Located atop a nearly 3,000-foot mountain in Cullowhee, the Jackson County Airport was built to avoid the low-lying fog that often shrouds the Tuckasegee River Valley. Its unique location provides pilots with an alternative landing strip to lower lying airports like Macon County’s.
However, as a result of its location on a flattened mountaintop, the airport has had to continually deal with issues relating to erosion and runoff. Shortly after its completion in 1976, a landslide forced the closure of approximately 500 feet of the runway. The slide progressively worsened until a repaving project finally restored the runway to 3,003 feet.
In 1990, a storm destroyed the two-story terminal building as it was awaiting renovation. But perhaps the most damning blow came in 2005, when the airport’s inability to cope with a heavy rainstorm resulted in a lawsuit by neighbors on the receiving end of a small landslide.
While commissioners had grown weary of supporting the airport, the county responded to the lawsuit by giving the airport $65,000 in 2007 that triggered the release of approximately $600,000, or four years’ worth, of federal matching grants. The airport authority hired engineers to study the site and make a recommendation.
County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who sits on the airport authority, said the study showed the site was structurally sound but incapable of dealing with heavy rain.
“What was determined was the airport proper is stable, but the problem was it could not handle a major rain event properly. It simply cascaded down the mountain and affected local property owners,” Westmoreland said.
The airport authority subsequently used approximately $500,000 to create a detention pond system capable of handling major rain events and also to upgrade the airport’s communication and approach lighting systems.
Macon County has joined a growing trend in deciding to postpone its property revaluation process for two years.
The county was due for revaluation next year, but based on the testimony of its tax administrator, Richard Lightner, the board of commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the reval until 2013.
“We have to give the market more time to stabilize so we can determine where the market actually is,” Lightner said.
In 1998 the county adopted a four-year revaluation cycle to keep up with rapidly moving property values during a period when real estate values were rising 10 to 15 percent each year.
Lightner argued that sluggish real estate sales since 2007 didn’t provide an adequate benchmark to undertake an accurate property assessment right now.
“Based on the numbers and the trends in the market right now, I would suggest we not do a re-assessment until 2013,” Lightner said. “The market’s just not right now. There’s a lot of stuff listed, but sales are slow.”
Macon County Manager Jack Horton agreed with Lightner’s assessment of the situation.
“I think there’s not enough sales between last year and this year in order to build a schedule of values,” Horton said.
Lightner believes a revaluation this year would result in skewed assessed values that could increase the number of tax appeals and unfairly burden residential property taxpayers.
Lightner said the county went through contentious revaluations in 1975 and 1983, when property values jumped dramatically, and he suggested reassessing values this year could lead to a heated review season for a different reason.
Essentially, he said, a revaluation now would reflect downward movement in the commercial market and stable values in the residential market, which would shift the property tax burden further onto residential taxpayers, a less than ideal outcome at a time when the county’s property taxpayers are already stretched to their limits.
Lightner explained that property values around the county are only slightly higher on average than the county’s assessed values.
He added that the 2009 sales ratio, which measures the relation between the county’s appraised value and the selling price, is still at over 97 percent, within the statistical error margin.
When the ratio drops below 90 percent, utility companies are eligible for tax breaks that can cost the county big money, but Lightner said with the market slow, there is nothing to worry about on that front.
The county has carried out its revaluation process in-house since 1998 in a move to cut costs. Haywood voted earlier this year to postpone its revaluation process, also citing similar reasons. Swain, meanwhile, had undertaken a countywide reappraisal but voted not to enact it during the recession, deciding to wait another four years instead.
Pinnacle Park, a favorite recreational haunt in Sylva that was once home to the town’s watershed, will benefit from a county effort aimed at mapping and restoring its trail system.
Last Thursday Sylva’s town board signed off on a cooperative deal that would enlist Jackson County’s recreation staff and greenway volunteers to create an inventory of the park’s trail system, including GPS mapping and recommendations for restoration efforts.
Sylva commissioner Sarah Graham, who represents the town on the Jackson County Greenways Project commission, said the new agreement is an unexpected boon that would speed up the pace of developing the parks’ trail system.
“They’re offering a lot of help. I think we’ll get a ton of benefit out of this. It just goes hand in hand with what we’ve been talking about in becoming a walkable town,” Graham said.
The county and town had been working closely on a greenway master plan.
The 1,100-acre Pinnacle Park is within a 10-minute drive for Sylva residents and is a popular destination for hiking, biking and trail riding. The tract once served as the town’s source of drinking water. The town placed it in a conservation easement in 2007 with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in exchange for a $3.5 million grant from the N.C. Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Pinnacle Park, while a favorite among locals in the know, is home to but a few rough trails. Until recently it lacked trail markers and decent parking, improvements which the town has already tackled over the past year with the help of volunteers with the nonprofit Pinnacle Park Foundation.
The town has been making minor improvements from trail signs to foot bridges in a piecemeal fashion by using interest money accrued from the environmental trust fund grant. The new arrangement will add county resources to the mix and speed up the timetable for a finished trail system.
“Slowly over the years we’ve budgeted money out of the interest to improve the park,” Graham said. “It’s just an amazing opportunity to speed up the timeframe for the park’s improvements.”
Emily Elders, recreation project manager for Jackson County, said Pinnacle Park was identified as a priority in the Jackson County Greenways Project master plan adopted in August.
“Pinnacle is one of those places that’s close in so it’s accessible and it was something we felt was really important so we made it a priority in the master plan,” Elder said.
Fixing up trails
The existing trail system, which has developed more or less spontaneously needs significant work, according to Tim Johnson, regional trail representative for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Johnson provided a report on the current state of the trails, which included a to-do list. Elders said a hands-on action plan is exactly what her volunteer base needs.
“He really recommended that we look at adding some of these things because trail-building is its own profession, and we wanted to lend them the resources we have,” Elders said.
Under the agreement, Elders and the county’s recreation facilities manager, Bryan Cagle, will work in consultation with Johnson to GPS map the existing trail system, identify areas in need of repair or cleanup, and make recommendations for new trails and trail closures. Some of the existing trails have as much as 70 percent slope, which isn’t ideal in terms of safety or erosion control.
The board’s vote also included the stipulation that the county include the Pinnacle Park Foundation in its planning efforts. Elders said the Pinnacle Park Foundation board has already signed off on the mapping of the park and will be closely involved moving forward.
For Elders, the cooperative agreement is a way to mobilize a volunteer-base that has had little to do as the Greenway Project works to secure easements for plots along the Tuckaseegee River .
“It’s actually a really good opportunity for us as a greenway group because we have this master plan with all of these long-term projects and the process can start to feel drawn out,” said Elders. “It really helps to have a project under way in an existing space to get our volunteers involved again and keep the public momentum going.”
Elders started as a full-time project coordinator for the county in September 2008, and since then, she has been able to work directly with the municipalities involved in developing the greenway system.
She said the collaboration between the Town of Sylva and the county on Pinnacle Park has been an example for how the greenway project can come to fruition.
“It’s been really excellent. Both boards have been really involved in the planning process,” Elders said. “We’re trying to work with each of the town boards to implement the master plan and get the projects in place.”
According to the plan Elders presented to Sylva’s board, the Jackson County Greenway Project will present a vetted plan to the town for the Pinnacle Park trail system no later than March 1, 2010.
How to get there
Make a left on Fisher Creek Road a short distance out of town. The road gets rough and steep, but keep going until it dead-ends at the trail head.
Macon County’s schools will get a long-awaited upgrade, but its taxpayers are going to have to pay extra for it.
County commissioners voted last Tuesday to raise the property tax rate by one-and-a-half cents to build a $15 million elementary school. The new tax rate will go into effect next year. The move will also fund several smaller school construction projects contained in a 10-year capital plan.
County Manager Jack Horton said the plan was a conservative way to accomplish much-needed school improvements.
“These are what I would call essential and necessary construction projects following the long-term school renovation plan,” Horton said. “There aren’t any frills here. This is as conservative as we could come up with.”
The construction of North Macon School will consolidate the two existing elementary schools of Cowee and Iotla, in addition to accommodating around 70 students now attending East Franklin Elementary.
As a result of the consolidation, Cowee’s grade school will go out of service and the current building at Iotla will be razed so the new school can be built in its place.
In November 2007, the public narrowly voted down a $42 million bond issue for school construction. Plans called for building two new schools — one for grades K-4 and one for grades five and six — and doing away with three smaller schools of Cullasaja, Iotla and Cowee.
The bond measure failed by a near miss, but the school board and county commissioners decided to move forward with the construction anyway. A fifth-and sixth-grade school and the expansion at East Franklin were completed, but the new North Macon elementary was temporarily put on hold due to budget shortfalls related to the recession.
The commissioners’ decision to fund the construction of the North Macon School through an increase in property taxes also included plans to allocate $1.8 million for the Nantahala K-12 school, to be obtained through a low-interest loan program made available through the stimulus package. The county will also move $1.3 million from school reserve to fund repairs and renovations at Franklin High School.
Commissioners acknowledged that raising taxes during a recession was risky. But with construction costs at an all-time low and the availability of attractive interest rates through federal stimulus loans, the county’s remaining school facilities needs could be accomplished at an affordable price tag.
“The need has been there, and construction costs are at an all-time low,” Horton said. “The stimulus money and the low-interest loans make it attractive to do these projects now.”
Gambling on the economy
Commissioner Jim Davis, who represented the county board alongside Chairman Ronnie Beale on the school liaison committee, said the vote to raise taxes was a calculated risk.
“It is a gamble. We’re gambling that the economy is not going to get worse, and we don’t know that,” Davis said. “Macon County is in an extremely good position to weather the storm, and I don’t want to jeopardize that. There’s a reason why we have a good fund balance and that’s because our commissioners have historically been careful about how they spend the county’s money.”
School Superintendent Dan Brigman said the funding plan approved by the board will make the district safer and provide a better learning environment. With the construction of the North Macon School, children across the district won’t be limited in their choices of school because of capacity issues.
“It’s basically going to set up a situation where there is a school choice option with capacity not being a barrier,” Brigman said.
In addition, Brigman said the district would save $250,000 per year in operating costs by consolidating the schools, as well as making it free of mobile classrooms for the first time in years.
Brigman said the board’s vote last week was the culmination of years of effort by the school liaison committee that he regards as a triumph of cooperation between the school board and the county. The school liaison committee incorporated two members from the school board, two from the county board, and financial and executive officers from the district and the county.
“There has been a partnership existing between the two boards that is like nothing I’ve experienced in the six counties and two states I’ve served as an educator,” said Brigman.
But while the vote was unanimous in the end, a lively debate arose over whether the board was going far enough to improve the county’s school facilities.
Commissioner Bobby Kuppers argued passionately that an additional half cent tax increase could allow the county to renovate the gym and install artificial turf on the football field at Franklin High as well.
Brigman said the 52-year-old gym is too small to accommodate community events and the natural turf field couldn’t take the traffic of year-round use for student and community activities.
“I think we’re gambling that we’re at the bottom of the curve. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about a cent and a half,” Kuppers said. “The only reason I’m bringing this up is I want the seed to be planted that for a half a cent more we should finish the job.”
Beale replied that while the high school might need the renovations, they weren’t part of the liaison committee’s discussion.
“We have met for four years to figure out a plan that would work and never has anyone mentioned a gym,” said Beale. “I’m not saying it’s not needed. I’m not saying that at all.”
Davis said he was already uncomfortable raising taxes when taxpayers were hurting, and he didn’t believe the athletic facilities should be prioritized the same way as instructional facilities.
“My comfort zone is stretched to go ahead and build this school now to raised taxes 1.5 cents,” Davis said. “We’re trying to make up for a lack of planning in the past.”
A string of church break-ins that had captured widespread attention in Macon County came to an end last week when law enforcement arrested four teenage suspects in conjunction with the crimes.
Between Oct. 5 and Nov. 8 no less than 10 churches were broken into, the perpetrators committing a variety of acts of petty theft and vandalism ranging from stealing a pack of hot dogs in one case to setting a rug on fire in another.
Investigators from the Macon County Sheriff’s Department and the Franklin Police Department worked together to investigate the crimes. While the cases are still considered open, a release issued last week by Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland confirmed that at least some of the suspects arrested on Nov. 18 have cooperated with investigators in detailing the extent of the crimes.
Franklin residents Kathleen Stewart, 18, Marissa Lynn Harmon, 19, Paul Joseph Quinn, 20, Caitlyn Margaret Capoccia, 18, were taken into custody and charged with felony breaking and entering a place of worship, felony larceny, injury to real property and injury to personal property.
Over the course of the month-long spree Liberty Baptist Church, Bethesda Baptist Church, Prentiss Baptist Church, Riverview Methodist Church, Rose Creek Baptist Church, Dryman Chapel United Methodist Church, Clark’s Chapel United Methodist Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church, and Olive Hill Gospel Church all suffered break-ins that included theft, vandalism, or both.
The Jackson County airport has reached a crossroads.
For years the little aviation field above the clouds has been a financial burden on the county. Now, with its governing body dwindling in number and its revenues lagging behind its operating costs, the board of commissioners has to decide whether to invest in its expansion or put a lid on it.
For County Commissioner Tom Massie, the decision is pretty clear.
“The airport has been somewhat of a millstone around the board’s neck since the 1970s,” Massie said. “A lot of people in Jackson County don’t even think we need an airport.”
Massie and fellow Commissioner Joe Cowan see the airport as a county service that is more a luxury than necessity.
“Just to cut to the chase, a lot of people have felt from the beginning with the airport that it really couldn’t be justified in terms of taxpayer dollars when less than 1 percent of the people in the county use it,” Cowan said.
But defenders of the airport argue that it’s fallen victim to local politics and bad luck, and that it offers more than just a luxury playground for handful of private plane owners.
Jim Rowell, a local pilot who sat on the airport authority before being removed and reinstated in 2005, believes the board is punishing the airport for what amounts to political grievances.
Rowell said the airport is an important piece of infrastructure that the county can maintain without a huge investment, thanks to state and federal matching grants. Essentially, the county is eligible for $150,000 of matching grants each year in return for an annual investment of just under $17,000.
“If you want to know the value of an airport to a county, talk to a county that doesn’t have one,” Rowell said. “I don’t understand the mentality of county commissioners who will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits they know they can’t win, give large raises to their highest paid employees when they can’t afford it, and they can’t come up with $17,000 for the airport.”
But the argument over the airport’s future is not just about money. It’s about whether the county can forgive its past.
Economic development or financial drain
In 2005, a major rainstorm became the airport’s latest calamity. It cost the county more than $60,000 in legal fees to beat a lawsuit brought by neighboring property owners whose land was inundated with mud and runoff from the airport.
The county eventually won its lawsuit, but the fallout and expenses are still on the minds of the commissioners, who see the airport as a drain on the budget and not as an engine of economic development.
“We’ve virtually been in lawsuits from day one,” said Massie. “Whatever it’s generated we’ve probably paid out to lawyers. I don’t believe anyone can point to concrete proof that it has created economic development.”
Bill Austin, a local pilot who has been heavily involved with the airport authority, said the airport has both direct and indirect economic development benefits, basically because it offers a way for businesses and property owners to find Jackson County.
Austin relocated to the area after his retirement from the military because of its airport, he said.
“I knew nothing about Jackson County when I bought my first piece of property here,” Austin said. “I saw the airport on the chart. I flew in and said ‘This is it’.”
Austin believes the airport has played a role in bringing in high-profile national corporations like Wal-Mart, because their site development scouts had an easy way into the county. Austin has seen executives with Harrah’s Casino fly in and out of the airport, more anecdotal proof of its importance to the region.
Rowell doesn’t understand how a regional airport that carries the county’s name could be such a low priority for its commissioners.
“This is the Jackson County airport,” said Rowell. “One way or another you’ve got to put some money into it. The airport is working hard to make itself a viable entity and all they need is matching money.”
The ongoing struggle between the airport authority and the county commissioners over the $17,000 required to release the federal matching grants has come to a head.
Board members like Cowan and Massie argue that the airport should generate its own revenue to meet the match. Rowell and Austin argue they would already be self-sufficient if not for the landslide following heavy rains and the county’s stinginess.
The power struggle
The current airport authority’s chairman, Greg Hall, announced recently that he was stepping down from his position at the end of the year. The airport board was already operating with just three of the five members it is supposed to have, due to failure by the county commissioners to appoint the additional members.
Hall’s departure will leave only the board with just two members –– County Manager Ken Westmoreland and Sylva business owner Jason Kimenker.
Kimenker appeared at the board’s meeting last week to urge them to appoint new members to the authority.
“I am here to make it pretty clear that we are having trouble at the airport with only three out of the five people were are supposed to have,” Kimenker said. “As of January 2010, we will have only two members. I would appreciate it so much if the county commissioners could have appointments made appropriately so we can run the airport as we have been tasked to do so.”
The airport authority is a state-sanctioned governing body independent of the county. Its original charter set it up as a self-promulgating board with the power to name replacements when a member stepped down.
The county board, unhappy with its lack of oversight, took over the role of appointing airport members in 2007, a move that required special state legislation setting up the new power structure.
Under the new setup, the authority recommends its picks for the board, but ultimately, the commissioners can appoint whoever they want.
Rowell said the board has stood by and watched as the authority’s numbers have dwindled, however.
“Three times the airport authority has submitted names to the (commissioners), and they’ve not chose either of the names nor have they brought forward anyone else,” Rowell said.
At a time when the airport is in need of open, honest discussion, Rowell believes the board is circling its wagons.
“The trouble now is you don’t have the pilots and the public and the commissioners and all the stakeholders sitting down to say what are we going to do with this thing?” said Rowell. “But that’s exactly what we were doing a few years ago.”
The county board and the airport authority worked closely together at one point, working out a 10-year plan and setting aside money from N.C. Department of Transportation grants for the potential construction of revenue-generating “T-hangars,” which are essentially personal parking spaces for private aircraft.
In 2005, the relationship between the commissioners and the airport authority fell apart when the commissioners removed two members — its chair Tom McClure and Rowell.
Rowell said the political struggle that resulted in his removal was merely fallout from a separate controversy over the Economic Development Committee, which McClure chaired as well. The county decided McClure was doing a poor job heading up economic development, and in the process of removing him from that post unseated him from the airport authority for good measure.
Rowell and McClure sued the county over their removal and won. Rowell believes bad feelings from that power struggle have made certain board members opposed to the airport’s best interests.
Where to go from here?
Earlier this month, Cowan said the board needed to revisit the issue of the airport and come up with a mission for the airport authority before appointing replacement members. He said the commissioners would take up the issue at a workshop in December.
The decision facing the commissioners is essentially what to do with an airport they don’t want to run. Because of commitments attached to federal matching grants, the county can’t shut its airport down without paying back nearly a million dollars.
