits a camera lens. And Ruff says that it is easy to mistake a bug or some other easily explained phenomenon for an orb, so to be sure, photos must be blown up and analyzed.

The second stage is a mist, which is the step between an orb and a full-blown apparition and, apparently, is almost exactly what it sounds like: a mist.

When asked which they’re looking for this evening, fellow enthusiast and group member Laura Elizabeth, who describes herself as an author and medium, chimes in.

“An apparition would be wonderful,” says Elizabeth.

“That’s like the holy grail,” agrees Ruff.

Once the recorders are set — infrared cameras, a full-spectrum camera, several digital point-and-shoot models, motion detectors and a few electronic voice recorders, “because with most spirits, the frequency is lower and you can’t hear it with your ears,” Ruff explains — the investigation begins in earnest right around midnight.

While most of a ghost-hunting expedition is rather less exciting that one would anticipate — it is largely a waiting game — the three-person investigations have all the right ingredients for spookiness at times. With the lights off to prevent false-positives and the rooms empty of all but their furniture to avoid evidence contamination, the full weight of the house’s long history comes to bear, and every creak of the floorboards or breeze blowing through the walls prompts a look over the shoulder, conjures thoughts of Shooks and Smathers and Morgans, haunting the halls of their historic home. And although asking questions of empty rooms feels, at times, foolish, Ruff says it is sometimes the best way to get a response from an apparition.

To prepare for this night, Ruff and his compatriots did exhaustive research, trying to learn the ins and outs of the house’s history.

“The more you know about a place, the better off you are,” says Ruff. “Knowledge is the best thing to prepare for an investigation. The more history you have, the better chance you have of catching something.”

And if this is true, the group could not have chosen a more opportune location. The Shook house predates the creation of Haywood County, and following its restoration, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, to be preserved as a treasured monument to the region’s growth and history.

The group spends the evening using their knowledge and equipment attempting to make contact with those who lived, loved and likely died here.

And after four hours spent trying to entice the spirits into appearance, the paranormal enthusiasts pack up their equipment and go home to analyze their data.

In the end, the ghosts of Shooks past didn’t manifest themselves fully, but Ruff, Elizabeth and the seven others joining them all agreed that there were orbs to be had.

“You don’t have to see anything to have activity,” says Ruff.

And who knows, if the orbs were flying on this investigation, maybe the ghosts themselves will soon follow.

Comment

Older voters are hitting the early polls in force this election year, according to data gathered by Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper.

In the 11th Congressional District, people choosing the early vote are “overwhelmingly white” — a whopping 96 percent — clock in with an average age of 62, and split pretty evenly down gender lines with 51 percent being female.

As for numbers, though, early voting hasn’t proven more popular this midterm than in recent elections.

According to Kim Bishop, Macon County’s elections director, early voting there was on track to match the 4,974 tally she saw in 2006. On Oct. 15 – about halfway through – 2,049 voters had already cast their ballots.

In Haywood County, the story is roughly the same. Haywood’s election supervisor, Robert Inman, said that 2006 — the last non-presidential election — saw about 6,600 early voters, and halfway through the early voting cycle 2,357 had cast ballots.

Cooper said this fits with the data that he has: there’s really no evidence to show that early voting changes who is showing up to the polls. He also points out that, despite common belief, one of the great myths of early voting is that it benefits one party disproportionately.

“I think one of (the misconceptions) is that early voting is really benefiting one party or the other. The reality is that neither one is really true,” said Cooper. “I don’t think early voting tends to benefit one party or the other. It’s a way to reduce excuses, but it doesn’t change the electorate.”

Cooper has been collecting and analzying data this election year that looks at Western North Carolina’s early voting numbers. He’s trying to see what those numbers say about not only the election, but the electorate. So far, he hasn’t come across too many surprises for this region.

“In general, it doesn’t look radically different than you’d expect,” he said, with the exception of a few counties like Graham. In this region, the statistics are relatively predictable: where there are more registered Democrats, there are also more early-voting Democrats. In counties that are more Republican-heavy, they’re getting more to the polls.

For most early voters, the draw is really the convenience. Lines are negligible, times are flexible and voting before Election Day is a significantly more hassle-free experience.

Howard Turner, a Haywood County resident who voted last week, said he was surprised by how many of his friends and acquaintances were not even registered voters, so that stirred in him a desire to make his vote count. But as for why he early voted?

“The lines,” Turner explained simply.

Jim and Wanda Marquart, Waynesville transplants from the North, said they were regular voters and voted early for the first time this year. But it wasn’t enthusiasm or strategy that took them to the polls.

“We’re going to be gone out of the state when Election Day comes,” said Jim Marquart, so they got in early.

While early voting might not be a game-changer for constituents, however, it does change things for candidates, who have to plan their strategies taking into account the shortened stumping timeline they’ll have. To win, candidates must plan ahead to win the hearts of early voters, not just the Election Day crowd.

“I think elections now are about who’s winning the mobilization game,” said Cooper. “Who’s getting people to show up and who’s not getting people to show up.”

District Court judge candidate Roy Wijewickrama said he knows that all too well.

“We’re still out there asking for votes, but it changes it in that we just have to get people out there earlier,” said Wijewickrama.

And Cooper’s data shows that, this year, they’ll have to win over more independent hearts to really take the early vote.

“Independents seem to be turning out in greater numbers this time than they did in 2006,” said Cooper on the blog where his results and analysis are posted. “Democratic turnout in the 11th District does seem to be down a bit and the Republican turnout is holding pretty steady compared to 2006. Maybe in our district it’s not an ‘enthusiasm gap’ with Republicans being more excited and mobilized than Democrats, but rather an ‘independent enthusiasm gap.’”

But whatever way the early vote swings, Cooper said he hopes his data will encourage all voters to pay attention to what’s going on where they live locally, instead of just keeping an eye on the national scene.

“These local races are important,” said Cooper. “These local races are worth paying attention to.”

Comment

The race for the state’s 47th Senate District is a case study in the political battle of freshness versus experience that characterizes this mid-term election across the country.

The race in the 47th pits 60-year-old Democrat Joe Sam Queen, a three-term state senator and incumbent, against Ralph Hise, the 34-year-old Republican mayor of Spruce Pine going for his first state seat. If elected, he would be the youngest person in the Senate.

Recent polls show Hise ahead of Queen, who is facing a tough race in this Tea Party year.

According to a mid-September opinion poll by the Carolina Strategy Group, Hise was leading Queen by 12 percent. Queen’s edge with Republicans and unaffiliated voters had slipped considerably since the group’s June survey.

Both candidates are campaigning on a fairly narrow platform, pinning their hopes on strategies for job creation.

Hise is toeing his party’s line when it comes to campaign promises: he wants to bring jobs back to stimulate the flagging economy and drum up work for the unemployed of the district by deregulation and lower taxes, hoping this will encourage small businesses to swell their employment ranks a little more.

“The backbone of our economy is small business, and we must create an atmosphere for them to develop and thrive, rather than be taxed to death,” said Hise. “We must look to reduce government.”

His strategies for accomplishing his goals, while not clearly defined, all revolve around lower taxes and slashed spending to boost jobs and revenue.  

“Ralph will fight for us,” promise his television ads. “He’ll cut taxes, end the waste and get people back to work.”

Queen, however, has a different tactic for job creation: bringing state spending to the western part of the state. Queen doesn’t promise to end state government spending, but he advocates bringing it back to the district, where it can be spent creating jobs and improving education.

Queen preaches a message of reinvestment for salvation, promising to continue bringing home the kind of funding and support from Raleigh that he says he’s been pulling in as senator. He points to initiatives like the Golden LEAF Foundation, the N.C. Rural Center and other government-funded job-creation initiatives as the way out of the recession, and promises to keep plugging for them and for the district’s colleges and universities.

He’s working to remind voters of what he’s kept in their district: the agricultural research station in Waynesville, “$250 million of assistance to distressed mountain communities,” and the quarter-cent sales tax in Haywood County to benefit Haywood Community College, among other things.

According to the Carolina Strategy Group survey, though, a steady stream of funding from Raleigh may not be what voters in the 47th are looking for.  Fifty-one percent told pollsters that they think Republicans would be better managers of the state’s debt, compared to only 31 percent who would favor Democrats as managers.

This isn’t Queen’s first heated battle, however. He’s faced several cut-throat election cycles, most notably going up against former Sen. Keith Presnell, by whom he was unseated in 2004 but edged out in the last two races.

In this year of incumbent backlash, Hise’s no-spending mantra coupled with his freshness in the political game seem to be currying favor with voters, at least according to the most recent polling numbers.

Comment

With the snip of a ribbon last Friday, Haywood County gained a new manufacturing facility and the promise of 75 new jobs thanks to Haywood Vocational Opportunities, who christened their new Westwood facility.

The 117,000-square-foot space was once home to Wellco Enterprises, but when the plant was shuttered in 2009, HVO snapped it up, renovating 70 percent of the space for use in its medical product manufacturing operation.

The opening ceremony included state Sen. Joe Sam Queen (D-Waynesville), who is in a re-election bid, Rep. Ray Rapp (D-Mars Hill), Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown, as well as other local officials, HVO employees and local residents who were taken on tours showcasing the new facility and various bells and whistles.

The new plant will expand the operations that started in the company’s Riverbend Street building, providing more space for production and more job opportunities for local adults with disadvantages and disabilities, which is HVO’s mission. HVO President George Marshall said that the Westwood center would allow them to branch out into automated assembly and other, more specialized ventures.

“This is going to allow us to diversify into higher tech jobs,” said Marshall, who is confident that the expansion and its accompanying growth will mean a boost in jobs at HVO.

“Over the next two years, we forecast and have pledged to create 75 new jobs within HVO,” Marshall said. And this was, indeed, part of the deal Marshall and his company made when Waynesville officials agreed to apply for a grant from the N.C. Rural Development Center on behalf of the company in 2009. At the time, Marshall agreed to meet the 40-job quota that came as a grant condition, but was, even then, promising 75.

For their part, town officials seemed delighted that the building was experiencing a rebirth rather than slipping into disrepair.

“Wellco left us, and had to probably, but luckily for us, George and HVO stepped in,” Brown told the assembled crowd. “The town of Waynesville is proud to work with HVO.”