The airport authority has urged the board to release its last two years of matching grant funding. According to Westmoreland, the authority has the potential to tap into as much as $300,000 in grant money currently on the table — essentially two years worth of federal allocations — if the county is willing to put up a 10 percent match.
Coupled with existing money in the airport’s reserves, the grants could fund construction of eight T-hangars at a total cost of $424,000. The airport has more than 50 people on a waiting list for permanent hangars for their private planes. Austin said the hangars would generate about $24,000 per year of revenue to supplant operating costs at the airport.
Meanwhile N.C. DOT and the FAA have indicated they would supply grant money to give the airport a GPS approach system if the airport would widen its runway by 10 feet, a project that would cost around the same amount as the hangars.
“The authority is going to have to make a decision which way it goes first,” Westmoreland said. “We don’t have the money to do both at once.”
Massie, though, said the board is not in the mood to spend any more money on the airport besides what is required to protect the public.
“We will do what is necessary to make sure the flying public is safe and the citizens of Jackson County are safe, but I don’t think our board is going to participate in any kind of expansion of those facilities,” Massie said.
Commissioner William Shelton said he is also against any expansion of the airport. He believes the airport is useful to the county on some level, but he is concerned that it has become a drain on the budget.
“Anytime you can spend $16,000 to get $150,000, that is hard to pass up,” Shelton said of the grant. “But it is still tax dollars so you have to justify it to the taxpayer. So how do you justify it?”
Austin rejects that reasoning.
“$16,000 a year out of a $61 million budget? Is there really such a drain on the taxpayer?” Austin said.
A major sticking point in the argument is that for a long time the airport authority has talked about becoming a self-sufficient entity, capable of covering its operating costs and supplying the money to obtain matching grants, but that goal has yet to materialize.
Recently, the airport suffered another freak setback when its brand new lighting system was hit by a lightning strike. New lights would cost nearly $150,000.
The airport’s defenders claim that if the county releases its portion of the matching money, then the airport will be back on the road to self-sufficiency. But the commissioners say they’ve heard that line before, which is why they refused to release the matching grant last year.
Dr. David Trigg, medical director at the Good Samaritan Clinic of Jackson County, doesn’t know if he should do more or less to treat the uninsured. While he and the other volunteer doctors at free clinics are their patients’ only option for health care, he sometimes feels they’re the ones propping up a broken system.
“You feel like the boy with his finger in the dyke,” Trigg said. “Not only is it not the solution to the problem, but it paralyzes you. But don’t tell our patients that. They don’t have any alternative.”
Trigg has seen the failure of health care for the poor from a number of angles. As an emergency room doctor who currently works part-time intermittent shifts in Cherokee, he has seen the way uninsured chronic care patients clog the country’s critical care facilities.
“The ER is the safety net for people who don’t have insurance, and it’s not sustainable,” Trigg said. “If emergency rooms keep getting busier, not only will the poor suffer because they’ll continue to get boarded, but the rich will begin to suffer because they’ll be so inundated they won’t get to the critical cases,” said Trigg.
As a volunteer primary care provider at a free clinic, he has seen how people without insurance work to get better, to work some more to pay their bills, without ever having any real hope of getting insured.
“The patients will break your heart. Let’s talk about a man who works three jobs and his employers deliberately won’t give him 40 hours per week so they don’t have to provide insurance,” said Trigg.
As a teaching doctor at Western Carolina University’s health science program, he has seen how the insurance reimbursement system discourages doctors from going into primary care, creating shortages.
“Part of reform has to be — not debt forgiveness — but scholarships for doctors who go into primary care,” said Trigg. “I think a lot of young people would go a year for a year. You have to pay primary care providers more and specialists less.”
For Trigg, the fact that North Carolina has 77 free clinics — the most in the nation — is neither an indictment nor a credit. It’s a reality.
“Anytime someone gets into the free clinic, they realize — consciously or subconsciously — that the system is broken. They’re not necessarily politically motivated though because they’re in survival mode,” said Trigg.
Trigg thinks part of the reason the debate over health care is so contentious is because the people who know the system is broken are too disillusioned to join the discussion.
In many ways, the health care debate is as simple as the separation between rich and poor, and the poor don’t often tell their own story as well as others tell it for them.
Becky Olson, Good Samaritan Clinic of Jackson County’s executive director, said her impression of the clinic’s patients is they don’t believe their government listens to them, so they don’t bother speaking to it.
“What I do feel and see here is a real sense of disenfranchisement,” Olson said. “I’m not sure how many of our patients vote because there is a feeling it wouldn’t make a difference. The real voices in this discussion on both sides are coming from people who don’t have to worry in the same way about where their health care comes from.”
Olson, a registered nurse who has spent the last 30 years working in a variety of settings from labor and delivery to long-term care, began volunteering at Good Samaritan when the free clinic opened in 2001 and became executive director in 2006. She is increasingly frustrated that health care has become a politicized discussion about costs, when the human cost of failing to provide affordable health care is decimating people’s lives and increasing the gap between rich and poor.
“The bottom line right now is it’s not working for a significant part of the population,” Olson said. “I haven’t heard anyone who can say with certainty how much it might cost or how much it might save to change the system.”
For Olson the issue is simple. The patients she sees everyday shouldn’t have to wait in lines at free clinics to get treated for everyday health issues like asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and back pain.
“This is not the way that health care ought to be gotten. If our clients had a better way into the system, we would with great pleasure close the doors,” Olson said.
For a long time, health care providers stayed out of the debate over health care policy. In general, doctors and nurses are practical people focused on their work, but Olson has grown increasingly exasperated by the argument that the government shouldn’t pay to provide care to the poor.
“That kind of argument ... if you don’t think the government should be running programs for poor folks, then maybe you shouldn’t take Medicare,” Olson said.
While Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, was cleared two weeks ago by the House Ethics Committee of any wrongdoing related to a Tennessee real estate deal, controversy erupted again a week later when the Tennessee Valley Authority released a report that showed he’d been lying to the media for months.
Shuler’s lack of candor is likely to hound him in the run-up to next year’s election, especially given the fact that his only response has been a brief statement citing his exoneration in three separate investigations by government entities.
“This issue is closed and Congressman Shuler has nothing further to say on the matter,” the statement said.
After being cleared, Shuler has no pressing reason to explain his interactions with the TVA. Shuler has an ownership stake in a development in East Tennessee and was accused of using his influence in a land swap with TVA to gain better lake access.
But for months he has been adamant that he had no personal contact with the TVA over the matter, a fact plainly contradicted in the newest report.
“The appearance of preferential treatment was exacerbated by: (1) Shuler calling TVA’s CEO Tom Kilgore complaining about the lack of action on the permit; and (2) Shuler’s representatives dropping Shuler’s name with TVA employees,” the redacted report said.
An internal TVA communication included with the report shows that Shuler may have even threatened Kilgore with a lawsuit over the land swap delay.
The report still concludes that Shuler did nothing wrong, even suggesting he may have been held to a higher standard because of his position. The report noted TVA routinely granted land swaps to developers.
The question now –– posed by the TVA Inspector General Richard Moore in his report –– is why Shuler lied in the first place.
“The most astonishing aspect of the Blackberry Ridge transaction is how the parties have created a justified suspicion of their dealings with each other. Specifically, if all of this was above board, why did TVA and Shuler feel compelled to tell the media that there was no contact between the congressman and TVA in relation to ... the transaction. There obviously was,” Moore wrote.
After two unsuccessful attempts at creating a comprehensive land-use plan, Macon County’s commissioners have directed staff to take another bite of the apple.
As County Planner Derek Roland travels from community to community asking the public for input on what amounts to a visioning document that will guide the county’s growth for the next 20 years, he’s had to contend with the community’s sense of mistrust.
“Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same operation over and over again and expecting a different result. How are we to expect a different result this time?” said Larry Starr, a resident.
Roland appeared at a forum in Franklin last Thursday sponsored by the League of Women Voters as part of a public outreach effort aimed at encouraging citizens to submit their opinions in survey form to the county’s Comprehensive Plan Committee.
Accompanied by Macon County Planning Board members Susan Ervin and Larry Stenger, Roland’s visit had another purpose, too –– to convince people that their voices matter.
Ervin urged the crowd of 20 or so people gathered at the luncheon meeting to speak freely with Roland, who has the task of managing the public input program and will ultimately administer any ordinances that affect zoning.
“I realize that many of you are highly skeptical, including me in some ways, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to put aside your skepticism and ask difficult questions,” Ervin said.
But the crowd gathered in Tartan Hall also wanted Roland to know that he had inherited a credibility issue, because of the county commissioners perceived unwillingness to act on constituents’ wishes.
“Most of the people in my community don’t know who’s on the board, and furthermore, they don’t care because they know their voices won’t be heard,” said Betty Wallace, a resident of south Macon County.
Others in the crowd were plainly skeptical that the county’s leadership had changed its tune since it conducted its last comprehensive plan, which the board of commissioners ultimately did not adopt. Since that time the county has seen a number of high-profile development issues that the planning efforts were aimed at avoiding, namely the failure of the road system at Wildflower, a mountainside megadevelopment, and the construction of an asphalt plant near residential property just outside of Franklin.
“I trusted a lot of people in this county, and they put an asphalt plant in my front door,” said Joyce Starr, after the meeting in Franklin last week. “I just felt absolutely betrayed.”
Roland delivered a PowerPoint presentation, fielded questions, and listened to recriminations. Then, he asked people to buy into the new process, and by the end of the meeting he was answering substantive questions, a testament either to the fact that people who care about issues will always care about those issues or to Roland’s own willingness to take punches without firing back.
“Talking to some people, they feel in the past the county government has ignored their concerns and largely disregarded their feelings concerning planning,” Roland said. “It’s important to know that we have a commission at this point that cares about what the citizens think. This board believes the voice of Macon County needs to be included in the planning process. The past is the past and those plans didn’t work, but this is different and this one will work.”
Roland said commissioners asked him to create a public input model — so surely they intend to use it.
A finished plan is more than a year away. Five subcommittees have been created to work on various components of the plan. Meanwhile, public opinions are being collected through surveys and at community meetings to guide the subcommittee’s work.
“I’ve looked at a lot of comprehensive plans, and this is the most extensive public input process I’ve seen,” Roland said. “We’re giving people a number opportunities to provide input to the plan.”
A New Balance
Stenger, who has served on the planning board for the past six years, said he has seen a change in the mindset of residents about planning. In the past, a stark divide separated long-time natives who craved economic development and transplants favoring environmental stewardship.
“There is some commonality. The reason the heritage people are here and the reason people move here is the beauty, so we have to protect that,” Stenger said.
In part, Stenger said the change of heart in the community is a result of the harrowing facts of the situation. Macon County had 23,499 people in 1990, 33,005 in 2009, and projections show the county could have more than 46,000 people by 2029.
With a water hungry metropolis to its south in Atlanta, and Cherokee’s booming casino –– which attracted over 4 million visitors last year –– to the north, Macon County can no longer avoid the issue of how to cope with development.
“Density drives the issue, and I see that now there seems to be a willingness on the part of the planning board and county government to entertain the opinions of the people,” said Stenger.
Roland, who grew up in Macon County, agrees.
“I think people realize that future growth has implications and can have negative effects,” Roland said. “They want to be able to have input rather than having the dollar determine that for them.”
The comprehensive plan will ultimately be hammered out in five committees, each using information gathered during the public input process to inform its decisions. The committees are to address a range of issues from affordable housing, to planning and zoning, to transportation and public services.
But at last week’s meeting the crowd was most interested in determining how serious Roland and the board are about controlling development.
“One of the things that worries me about the county is the old 1950s mindset that growth is good at any cost,” said Franklin Alderman Bob Scott.
Wallace showed that farmers are just as concerned as second-homers about the nature of Macon’s growth.
“Our efforts in planning since the 1950s have been geared to commercial interests, not rural interests,” Wallace said. “I’d like the planning board to decide how many more tourists we want in Macon County? Do we want 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?”
Ervin, who acted as a mediator during the session, said the county’s population has never been as growth-obsessed as its leaders.
“I think there has overall, in the general population, been a lot less infatuation with growth than there has been among the county commissioners,” Ervin said.
Roland has already visited more than eight community groups in similar forums across the county to talk about the plan and encourage residents to fill out the surveys the committees will use as feedback. He has plans to visit at least five more in coming months.
So far, he said he has heard people express the need for a balanced approach to planning.
“I think the thing I’m seeing the most is we have to find a balance between fostering economic development and preserving the land that makes Macon County unique,” said Roland.
Figuring out the measure of the balance will be where the rubber hits the road in the planning process. Roland said he wants to see the results of the process before he draws conclusions.
“We’ll just have to see the results before we make conclusions about how the vision has changed,” said Roland.
Over the past three years the applicant pool at Western Carolina University has nearly tripled. The increase in prospective students signals a success story in outreach and marketing, and it may also mark a transitional moment for the school.
According to Sam Miller, vice chancellor for academic affairs, WCU has capitalized on a new recruiting model.
“What accounted for it was we completely changed the way we did our admissions process,” said Miller.
Beginning in 2008, the university contracted with a marketing firm that specializes in college admissions to help increase its applicant pool.
“The big difference was in the past, we would mail our admissions material to a list we purchased from SAT or some other entity and that was the first time a student had heard of Western Carolina University,” said Miller. “Now we’re reaching out to students through a variety of means in their sophomore year in high school.”
According to Miller, the school’s 2007 re-branding strategy and the increased visibility of some of its programs –– like the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band –– laid the groundwork for success even before the new admissions procedures were in place.
Once the new processes were implemented, the applications began to roll in. In 2006, WCU received 4,830 applicants from prospective freshmen. This year administrators project the number will be close to 14,500.
Because of the state’s financial straits, admissions staff has had to cope with the volume without adding personnel. According to Mark Anderson, who manages the admissions office, they’ve had to fill the gap by using technology more intelligently and improving communication.
“We work harder, but much smarter and more efficiently,” Anderson said. “Success breeds success, and our staff members are very proud of the work they do.”
The new recruiting system has also allowed the admissions staff to target prospective students who have already expressed strong interest in the university and lure them to campus for open houses and other events.
That point of contact makes for a better ratio between applications and admitted students, which is an important part of growing enrollment.
“Attracting students who have expressed interest in WCU yields a larger number of admitted students,” Anderson said. “At this date, we are on target to grow undergraduate enrollment for a second straight year.”
WCU has been targeted by the state university system for growth, and Miller said it’s prepared to meet its enrollment goals.
“Clearly some of the larger UNC campuses are probably not looking to grow much more because they’re about as big as they want to be,” Miller said.
On Saturday, Anderson’s staff welcomed 1,136 visitors to the campus for the second of its fall open houses. The visits result in students who know what they’re getting when they sign up to come to WCU.
“What our staff is hearing — whether during an Open House, a campus tour or one of our regional recruitment events across the state — is that people are attracted by the affordability WCU offers and the dynamic, unique blend of academic majors available at WCU,” Anderson said. “Prospective students and their parents are very aware of all the new buildings and construction on campus, what a beautiful place Cullowhee is, and that the total student experience is possible at WCU.”
Getting more high school students to campus before they make their college decision has also enhanced the school’s visibility around the state. Miller said WCU has laid the groundwork for growth by adding to its student infrastructure and building its applicant pool, and he says the poor economy has led students and their families to bargain hunt as they look at college options.
“When you compare the tuition and fees across the board, we feel we stand out as a value on the dollar,” Miller said.
For now, Miller said WCU’s admissions strategy is to grow enrollment slowly so the school can maintain the quality of its product.
“I think we certainly could have accepted more students but we’ve deliberately tried to hold back a little bit,” Miller said. “The trends show that parents and students are paying much more attention to the educational value for tuition.”
Increasing the quality of the student body is a byproduct of the smart growth model, not a sign that the school wants to radically change its identity in relation to the other schools in the state university system.
“We’re trying to stay right in the middle of the pack with the other UNC systems,” said Miller.
According to Miller, WCU’s leadership wants the school to grow in a way that ensures the students are getting an experience unique to the place and what it offers.
“In the UNC system there’s great school with many different degree programs,” said Miller. “We encourage them to make a choice where the student feels right in the campus community. We want it to be the right fit.”
In July only two candidates signed up to get on the ballot for the five spots up for grabs in Webster’s town board election, posing a quandary for the tiny Jackson County town of just over 250 registered voters.
When Election Day rolled around last week, however, burgeoning interest among town residents resulted in more than 20 write-in candidates emerging in an election that drew 42 voters.
The turnaround that transpired in the run-up to the election proved to be a lesson in small town politics. Steve Gray –– who served as the town’s mayor for 11 years before stepping down prior to the election –– said he was surprised by the number of write-ins, although he tried his best to drum up people willing to run as a write-in and to turn out and vote on election day.
“It was really quiet before the election. I never heard a peep,” said Gray, publisher of the Sylva Herald. “A lot of people on the list I’m wondering if their families wrote them in.”
Two of the winning write-in candidates weren’t accidents, because Gray and other local leaders recruited them to put their name in the hat, in order to ensure there were enough people to make the town board viable.
Mark Jamison, Webster’s postmaster, and Alan Grant, an instructor at Southwestern Community College, garnered as many votes as sitting town board members Billie Bryson and Jean Davenport, whose names officially appeared on the ballot. Both Jamison and Grant have been involved in the town’s political structure in various ways in the past, and both were known quantities to the town’s voters.
“I was surprised with Mark and Alan both that they didn’t file to begin with,” Gray said.
Bryson –– whose father was an alderman in the town and who has served on the board for the past 14 years –– believes the filing deadline simply took people by surprise.
“The sign-up deadline just snuck up on people and then it disappeared,” Bryson said. “We’ve always had problems with people not being interested in the town board meetings.”
But Jamison said that, at least in his case, the reluctance to file was no accident.
“Nobody was really interested in serving,” Jamison said.
Jamison said he agreed to serve in the end because he knew it was important that the board maintains a quorum.
Bryson said that she, like Gray, expected to see Jamison and Grant win board slots, but she didn’t know what to think of the third-leading vote getter when ballots were tallied at the close of Election Day, A.J. Rowell, or some of the other write-ins.
“We had a few people we already knew were qualified and we wanted them on there. I don’t know about the others,” Bryson said.
The write-in election for the last available board spot made for a whimsical scenario in which 18 separate candidates received between one and six votes each. Rowell ended up with six votes, just ahead of Rick Fulton and Karen Dill, who earned five.
The final count was so close that Lisa Lovedahl-Lehman, director of the Jackson County Board of Elections, warned that a count of provisional ballots could end up deciding the outcome.
Provisional ballots –– ballots cast by people not appearing on the voting roll sheets –– are set aside until the election board determines whether the voters were eligible. That count took place on Tuesday.