State officials, too, lauded the company’s efforts, not only for its economic growth, but for a commitment to serving an often-overlooked segment of the county’s residents.

“What’s so important here is we’re serving those who need service most: our handicapped citizens,” said Queen. “It is something for everybody to be proud of.”

Many of the company’s employees were in attendance, and the ribbon that heralded the new plant’s official opening was cut by Bobby Wright, HVO’s longest-tenured worker.

The factory itself was buzzing busily, production steadily rolling on as guests toured around the gleaming new work floors and warehouses. Like HVO’s other plant, production here will run on three shifts, almost around the clock.

But, while the company’s growth and success are not negligible — Marshall said they’ve seen 10 percent growth during the last decade — this new arm would have been impossible without grants and loans given to the company by outside organizations.

The N.C. Rural Development Center grant chipped in $480,000, while the Golden LEAF Foundation ponied up another $300,000 in grant funding. The Cannon Foundation awarded the company some grant money as well.

Comment

Bryson City’s Marianna Black Library could be getting a facelift, and library leaders are looking to patrons for a grasp on exactly how to do that.

In eight public input sessions held last week, Swain County Librarian Jeff Delfield and consultant Ron Dubberly quizzed locals about what they’d like to see change about the library. Delfield said the comments represented a broad spectrum of opinions about how best to change the library, if at all.

“There was a varied range,” said Delfield. “I mean, there was everything from ‘don’t change a thing please, I love this library exactly the way it is,’ to folks saying ‘We want outdoor staged seating.’”

The meetings were the first in a series of information gathering sessions for the library’s visioning process. The next stop for consultant Dubberly will be meetings with stakeholders who have a vested interest in the library — the business community, the school board and other local organizations.

Swain County is following in the footsteps of Jackson and Macon, who both held visioning processes before building new libraries. While no conclusions have yet been drawn for Marianna Black, Delfield believes that parking might be a part of the equation, if not an entirely new building.

“In general, folks that use the library a lot know that we need parking,” said Delfield.

He said that library users are also keen to see more of what they already get from the library.

“They’re asking for more of the services that we already offer – more books, more movies, more computers, more meeting spaces,” said Delfield.

That’s a sentiment echoed by library-goers themselves.

“I think they could probably expand the book collection, and maybe get more periodicals,” said Bryson City resident Dan Sikorra, who stops by the library to read periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal.

When asked what she would like to see in a revamped library, Nantahala Gorge resident Rose Ponton also said the library could benefit from swelling its stacks.

“It’s hard to find the books I’m looking for here,” she said, “but I think the Marianna Black Library is doing a great job.” Ponton mainly comes to use the wireless Internet, but said she’d take advantage of lending services as well if more books stocked the shelves.

Swain County is in the early stages of the process, and Delfield said part of the reason such a range of opinions was expressed at the forums was consultant Dubberly’s “pie-in-the-sky question,” asking residents what they would do for the library with an unlimited budget.

After gathering opinions from the community, the library board and other key library stakeholders — along with factual demographic information — Dubberly and his team will generate a report recommending steps to grow the library in the future.

Comment

Women in Haywood County looking to improve their business savvy can find support and inspiration from the Greater Haywood Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business seminar series, designed to educate local women and connect them to one another.

The program, which was kick-started in March 2009, will host its seventh luncheon on Oct. 28, a look into the possibility of a double-dip recession with Appalachian State University banking professor Dr. Harry Davis.

The series got its start in 2009 when several active chamber members and Executive Director CeCe Hipps noticed a niche that wasn’t being filled — there was no forum for women in leadership and business to connect with one another.

“One of the things that we noticed is that more and more women are serving in leadership positions in business,” said Laura Leatherwood, Executive Director of Continuing and Adult Education at Haywood Community College and a member of the program’s founding committee. “We needed to start bringing some women together and figuring out what they need.”

So that’s just what they did. A small founding committee was formed that began looking to other cities and counties around the country who were already running programs for businesswomen, trying to find the model that would be right for Haywood County.

The group finally settled on a format pioneered in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and began putting together an inaugural seminar, hoping to drum up at least a little interest within the community. But when their first speaker, Amy Forte, Snior Vice President of Morgan Stanley, gave her address, Hipps and her committee were astounded by the response.

“We exceeded our turnout on the first one,” she said, and they’ve steadily drawn 70 to 80 attendees at every event, both men and women.  

Mark Clasby is one of those men. As executive director of the Haywood County Economic Development Center, he’s attended several luncheons and said he was very impressed with the program.

“I think they’re great,” said Clasby. “They have tremendous attendance, and I think they’re well-received by women in the business community. I enjoyed them tremendously.”

And that is part of the goal, according to Hipps and Leatherwood — to engage and educate both women and men in the business community who don’t often have the chance to attend chamber functions or meet fellow business leaders otherwise.

“Most of the things that we do here at the chamber are targeted at the main person or the main contact at the business,” said Hipps. “There’s very little for people at the management level.”

In addition to Forte, they’ve hosted a career fashion show, a panel discussion with prominent female leaders in the local area, and a marketing seminar with consultant and now-resident Nyda Bittman-Neville, among others. Hipps says they try to stick to a strict 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. schedule to allow women to come on their lunch break without being rushed.

She hopes that the forums will provide the opportunity for women across all areas of business to get together, get to know one another and hopefully help them make connections that will grow their businesses or further their careers, no matter what level they’re at currently.

“It’s a way to get to a specific group of our members who are women and provide them with some resources and information that they need to be successful or continue to be successful in their careers,” said Hipps.

Hipps and her committee, she said, are constantly looking for needs in the female business community that they can meet, conducting surveys at events and quizzing local women about what would interest and benefit them most.

“We came to the table and said, ‘well what are women struggling with now? What are businesses struggling with? What are leaders struggling with?’” said Leatherwood of the planning process. Those questions build the foundation for where the program will go next.

Both Hipps and Leatherwood said they’d like to see the program expand into the younger generation in the future, reaching out to young women just starting or thinking about their future careers.

“If you think about the younger generation, the younger people that are taking over, either family businesses or they aspire to start their own business, I think that’s probably really a target population for us,” said Leatherwood, “and they’re our future leaders of tomorrow.”

Hipps echoed that sentiment, saying that she’d love to see the program expand into mentoring and connecting younger women to older, more experienced women in their field and others. She is wary, however, of expanding too fast and not being able to offer the quality of service that the program has now.

“Sometimes when you expand too quickly, you can’t do what you set out to do,” and since the Women in Business program is completely self-funded — it’s run by volunteers and paid for by the luncheon fee — Hipps wants to be careful that they don’t overstretch their budget trying to dip too many toes into the water.

But wherever the program goes in the future, both Hipps and Leatherwood hope to continue seeing the business community gain knowledge and networking that will benefit both individuals and the county as a whole.

“We hope to build on it,” said Leatherwood. “We’d like to draw more people from the Jackson County and Swain County area, but I think more than anything I hope we can sustain it and continue to offer topics that are useful to women.”

 

Want to attend?

Who: Dr. Harry Davis,

ASU professor of banking

What: “Will We Have a Double - Dip?”

When: Thursday, Oct. 28, 11:30 a.m.

Where: The Gateway Club

How much: $20 chamber members,

$25 for non-members

Registration: 828.456.3021 or visit

www.haywood-nc.com

Comment

The renovation of Haywood County’s former Wal-Mart will be delayed as architects revise the project to match its budget.

Scott Donald of Padgett and Freeman Architects, who are planning the renovations for the now-county-owned building, told Haywood County commissioners at their Monday meeting that all 10 bids for construction on the project had come in over budget.

In a letter to Facilities and Maintenance Director Dale Burris, Donald estimated that at the lowest bidder’s price the total project would run $2.9 million over estimates, when including increased costs for furniture and plumbing problems. The county had budgeted $5.8 million.

Donald told commissioners that, after meetings with county staff, his recommendation was to take another look at the project. He recommended that since the projected overrun was so large, it would be best to adjust the project’s scope to fit within the budget.

“I feel like the prices were good,” said Donald. “I think we just have a little too much scope for the project, so we’re scaling it back.”

Commissioners agreed with the recommendation and voted unanimously to reject all bids and ask Padgett and Freeman to submit new drawings by early November. Commissioners plan to take new bids in early December.

The building was purchased by commissioners earlier this year with funding from a USDA rural development loan. It will eventually be home to the Haywood Department of Social Services, Health and Central Permitting Offices, whose long-time building was quickly becoming decrepit.

The board also voted to approve contracts with the three lowest bidders for Haywood Community College’s new Creative Arts Building, waterline upgrade and renovation of the General Education Building.

Possible uses for the former Bargains building were also discussed, including a dedicated senior center. The building is located next door to the county office building on Russ Avenue.

“We’ve recognized the need for a centralized senior services center,” said County Manager David Cotton. “We also evaluated the space needs specifically for the elections department, parks and recreation and the wellness center.”

However, the county has also applied for federal appropriations funding to create a senior center and have heard no word on the status of that application, so a decision on what the building will house was postponed until a later date.

Comment

Hunters showed up en masse at a Haywood commissioners meeting to express their concerns about proposed changes to the ordinances stipulating how their dogs had to be tethered.

While the revised ordinances do not include a prohibition on chaining or tethering — a point of some confusion among some in attendance — some hunters said they feared these changes would pave the way to make tethering illegal.

The ordinance does put regulations on tethering, requiring dog owners to use swivel connectors and chains “of suitable length,” which Animal Control Director Jean Hazzard described as at least 6 feet for a 45-pound dog. The proposal would also require owners to keep the area surrounding the dog free of obstacles so it can have easy access to food, water and shelter. The ordinance would also ban the use of chain and choke collars for tethering to prevent strangulation.

“I think the whole issue is that most of the hunters think that one thing is going to lead to another,” said Gary Birchfield, who spoke on behalf of the hunters.

Jeff Smith, who provided information input on the draft ordinance as a spokesperson for the Bear Hunters and Raccoon Hunters Clubs, voiced similar concerns.

“The way it reads right now, there’s nothing that’s going to affect the hunters, I assure you,” Smith said.

But he warned against forbidding chaining and tethering altogether.