In the ongoing Webster write-in saga, the results of the count changed the election’s outcome. Rick Fulton scored two additional votes, nosing out Rowell by one vote.
Rowell hadn’t given a seat on the board much thought until a few weeks ago, when Gray asked him if he would be willing to serve if people wrote in his name. Rowell said he wouldn’t be devastated if the provisional ballots put an early end to his political career, but he also said he would be pleased to serve his new community.
“I’ll be sure not to lose too much sleep over it, but I’ll be happy to serve on the board if I should get the honor to do so,” said Rowell, an accountant a few years removed from college.
Dill –– who already serves on the town’s planning board –– said she never expected to get more than the one vote her husband told her he would cast on her behalf.
“Elections in Webster are not this hot item,” Dill said. “It’s not like everyone’s going around talking about it.”
Dill said she hoped she, Fulton and Rowell could come to some agreement if they ended up with the same number of votes after the provisional vote count on canvas day.
“I think we should all just flip a coin or something and whoever wins doesn’t have to serve,” Dill joked.
Jamison, arguably the town’s most recognizable public servant as its postmaster, believes the message of what has been a highly unusual election process is that the town board doesn’t have a strong mandate to create change.
“It’s kind of weird, but what it tells you is you don’t have much of a mandate. It tells you people don’t want you to do a whole lot. In my case, I think I’ll tread lightly,” Jamison said.
Webster’s planning board is busy working on an overhaul of the town’s 1970s-era zoning ordinances, and the new board’s most decisive action may come when it votes to approve those reform measures.
Western Carolina University professors who haven’t already done so are running out of time to take a mandatory 10-hour furlough by year’s end.
Earlier this year, Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order calling on all state employees to take 10 hours off, equivalent to a pay cut of a half of one percent.
While many of the state’s employees cashed in the furlough for a longer-than-usual July Fourth weekend, for teaching faculty in the university system, the furloughs have had a longer shelf life.
Western Carolina University’s staff and administrative employees all took the equivalent of a 10-hour furlough over the July Fourth weekend, but the teaching faculty returned this fall to learn that they would have to take their furloughs over the course of the current semester.
Rather than micromanaging faculty members with irregular office hours and teaching schedules, the university provost’s office, which directs academic affairs, decided to leave it up to the college deans how to handle the furlough — with the stipulation that it should in no way affect the instruction of students.
Dr. Richard Beam, Chair of WCU’s faculty senate, said his department has instructed faculty to record their 10 hours of leave over the course of the semester and to take it at times convenient to them. Beam said the policy is working fine, but it’s not really a true furlough.
“Most faculty have accepted the situation. We’re only talking about 10 hours spread over a 15-week semester,” Beam said. “We’re talking about maybe one hour a week that can legitimately be called furlough time. I suppose it’s possible that some faculty are playing up the issue, but I’m certainly not hearing it’s an issue for the majority.”
Beam said the faculty has essentially treated the furlough as a pay cut and gotten on with their teaching.
“My impression is that most faculty are pretty much doing what I’m doing which is ignoring it,” Beam said. “We got a pay cut, and we’re living with it.”
Dr. Beverly Collins, who serves on the faculty senate and as a delegate to the UNC Faculty Assembly, said the implementation of the furloughs has been confusing but hasn’t disrupted teaching schedules.
“I think faculty now are confused about what the flexible furlough program means for them,” Collins said. “Most faculty members I have talked with simply are continuing to teach classes, attend meetings, and mentor students as usual.”
Waynesville’s two independent bookstores — Osondu Booksellers and Blue Ridge Books & Cafe — have merged.
The economics of independent bookstores have made it nearly impossible for a town of Waynesville’s size to support two stores. Squeezed by the discount prices of online booksellers and the limitless inventories of national chains, the local bookstore has become a niche market.
“It’s not just this economy. Most places in the country, a town the size of ours is pretty fortunate to have one independent bookstore, and two is always going to be a struggle,” said Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers.
Robert Baggett, owner of Blue Ridge Books & Café, closed a deal with Osondu last Friday that makes her store part of Blue Ridge Books and News, Inc., a newly formed entity. Osondu will act as director of operations, with responsibilities ranging from ordering books to hosting authors, while Baggett will head the new venture as president.
The two stores will retain separate names and locations for now, but Baggett plans to consolidate the two storefronts at a new downtown location some time in the next 18 months.
The two stores are currently separated by just three blocks at opposite ends of Main Street. Neither one has sufficient parking, Baggett said.
“We are aware parking is a problem for both stores but we are determined to remain within the vicinity of the downtown Waynesville area,” Baggett said.
Baggett opened Blue Ridge Books with his sister Betsy in summer 2007. The store carries a wide selection of newspapers and magazines and houses a coffee bar and Wi-Fi café, often crowded with people tapping away on their laptops. The well-lit open store design features clearly-marked book sections and the type of display kiosks familiarized by major chains like Barnes & Nobles. But the store has, according to its customers, retained a family feel.
“Book chains are impersonal. You’re just one amongst thousands,” said Tony Antonino, a Blue Ridge Books regular. “This is like a true family atmosphere with relationships that go beyond, ‘How much is it?’”
While Blue Ridge Books has made its name largely on its inventory of periodicals and successful café, Osondu Booksellers caters to the true booklover.
Margaret Osondu has created a community of readers centered on the books she orders, the authors she brings in, and the recommendations her staff provides. She said she will bring all of her skills to the new company and the result will be a better, stronger independent bookstore in Waynesville.
Osondu said she learned of Baggett’s interest in her business through a third party and was immediately receptive. Baggett said the deal happened fast.
“The whole thing was eight days from the negotiating table to the closing table,” Baggett said.
Pam Kearney, who volunteers at Osondu Booksellers and considers herself a loyal customer, expressed her relief that the merger will ensure that Waynesville will have an independent bookstore going forward.
“I’m a book lover so I’m just thankful we still have an independent bookstore in town,” Kearney said. “I’m actually a customer of both, and I think they each have positive things they bring to the marketplace.”
Kearney said consolidating two stores with complementary strengths should produce a better business.
“Blue Ridge brings the magazines and newspapers, which from my perspective are important to the community,” she said. “Margaret brings the knowledge of getting authors to come and read. She knows the local history well. I don’t think we’ll be losing anything. I think we’ll probably be gaining.”
Betsy Baggett, who co-owns Blue Ridge Books with her brother, said she was excited about the prospect of working with Osondu.
“I just feel together we can be more of a force,” Betsy said. “We’ve got the magazines and the coffee bar and Margaret has the book signings and the knowledge, and it’s a win-win situation.”
Under the new arrangement, Osondu will order the books for both stores and control the inventories. Robert Baggett said he had no plans to cut staff and both stores would be able to grow their inventories as a result of the deal.
“It will be a positive thing for the book-lovers of Haywood County,” Baggett said. “Both stores will offer a wider variety and a larger inventory. We have some exciting long-term plans to serve the community better.”
After months of high-profile scrutiny, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, has been cleared in an ethics inquiry that examined whether the congressman used his influence to benefit one of his real estate deals in East Tennessee.
While Shuler’s office maintains the exoneration will put the issue to bed, opponents in the 11th Congressional District are keen to use information that surfaced during a series of inquiries to weaken the congressman’s position going into an election year.
Last Wednesday, the House Ethics Committee sent a letter to Shuler informing him that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing. It refuted claims that Shuler had used his influence on a congressional committee that oversees the Tennessee Valley Authority to garner preferential treatment for The Cove at Blackberry Ridge, a lakeside development in which he holds an ownership stake.
“We’re just glad it’s over,” said Doug Abrahms, Shuler’s director of communications. “This has dragged on for several months, and this will put an end to the issue.”
The allegations have hounded Shuler since June when the TVA Office of the Inspector General released a report that acknowledged the congressman had “contributed to the appearance of preferential treatment by continuing to pursue water access for Blackberry while a part owner of Blackberry and while sitting on a congressional committee with direct oversight of the very agency from which Blackberry was seeking a permit for water access.”
The pressure on Shuler intensified in September when the Knoxville News obtained an internal TVA personnel report that showed an employee had lied about the level of contact between Shuler and the TVA during its initial review process.
While the House committee’s findings last week –– which reference reports from the TVA Inspector General’s office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation –– seem to leave Shuler in the clear, the long-term effects of the allegations on his reputation are not clear.
The letter Shuler’s office received last Wednesday from the House of Representatives Committee on Standards and Official Conduct categorically cleared him of using his influence to affect the outcome of the development’s land exchange application with the TVA’s Maintain and Gain Program.
“The Standards Committee, after thorough review, has determined that your actions in these matters were not improper in any way and did not violate House Rules,” the letter read. “Accordingly, after a careful review of the OIG report and findings, along with other information known to the Committee, the Committee is closing this matter without further action.”
The House committee went one step further in its exoneration, suggesting that Shuler had been made to suffer heightened scrutiny by TVA in an effort to avoid the appearance of political influence.
“In fact, the OIG also stated that it appeared that Blackberry was ‘forced to endure the Maintain and Gain gauntlet while others were simply told they could have their waterfront access,’” the letter said. “In other words, in order to avoid the appearance of partiality, Blackberry was held to a higher standard for approval than were others.”
But not everyone is satisfied that the letter represents the end of the issue, particularly not the Republicans in Shuler’s district who are gearing up for a run against the former Tennessee football star who unseated long-time incumbent Charles Taylor in part because of questions about ethics.
Robert Danos, chair of the Henderson County Republicans, challenged the credibility of the House ethics committee and said the charges leveled against Shuler aren’t going away as a result of last week’s letter.
“It’s not going to go away. We have in black and white that the OIG of the TVA said that Heath Shuler did in fact contact the TVA on behalf of Blackberry Ridge, and Rep. Shuler has denied that,” Danos said. “One of those two things has to be false, and I know which one I believe.”
Danos believes the issue is doubly important for Shuler because he beat Taylor with the help of questions about his ethical conduct.
“I don’t know of any serious observers of the 11th District who don’t believe that the only reason the district elected a Democrat was because of outstanding ethics issues with his predecessor,” Danos said.
Shuler became a partner in the Cove at Blackberry Ridge in 2005 and was elected to Congress in November of 2006. According to a financial statement, Shuler’s investment in the real estate project amounted to between $5 and $25 million.
Following Shuler’s election and his committee appointment, a number of newspapers including the Knoxville News wrote about Shuler’s investment and suggested his committee assignment may have resulted in preferential treatment from TVA.
Blackberry Ridge submitted three applications through the TVA’s Maintain and Gain program to obtain a piece of lakefront property with water frontage in another county. The land swap would have allowed Blackberry Ridge to build a community boat dock and given the development valuable water access.
TVA denied two of the development’s applications before finally accepting a third in May 2008.
In May 2009, partly in response to pressure from the media, TVA released a review of its Maintain and Gain Program that specifically addressed whether Shuler and other people in influential positions had received special treatment from the agency.
While the May report acknowledged Shuler and his staff may have contributed to the appearance of wrongdoing, it concluded that there had been no improper contact between the Congressman and the agency.
“The OIG found no evidence however that either Shuler or his representatives used Shuler’s position as United States Congressman to pressure TVA to grant Blackberry water access,” the review read. “We also note that TVA could have simply granted Blackberry water access and exempted Blackberry from Maintain and Gain process as they did with others.”
The May report could have ended the matter, but in September the Knoxville News got its hands on an internal personnel complaint and a redacted version of the Maintain and Gain review that showed a TVA employee had lied about Shuler’s contact with the agency.
The redacted report found that the TVA employee was “not candid in two respects.” The employee denied knowing that Shuler was an owner in the Blackberry development project “despite evidence [the employee] was fully aware of his ownership status,” and denied that Shuler had contacted TVA regarding Blackberry’s application despite the fact that an internal e-mail showed the employee “knew or should have known otherwise.”
Shuler initially denied that his office had had any contact with the TVA over Blackberry until after the third Maintain and Gain application was accepted, but he later revised that statement when a document with his name on it turned up in the OIG’s redacted report.
In the wake of those discoveries, the Washington Post leaked late last month that the House ethics committee was formally investigating Shuler’s involvement in the Blackberry Ridge development.
Now that Shuler has been cleared by the House ethics committee, the question becomes how voters will react to the allegations during next year’s election.
Gibbs Knotts, chair of Western Carolina University’s political science department, has co-edited a book on North Carolina politics. Knotts said research into the effects of political scandals has clearly demonstrated that voters react to ethics complaints.
“There’s been quite a bit of research on the impact of political scandals not only on political careers but on people’s attitudes towards government,” Knotts said. “Obviously in this instance he’s been cleared, but the research shows that political scandal does have electoral consequences.”
Knotts said he had not seen research that differentiated between ethics allegations that played out in the media and scandals that were supported by the findings of courts or oversight authorities.
“I don’t know of any studies that have looked at people who have merely been accused of scandals,” Knotts said. “I could come up with an opinion on that, but it wouldn’t be based on research.”
For Knotts, the issue is a grey area that will require strategic interpretation by both parties during the campaign cycle.
“I think there’s a long history of opposing candidates using these types of issues whether they’re legitimate or not,” Knotts said. “I think what the Republicans will have to figure out is walking that tightrope because that kind of strategy can backfire. There’s obviously pros and cons in going in either direction.”
Knots said that historically candidates with strong ethics records and strong internal party support do better at weathering scandals.
While it may seem early to consider Shuler’s exoneration in light of his upcoming election, if Danos’s attitude is a clear indication of Republican strategy, it won’t be the last time the Congressman hears about his ethics record.
So far, at least five Republicans have announced their candidacy for the February primary. With the opposition lining up on the other side of the aisle, Shuler also has to contend with displeasure in his own party stemming from his vote against the House Democrats’ healthcare reform bill.
As the recession worsens, more and more animals need help, and fewer and fewer funding sources are available to animal rescue non-profits.
“This is the worst year we’ve seen. I think that’s true for everybody in this business,” said Karen Owens, who with her husband Jim operates the S.T.A.R. ranch animal rescue organization.
S.T.A.R. ranch, though, is not your average animal rescue organization.
“This is a cross between an animal rescue, a M.A.S.H. unit, and a hospice,” said Jim.
On a recent Wednesday morning at the ranch — located in the Jonathan Creek community of Haywood County near Interstate 40 — the Owens had 83 animals on the premises, all of them rescued from Haywood County homes and farms.
Just before lunch, Karen filled the horses’ feed bucket. Lucy, a 24-year-old Belgian draft horse, has gained 500 pounds since she was rescued in November of last year. Lucy was saved from a farmstead where she had developed laminitis, or Barbaro’s Syndrome, an often-deadly hoof condition. Lucy’s hind legs had withered, and she was in chronic pain because of multiple abscesses. She couldn’t even lie down to sleep, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to push herself back up.
“The old saying is ‘If you lose the feet, you lose the horse,’” said Karen, who grew up on a farm in Pickaway County, Ohio, and later played oboe in the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
All of the Owens’ rescues come from word-of-mouth referrals and a close working relationship with Haywood County Animal Control. Karen might end up driving to a farm where a horse is in distress because his owners can’t afford to feed him. Once there, she often finds other animals in trouble as well.
“It was impossible to rescue the horse and leave the dogs behind,” Karen said.
Although S.T.A.R. has saved hundreds of dogs, cats and goats since 2007, they are the only local outfit that saves horses, which are treated as property by county and state laws, not as pets.
When Karen goes out to rescue animals, she’s also out to change hearts and minds.
“People don’t want to rat out their neighbors or their kin. You got to get into their heads. It’s easier without a uniform,” Karen said.
The ranch is currently home to more than 30 dogs, lots of cats, 14 horses and five goats. Moses, a tricolor goat, was found on the steps of a local church, bleeding from the neck as a result of a coyote attack.
Every animal at S.T.A.R. ranch has a story, and increasingly, those stories are drawing people who have their own issues.
Judy Vail is one of the ranch’s most regular volunteers. For her, scooping cat litter, bottle feeding kittens and administering medicine is a kind of therapy.
“I come here two times a week. It’s my spiritual rehab,” said Vail.
In the past year, the Owens have also welcomed more formal delegations. Young people from Meridian Behavioral Health, the Junaluska Methodist Camp, Upward Bound and Haywood Vocational have all come to experience the feeling of caring for hurt and sick animals.
“There’s an animal here for everybody. It doesn’t matter what a person’s perceived limitations are. It’s a level playing field here. The animals are unconditional,” Karen said.
Not all of the animals the Owens rescue survive. After Lucy — the Belgian draft horse — arrived, things were touch and go for a while.
“If we can’t control the pain and we can’t give them quality of life, then we don’t prolong their life,” Karen said. “It’s a human thing to want to prolong life, not an animal thing.”
Karen worried that Lucy’s time had come because her body couldn’t take any more pain medication and her hooves still couldn’t hold her weight.
“I looked her in the eye in December and, lo and behold, she wasn’t ready to go,” Karen said. “That hoof came back. That was our Christmas miracle.”
Lucy is walking gingerly now but she’s gaining strength everyday. At her age, she still has lots of good years in front of her. Without the Owens, she would be dead. That’s what’s in it for Karen.
“I probably quit once a month because the task seems overwhelming. But when an animal turns around and you know he’s gonna make it, it’s worth all the heartaches.”
S.T.A.R. ranch spends $50,000 per year caring for animals that are dying from neglect or in line to be killed. About 65 percent of the money goes directly to feed and hay, and the rest is spent on veterinary services, farriers, supplies and maintenance.
There are no paid employees. All the work of feeding, caring, and worrying is undertaken by the Owens’ and a small volunteer staff.
The venture started as a kind of retirement hobby for the couple when they relocated to Haywood County in 2005. But it rapidly became a calling.
The business’ first customer was their next-door neighbor, a racehorse named Silicone City. Karen convinced the horse’s owner to allow her to find him a home, and she ended up placing Silicone City with an equine rehabilitation center in Tennessee.
“In the process of finding homes for all of his many animals, people started to call and it just began to happen,” Karen said.
“It” is a 10-acre mountain tract that once belonged to James Moody and later served as the base for the Space Technology And Research foundation, which was created by Greta Woodrew, a famous psychic.
When the Owens purchased the property, they liked the wrought iron entrance gate, so they kept the name. Save The Animals Rescue became a tax-exempt nonprofit with a board in 2007. The ranch house, two-story barn and property are deeded to S.T.A.R.
“We want to make sure this work continues when we’re gone,” Karen said.
S.T.A.R. ranch doesn’t get any public money. Its operating budget, which has grown from $20,000 in 2005 to more than twice that, has been raised by the Owens through grants, contributions, adoption fees, and small-scale fundraisers at places like the Tractor Supply Co. in Waynesville.
This year, Jonathan Creek Elementary School students, Meggan and Corey Lapkoff and Amanda Guest put up a lemonade stand in Maggie Valley that raised more than $300 for the ranch.