“You do away with that, you’re going to have dogs running everywhere because people can’t afford to have a kennel,” he said.

Others, however, spoke in favor of the proposed changes, even advocating that they be added to in the future.

Penny Wallace, executive director of the Haywood Animal Welfare Association, urged commissioners not only to adopt the ordinances but to do more in defense of animals in Haywood County.

“I ask you to vote for the recommendations and make them effective immediately,” Wallace said, adding that this is only the tip of the iceberg on animal welfare in the county.

“Haywood County is still woefully behind the national standards for animal welfare. We are even behind the standards of our neighbor, Buncombe County,” she said.

Linda Sexton also spoke for increased animal protection laws, asking commissioners to consider eventually abolishing tethering, and introducing spay and neuter laws.

“It’s way past time if you look at how many animals are unfortunately put down in our shelters twice a week because people are not taking care of getting their dogs fixed,” said Sexton.

Some audience members were also concerned about provisions requiring owners of “vicious or dangerous animals” to keep them indoors, muzzled when outside, and away from children. Hazzard described “vicious and dangerous” as an animal who had either demonstrated dangerous behavior towards animal control staff, or one who had actually bitten or attacked.

But resident Carol Underwood took issue with that, maintaining that just because a dog attacks, it should not automatically be tagged as vicious.

“If the owner is not present to stop you entering our property, they probably will attack you or bite you through their own fear, not because they’re bad dogs,” said Underwood. “We’re conflicted with animals that are vicious that we know are mean, and animals that we love that will be aggressive to defend us.”

Commissioners are scheduled to vote on the revised ordinance at their next regular meeting on Nov. 1.

Comment

Candidates in this year’s race for District Court judge fielded questions about the job they’re seeking to fill at a judge’s forum Oct. 14 hosted jointly by The Smoky Mountain News and the Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute.

In front of a 50-person audience at Haywood Community College, candidates defended their positions and explained their views on the role of a judge in the District Court.

The forum was the second of two sponsored by the newspaper and the PPI. The first was held Oct. 12 at Western Carolina University.

Only one of the six candidates, Danya Ledford Vanhook, is currently a sitting judge. She was appointed to that post by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2009 and this will be her first election to try and retain the seat.

On Nov. 2, candidates will be vying for three open judge seats. Competing in the contest for seat one are Ledford Vanhook, who currently holds the position, and Donna Forga, a Waynesville attorney in solo practice who was employed as a factory worker before going back to school.

Seat two will be taken by either Kristina Earwood, also in solo practice, or David Sutton, a Waynesville attorney with the Kirkpatrick Law Firm. Earwood and Sutton were neck-and-neck in the primary race, with Sutton edging out Earwood by only 701 votes.

The third seat will be filled by Steve Ellis, another solo practitioner, or Roy Wijewickrama, who spent several years with the district attorney’s office before moving to his current post as a prosecutor in Cherokee.

The forum was moderated by Western Carolina University political science professor Todd Collins, and each candidate was given two minutes for each answer. The following is a selection of answers to each question.

Q: Which is more important in criminal sentencing, punishment or rehabilitation?

Steve Ellis: It usually depends on the person that’s in front of you. There’s some people that can benefit from rehabilitation. In other situations, if they’ve been before the court over and over again, the sentencing is determined by two things: the severity of the crime and what kind of criminal record the person has.

I think one of the jobs a judge has is that judgment factor, and I think experience in both the community and legal system plays into that.

Roy Wijewickrama: At the District Court level, the cases where you’re most likely to see criminal defendants receive active jail time are DWIs, domestic violence cases and child abuse cases. As a judge what I would look at — the first question I ask myself — is whether the safety of the public is at issue here? Sometimes, the punishment and rehabilitation do go hand-in-hand. I think rehabilitation is important, but at the same time the primary factor we must look at is whether the safety of the public is at issue.

Q: What steps would you take to make sure that all people are treated fairly in your courtroom?

David Sutton: That is, in my opinion, the absolute most important job we have as a District Court judge. The judge sets the tone for the entire courtroom. The judge must treat all of them with dignity and respect. If the judge does not, then it’s going to leave the door open for other individuals in the courtroom to do the same. Apply the law without prejudice to anyone. I think as a District Court judge, that’s how you set the tone in your courtroom. As long as you set the tone, then everyone else will follow.

Kristina Earwood: The District Court judges handle the volume of what I like to call the regular people. Most of the people that come in there are just the regular people that you’ll see in the grocery store or at the library. It’s very important to treat those people with respect. Its’ really important that when someone steps through the door of a courtroom, there is no color, there’s no race, there’s no economic line — justice is blind. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings. I do think it’s very important because of the impact we have on people’s lives.

Q: What do you think will be the most difficult challenge in serving as a District Court judge, and how do you think you’ll rise to that challenge?

Donna Forga: The biggest challenge will be living up to the District Court judges we have. I want to be able to pay a lot of attention to the judges and keep the fabulous degree of judges that we have now.

Danya Ledford Vanhook: The greatest challenge of the job is knowing that every piece of paper that comes before me in a case with a child – it is a child’s life. It is not always that I get to meet the child, but I rely on the expertise of others in the community. That is the greatest challenge — using and utilizing my personal experience.

Comment

Canton may be looking toward a new era of revitalization, thanks to a grant from the North Carolina Rural Center. The town was awarded $25,000 earlier this fall for the Step Up Canton program, which will formulate strategies for economic growth and development.

Comment

On a chilly Wednesday night in early October, the small parking lot of the North Hominy Community Center in Haywood County is packed out.

Comment

A First Amendment battle is not what Western Carolina University senior Justin Caudell expected when he returned to campus this fall. But Caudell, who is editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper, the Western Carolinian, found himself on the other side of the interview more than once in recent weeks.

University administrators shuttered the publication for five days in late September as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations of plagiarism by three of its writers, including Caudell. Fellow college publications and other student media advocates rallied in defense of Western’s student paper.

Comment

Though The Sylva Herald and the Western Carolinian are still at odds about whether plagiarism occurred this summer, The Smoky Mountain News conducted its own investigation into the claims that led university officials to open the inquiry that temporarily closed the paper.

Comment

It’s an overcast day, hints of early fall in the air, and Neal Howard is in her yard in Cullowhee. Her white skirt and lace-trimmed tank top are spattered with a kaleidoscope of colors, souvenirs of many days spent in this same yard, hand-dyeing yarn that has made its way to weavers, knitters and craftspeople around the region and the nation.

Howard is a weaver by trade, and an alumna of Haywood Community College’s professional crafts program, but a love of color has kept her dyeing yarn for 19 years.

“I like color,” she says, with a clear chuckle of a laugh. “I know the science behind how our eyes work and how we perceive color, but it is still magic to me when you put yellow and blue together and get green.”

“And I feel like that about orange and pink, too,” she quips, streams of dye running over her gloved hands as they squeeze the dripping ends of a skein of silk yarn, one half a creamy beige, the other now a vibrant cobalt.

Howard is using the space dyeing method, a simple process whose execution is much like its name — each space of the yarn is dipped in a dye mixture, steamed to lock in the color, washed to get rid of excess pigment and hung dry before being wound into skeins for knitting, weaving and other handcrafts.

Although yarn dyeing and weaving are now her livelihood — yarn shops around the region distribute her products, which are also for sale through her own online business, Henceforth Yarns — Howard’s love of color and fiber began long before she stumbled upon yarn-dyeing after leaving a career as a burned-out social worker.

“My mother and her mother were yarn people, and were always knitting and crocheting and tatting,” she said. “My grandmother taught me to knit when I was 5, so I started there with a love for yarn going through my fingers.”

Shortly thereafter, following an encounter with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Howard says she fell for color. Her parents  — “to their eternal credit” — put the young Howard into art lessons that launched her creative career.

All of what she dyes today — sometimes as much as much as 80 to 100 pounds a month — is silk yarn, some pure silk, some blended with other materials, because of their uniquely luxurious feel. But she was not always so enamored with the process. In fact, her first encounter with yarn dyeing was almost a disaster.

“It was awful,” she says bluntly, laughing heartily at the memory as she swiftly swishes her hand through a plastic tub filled with a shallow layer of mossy green dye. “Because it was recipes and formulas, and I won’t say it went over my head, but it went right by me.”

But after some encouragement from her then-teacher Catharine Ellis, former head of the fiber program at HCC and herself an avid dyer who literally wrote the textbook on the woven shibori method that Howard uses in much of her personal work, she took up a studio assistantship at the Penland School of Crafts. It was there that experience breathed life into the science that once failed to interest her.

Now, her business provides enough work to keep her busy, both in the new dyeing shed her family erected in her backyard last year and in the house that doubles as both home and weaving studio. It is packed with looms of various shapes and sizes, projects in process and spools of brilliant, jewel-toned thread and marked with a small sign on the door inscribed with “Neal the Weaver.”

Most of her customers, she says, are tourists and hobbyists seeking out that one skein of yarn for that one special project, and she’s currently dyeing for the upcoming Crafts Fair of the Southern Highlands and the Southeast Animal Fiber Fair, both in Asheville at the end of this month. Howard says that, while she’s not as interested in expanding her distribution, which would require additional help for what is currently a one-woman show, she sees the future of her craft in sharing her expertise.

“It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if some of it grew,” she says of her yarn business. “But I would like to help people that have some idea, but aren’t sure of their creativity.”

When asked why she’s stayed with the    business through its financial ups and downs, she says, simply “I was called to it, and I can’t help it.”

“That just sounds so hokey,” she adds, laughing, “but I moved here when I was 24 years old and had this notion that maybe I should be pursuing this art thing, and that’s the one thing that’s stuck.”

And from that, Howard has built a successful business that will always, she says, engage her.

Comment

Haywood County landowners who get a property tax break for agriculture or foresty will see a reduction in that benefit next year.

A countywide revaluation will hit the books next year, bringing home and land values in line with market values. While residential and commerical property is appraised on a case-by-case basis, those with farmland exceptions have an across-the-board value.

Next year, the value of agricultural land will go from $355 per acre to $495 per acre, up 39 percent, affecting 1,625 parcels. Horticulture will go from  $710 to $1,020 per acre, up 43 percent, affecting 56 parcels.