For Karen and Jim, support like that affirms that S.T.A.R. ranch is a labor of love for themselves and for many others in the community.
“We’re really a sanctuary. It’s beyond a shelter,” Karen said. “It’s a place where people can come to give and receive.”
Faced with a collapsing tourism marketplace caused by a national recession and the pullout of its featured attraction — the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad –– Dillsboro’s voters elected a new leadership team to steer the town towards an uncertain future.
David Gates, one of the winning candidates, wants the tourist railroad to resume operations in Dillsboro.
“I would like to work real hard to re-establish our relationship with the railroad and try to get them back into Dillsboro. It was our number one draw, and it was a win-win situation,” Gates said.
All five positions on the town board and its mayor’s seat were up for grabs during Tuesday’s election with eight challengers and only one incumbent vying for the spots.
While attracting tourism and increasing its revenue base are the most pressing local issues, Dillsboro has also been at the center of one of Western Carolina’s most contentious environmental fights.
Jackson County is battling Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the historic Dillsboro Dam. Depending on who wins the court case, the dam could be taken down by Duke or turned over to the county to be included in a riverfront park development.
Going into the election, most of the candidates said attracting tourism and re-building the town’s economic base were their focus, and, while the dam fight was close to their hearts, its outcome was out of their hands as a result of a stakeholder settlement agreement signed years ago.
The mayoral race pitted local business owners Teresa Dowd and Michael Fitzgerald against one another. Fitzgerald –– who has served as the vice mayor for the past four years –– won election with nearly 75 percent of the vote.
Fitzgerald said a key component in planning for the town’s future will be expanding and formalizing its relationship with Western Carolina University, which is helping the town create a long-term vision and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed by the recession and the train’s departure.
“We don’t have a formal arrangement but we will have someone working with their departmental liaison to look at all the possibilities,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said it was important to harness the university’s resources and ideas before determining the best way forward for the town.
“If a business person were going to open in our town it would be good to see what kind of businesses are likely to succeed beforehand,” Fitzgerald said.
Jimmy Cabe, the only incumbent to run for re-election to the town board, was the leading vote-getter in the race.
Cabe also emphasized the importance of pursuing a partnership with WCU that would benefit the town’s merchants and its residents.
“I’m kind of looking at the partnership with Western benefiting the whole town, not just the merchants,” Cabe said, adding that he hoped the college would help the town develop its use of alternative energy production.
Mayor, 4-year term
Michael Fitzgerald 53
Teresa Dowd 16
Seats up for election: 5
Total seats on board: 5
Jimmy Cabe (I) 57
Tim Parris 56
David Gates 51
K David Jones 50
Joseph Riddle 32
Walter Cook 25
Emma Wertenberger 22
TJ Walker 18
Charles Wise 18
Registered voters: 175
Voter turnout: 26%
For seasoned Smoky Mountain outdoor enthusiasts, snow in the forecast means the chance to indulge suppressed fantasies. Whether its getting fresh tracks on some obscure slope they see on the road to work or heading up to the blocked-off Blue Ridge Parkway to enjoy a de facto ski slope, most people have a plan for when the snow falls.
Juan and Alex Pena have lived in Maggie Valley for six years. After past snowstorms, they’ve hiked to the upper meadows at Cataloochee and skied Thunder Bowl, but on Saturday they wound up Soco Road to the Parkway entrance with their cross-country skis.
Just past the gate blocking Parkway, Juan said the turnout was crowded with sledders and snow-gawking motorists.
“There were a bunch of people tubing and sledding at the entrance,” Pena said. “There were even some people who never saw snow before. We just skied past them, and then we had fresh tracks.”
The Penas went up the Parkway toward Cherokee all the way to Heintooga Ridge through about a foot and a half of fresh snow.
“I just love the feel of fresh powder. The way it grabs,” said Juan. “You could still kick and glide and it tracked really nicely.”
After a beautiful ski, Juan and Alex headed into Maggie for dinner. When they got home, their driveway was still impassable, even with chains on their truck.
“We just had to walk back up the driveway in the moonlight,” Juan said.
If you’ve visited the outdoors store at Mast General Store in Waynesville, you’ve probably seen Brent McCoy. The Kitty Hawk native grew up surfing the Outer Banks but he traded that lifestyle for the mountains six months ago.
What’s a lonely surfer to do after a snowstorm? McCoy said he’d had his eye on a steep slope above his father-in-law’s goat pasture out in Crabtree, so on Sunday he hiked straight uphill with his snowboard on his back.
“I’ve been thinking of ways to get down it,” McCoy said. “I was thinking I could get a dirt board and ride down it. It worked out pretty good because I’ve been eyeballing that thing for a while.”
McCoy revealed his surfer roots by complaining of the walk up the hill to get first tracks in what he estimated was two and a half feet of powder.
“I was pretty beat last night,” McCoy said. “I was like ‘We need to get a helicopter if we’re going to do this tomorrow.’”
Now that’s a thought –– heli skiing the Smokies.
In the space of five years Tuscola High School’s football program has produced two big-time college quarterback prospects.
While Friday night lights are a huge draw in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the relatively small pool of athletes makes the school’s achievement remarkable. Is Tuscola turning into Quarterback High or has it just benefited from a timely coincidence of talent?
Tuscola grad Jonathan Crompton was a high school All-American while playing for the Mountaineers during the 2004 season. This year, he led the Tennessee Volunteers to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Crompton is considered a shoe-in NFL draft pick after the Vols’ dramatic turnaround this season.
Meanwhile, Tuscola’s senior quarterback, Tyler Brosius, led his team to the regional final of the state playoffs en route to becoming the all-time leading passer in Western North Carolina history. Brosius has signed with North Carolina State and is expected to serve as the Wolfpack’s third-string quarterback during his red shirt freshman year.
The mountain region has produced top quarterback talent in the past –– most recently Pisgah standout Zach Jaynes, now Western Carolina University’s quarterback, and Swain star Heath Shuler, now a U.S. Congressman.
Shuler, who lives in Waynesville, has taken a particular interest in the quarterbacks.
“Tuscola should be very, very proud that they’ve had two great quarterbacks, and you couldn’t really ask for two better young men,” Shuler said. “I see them both succeeding at the next level.”
Now Mountaineers’ head coach, Donnie Kiefer, has the job of proving that the success Crompton and Brosius have enjoyed becomes the basis for a proud quarterback tradition.
Crompton and Brosius are different quarterbacks, and they’ve taken different paths to success. Crompton, a hard-nosed runner with a strong arm, followed his longtime mentor, Coach Travis Noland, to Waynesville from Asheville to play his last two years in high school, then went on to follow in Shuler’s footsteps at Tennessee.
After an auspicious first appearance during his freshman year in which he replaced an injured Eric Ainge and threw two touchdown passes in a game against LSU, Crompton endured the painful end of longtime Vols Coach Philip Fulmer’s reign, a major surgery, and even at one point, death threats through three topsy-turvy years.
“It’s been a life-changing experience. Through all of the adversity you suck it up and find out what you’re made of as a person, as a Christian. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Crompton said.
Now in his senior season, however, Crompton has redeemed himself. After the Vols’ shaky 2-3 start, Crompton found success as rollout passer, leading the team to a winning record and a spot in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
Crompton is pleased with the vindication, but he doesn’t see it as an about-face.
“There’s never been a turnaround,” Crompton said. “It’s just we finally got comfortable doing what we do. We’ve had five offenses in five years.”
Shuler, who has become a close friend of Crompton’s, believes his success this year is down to his personality.
“I think it’s just sheer determination. When I would watch him in high school you could see had a never-give-up attitude,” Shuler said. “He has a tenacity that separates him from other quarterbacks, and you can see it when he runs.”
Crompton has enjoyed having Shuler to talk to throughout his career and said their friendship hasn’t ever been based on football.
“Our relationship wasn’t about football. We never really talked that much football because there’s bigger things going on in everyone’s life than football,” Crompton said.
Having benefited from Shuler’s knowledge, Crompton has advice for Brosius as he looks towards the transition from high school to life in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“You have to be ready to be thrown back. You have to physically be strong but you also have to mentally prepare yourself to go in and have a 14- or 15-hour day every day,” Crompton said. “There’s going to be more bad days than good ones at first.”
Crompton said becoming a good college quarterback is really about being willing to work hard.
“Get out there, shut your mouth, and work. Show the upper classmen you’re willing to do what it takes,” Crompton said.
The passing game fell into place for him gradually, as he got accustomed to smaller passing lanes and quicker decisions.
“That comes with experience. Obviously the windows are a lot smaller because everybody’s faster. You can’t throw the ball when he’s open, you have to throw it before he breaks open,” Crompton said.
As Brosius gets ready to go to N.C. State, Crompton is looking forward to draft day and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream that only two years ago looked like it was falling away.
When Crompton came to Tuscola to play for Coach Noland, he was already a big-time quarterback prospect. In contrast, Brosius was just a local boy with a winning reputation and a gun for an arm.
Coach Donnie Kiefer arrived at Tuscola after a successful stint at E. Carteret High School. He’d heard Tuscola had a good young quarterback who had won in every age group, but he had yet to met Brosius.
“To be honest, the first time I met him I was kind of shocked because he just looked very young. He’s a big kid and at the time he wasn’t that athletic looking,” Kiefer said. “If I were to pick out the quarterback of the kids standing in front of me he would have been the last one I picked.”
Kiefer said after watching Brosius throw, he knew he had a talented arm, but he was worried about his quarterback’s feet.
“When I looked into it a little bit, they hadn’t really been doing as much speed and agility stuff, and they weren’t in the weight room enough,” Kiefer said.
Kiefer made it his business to push Brosius.
“I was really hard on him and at the beginning I’m not sure he knew how to take me,” said Kiefer.
Brosius now looks back at those early days fondly, but at the time Kiefer’s attitude was a shock.
“He was always on me. I thought he was picking on me until my numbers started coming up,” Brosius said. “Then I was like ‘Wow, now I understand why he was so hard on me.’ I have to give a lot of credit to coach for pushing me.”
Kiefer inherited his senior class during the off-season of their sophomore years. A former strength coach at East Carolina and Davidson, Kiefer brought state-of-the-art training practices and a taskmaster’s attitude to Tuscola.
“We work brutally hard,” Kiefer said. “I mean brutally hard.”
By the beginning of his junior season, Brosius’ feet were as good as anybody’s on the team. Listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 246 pounds, his size and arm strength were already making the college scouts salivate.
But Tyler Brosius’ success story really began in the backyard with his dad, Mike.
“I’ve played football since I was 5 and I’ve always been the quarterback. Me and my dad would just throw every single day,” Brosius said.
Brosius’ idol growing up was Dan Marino, a quarterback known for arm strength, vision, and a lightning quick release, not mobility. A successful baseball pitcher, he grew up playing both sports with a group of boys who had a taste for winning.
“We’ve just played together since we were 7 years old, and we’ve never really lost,” Brosius said. “For a little while, it was a struggle for Tuscola, and I guess we wanted to grow up and show we could compete with the big boys.”
Wide receiver Eric Nelson was in that group. Nelson had 1,650 yards receiving this year and explained what it’s like playing with Brosius.
“I know if I’m a slant that he can fit it in there. He’s always had an arm, and it just keeps getting better,” said Nelson. “He throws real hard. If you miss it and the ball goes past you, you can hear the wind off of it.”
The two of them will show off their partnership during a passing contest during halftime at a Carolina Panthers game on Jan. 3.
Nelson said the success of their senior season had a lot to do with Brosius taking on a new demeanor in the summer off-season. Known for his happy-go-lucky attitude towards the game, Brosius honed his competitive edge during grueling workouts.
“I really think the past off-season, he stepped it up a lot and proved he was a leader,” Nelson said.
Brosius said he just grew up.
“I guess it was just more maturity,” Brosius said. “I grew up. I had always played for fun and goofed off, but when I saw the talent around me, I knew we just needed to win.”
Win they did. Tuscola has won back-to-back conference titles for the first time in 25 years. They went 12-2-1 this year, narrowly losing to defending state champs West Rowan in the regional final. Brosius also quarterbacked North Carolina to victory over South Carolina in the annual Shrine Bowl.
Kiefer said the turning point in Tyler’s career came during the third quarter of a game against A.C. Reynolds, a team that had beaten Tuscola badly the year before. The score was 17-14 and Tyler, a right-handed passer, rolled to his left and threw a 30-yard touchdown strike across his body with a minute left in the game.
“That’s really where he showed not only that he could make throws, but that he could do it under pressure with the game on the line,” Kiefer said.
Shuler, who watched Tuscola’s home playoff victory over Burns, believes Brosius might be the best passer in Western North Carolina history.
“I saw him grow in the last three games into becoming one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the position in Western North Carolina,” said Shuler.
Brosius already has his eyes on the pros.
“I’ve always wanted to be like Dan Marino,” Brosius said. “I told my Dad growing up that I wanted to play on Sunday. It looks like I’ve got a pretty good shot at it if I just keeping working hard.”
Building a tradition
With two big-time quarterbacks coming through in a short space of time, Tuscola head coach Donnie Kiefer is eager to build a tradition. He sees similarities in the success stories of Crompton and Brosius.
“I think the similarities are that both of those boys had the genetics to become good, and Travis was like me in that he demanded excellence of Jonathan in the same way I’ve demanded excellence of Tyler,” Kiefer said.
Kiefer also believes Crompton’s career was a motivator for Brosius.
“He’s never mentioned it to me. It was never like ‘I idolized this guy,’ but I know he has a lot of respect for him and just the fact that someone from Tuscola has gotten to that level was a huge motivator,” Kiefer said.
Brosius was plainly affected by Crompton’s success.
“I’ve always looked up to Jonathan,” Brosius said. “I just wanted to be as good as he was.”
Kiefer is also quick to credit the rest of his team for creating an environment of competition and hard work and for having the talent to push their quarterback.
The coach left a winning program he had built at East Carteret to come to Tuscola, because he had set his heart on the job a long time ago.
“There’s just a lot of tradition and fan support, and it’s important to the community,” Kiefer said. “Their dads and grandfathers grew up with Tuscola football and there’s a competitiveness and a desire to succeed.”
Shuler believes the unique atmosphere of mountain football is good for quarterbacks.
“At Swain, kids learn the offense when they first step on the field at 6 or 7 years old,” Shuler said. “I think that’s what makes the mountains unique. It’s the community involvement and the close rivalries, and you’re just a part of something bigger.”
Shuler said the intense community following means quarterbacks get used to the spotlight, and that the adjustment from playing in front of a few thousand people to playing in front of a hundred thousand people isn’t as big as one might think.
“Friday nights are really exciting in the mountains, and there’s a lot of focus on what’s going on. It’s all relative. When you go on to a place like UT, you have that same type of excitement,” Shuler said.
In the end, though, individual success falls on the shoulders of individual competitors.
Transitions for quarterbacks between high school and college and on to the pros involve a huge jump in decisionmaking ability. With the offenses and schemes getting exponentially more complicated and the foot speed of the athletes shrinking the window to make reads, it’s hard to predict who will succeed and who won’t.
Kiefer thinks Brosius will thrive at N.C. State, but he’ll have to work at it.
“Tyler is genetically, as far as arm strength goes, at a different level,” Kiefer said. “His reads, I think he’ll do fine with. Understanding how quickly you have to get the ball out of your hand and make decisions, that’s where he’ll have to work at it.”
Shuler said he saw all he needed to know about Tyler Brosius in the playoff win against Burns, when he intentionally under threw a ball on a double fade route to allow his receiver to come back to the ball to make the catch.
“It’s that type of a throw that will separate him from a lot of other quarterbacks,” said Shuler.
As his quarterback gets ready to move on to bigger challenges at N.C. State, where he’ll play understudy to Wolfpack star Russell Wilson, Kiefer believes sophomore quarterback Rob Howard has what it takes to be the third Division I quarterback in the line for Tuscola.
For his part, Brosius also wants to see the trend become a tradition.
“I hope so,” said Brosius. “I hope they just keep coming through and working hard to be the best.”
Whether Tuscola ever produces a talent as big as Brosius again, the pride of wearing the Mountaineers colors is something the college-bound quarterback knows will stick.
Brosius stepped off the field after his last home game at Weatherby Stadium with a heavy heart.
“It was real emotional. I knew we were playing another game, but I left a lot of heart on that field for Tuscola and so have all the past players that have played there,” Brosius said.
Jackson County commissioners were split over whether to endorse the construction of a controversial new highway outside of Sylva when the issue came up for a vote at a county meeting Monday.
The highway was included on a wishlist being sent to the N.C. Department of Transportation to guide future road projects in Jackson County. Commissioners voted 3 to 2 to sign off on the list, which was developed over the past year by a citizen-driven transportation task force.
The task force never formally endorsed the transportation plan that bears their name. The plan includes the 107 Connector, formerly known as the Southern Loop. The proposed road, which is already in the planning stages by DOT, would bypass the busy commercial corridor of N.C. 107, funneling traffic from the Cullowhee area directly to U.S. 23-74 north of Sylva.
Chairman Brian McMahan, who voted to approve the plan, explained that the vote should not be seen as an endorsement of the proposed 107 Connector.
“I want to make note that if we approve this plan, it does not mean we have approved or endorsed the construction of a new highway,” McMahan said.
The board approved the transportation plan with the caveat that they could withdraw their support for the plan following an environmental impact study of the new highway.
McMahan said the board wanted the chance to see the findings of ongoing N.C. Department of Transportation studies of traffic patterns and congestion on N.C. 107, the main commercial artery through Sylva and commuter route in the county.
“It’s just saying we’re going to continue the planning process, continue gathering the data and await eagerly the DOT to present its findings,” McMahan said.
The comprehensive transportation plan includes a long list of potential projects that could create a freer flow of traffic patterns in Jackson County. The Jackson County Transportation Task Force, a group made up of residents, business people and elected officials, served as an advisory board during the process of creating the plan, but the final version was ultimately developed by DOT staff in Raleigh then vetted through public hearings.
The adoption of the long-awaited comprehensive plan ends a five-year project to obtain a blueprint from the DOT for a road plan to accommodate the county’s growing population. While a victory for public input into the road planning process, the inclusion of the N.C. 107 Connector –– a project opposed by many locals –– makes that victory hollow for some.
Commissioner William Shelton, who served on the Jackson County Transportation Task Force, voted against adopting the plan because he wanted to send a message.
“In voting on this, I’m going to vote my conscience. I just want to send a message to the public and the DOT that this is not a heavy endorsement of the connector,” Shelton said.
Shelton said that while he backed nearly every aspect of the plan, including its community involvement process, he felt strongly that a ‘Yes’ vote could be seen as an endorsement of the N.C. 107 Connector.
Commissioner Tom Massie also voted against adopting the plan. Massie cited DOT statistics that show the connector road will likely not alleviate the traffic problems plaguing N.C. 107. Massie said the project would displace residents and create a negative environmental impact on the county.