Those who get tax breaks for foresty will see a much higher increase, however. Not only has the value of the land increased since the last revaluation five years ago, but commissioners voted 3-2 this week to move forestry land into a higher value class, in line with recommendations from the state.

Forestry will go from $80 to $185 per acre, up 131 percent, affecting 532 parcels.

The new values are based on recommendations from the N.C. Department of Revenue, in conjunction with a state committee led by university researchers. Recommendations are given based on studies of soil quality, geography and other considerations, and commissioners then have the final say about what level values will be set.

The soils in Haywood County are ideal for growing trees, making forestry a more profitable operation, and pushing up market value for foresty lands.

Commissioners, however, were at odds over whether to accept the state’s pricier soil class for forestry land.

Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick came out in favor of higher forestry values to keep the tax burden evenly distributed across the community.

“If they [forestry land owners] are not paying a fair amount or paying on a fair value, then that means that someone else is paying more than their fair share,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’m trying to be fair to all the taxpayers, not just the ones who have property in deferred use.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger was also in favor of the higher value, saying he was wary of arbitrarily rejecting well-researched recommendations.

“I would be hesitant to just arbitrarily move around values when the entire document [provided by the state] is based on mathematical statistics and studies and scientific evidence,” Swanger said at the Monday morning meeting.

Commissioners Kevin Ensley and Skeeter Curtis voted against the increase, citing concerns about consistency in taxation year on year and reluctance to increase the tax liability of residents.

Tax Collector David Francis said, however, that the decision would have minimal impact on the county’s coffers or its farmer’s livelihoods.

“This does not amount to a great amount of revenue for the county,” Francis said. “For 600 acres of forestry, you would see approximately $300 in tax increase. To the average farmer, the impact is not going to be that great.”

Comment

Haywood County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to pitch in $25,000 toward the regional livestock market under construction in Canton, adding their name to the list of governments and organizations from around the region that have contributed to the project.

The market will offer a venue for cattlemen to sell their livestock — something the region currently lacks to the detriment of small farmers.

“I think it’s appropriate, when surrounding counties have contributed to a project within Haywood County, that we would contribute, as well,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley. Ensley proposed the dollar figure to match what Buncombe County had contributed to the market.

The money will come out of the county’s contingency fund since it was not originally part of this year’s budget.

The regional livestock market will serve 3,000 cattle producers in the entire Western North Carolina region, providing a vital service to cattle farmers left stranded when the major livestock market serving the region in Asheville closed in 2004. Haywood County is the biggest cattle producer in the mountains, accounting for nearly a quarter of all the cattle raised in WNC.

The effort has been led by WNC Communities, while the Southeastern Livestock Exchange has been selected to run the market once it opens.

The $3 million project was funded largely by the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund, Golden Leaf Foundation and N.C. Rural Center. A contribution from the Appalachian Regional Commission of $350,000 was announced this week.

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A few steps past the door at Maggie Valley’s Wheels Through Time museum, and the characteristic, unmistakable scent of a mechanic’s workshop wafts out – a heady mix of grease, motor oil, gasoline and rubber worn down by open roads.

With the vast and impressive array of motorcycles and memorabilia on display in the museum — both ancient and modern, rusted and restored — it would be easy to think that it is the perfume of these dormant machines’ pasts, reminders of their greatness in battle, their glory on the track.

But meeting Dale Walksler, the museum’s proprietor, curator and greatest fan, will prove otherwise. To him, this is a living museum. It is hard to walk more than a few yards with him before he stops to crank up one bike or another and tell its story, and he knows them all. To Walksler, the stories seem to be almost as valuable as the motorcycles themselves.

“It’s all about the story and the history,” he says. “I don’t go out and chase any old motorcycle. It has to have a story.”

And all of them do. Walking through the museum, which stretches over two floors and features special exhibits, vintage racers, military motorcycles, stunt bikes, a plethora of other machines and the accessories and memorabilia that accompany them, Walksler points out one of his newest acquisitions: a strange, 1916 Harley Davidson contraption that is driven from the sidecar.

“I’ve found nothing about it,” he says enthusiastically, but he’s already got a trip planned to the Harley archives in Milwaukee to see what he can dig up. That, he says, is one of the key features of what he does.

“Research, lots of research,” is how he says he’s gotten to know the life stories of the bikes that call the museum home, and some are the most storied motorcycles this country has produced. The knowledge that is the prize for all that research, Walksler shares freely with anyone who happens to be around. A museum patron passes, asking about a particular bike in the back corner of the museum, and Walksler’s face is alight.

“That particular motorcycle was ridden by the Jack Pine champion,” he begins, before regaling the man and his wife with the story of the bike’s win and its rider’s own history, before quickly rattling off the answers to a few more obscure questions about the history of Harley Davidson shifting.

 

A tale behind each bike

Walksler is a compact man, his tawny hair and goatee shot through with grey, who walks with purpose and talks with animation, especially when the subject is motorcycles. His knowledge is encyclopedic, though not dry, and he has the delivery of a practiced showman — a mix of enthusiasm and bravado, information and entertainment.

Passing by another couple in motorcycle gear, he stops mid-sentence to thank them for stopping by. They’re from New Hampshire, and they’re riding their way back home.