“The reality is this is not going to reduce traffic on 107, particularly in the area where we want to go,” Massie said.
Massie said that the commuter traffic snarl that crops up on N.C. 107 twice a day is a small inconvenience.
“What are you spending? Another 10 minutes? That’s not traffic congestion in any other moderatel-sized community in this country,” Massie said.
Commissioner Joe Cowan voted for the plan and supports the construction of the connector road. He expressed his concern that a rejection of the plan would lead the DOT to yank the money already in the pipeline for the planning phase.
“This money is not going to last forever,” Cowan said. “All we need to do is turn it down a few times and it’ll go away.”
Cowan said the N.C. 107 Connector was the best solution he has heard regarding traffic congestion on Sylva’s commercial corridor.
“I’ve heard it discussed all of my life and I’m tired of listening to it. There is no good alternative,” Cowan said.
Jackson County commissioners closed the book on a painful chapter in the county’s history on Monday, announcing they would give up their quest for an audit of the economic development commission.
The commissioners had hoped to present an audit of the EDC’s finances to eliminate suspicion that taxpayer money had been misused during a five year period between 2001 and 2005 during which the EDC operated independently. In the absence of an audit, though, they had to settle for calling time on the fractious debate.
“I consider this the past now, and I’m looking to the future,” said County Chairman Brian McMahan.
In July, the county enlisted the Asheville accounting firm of Gabler, Molis & Co. to piece together an audit of the EDC’s finances for the five-year period in question, but the firm resigned from the task in a letter dated Dec. 21, citing the lack of sufficient records to conduct a proper audit.
Controversy over the EDC erupted in 2005 amid allegations of financial mismanagement by those at the helm. The EDC was a separate entity, but relied on funding from the county. Concerned by the lack of oversight of public funds at the disposal of an all-volunteer body, the county to withdraw from the EDC and seized the organization’s records. But part of the records either weren’t there to begin with or went missing in the process.
Auditors tried to get statements from United Community Bank, which handled the EDC’s finances, but the bank did not have financial records going back that far, McMahan said.
Hopes of clearing the air with an audit have now been dashed.
“What has happened to our records, I don’t know,” McMahan said. “But the fact is we don’t have the financial records at hand to conduct an audit.”
Commissioner Tom Massie expressed his displeasure that the accounting firm gave the county so little notice that they could not carry out their assignment, but he said the board had done all it could to get to the bottom of the issue.
“I think it would be difficult for a reasonable person to say we haven’t done everything in our power to find out what happened,” Massie said.
Meanwhile, four of the nine members on the Jackson County Economic Development Commission resigned last month, signaling growing frustration among the board over lack of direction from the county commissioners. The EDC board complained this summer that they had no real authority and had been relegated to a mere advisory role.
The last director of the EDC resigned over the summer, and issued a parting recommendation to dissolve an EDC she called dysfunctional and create a new entity. Commissioners have held off on hiring a new EDC director.
Criticism of the EDC’s past financial dealings has centered on a revolving loan fund under the auspice of a nonprofit arm of the EDC called the Jackson Development Corporation. Grant money flowed from the county, to the EDC, then to the JDC and finally into the hands of private businesses, several of whom fell behind on their loan payments.
The origin and status of those loans has been reconstructed by the county’s Finance Director Darlene Fox.
In lieu of an audit at this week’s commissioners meeting, Fox provided a summary of the financial dealings between the county and the EDC over the past 15 years. The summary showed that the county contributed $2,423,426 in cash and assets to economic development between 1993 and 2007. The EDC returned $335,000 to the county when it was dissolved in 2008 and the county got another $2,126,000 back in property value on the Tuckaseegee Mills and Clearwood properties that reverted to county control after defaulting on their loans.
Fox’s report indicated that the county came out ahead $38,270 in its 15 year history in economic development.
For McMahan, the knowledge that the county’s tax money had not been drained by the EDC was enough to close the issue.
“Not a single penny of taxpayer money has been lost,” McMahan said.
So the snow is coming down in sheets Friday, and Bethany says, “Do you think it’s going to be real snow?”
We just moved to Waynesville from northern Wisconsin in November, so at that point we’d largely disregarded the previous 24 hours of weather-related hysteria on the news. In our Northern minds snow falls in eight-inch bunches making the world soft and quiet and white and you get up in the morning and go for a ski. The flat kind of skiing. Cross-country skiing.
You don’t rush to the grocery store to purchase distilled water and white bread, and you don’t throw Sno Melt at the asphalt patch in front of your house in the hope of preserving a parking space.
You get your lamps ready in case it’s heavy and the trees come down on the power lines, you build a fire and then you watch it come down. When it’s all fallen, you dig your car out and go have fun.
So on Saturday morning, we got up and had coffee and then I drove to our storage container to get our skis and snowshoes. Our plan was to go up to the Blue Ridge Parkway because we’d heard it closes and people go skiing there.
My first inkling that this storm was out of the ordinary was the post-apocalyptic state of the roads on the way to our storage space. No one was driving except a handful of guys in their big-ass trucks. In Wisconsin, all of those trucks would have had plow blades on the front, but here it looked like they were just out driving because they could. The stores were all shut, and there was no place to park.
Anyway, I got into the storage space and out with our gear and came home to get ready. We had to dig out all of our winter gear, which had been neatly boxed up and relegated to darker regions, because in truth, we sort of didn’t believe we were going to see any snow down here.
It took us a while to get all suited up and by the time we were ready to go, our next door neighbor was getting ready to go sledding at a friend’s house. That was a funny interaction.
“What are those?” he said, pointing to the cross-country ski boots in our hands.
I explained the concept.
“So it’s like ice skating on the snow?”
It is actually. At its best, it is. He was going sledding in jeans, something I used to do as a kid growing up in Washington, D.C., and which I don’t do anymore. In fact, having lived through the tenth coldest winter in Wisconsin’s history, I can readily say that the difference between people who live in the cold and people who don’t is mainly the knowledge that how you dress makes a huge difference.
I know there’s a lot of people down here from New England and the Upper Midwest and even right here in the Smokies who know how to cross country ski and all that, but I’m just saying it was a funny scene leaving our condo building clad in Gore Tex and carrying skis with people looking at us like we had just walked off the set of “Into Thin Air.”
We drove through Hazelwood and onto the Smoky Mountain Expressway at Exit 100. The expressway was plowed clear and there was light traffic, but the shoulders were completely mounded in snow and every mile or so there was a car in the ditch, looking impossibly far from the road and totally plowed in.
We thought the trip would be easy and there would be a lot of cars parked on the access road to the Parkway, but when we got there the access road was inaccessible, totally plowed in just like the hopeless cars in the ditches. One lone Hummer perched atop the snowbank.
A guy in an SUV in front of us pulled over to the shoulder, so we pulled behind him. He pulled a snowboard out of the back and howled loudly into the air. I started to get excited.
We were pretty much into our skis when the state Highway Patrol came by and told us through the loudspeaker that we couldn’t park on the shoulder and told us to move our vehicles. Great.
So we pulled off again and drove up to the U-turn just on the other side of where the Parkway crosses over U.S. 23/74. As we were waiting to turn around, a team of friends was trying to dig one of those hopelessly plowed-in vehicles out of the shoulder to our right. Across the road, a DOT truck was supervising the loading of a giant road grader equipped with a plow blade onto the back of a flatbed.
On a little side road just below the train tracks, a lone red Subaru was parked, and we watched a woman step into her skis and head north along the tracks. I made the U-turn so we were heading back north on 23/74, and I missed the turn off to the side road because I was worried about the trucks bearing down on me from behind.
We ended up doing two more U-turns and then we were there, safe, parked in back of the red Subaru a quarter mile from the Parkway.
From there, we stepped into our skis and followed the tracks along the railbed up to the ranger station driveway there and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway at Balsam Gap.
It was snowing again as we set off up the hill. A fine wet snow close to sleet. Just as we got going, a young woman on skis came around a bend and glided towards us followed by an old hound dog up to his shoulder in the snow. When we were even with them, we exchanged greetings and moved on. The hound dog turned around and came with us. We passed another young woman who was walking down the hill with a dog and continued upward in the tracks of the woman in the red Subaru.
Once my lungs opened up and we were past the first overlook area, I stopped. It was slowgoing in the heavy deep stuff and it felt really good. I looked around and it was quiet, the giant icicles hanging from the gaping wet stone on the mountainside.
I thought of the Wallace Stevens poem “The Snowman:”
“One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow ...”
We overtook the woman in the Subaru at the second overlook. She had us snap a picture of her with her phone and then we were on up the hill making fresh tracks. The pitch got steeper and the snow deeper. The even grade of the Parkway is miraculous. It’s something you’re not used to in cross-country skiing. In Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the ground is undulating, never the same angle underfoot.
In the deep snow on the steady pitch of the Parkway you could reach a beautiful rhythm with the compression of your skis, so that it almost felt like walking across the moon bounce at the carnival.
That hound dog stayed with us the whole way until we started to worry for him. He was old but he looked happy. He hardly used his eyes at all, keeping his nose down close to the snow and moving from scent to scent always uphill.
The only time he left the road was to plunge down the side of steep bank towards a fast-moving stream. I could tell he wanted water, but he couldn’t figure out how to get a drink without falling in so he rejoined us.
We made it only just to the Standing Rock Overlook on the parkway. Both of us were tired and sweaty and exhilarated. We probably should have gone further. No telling when the chance will come again, but it was hard to know what the descent would be like.
It’s an amazing feeling to be in the middle of that road without another track around you, looking down at the snow-covered roofs nestled in the cove, the smoke trails rising from their brick chimneys.
The way down was magic, too. Our skis tracked beautifully and we glided effortlessly, zipping along to the sound of the fish scale bottoms of the skis on the surface of the snow. I kicked and glided, leaned diagonally over my skis, and thought of my neighbor’s comparison to ice skating on snow.
I’ve never gotten into skate skiing and that ski on the parkway on Saturday was as close as I have ever come to ice skating on the snow.
Facing a moribund governing body and a facility once again in need of expensive repairs, the Jackson County board of commissioners did what it’s been unwilling to do in the past –– assume management of the airport.
The commissioners totally overhauled the Jackson County Airport Authority by appointing themselves to five vacant seats on its board and bringing the governing body up to its full complement.
The move ends a long-running power struggle between an airport authority that largely represented the interests of the local flying community and a county board that had grown weary of contributing tax dollars to a tiny aviation field plagued by problems.
The county has twice attempted to ratchet up its control over the airport in recent years. The authority once functioned as an autonomous body, but county leaders grew displeased with it in 2005 and attempted to remove and reappoint some of its members. The county was sued for overstepping its bounds, however.
In a second move to exert influence, commissioners got a special bill passed by the state legislature that changed the airport authority’s bylaws and gave the county control over its appointments. The authority has since been plagued by vacant seats, however, as the county commissioners failed to make timely appointments.
The latest move is the ultimate step, giving the commissioners full control of the airport’s future — including its finances, a major sticking point for the county.
While the vote settled the fate of the airport’s governing body, it didn’t represent a unified voice about the airport’s mission in the future.
Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner William Shelton, the lone dissenter in the 4 to 1 vote, both indicated that they believe it is the county’s responsibility to maintain the airport and indicated they would be willing to contribute money to help make the airport self-sufficient.
“The airport is here, and I believe it’s something we have to deal with,” McMahan said.
Commissioners Tom Massie and Joe Cowan reiterated their positions that while they supported keeping the airport safe for the public, they did not support any expansion of the airport in the future.
County Manager Ken Westmoreland offered the board a number of improvement scenarios that could help the airport move toward self-sufficiency. The construction of T-hangars, which could be rented to pilots to park their planes, would provide a steady source of revenue, while widening the airport’s runway could bump the airport into a new FAA tier and help leverage more state and federal dollars.
Massie and Cowan said they would not vote to spend county money on those improvements, however.
The airport is currently saddled with a failed lighting system that will cost $150,000 to fix. Planes cannot use the airport after dark, effectively making the airport useless as a site for emergency landings, for example.
The county qualifies for grant money that will pay for those repairs if it’s willing to contribute $16,667 of local matching funds in return for the $134,000 of state and federal grant money.
The commissioners will take up the issue of funding the lighting repairs at their first meeting in January. That will likely be the first in a series of debates about how to get the most of the county’s investment in the facility.
Cowan was adamant that the county not pour more money into the airport.
“If we go with the lights, we’re encouraging people to land at night, and I don’t want to encourage that,” Cowan said.
A little-known teen club shook the Town of Sylva out of a slumber last week and shone a bright light on the private lives of young adults.
Concerned parents brought 500 signatures to a town board meeting demanding that it shut down Club Offspring –– a private club for teens that holds dances on the weekends. But the club’s owner, Nathan Lang, defended his operation as an alternative youth ministry aimed at attracting “at-risk” youth.
Is Club Offspring a safe haven or a den of iniquity? The club remains open for now in the absence of proof that it has broken the law, but Lang’s past, coupled with lurid images on the business’s MySpace page, were enough to convince many people that it’s the wrong kind of ministry for their kids.
When his son came home with a flyer advertising a teen dance party and inviting them to come “as wasted as you want,” Brian Bartel was incensed.
“The thing that bothered me was that it was handed out at the high school to teens by teens,” Bartel said. “This gentleman who runs the club knows what he’s doing.”
Bartel followed a link on the flyer to the club’s MySpace page and his outrage turned to concern. The page included a photo album (that has since been removed) containing images of young women in lingerie dancing at a stripper’s pole.
“If this had been an adult club, right or wrong, I’d have nothing to say about it,” Bartel said. “But for him to create this environment for teens is wrong. If it’s going to be a teen club, let it be a teen club. There’s too many red flags.”
Bartel marched down to the club that Saturday night, bent on confronting the club’s owner. He was met at the door and refused entry on the grounds that the club was for teens and no one over the age of 24 was allowed inside.
Lang, who received Bartel at the door, said he denied him entry because he was combative and never identified himself as a concerned parent.
“I feel Mr. Bartel came looking for a witch hunt,” Lang said. “He barged in and didn’t introduce himself.”
In the wake of that confrontation, Bartel took the story to the media and began circulating a petition to shut down the club.
He also continued to research Lang and Club Offspring and found even more disturbing news. Nathan Lang previously ran a similar club in Waynesville with his son Russell, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for statutory rape. Russell Lang was convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old girl when he was 19, and his father was present in the apartment at the time police served a search warrant that led to the arrest.
“Did his failure to shape what teens do in a constructive way contribute to his son being in prison?” said Bartel.
In defense of Offspring
In the frenzy immediately following the revelation that Sylva housed a secret teen club that hosted “raves” in a building whose windows were covered in black plastic, Club Offspring was in danger of a media lynching.
Sylva police and town officials took a measured path and met with both Bartel and Nathan Lang, and Lang’s side of the story painted a picture diametrically opposed to the one that had aroused Bartel’s suspicions.
Calling himself an ordained minister with a psychology degree, Lang portrayed his club as a safe haven for youths who live in a world rife with addiction, alcohol and teen pregnancy. Lang stands by his relationship with his son, whom he says he meets with every week to discuss the club’s mission. He also contends that Russell was 19 and the girl was 15 and that law enforcement used misleading dates in an attempt to encourage a harsher sentence.
“My son and I are both in this ministry,” Lang said.
Lang also stands by the wording on the club’s flyer that provoked so much controversy.
“They want me to regret saying that because they think it means wasted people will come,” Lang said. “[Young adults] are getting wasted anyway. They’re getting pregnant anyway. We wanted them to know they could come here and be themselves.”
Lang said Club Offspring holds dances on Friday and Saturday nights and charges $10 admission, though no one is turned away and many young people volunteer their work in place of an entry fee. Drugs, alcohol and sex aren’t allowed.
Amanda Bowman, age 19, volunteers at the club and started a Web-based petition that resulted in nearly 400 voices of support for Club Offspring.
Bowman, who says she has never had a drink, urged local youth to support the club as a much-needed outlet for young adults.
“Sylva NEEDS THIS. If they have somewhere to go, then maybe the teenagers at the local high schools and colleges will stop having unplanned pregnancies!” she wrote. “Maybe we’ll see less newspaper announcements about underage possession of alcohol among the under 21 crowd... because they certainly aren’t going to drink in the club!”
Cody Sutton, also 19, volunteers as the club’s DJ. Sutton said he began using drugs as a 13-year-old. Now clean, he says there is no other place he feels he can express himself.
“All we’re looking for is to get that little bit of freedom,” Sutton said. “That eight hours a week.”
Steven Godfrey, 22, used to be a church youth group leader. Now he helps manage Club Offspring.
“We attract kids that don’t go to church,” Godfrey said. “Church people are a specific type of people, and they’re not going to come see us.”
Lang believes that young people today are torn by the contradictions inherent in the divide between the world they live in and the world adults seek to define for them.
“When they have problems –– and they will have problems,” Lang said. “There needs to be someone around who’s level-headed and who they can talk to.”
The light and the dark
Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody summed up the community’s concern as he addressed Lang during the town board meeting that addressed the community petition to shut the club down.
“Your flyer does not convey the positive image that you want to,” Moody said.
Bartel used stronger language.
“If you’re motivated by scripture, then where is it?” Bartel said. “What does the darkness have to do with the light?”
Moody said the town has to look at the club’s existence from a legal standpoint. Until there is proof of illegal activity, it will remain open.
The question now is how the community will react to the establishment.
Patti Tiberi, substance abuse regional prevention coordinator for the Smoky Mountain Center, has concerns about the message Lang and his club convey to young people.
“I think what’s difficult is there are just some practices that Mr. Lang has employed that aren’t very clear and are sending a double message,” Tiberi said.
At the same time, Tiberi said the support for Lang’s club showed there is a dire need for positive outlets for young adults. Tiberi said partners in the Jackson County Substance Abuse Prevention Council are currently working on organizing youth dances in the community and have already established a group at Smoky Mountain High School called Students Against Negative Decisions.
She hopes Lang will become part of the initiative.
“If he is serious about it, then I’m hoping this can help him become a more transparent messenger in the community that we can partner with,” Tiberi said.
Tiberi commended Bartel’s willingness to stand up as a parent. She hopes the awareness the debate has sparked will force the community to deal with the lack of positive alternatives the county’s youth are facing.
“The blessing in this whole thing is the issue is on the table right now and we can’t dismiss it,” said Tiberi.
Lang contends that conventional efforts to reach teenagers –– like high school dances with strict supervision –– will just push at-risk youth away.
“Saying no to teenagers doesn’t work very well,” Lang said. “Saying no to adults doesn’t work very well... We need a ‘Yes’ and not a ‘No.’”
Lang sees his club as a way to reach young people who will otherwise be left to search for their identity in the adult world.
“We see ourselves in the community not as a nuisance but as a place where teenagers can be who they are,” Lang said. “If anything, it’s a new doctrine attempt aimed at teenagers.”
As the holiday shopping season nears its final frenzy, Sylva’s business community is stressing the importance of buying local.
The Downtown Sylva Association has seized on a national campaign called the 3/50 Project to encourage local people to patronize their own business community. It’s built around the idea that if half of the country’s employed population spent $50 per month in three locally-owned, independent businesses, it would generate $42.6 billion in revenue.
Downtown Sylva Director Julie Sylvester learned about the 3/50 Project from several local business owners. The association’s merchants have decided to use it as an ongoing promotion that will stretch beyond the holiday shopping season.
“I really see it as an education campaign,” Sylvester said. “I want people to understand that if they spend a total of $50 at three local businesses each month, that’s really what will make a difference.”
Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers in downtown Sylva, has embraced the 3/50 Project’s mantra at his store.
“When Julie first came in, I was impressed with the idea,” Dennis said. “Folks should be aware of the impact of buying local, but sometimes you have to rattle the cage a little bit.”
Dennis said it’s difficult to convince consumers to pay more at a time when they are struggling, but he said the campaign encourages them to think about the long-term value to the community where they live rather than merely price points.
“Folks will use big boxes and convenient set-ups out of habit more than necessity,” Dennis said. “They go because they’re convenient — not because they’re better. That’s where the education comes in. The cheapest isn’t always the best.”
Dennis has placed a 3/50 Project flyer on his counter and has enjoyed explaining the program to his patrons.
Sylvester said the DSA members have embraced the campaign as an organizing principle.
“There’s so much you can get out of a local store,” Sylvester said. “The money you spend in your own community comes back and helps grow the community.”
While the DSA is focused on 3/50 the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce is spreading a similar message through its “Love The Locals” coupon campaign. Director Julie Spiro has dispersed 1,000 coupon books featuring local retailers to high-volume traffic locations in the county.
Spiro said it’s hard to tell exactly how much the books are used, but the campaign delivers an important message.
“All we can do is put something out there to try to help the local retail and business owners and get some people to their stores,” Spiro said.
The Chamber also maintains a holiday shoppers’ hotline that helps customers locate specific items in local stores.
Franklin’s leaders are trying to decide what to do about a valuable piece of property on the outskirts of downtown, and they’re hiring outside consultants to help them.
The town purchased the Whitmire property in January 2005 for $1,585,373 with plans to build a new municipal complex to house town hall, police department and public works.
The town board later changed its mind and decided to renovate a building on Main Street for a new town hall instead, leaving the Whitmire property without an express purpose.
The 13-acre property, appraised at $2.15 million in August 2008, is by far the largest piece of undeveloped land remaining in the greater downtown area. Last week, the Franklin town board voted to hire a development consultant to provide options for the sale of the tract, along with the old town hall building on Main Street.
The fate of the Whitmire property was a point of contention in this year’s town mayoral race between Alderman Bob Scott and Mayor Joe Collins. Collins favored getting the property back on the tax rolls, and Scott wanted to use the property as a public space, possibly a town park.
Scott cast the lone opposition vote to the plan to bring in development consultants.
“My feelings haven’t changed. In no way should the town do anything with that property other than use it for the public. I don’t want to see a big box (store) in there,” Scott said. “I do have a problem with surplusing it because that’s the last piece of undeveloped land in the town, and it has so much potential for public use.”
Collins pushed for bringing in a development consultant.
“We thought by doing that we could take some of the bias and some of the emotion out of it to get as focused an idea as we can,” Collins said.
Sam Greenwood, Franklin town manager, said developing the property could give the town an important source of financial stability, because it would likely realize a profit on the sale while at the same time returning the property to the tax rolls.
Realtor Evelyn Owens of Keller Williams in Franklin said that while the market is down the value of the Whitmire property should remain stable. She estimated that the property would fetch close to $150,000 per acre today with a total selling price between $1.8 and $2 million.
The future of Whitmire
The issue now is what to do with it. Scott said he intends to watch the discussion closely because he fears the board is intent on getting money out of the property without looking hard at the future implications of selling it.
“When are we ever going to get a piece of land like that? Most people are still stuck in the 1950s mindset of build, build, build without a thought to what the costs would be in the long run,” said Scott.
Collins said Scott’s fear that the town would develop the Whitmire property without adequate planning is misplaced.
“I don’t think anyone around the table envisions getting a check and just hoping the development makes sense,” Collins said.
Collins for his part said he foresees a mixed-use development that could add housing density and retail space in an important commercial district.
Collins said that because the town owns the property outright, it could dictate terms of any purchase, including what a developer plans to do with the property. It could sell the property with restrictions or partner in a public-private development venture.
“If they come in and give us ideas we haven’t thought about, we should have an open mind,” Collins said. “The bottom line is it needs to be utilized. It’s too valuable to be sitting vacant.”
Alderman Sissy Patillo, who also voted to bring in a consultant, said she wanted to know what the options were.
“Doing this doesn’t mean we sell it. It doesn’t mean we develop it,” Patillo said. “It just gives us options.”
Patillo also touted the potential for a mixed-use development.
“In an ideal world, I would like to see it developed with lots of green space interconnected with other areas with mixed usage and affordable housing,” Patillo said.
Owens supports the idea of a mixed-use space that incorporates small retail, residential condos and town homes and integrated greenspace.
“I’ve been saying this for eight years, we really need some town homes closer to the downtown,” Owens said.
Owens said homes between $150,000 and $250,000 would be ideal.
“Affordable housing, yes,” Owens said. “I think it needs to be maintenance free and if they could have condos and town homes with different price points and a nice park area, that would be great,” Owens said.
Owens said consultants would bring impartial knowledge to the table, but they might not fully understand the needs of the community and the market in Franklin.
Greenwood said the board’s intent was to move the project forward patiently.
“There’s no sense of urgency to it other than trying to get the property back to work so to speak,” Greenwood said.
In 2005, two investment partners from Atlanta broke ground on a massive project on the slopes of Cowee Mountain in north Macon County with hopes of creating a new paradigm for mountainside development in Western North Carolina.
However, four years later, the road system is plagued by landslides, many of the lots are in foreclosure and only two homes have actually been built on the 2,500-acre development.
When a mid-November rain storm dumped three inches in Macon County, Thompson Road, a key road through the development, gave way, triggering a landslide, burying a home site below under a half-acre of debris. More significantly, the slide raises questions about the stability of the remaining 30 miles of roads in the development. After the slide, Macon County Emergency Services Director Warren Cabe contacted the North Carolina Geological Survey to ascertain if the road collapse posed a threat to property owners down slope from the Wildflower development.
“After we noticed there was a slide there, we notified property owners in the valley just so they could know what was going on above them,” Cabe said. “We wanted them to hear it from us instead of reading it in the newspaper.”
The study conducted by North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources Senior Geologist Rick Wooten concluded that the area affected by the slide was still unstable.
“The lowermost portion of the deposit spilled over a steep road cut for a driveway above Thompson Road. Large trees, many with root balls still attached, were pushed over, snapped off, and partially buried by debris flow material in the toe area,” the report read. “Unstable embankment material remains below the eastward and westward extensions of the main scarp. This unstable material will probably continue to move.”
Geologist vs. developer
The report and a subsequent mapping effort undertaken by state geologists and Macon County’s GIS mapping team also showed that the road system in Wildflower was compromised to some degree in more than 20 separate locations.
Wooten’s team recommended that landowners below Wildflower be notified of the risk of future slides and suggested that other roads in Wildflower would likely continue to move.
“The other failure areas along the Wildflower development road network have the potential for continued movement, especially associated with heavy rainfall events,” the report said.
After four years in business, the 250-lot development boasts only two finished homes and with a number of its home sites already in foreclosure, the last thing it needs is a major issue with its road system.
Brian Garner, general manager of Wildflower, said the failure of Thompson Road was an isolated incident that resulted from the emergence of a wet spring.
Garner said Wildflower would hire a geo-technical engineer to evaluate the situation as well as take additional measures to prevent erosion in the future. He said the road failure occurred on a portion of the property that had yet to be developed, so it didn’t pose a risk to the investments of property owners in Wildflower.
When asked whether he thought the roads in the rest of the development were sound, Garner pointed to the fact that the county’s erosion control department had signed off on them.
“I asked the county that and the county said they were originally put in according to the guidelines,” Garner said.
Development without regulation
When Atlanta-based developer Robert Ullmann unveiled his vision for Wildflower through his company Ultima Carolina LLC four years ago, he promised a full-service, upscale residential community.
“There’s a reason people are drawn to these mountains,” said Ullman in Wildflower’s press materials. “The wrong kind of development can destroy that; the right kind can help to preserve it. This is not just about higher elevations. It’s also about higher standards.”
Right from the start, though, the development faced opposition from local residents who felt it would strain the county’s resources and ruin Cowee Mountain. Ullman appeared alongside Stacy Guffey, the county’s planning director at the time, in a public meeting to make his case.
“You are not going to avoid development, and you are not going to completely prohibit development,” Ullman told the crowd. “If you think Macon County won’t change, I can assure you it will.”
Ullman said the best people could hope for was to pass some land-use regulations to prevent irresponsible developers from ruining the mountains.
“He did make the point at that meeting that the county was wide open,” Guffey said. “And that if we had had rules, he would have abided by them.”
While that conversation seems prescient now, the fact remains that when Wildflower went through its initial permitting process the county didn’t have subdivision or steep slope ordinances. Cowee Mountain is a steep area covered with colluvial soil that is essentially low-density rock and soil debris, and prone to instability.
In order to build a road system, Wildflower had to comply with the county’s erosion control ordinance, and the county signed off on a series of erosion control plans for various parts of the road system. The erosion ordinance was narrowly tailored to keep muddy runoff out of creeks but didn’t deal with underlying road construction methods.
Guffey claims stability problems with the road system were already evident at the time, but the county lacked regulations to do anything about it.
“The truth is that when I worked for the county, a lot of us knew there would be problems with those roads,” Guffey said. “It’s really one of the reasons we felt such urgency to create a subdivision ordinance.”
Macon County now has a subdivision ordinance that includes road standards and a surety bond to guarantee that developers meet those standards, allowing the county to bill a developer if it has to go in and repair shoddy work. A committee is also currently in the process of drafting a steep slope ordinance that would create standards for soil compaction, cut and fill slopes, and road grades.
Guffey, who works as a consultant now, addressed the slope development committee on the implications Wildflower’s road failure has on the county at a meeting last week. His message was clear.
“It’s a private property but when you see it overlaid on a potential landslide map... if the potential is there it’s there,” Guffey said. “There’s not just one slide, there’s a number of them. What will they do to the streams that run down through there onto other peoples’ properties?”
Macon County’s environmental services supervisor Matt Mason has the responsibility of enforcing the county’s erosion control ordinance. Mason succeeded Josh Ward, who had the position when Wildflower first applied for building permits.
Mason said the county signed off on Wildflower’s land disturbance permits in phases, each of which required erosion control plans for roads and home sites in the development.
According to Mason the county still has access to close to $80,000 that Ultima set aside in a surety bond to guarantee Wildflower’s erosion control measures. The county has informed Ullman that he’s responsible for correcting the damage caused when a road collapse triggered a landslide.
“I’ve actually talked to the owner and we’re requiring him to hire an engineer to submit a report on how to stabilize the road and he’s willing to do that,” Mason said. “If not then it could be a problem.”
Mason said the county still has the authority to enforce the erosion control ordinance because the project is still open, but he said Wildflower is not currently in violation of the ordinance.
“They’re not in violation. We’ve not fined them. We sent out a letter informing them it needs to be corrected,” Mason said.
Mason said he has spent the last year trying to re-draft the county’s soil and erosion ordinance to include soil compacting standards, but the revised ordinance is still in the review process. For now, he said, the county’s position with Wildflower is limited to enforcing the ordinance that was in place when the development filed its paperwork.
“If we had had a subdivision ordinance or a steep slope ordinance in place, we could have done it differently,” Mason said. “We want to have safe and smart development, and the bottom line is that costs a bit of money.”
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Wildlower’s road issues is that some of the compromised roadways are actually driveways serving home sites that have already been sold. The owners are now responsible for the maintenance of those driveways, without which the home sites are worth next to nothing.
At a county meeting in November, county commissioners asked planning director Jack Morgan whether Wildflower had filed for bankruptcy, raising concerns about the project’s financial viability going forward.
Brian Garner, the project’s general manager, said he could not elaborate on Wildflower’s financial situation.
“As far as I know we’re still doing what we need to do,” Garner said. “We’re still on the ground running.”
Robert Ullman, the developer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Guffey said the county has cause to worry if Wildflower goes under.
“One of the fears is if it’s in foreclosure, who pays for that damage?” Guffey said.
Sylva’s incoming Mayor Maurice Moody said he wanted to start his career with a consensus vote and that’s exactly what he did.
In its first act, the newly seated Sylva town board unanimously voted to appoint Christine Matheson to the commissioner’s seat left vacant by Moody when he became mayor.
The unanimous appointment could bridge the voting divide that had emerged on the board over the past two years.
“I really did not want to start off this board with a 3 to 2 vote and I think we made a significant step tonight,” Moody said.
In Matheson, the board selected a Sylva native who worked for over a decade in the district attorney’s office and has participated with the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.
Matheson announced her intent to operate as an independent voice on the board.
“I’m fairly independent, and I vote my mind,” Matheson said. “I’ll take each issue as it comes. I don’t want to label myself or place myself in any category.”
Moody had made clear his desire to fill the seat he vacated with someone with broad support in Sylva all along. The board was facing the possibility of a contentious 3 to 2 vote that could have set up a long-standing divide between two commissioners with so-called “progressive” voting agendas –– Stacy Knotts and Sarah Graham –– and two commissioners expected to espouse more traditional platforms –– Ray Lewis and Danny Allen.
In the run-up to last week’s town board meeting, Moody was busy seeking a consensus-building candidate and talking individually with the commissioners.
“I kept looking,” Moody said. “I think Chris had the most to do with everybody coming together. She’s well-known in the community and she’s an independent thinker.”
Over the past two years Knotts, Graham and Moody have consistently voted together and espouse what can best be described as a “progressive” agenda that favors channeling resources to the downtown district and investing in parks and recreation amenities. Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley had embraced a fiscally conservative platform focused on the nuts and bolts of providing public safety and infrastructure. Hensley lost his seat in the fall election and was replaced by Danny Allen, a close ally of Lewis and Hensley with a similar philosophy.
Allen indicated after his election that he would push hard for the appointment of Hensley, who narrowly lost re-election by a 10-vote margin. But Knotts said she preferred a replacement who would more closely represent Moody’s viewpoint, setting up a potential showdown between the board factions.
Both sides hailed the appointment of Matheson.
“I don’t think we could have replaced Harold with anybody but Chris,” Lewis said.
Allen said it was important to him that Moody’s replacement had grown up in the community.
“From my standpoint, yes, that was important,” Allen said. “That will help with the transition.”
Moody downplayed Matheson’s Sylva upbringing, instead emphasizing her past participation in local government.
“I don’t put that much weight on where you come from,” said Moody. “All of our ancestors came from somewhere else at some point. I think you just need to have people who are interested in the community.”
Knotts, who moved to Sylva later in her life, showed she had won the confidence of her peers as the board unanimously voted her to serve as vice mayor. Knotts said she voted for Matheson because of her work with the EDC and her visibility in the community.
“I thought it was important for the person to be well-known in the community,” Knotts said.
The series of unanimous votes in the board’s first meeting may represent Moody’s crowning achievement as a first-term mayor –– building consensus in a board with two distinct ideologies.
Western Carolina University’s board of trustees voted to increase the school’s tuition by 6.5 percent next year.
The vote to adopt a voluntary tuition hike will only take effect if the North Carolina General Assembly backs off on its proposed 8 percent tuition hike across the UNC system.
WCU doesn’t stand to gain from statewide hike, which would merely plug holes in the state budget. However, the voluntary hike preferred by the WCU trustees would remain at the local level and augment the university’s own budget.
WCU Chancellor John Bardo explained the need for a voluntary tuition increase to the school’s trustees before the vote.
“If you look at the institutions in the UNC system most like Western, our market basket of programs –– we have the most expensive programs, but our tuition lags substantially behind schools like ASU and Wilmington,” Bardo said.
The General Assembly already voted to increase tuition across the UNC system by 8 percent or $200 to cover a $35 million hole in the state’s general fund.
Vice Chancellor for administration and finance Chuck Wooten said UNC President Erskine Bowles will ask the Assembly to allow each of the universities in the system to adopt voluntary tuition and fee increases.
“We remain hopeful that the [General Assembly] will be able to find that $35 million in some other way,” Wooten said.
Bardo said WCU would use half of the money it raises from its 6.5 percent increase for need-based scholarships and the other half for its quality improvement plan. The raise would cost an in-state undergraduate student an extra $31 on 2010-11 tuition fees.
“We are in a position in which we’re trying to increase quality, and we need the resources to do it,” Bardo said.
WCU Student Government Assembly President Josh Cotton asked the trustees for a 5.2 percent increase instead, but the board voted unanimously to adopt the amount put forward by the school’s leadership.
“There’s no way you’ll get 0 percent,” Cotton said. “That’s why I went down to meet with presidents from other institutions to work out a good compromise. Even though it’s a small amount, I still promised the students I’d try to keep it as low as possible.”
Steve Warren, chairman of the board of trustees, said WCU needed to balance its mandate to provide an affordable education with its drive to improve the quality of its product.
“We want our students to have the best. They deserve the best,” said Warren. “Yet we also must be mindful of our state constitution, which requires us to provide public higher education as free from costs as possible. The task is to find that delicate balance.”
A slot machine at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino malfunctioned, delivering a shock that floored a gambler, according to a lawsuit brought by the victim.
While the incident occurred over three years ago, Willie Jean Robinson is still waiting to hear whether she can collect civil damages over the bizarre personal injury case.
Robinson is suing Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and IGT Inc. –– the manufacturer of the slot machines –– for damages related to her injuries.
The case stems from an incident that occurred in March 2006 when Robinson was playing a slot machine at the casino and allegedly received a shock that injured her right hand and left her with lasting loss of feeling in her fingers.
“When Plaintiff inserted the card into the slot machine ... she was immediately shocked by the machine and fell to the floor. The individuals who accompanied Plaintiff to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino attended to her and it was immediately reported to the Defendant Manager on the floor,” the civil complaint reads.
Her attorneys allege that Robinson suffered personal injury, lost wages, and incurred medical expenses as a result of the accident. But the case hasn’t been as simple as determining who, if anyone, was at fault for the defective slot machine.