“Would you like to see the rarest motorcycle in the world?” he asks slyly, and the New Hampshirans, of course, oblige. Leading the way, he begins telling the story of the Traub, a mysterious, one-of-a-kind motorcycle about which very little is known, apart from the fact that it was found in a brick wall by a Chicago fireman in 1967.

Walksler stops next to an old, reddish-orange bike with ‘Traub’ emblazoned on the side in stylized script and entertains his audience with the tale of how he acquired the bike from fellow collector Richard Morris. Before that, he says, it passed through the hands of both Steve McQueen and his stuntman, Bud Ekins, also an aficionado.

“Would you like to see it run?” he asks, almost rhetorically, and as he cranks the ancient machine, even more visitors materialize, drawn by the shuddering, spitting, deep-bass call of the Traub that bounces and echoes, ear-splittingly amplified, off the high warehouse ceilings. The audience is growing.

The Traub is clearly one of the crown jewels in Walksler’s collection. Some people, he says proudly, come just to see it. And whether or not this is true, his excitement makes it believable, and even a cursory inquiry will reveal that it is, in fact, a remarkably rare piece of antiquity.

But as he leads the impromptu tour group around the floor, his manner is surprisingly low on favoritism. The consummate collector, he is enamored of his entire compendium equally, and he’s been adding to it for most of his life.

“The first bike I ever owned was a 1957 Harley,” he says. “It was $25.” When he bought a bike off another high schooler for roughly the same price, and promptly sold one of its parts for $125, he was sold.

A shop followed in 1970, and a Harley dealership in southern Illinois sprung up a few years later. Along the way, Walksler was meticulously building his collection, anticipating the day he would share it with the public at large.

“Being selective is really important,” he says. He judges his acquisitions by three criteria: its rareness and desirability, make — he collects only American machines – and the story behind the piece.

“And then I’ve still got to make it run,” he says, grinning as he perches reading glasses atop his head and sets down a stack of photos sent to him by one of many hopeful sellers. And indeed, most of the museum’s specimens do at least crank, even the most geriatric and unlikely candidates.

In fact, he just completed the inaugural Motorcycle Cannonball — a jaunt across the nation raced exclusively on bikes that are more than 95 years old — on a 1915 Harley Davidson from the collection.

 

Unrivaled passion

Wheels Through Time, in its first incarnation, began in 1993 in Mount Vernon, Illinois, where it enjoyed a 13-year run before Walksler packed it in and shipped off to Maggie Valley, where he set up shop because, as he points out, it’s where the motorcyclists already come.

“It’s a known dot on the map,” he says, launching into an anecdote to illustrate the point.

“My brother was in a meeting, and he says, ‘my little brother is moving to Maggie Valley,’ and three people — this is in Chicago — said, ‘Hey, I know where that is!’”

Since his arrival in 2006, Walksler hasn’t exactly enjoyed an untarnished relationship with the community. Frustration with what Walksler perceives as a lack of reverence for his museum by locals even prompted him to consider another move last year.

But back on the floor, he has only words and eyes for the collection that has sent him into relative prominence in the motorcycle community.

A member of the little group — an elderly man in a denim shirt, jeans held up with black suspenders, worn riding boots an a red cap that identifies him as the St. Louis Bevo Beer Packaging Supervisor — pipes up to ask if there are any flat-track bikes. His name is Ed Gahn, and he is a 71-year-old flat-track racing veteran himself.

“I got to see hospitals all over the Midwest,” he quips, laughing as he folds his arms across his chest.

Of course, replies Walksler. He quickly drums up three or four names that Gahn recognizes, and when a particularly legendary and difficult bike — Leaping Lena — is mentioned, Walksler bids the group to follow him, for that same bike, he says, is in the back corner, and both men have ridden it.

And so went the morning — a spontaneous show featuring his most treasured highlights and history of American motorcycle culture, with Walksler acting as emcee, ringmaster and professor. He summons a battery of dates and figures, names and stories, developments and disasters with keen alacrity, in his element among his beloved machines, exuding charisma as he coaxes half a dozen motorcycles to life for the benefit of his elated spectators.

But not everyone is as pleased with Walksler, or his efforts locally. The enmity between him and some in the local community is no secret, and he isn’t timid about sharing his disdain for what he perceives as a less-than-welcoming reception he and his museum have garnered from some tourism and business leaders.

“I’m not the kind of person who’s going to change my focus and life for the people who don’t get it,” he says, adding that he feels no support from the local tourism entities or local government. “I honestly think a lot of them think ‘I guess we already get enough of them [motorcyclists] through here, so that’ll do.’”

When asked why he chose to keep the museum in Maggie Valley despite conflicts within the community, he answered that “the real reason is that I’ve made as many adjustments as I’m willing to make.”

As far as an end to the hostility is concerned, Walksler says he is open to better relationships locally, but seems less inclined to proactive cultivation.

“My door is open all the time,” he says.

But despite his personal quarrels on the local scene, his offerings to those inside and out of the motorcycle community are a unique, well-curated collection that reflects the passion and eagerness of its owner.

“This isn’t a motorcycle museum,” he says, “it’s a museum of American history and culture.”

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