Robinson’s lawyer, John Hayes of Charleston, S.C., filed the case in Jackson County Court. But the defendants in the case, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and IGT Inc. can’t agree where the case should be heard.
Last month, legal counsel for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Tribal Gaming Casino Enterprise asked a judge in Jackson County Superior Court to move the case to tribal court, arguing that a failure to do so would “adversely affect the tribal sovereignty of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”
Attorneys for IGT Inc. –– a publicly traded global gaming company –– argued that because neither the company nor the plaintiff resides in Cherokee, tribal courts should not have jurisdiction over their portion of the case.
Hayes said after talking to the casino’s attorney, he agrees the proper place for the case to beard is in tribal court. Hayes said he expects Judge Zoro Guice to issue an order that will move the case to tribal court.
Although Macon County passed its first subdivision ordinance more than a year ago, Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Beale wonders whether enough was done to protect developers with projects already underway.
Developments that pre-dated the new rules may be hamstrung when attempting to sell lots today, if those lots are subject to the ordinance, Beale said.
“If they have a buyer for a piece of property in this day and age, we don’t want the subdivision ordinance to be overly cumbersome,” said Beale, who shared his concerns a commissioners meeting last month.
Beale inquired about what type of “grandfathering” could be put in place for existing subdivisions with lots that weren’t officially recorded but perhaps existed on the developer’s personal master plan.
The county’s zoning administrator, Jack Morgan, said the county gave ample warning to developers when the ordinance was adopted. Developers were given 90 days to decide whether to register their properties on the county’s plat books.
“That 90-day period was to give people who had subdivisions the opportunity to record their properties that hadn’t been platted yet,” said Morgan.
At that time, developers had to decide whether or not to plat their properties, with the consequence that they would then have to pay taxes on individual parcels. By leaving them un-platted, they knew they would have to eventually comply with the new ordinance.
Beale’s concern is that the county will continue to run into developers who don’t realize their properties are subject to the ordinance if they haven’t been platted, even if they fall within existing subdivisions.
Beale said he’s not interested in undermining the intent of the ordinance but he believes the county needs to make a concerted effort to educate the public.
“The discussion is –– with the older subdivisions how does the ordinance play a role and what does it say you have to do?” said Beale. “A lot of it is misunderstanding and it’s not easy to read. An ordinance is a law and we want to make sure it’s understandable.”
Macon’s subdivision ordinance was developed under the direction of the Planning Board as a way to protect lot buyers and create standards for subdivision development.
The ordinance has a few main components, but primarily governs how steep and narrow roads can be. It also requires developers to create a homeowners’ association and enter a bond agreement with the county should they abandon the project with unfinished or unstable roads.
“It’s not a heavy-handed ordinance at all. There are some out there that would break your back,” said Morgan. “Macon County’s intent –– we didn’t have any regulation at all and that’s when we had the great Macon County land grab. We needed some structure in place.”
The ordinance was approved in June 2008 but didn’t take effect until September to allow for a 90-day waiting period.
In a county with over 600 subdivisions, some of which are over 30-years-old, getting the word out to all of the interested parties has not been simple.
Because Macon’s ordinance wasn’t designed to be restrictive, Susan Ervin, a planning board member, doesn’t think the county should look for ways around enforcing it.
“I feel like the ordinance should apply in every case that it possibly can,” said Ervin. “These were not designed to be onerous requirements. They were a way of structuring good development. It’s not something we should be looking for ways to get around.”
Realtor John Becker of Exit Smoky Mountain Realty essentially agreed with Ervin’s assessment.
“My opinion is if guys have stuff in the ground then it should be exempt but if the stuff isn’t platted yet then it has to come up to snuff,” Becker said. “Most of the stuff they’re trying to put together is safety-oriented and making sure the consumers are protected.”
Ervin said the ordinance has a provision for a developer to be exempt if they can show they spent a substantial amount of money and resources on a subdivision project before the new rules took effect.
Beale has directed Zoning Administrator Jack Morgan to come up with a public education program for the ordinance to be presented at a public hearing in January on some minor housekeeping revisions to the ordinance.
“We realized that the realtors and the surveyors and such — the people who use it everyday –– we’ve not yet determined the best way to get out there and explain to people exactly what the subdivision ordinance says,” Beale said.
The moment of truth arrives for Sylva’s new town board on the day it starts work.
When board members convene this week, the first item on their agenda will be pivotal in defining the town’s ideological direction for the next two years.
Newly-elected Mayor Maurice Moody will vacate his seat as alderman, and the task of naming his replacement will fall to the rest of the board.
While split 3 to 2 votes have characterized the board the past two years, Moody is hoping for a fresh start.
“You’ve got two different ideologies on the board,” Moody said. “Three of us are of one persuasion and two of us are of the other. I’m not sure that’s not healthy.”
Whoever fills the vacant seat is likely to tip the voting balance to one of the ideological sides that have emerged over the past two years.
Moody is keen to have the board come to consensus on naming his replacement, but he has indicated he is willing to cast a tie-breaking vote to preserve the progressive voting block that currently holds the majority on the board.
“Your majority normally does not vote to get rid of their majority. I believe that would be highly unusual,” said Moody.
Stacy Knotts, Sarah Graham, and Moody have consistently voted together and espouse what can best be described as a “progressive” agenda that favors channeling resources to the downtown district and investing in parks and recreation amenities.
Ray Lewis and Harold Hensley have embraced a fiscally conservative platform focused on the nuts and bolts of providing public safety and infrastructure. Hensley lost his seat in the fall election, but will be replaced by Danny Allen, a close ally of Lewis and Hensley with a similar philosophy.
Allen said Hensley should be appointed to the vacancy since Hensley was the third highest vote-getter in the election — separated by a mere 10 votes.
Allen said unless Hensley gets the appointment, there is unlikely to be consensus — with him and Lewis on one side in support of Hensley and Graham and Knotts on the other. Moody would vote in the case of a tie.
“It’s going to be difficult for Maurice,” Allen said. “I think a lot of it’s going to come down to him.”
Knotts doesn’t accept the idea that Hensley’s third place position in the fall election — which saw just 14 percent turnout — has earned him his seat back.
“I think that oversimplifies the decision that has to be made. When the voters went out and selected the balance of the board, that was factored into their decision,” said Knotts.
Instead, Knotts thinks the board needs to replace Moody with someone Moody-like.
“I’ve going to think hard about a person who represents the ideas and the mindset he represented,” Knotts said.
Outside the annual Thanksgiving potluck dinner in the isolated Snowbird community, a remote corner of Graham County where the Cherokee language has deep roots, the parking lot is jammed full. It’s a dark night. The children play tag and the grown-ups stand in groups of two and three smoking.
Inside the brightly lit gym, hundreds of people sit at long folding tables to share turkey, traditional bean dishes, pies, sweet potatoes. There is a raffle drawing.
The food is eaten, the tables taken away, and Garfield Long Jr., tribal linguist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, sits with his granduncle Abel Catholster, watching young men play basketball.
Catholster, a tribal elder who doesn’t speak in English comfortably, is asked whether he thinks the Cherokee language will die. Long translates his answer.
“A long time ago a lot of the elders use to say this will become an English world. White. Like this,” Catholster said, nodding towards the gym.
“I think what he means is that everybody’s talking in English,” Long said.
America’s first languages are dying. Across the country, indigenous communities are coming face to face with the reality that their fluent speakers are growing old and their younger generations are not only speaking but also thinking in English.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is confronting the challenge head-on with a tribally-funded language immersion academy where young children learn to speak Cherokee. But the people responsible for creating a new generation of Cherokee speakers in Western North Carolina are aware of a sobering fact –– there is no easy way to bring a language back to life.
In 2006, only about 300 people within the Qualla Boundary spoke Cherokee as their first language, and that number has grown smaller with each passing month.
The numbers point to one conclusion. The tribe needs to produce fluent speakers faster than it loses them.
Dr. Heidi Altman, an associate professor of linguistic anthropology at Georgia Southern University, acts as a consultant with the ECBI in their effort to develop a plan to revitalize the Cherokee language in their community. Altman said the Cherokee are not the only tribe facing the extinction of their language.
“It’s a complex thing. All the estimates from people are that certainly by the end of this century, there may not be any native languages spoken the way they used to be,” said Altman. “The lifespan of the language is only equivalent to the lifespan of the speakers. This is the critical moment. If it doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen.”
Renissa Walker –– director of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program –– is part of a young group of tribal leaders in Principal Chief Michell Hicks’ administration charged with bringing back the language.
Walker didn’t learn to speak Cherokee as a child. For her, the effort is about preserving a distinct identity amid the American monoculture.
“The creator could have made you any type of person but he made you Cherokee,” Walker said. “We are aware of the value of the language, and we are aware that the language and the culture are in a fragile state.”
The spearhead of the tribe’s efforts is the new immersion language academy, which cost nearly $7 million and opened in September. The academy has 30 students between kindergarten and second grade and the goal is for them to be bilingual when they leave the school after fifth grade. The tribe also operates Cherokee language daycare for infants and toddlers.
While teaching the young people to speak is crucial to the survival of the Cherokee language, a parallel effort is under way, one that may ultimately prove more vital to preserving Cherokee thought patterns and ideals.
Walker’s mother, Myrtle Driver, is part of a group of elders on the reservation who speak Cherokee as their first language. Every month, the fluent speakers and tribal elders hold a gathering. These Cherokee Speakers Gatherings have brought the tribe’s older generation back to the fore of preserving culture and created a bridge that spans across generations and cultural experiences.
“When their heroes are Beyonce and Jay-Z, how can you say the culture is strong?” Walker said. “It’s competing with the society outside and it’s losing. If we held inside the values that our language holds we wouldn’t let the outside society affect us that way.”
For the first time in four decades some of the tribe’s fluent speakers are children, but they are too young to feel the gravity of what they are doing.
The importance of immersion
For 30 years the ECBI have undertaken various efforts to maintain the Cherokee language, but they have mostly amounted to not enough of a good thing. From mandatory high school classes that taught basic words and phrases to a variety of elementary pullout programs that offered grammar lessons, the students have been made aware of the cultural importance of the language, but they haven’t gotten any better at speaking it.
For Walker, that’s not good enough.
“Fluency to us means that you are a conversational speaker. The efforts have done a lot to preserve our heritage, but they haven’t really contributed to the number of fluent speakers on the reservation,” Walker said.
The pattern changed in 2005 with a $1 million grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation that allowed the tribe to take an inventory of its Cherokee speakers. After conducting a random sample survey of tribal members over the age of 10, the study showed that there were only 420 fluent speakers of the Cherokee language left in the Qualla Boundary, less than 7 percent of the local population.
Even more dire, less than 1 percent of that number represented adults of childbearing age.
Walker said the tribe ultimately used a word-of-mouth effort to find out if the study’s numbers were accurate. In the end, it was determined there were even fewer fluent speakers than first thought. In 2006 the number was closer to 300. Meanwhile the ECBI loses an average of three speakers per month and the average age of the speaking population is 53.
Walker said that trend is only getting more dramatic with time, threatening the preservation of not just the words of the Cherokee language but the thought patterns behind them.
“We’re going to see that number accelerate,” Walker said. “There’s features of the language that are being lost because the young speakers don’t use the language in the same way.”
Altman said the goal of the effort is to produce “stabile bilingualism” in the younger generation, something that has been achieved through similar efforts in New Zealand’s Maori community and in Hawaii. The ECBI, she said, are in a unique position because the tribe has taken ownership of the language preservation effort.
“The thing that works differently with the Cherokee is the language immersion program is a tribal program as opposed to a grassroots program, which brings its own benefits and its own challenges,” said Altman.
Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, thinks the immersion program can change the paradigm.
“We’ve had these little ones since they were babies,” Jackson said. “We’re giving them two worlds at the same time and they’re getting it. We don’t just want to teach the language. We want to teach them to be Kituwah people as they once were.”
Teaching Cherokee in the immersion program is more difficult than simply speaking the language. Altman said efforts in other communities have been plagued by poorly trained teachers who will revert to English if a child becomes upset. The immersion teaching method is predicated on learners making the connection between a word and an idea in the same language.
“You have to really understand why it works and how it works, because the brain needs to be trained to learn the pathway,” Altman said.
According to Jackson, the young people who come through the immersion program and become fluent speakers will be able to expand their vocabularies as they get older, something second language learners in Walker’s generation can’t really do.
The distinction comes down to the way speakers acquire language, how they process information.
“If they’re a fluent speaker and their [Cherokee] vocabulary is limited, they’ll probably get it, but if they are a second language learner, probably not,” said Jackson.
Walker doesn’t want people to have any illusions about where the tribe stands with regards to its language.
“The effort to become conversationally fluent is significant,” Walker said. “People have a hard time with this, but there are parents out there who think their children are fluent and they’re not.”
And while the immersion program has come a long way since its inception in 2004, the children can’t grow up fast enough to replace the elder speakers who are dying.
“Immersion is only going to be good for so long, because we have a declining pool of speakers,” Walker said.
Walker credits her mother with coming up with a way to get the elders back involved in the discussion.
“She just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea just to get the fluent speakers together to visit,’” Walker said. “It grew from that.”
Gathering the elders
Native languages are disappearing across the country in part because government-sponsored boarding schools eradicated a generation of speakers.
Children who grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s were sent to “Indian” boarding schools where they were treated harshly and forbidden to speak their own language under the guiding philosophy that they had to assimilate into the dominant culture to survive.
The boarding school programs have been widely linked to post traumatic stress disorder and other emotional traumas that inhibited language retention even in children who spoke a native language first. But the particular history of the Kituwah, as the eastern Cherokee call themselves, lent itself to hanging on fiercely to their identity.
Walker’s mother, Myrtle Driver, grew up speaking Cherokee in the Big Cove community.
“That’s all that was spoken in my house because I was raised by my grandparents,” Driver said. “I was not allowed to speak English when I was home from school.”
Driver doesn’t remember being discouraged from speaking Cherokee during her elementary school years.
“We would talk Cherokee outside at recess and in the halls and no one ever punished us,” Driver said.
She attended schools in Cherokee and then went on to Haskell Indian School in Kansas, one of the most famous of the government-run boarding schools.
Driver said she never lost the desire to hang on to her language and culture.
“What I wanted to hold onto was my language and my traditions because that made me Kituwah,” Driver said. “Fortunately there were Oklahoma Cherokee there and I had a cousin there also and we spoke the same dialect.”
Driver spent more than 20 years away from Cherokee. When she came back, she got active in preserving the culture by teaching dancing to young people and by acting as an ambassador of Cherokee traditions.
She believes her greatest contribution to the preservation of Cherokee culture may have been the result of a casual conversation between her and Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, which ultimately led to the creation of both the Cherokee Speakers Gatherings and the Cherokee Language Consortium.
“The idea [for the Speakers Gathering] just came in a conversation,” said Driver. “We ought to get the people together and feed them. It was probably the best thought Gil and I will have in our lifetimes. It just grew from there. That’s how the consortium came about.”
Driver and Jackson put out the word to fluent Cherokee speakers in the community and they began to gather together once a month over food to exchange stories and speak Cherokee.
According to Altman, the gatherings gave the language its social context back.
“A lot of the speakers had gotten to the point where they didn’t speak the language publicly anymore,” Altman said. “Once it’s only spoken in the home and there’s no socially viable way to speak it, a language is really on its way out.”
Jackson said the gatherings helped people remember old words that had disappeared.
“What happens at the speakers gathering often times someone will come in with an old word that we may have forgotten and that’s what happens when you bring in strong speakers,” Jackson said.
As the gatherings grew, they became a vehicle for the elders to talk about their culture, but they also served a practical purpose.
When one word tells a story
The language academy often works with children’s books that have been written in English. Translating them into Cherokee is tricky, particularly with modern words.
The speakers gathering became an impromptu method for translating.
“Television box –– there is no Cherokee word,” Driver said. “What is the best way to describe it? It makes things appear. If you know how it works or what it is then you can think about it in Cherokee and you’ve got your word.”
According to Jackson, older Cherokee speakers often have one word for something that younger speakers have to explain in a roundabout way. For instance, there is a single word in Cherokee to say ‘My feet are cold.’
“The old speakers don’t have to describe it, they have a word,” Jackson said.
The Speakers Gatherings now draw around 30 people each month, and they have outgrown the expectations of their organizers.
“The beauty of it is these words will make us think of a story and we’ll share that story,” Driver said. “There’s not only two lessons then, there’s three lessons because of the tradition in the story. We’re not just preserving the language, we’re preserving the traditions.”
Another benefit of the Speakers Gatherings has been the creation of a forum for discussion about where the language has come from and where it is going.
To that end, the organizers began inviting outside speakers to come in and talk about efforts to revive native languages in other communities.
One of the earliest speakers came from Oklahoma Cherokee country. Altman said the event created a connection with a lasting impact.
“Part of what’s happened is there were sort of parallel tracks going on between the people in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band,” Altman said. “It was interesting because some of the people were of the impression that the dialects were far apart but once they came together, they realized they weren’t.”
The increased dialogue between the Oklahoma Cherokee population and members of the ECBI, led to the creation of the Cherokee Language Consortium, a semi-formalized language workshop that takes place twice a year and includes native speakers from the ECBI, the United Cherokee Tribe, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee.
Altman said that Tom Belt, an Oklahoman who teaches Cherokee at Western Carolina University, has been a bridge between the two groups.
The consortium works on creating Cherokee words for English words like cell phone, plastic, CD, and computer, which translates as “electric brain.”
While the translations have a practical goal–– to arm the younger generation with the words they need–– they are also the front line of the confrontation between English and Cherokee cultural thought patterns.
Half empty or half full?
For Cherokee speakers of Abel Catholster’s generation –– men and women who grew up with a totally Cherokee worldview –– the loss of the language is a bitter pill to swallow, and it is more or less something that has already happened.
Catholster was raised in the Wolf Creek community above Blue Wing in the late 1920s. He says he is 84.
“He may be older than that, cause we’re not really sure when he was born,” said Garfield Long, his grandnephew and the ECBI’s linguist.
According to Long, Catholster was repeatedly rounded up and brought down the mountain to attend school only to escape at his earliest convenience. He later worked as a laborer to build the road over Newfound Gap in the Smoky Mountain National Park.
Catholster grew up geographically and culturally isolated, and as a result his world was 100 percent Cherokee. These days, Cherokee children grow up in an English-speaking world and the evolution of media has meant that in most cases Beyonce and Jay-Z are as accessible to them as their grandparents.
Long believes the new generation of speakers needs the elders to help them learn the meaning behind what they say, and he’s not sure if there’s time enough to make it happen.
“As far as language goes we have a chance of survival but I feel it’s going to be limited because the speakers we do have around may not be willing to share,” Long said.
Long doesn’t believe the culture can survive without the language.
“Personally I think you have to have the language. It doesn’t matter what tribe you’re from,” Long said. “You can tell me you’re Cherokee and you are, but if you don’t know the language you don’t know what makes us unique.”
If there is a hope, Long believes it lies in harnessing the energy of the elders.
“I think as far as the speakers go it helps maintain the bond we have because we all have something in common, we’re striving for the same result,” Long said. “It was only when the speakers gathering got started that some of the older speakers realized it was important to preserve the language.”
For Long, the knowledge of the elders is something that transcends language, and even in his own family he has felt the loss.
“They share some things that would almost be considered mythology in our context but to us they are real,” Long said. “At our family functions now, the non-speakers outnumber the Cherokee speakers.”
In contrast to Catholster and Long, who have seen the declining strength of the language over their lifetimes, Altman has witnessed the growth of the preservation effort as an outsider. Viewing the Eastern Cherokee’s situation in the context of similar movements around the country, she is encouraged by how far things have come.
“When I first came up there about 10 years ago you almost never heard the language in public and there wasn’t a lot of faith that something good would happen,” Altman said.
The preservation effort has had the collateral benefit of bringing a new group of actors into the effort –– people Altman says have “passive competence.”
“They’re coming out for sure. Ten years ago this never would have happened,” said Altman. “Now there are little kids who are speaking the language and that has served as a catalyst.”
Altman believes the community may have more resources than it knows, because people continue to step forward to offer help.
“Seeing the positive energy around this has drawn a lot of people out. You can look at the sad part of it, but there are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who have skills we didn’t know they had,” said Altman.
The real challenge facing the Eastern Cherokee is how to get the elder speakers and their newest fluent speakers together in such a way that the people in the middle also begin to learn the language.
“One of the things we’re really trying to do is get the kids around the older speakers as much as possible so they are learning those thought patterns,” Altman said. “You can learn Cherokee as a second language learner, but it’s very hard and it takes a lot not to be translating back and forth in your head.”
The task is a dizzying one for Walker, who is still coming to grips with the fact that her generation didn’t learn to speak when they were kids.
“Is it that we weren’t paying attention?” Walker said. “Is it that we were taking it for granted? Did anybody think about the language at that time?”
Her mother, though, has her eyes on the future.
“Today we are not in danger of losing our language,” Driver said. “It used to be the burden was put on the shoulders of the speakers. Not anymore. The burden is on the shoulders of the little ones.”
Native American languages are unique. They came into being and evolved without the influence of writing. For scholars like Heidi Altman, a professor of linguistic sociology, that makes them fascinating.
“The thing I’m interested in is how people organize knowledge through language,” Altman said.
One of the most difficult aspects in the effort to preserve the Cherokee language and culture is how to convey the Cherokee worldview to a generation of speakers that live predominantly in an English-speaking world.
Altman said the nuances of the Cherokee language are often conveyed through the use of metaphor and context.
“When you have speakers together who are 50 and older, they’re able to talk in such a way that the language is metaphorical. It’s contextual, it’s funny, and it really encapsulates the Cherokee worldview,” Altman said. “It’s really different from how an English speaker thinks about how things work.”
Garfield Long Jr. has been the ECBI tribal linguist since 1997. One of the youngest native speakers of the Cherokee language at 42, Long struggles with how to preserve the meaning of the language as it is used by the elders.
Long believes there is no line separating language from thought or thought from experience. The oldest generation of Cherokee speakers grew up in a rural world, immersed not only in their language but also in natural surroundings.
“I think the experience outweighs the knowledge of the language,” Long said. “If you don’t go out in the woods and see the plants for yourself, you might know how to pronounce the word but you can’t go out there and find them.”
Long grew up in a Cherokee speaking household but he attended high school in Sylva. In some ways, he represents the boundary between two generations of Cherokee speakers.
“Growing up I never thought or dreamed that I would be in the position I’m in now, doing translation,” Long said. “Because in high school my world was mostly in English. It was only coming back after school that I began to realize how much I’d forgotten.”
Heavily influenced by his father and grandfather, Long considers himself a Cherokee thinker, but he concedes there is tension for anyone who lives in both worlds.
“For me I kind of think in Cherokee but again it just depends on the context of the conversation,” Long said.
In the Cherokee language the same noun will be pronounced differently depending on whether an object is a solid, a liquid, rigid or flexible. The pronunciation change involves subtle changes in tone and accent. Long said those subtle differences offer opportunities for humor, in some cases, and confusion in others.
“There was one word I was working with today and it meant ‘I will be there immediately’ but if I change one sound it meant ‘something to wipe with,’” Long said.
Long’s example may be funny but it also represents the knife’s edge facing Cherokee thought. Whether or not the younger generation can think in Cherokee may come down to how well they understand how to use their language to mediate their own experiences.
Gil Jackson, administrator at the Cherokee Language Academy, said the difference between thinking in English and thinking in Cherokee is most evident with higher order words, like love.
“The word love in our language is different. I could never describe it,” Jackson said. “It would take me half a book and I still couldn’t explain it.”
To that end, Jackson is encouraged by the way his young language immersion students express themselves.
“They run around now and tell each other ‘I love you’ in Cherokee,” Jackson said.
With the rest of the region’s construction economy at a standstill, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino is in the midst of a massive expansion project employing nearly 1,000 workers.
“We’re kind of creating our own gravity in terms of labor and resources,” said Erik Sneed, project manager for the casino expansion.
The expansion of the casino and hotel began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. The $600 million project will dramatically increase the casino’s gaming capacity and transform the hotel into one of the largest and finest in the country.
Sneed said Harrah’s has designed its gaming expansion to be flexible enough to be easily adapted if the casino reaches an agreement with the state of North Carolina to bring live dealers to the gambling floor. The casino will go from 3,400 games to 4,700 — 160 of the new additions will be table-based.
In May, the first phase of the bigger gaming floor will come on line, claiming the former entertainment pavilion and performance stage. The new casino area, unveiled with an earth/water-theme, will house 750 additional games and a brand new full-service bar in a non-smoking environment.
In June, another phase of the casino’s expansion will bring an additional 1,000 games on line.
Another characteristic of the new gaming marketplace is adapting to the Asian gambling profile. Feeding off its success at other casinos with Asian gamblers, Harrah’s will add an Asian gaming room featuring Pai Gow poker, baccarat and a nearby traditional noodle bar.
The casino’s expansion reflects the newest trends in the gaming industry. The whir of the slots, the clinking of the coins, and the neon lights have given way to interactive LED lighting displays and electronic debit swipe cards.
The new casino addition is designed as an open, airy environment that draws the outside in by incorporating natural light.
“We’ve really tried to embrace the outdoors and connect well with the creek and the outside surroundings by using lots of glass,” Sneed said.
A newly landscaped green space around Soco Creek, featuring native river cane and reeds, will integrate the casino and hotel into a park-like campus. When the façade of the hotel is complete, the green roof of its porte cochere will be an architectural centerpiece.
The hotel expansion will crown the 37-acre casino complex with a dramatic 21-story high rise — the third and biggest hotel tower yet — featuring glassed-in luxury suites up to 2,000 square feet in size.
The casino’s expansion is a sign of ambition, but it’s also a response to a practical reality. Last year, Harrah’s Cherokee purchased over 77,000 rooms off-campus for casino guests, as their on-site hotel accommodations were consistently maxed out. The expansion will nearly double the hotel’s room capacity from 532 rooms to 1,001 rooms with 107 suites.
Comprehensive planning is supposed to be, well, comprehensive. But as Macon County leaders are finding out, it’s not that easy to get the public’s opinion on how its government should work for the next 20 years.
After a three-month effort aimed at obtaining input on the county’s comprehensive plan, Derek Roland, Macon’s planning director, has only received 303 completed surveys in a county of some 35,000 permanent residents and thousands more second-home owners.
Meanwhile, the subcommittees charged with identifying the issues and action plans that would give shape to the final planning document have been plagued by poor attendance and a lack of a clarity concerning their mission.
“We were notified at our last meeting that there was some disconnect as to what the final outcomes should be,” Roland told a gathering of the subcommittees last week. “I’m hoping we can clear that up before you all leave here tonight.”
The slow start is a testament to the difficulty of the task at hand. The goal of the comprehensive plan is to create a guide for policy decisions concerning the county’s growth. It is addressing 10 different categories ranging from recreation, to land use, to education, to healthcare.
The project was commissioned in January 2009, but hand-picked subcommittees didn’t meet for the first time until October, when they began the process of coming up with recommendations in their specific areas. Since then, the sub-committees have struggled to wrap their heads around the project.
Last week, the planning board convened with the subcommittee chairs to regroup and signal a new beginning to the comprehensive planning process.
Chris Hanners, chair of the public services and economic development committee, was frustrated by the poor attendance of his committee members.
“It’s hard to make progress from month to month when you spend half the meeting getting people up to speed on what happened the last time,” Hanners said.
Hanners also said he wasn’t sure what the committee’s final product should look like.
Roland has taken the comprehensive planning process seriously. He has traveled to meetings in Sealy, Cowee, Upper Cartoogechaye, Pine Grove, Otto and Nantahala to explain why this process matters, why it will be different from the county’s two previous failed attempts.
The focus on public input has been his most compelling argument. But after all the meetings, less than 1 percent of the county’s residents have responded to the survey, which is available on-line and at various county and municipal offices.
Roland has already begun crunching the numbers the surveys have yielded and they are interesting, but, ultimately, of little use.
For instance, 72 percent of county residents believe protecting rural character is very important and only 51 percent think the same of recreation facilities.
As planning board member Carl Gillespie, a fifth generation native of Macon County, suggested, the numbers aren’t a clear representation of the public will.
“We need to bear in mind we’re sampling an extremely small percentage of people and we don’t even know what kind of cross-section we’re getting,” Gillespie said.
County Commissioner Bobby Kuppers urged the subcommittee members not to get discouraged.
“The dialogue, the discussion, the identification of problems is worthwhile on its own sake,” Kuppers said. “To this county, this effort means something.”
Planning Board Chair Lewis Penland also took the long view.
“It will always be a work in progress. To be a success it will have to be,” Penland said.
Penland urged the subcommittee members not to get discouraged before their work began in earnest.
“This is new to all of us, and I don’t want people to get discouraged,” Penland said. “The hardest part with a committee like this is to get engaged.”
Penland hailed the planning board’s success in creating a subdivision ordinance for the county as a sign that the comprehensive plan will work.
“The neatest part of all this is that growing up it seemed like there were a few people making decisions in this county and now the tide has changed and the people have the input,” Penland said.
Penland said the surveys were only one layer of the public input process.
“All we can do is deal with what we get,” Penland said. “I don’t know any other way. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make ‘em drink.”
But it was Roland who addressed the practical side of the planning process.
Using the Henderson County plan –– which has won awards in Raleigh –– as a model, Roland methodically and concisely but energetically outlined the process, including a timeline and a set of concrete outcomes for the subcommittees.
For example, one of Henderson County’s recommendations is to “reduce farmland loss,” and the action strategy was “to consider the costs and practicality of establishing a farmland protection fund for Henderson County.”
The subcommittee chairs left with a clear understanding of what they were being asked to produce and the planning board announced they would extend the public input deadline until March 1 in the hopes of making a last hard push to get the survey numbers up.
“The presentation Derek gave left us with a clear direction, and as of now, I really feel good about the process,” Hanners said.
The subcommittees have the responsibility of settling on a final timeline for their recommendations by the planning board’s May 18 meeting.
William Maney, owner of Fantasy Travel in Sylva, allegedly defrauded an elderly woman from Franklin out of $7,000 last year by stealing her credit card and using it to purchase airline tickets for other clients, according to charges filed by the Sylva Police Department. Maney will appear in court on Feb. 2 to answer the charges, but it seems Mollie Miller was not his only victim.
For Miller, an 81-year-old Michigan transplant who is legally blind, the episode has been a lesson she’d rather not learn from.
“I’ve always been a very trusting person, and I’ve had no reason not to be,” Miller said.
The story began last July, when Miller showed up at Fantasy Travel to make arrangements for her son and daughter-in-law to come visit. She had never been there before, but Miller said she had always gone through travel agents in the past and didn’t know how to make online ticket reservations.
“He was so pleasant and what not, and I guess I just walked out of there without my credit card,” Miller said.
That was only the beginning of the story. Because of Miller’s poor eyesight, a neighbor helps her with bills each month.
“She says, ‘You’ve got $8,000 on your credit card’ and I said, ‘What a nice limit,’” Miller said. “And she said, ‘No, Mollie. You spent $8,000 on your credit card.’”
Miller didn’t suspect Maney until she got a piece of mail addressed to him at her address. Her daughter-in-law opened it and it confirmed their suspicions.
Miller took the information to the Franklin Police who took it the Macon County Sheriff’s Department who took it to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department who took it to the Sylva Police, which ultimately was the agency with jurisdiction since Fantasy Travel is located within Sylva town limits.
Det. John Buchanan took the case over and gathered enough evidence to charge Maney with 13 counts of obtaining property under false pretenses and one count of financial card theft.
The doors of Maney’s business have remained open with the lights on, but no one is there. Builder Greg Jenkins, who leases office space from Maney, said his jacket is on his desk chair and one of his cell phones on the desk.
“It’s just like he dropped off the face of the earth,” Jenkins said.
Sylva Police released information related to the case in the hopes of finding out if Maney had taken advantage of any other clients. So far, two more people have come forward, according to Buchanan. One resident has said he purchased a $500 gift certificate but it was never reimbursed, and paid $250 for an airline ticket that wasn’t received.
In the case of Miller, Maney used her card to buy over $7,000 worth of merchandise for nine Fantasy Travel clients between June 30 and July 18 of last year, according to court records. Det. Buchanan said Maney has cooperated with the investigation.
It’s a gloomy chapter for a downtown business that had been around for over 25 years. Maney purchased it in 2005 and renovated the space with help from a loan from the Sequoyah Fund, a small business incubator funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Maney appeared in court on Dec. 22 and was released on $22,000 bond.
Miller just wants her money back and some sense of peace of mind.
“I felt ridiculous afterwards when I realized he’d gotten away with it,” Miller said. “As long as I don’t wind up paying for the airline tickets, I guess I’ll be happy.”
Maney could not be reached for comment.
“Elk don’t know how many feet a horse has.”
That’s the advice Bear Claw Chris Lapp gave Jeremiah Johnson as the pair hid behind their horses while stalking elk in the eponymous Robert Redford film. Well, according to Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie, elk don’t know the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park either.
“I truly believe we need an elk management plan because the population will continue to grow and the elk don’t recognize the boundaries of Smoky Mountain National Park,” said Massie, representing the North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
While elk are protected inside the park’s boundary, they could lose their status as a species of special concern when wandering onto private property under a proposed change by the N.C. Wildlife Commission.
Hunting elk would still be illegal but private landowners could shoot elk causing property damage. Under the current rules, landowners are supposed to get a permit before shooting problem elk.
Massie was one of a host of people who turned out at a public hearing in Sylva last week on the rule change. With a herd population of only 110, the loss of even a few elk at the hands of careless private landowners could jeopardize their long-term viability, according to opponents of the rule change.
Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies, said that over a third of the herd now lives outside the park’s boundaries in Haywood County and the Cherokee Reservation.
David Cobb, chief of the wildlife management division for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said he had no way of knowing what the death of even a few elk would have on the herd.
“I can’t say what the death of one elk would do because I haven’t done the population study,” Cobb said.
Massie called on the N.C. Wildlife Commission to establish a management plan for the elk, something the state currently lacks.
Brad Howard, a wildlife biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said elk will essentially still be protected even though they won’t have special concern status.
“People seem to be concerned that people will start shooting elk at leisure,” Howard said. “That is not the case. Our enforcement guys are going to want to know why you shot this elk and show us the property damage that warrants why you shot this elk. There are very specific parameters and you have to justify the animal was in fact doing damage.”
Dan McCoy, former tribal chairperson of the ECBI, traveled to the meeting with his son Connor to speak up for the elk. McCoy told commissioners he’d purchased the boy a lifetime membership to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in the hopes that one day he would be able to hunt the animals.
“Our people are proud of these elk. They’re proud they’re there, but they still need our protection,” he said.
People who have put their time and money into establishing a healthy elk herd in Western North Carolina are demanding that the animals retain their status as a species of special concern.
“Listen to the hearts and minds of the people on this because that’s really what this is all about,” Ramona Bryson said.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Friends of the Smokies led a massive fundraising effort that garnered over $1.2 million to support the reintroduction project. A satellite herd has taken up residence on land owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, contributing to the sentiment that the N.C. Wildlife Commission is not the only stakeholder in the debate over the animals’ future.
Ray Bryson, another member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was one of the volunteers who drove 59 hours round trip to Alberta, Canada, to deliver the elk to the park when the herd was first established. Bryson urged the Wildlife Commission to work with the national park and the tribe to establish a management plan that would expand the elks’ range into the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
Cobb said his staff met with members of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in person before the hearing and the discussion concerning their protected status is ongoing.
“This is nowhere close to a done deal,” said Cobb.
The bankruptcy of one of Western Carolina University’s largest supporters will hurt the school’s fast growing construction management program.
In 2005 Joe Kimmel, owner of Asheville-based Kimmel & Associates, pledged nearly $7 million over eight years to the construction management program at WCU, which was named the Joe W. Kimmel School of Construction Management Engineering and Technology.
Both Kimmel and his company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late December. Bankruptcy filings often affect philanthropic commitments as creditors seek to recover their investments.
WCU spokesperson Bill Studenc said delays in receiving the promised Kimmel gift would likely affect the number of scholarships the program can offer.
“Delay in fulfilling commitments planned in the Kimmel gift will mean that fewer student scholarships and less program support will be available during the interim,” Studenc said.
WCU Chancellor John Bardo said the school’s primary focus in the matter is the welfare of the Kimmel family, whom he called “close friends of the university.”
“Our current concern is for the Kimmel family and their employees,” Bardo said. “As one does with family, we will take the long view of this trying time. We wish them all the best. We will stand by them in every way we can, and trust that there will be a brighter day in the world economy soon.”
WCU’s construction management school was started in 1999 and offers an undergraduate B.S. degree and an online masters degree. Currently, 300 students are enrolled in the two programs.
Robert McMahan, dean of the Kimmel School, acknowledged that the current economic climate is difficult for the construction industry, but he said the program is still growing.
“The construction management program has been growing steadily over the years, and we anticipate that trend to continue,” McMahan said. “Freshmen entering the program in the fall will not be preparing for employment this year, but for opportunities available in four years. We anticipate that as the economy improves, the construction industry will be one of the areas to benefit most greatly from the turnaround.”
McMahan said graduates of the Kimmel School have done well finding jobs during the recession.
“Obviously, the construction industry has been affected by the economic downturn,” McMahan said. “But what we have seen is that graduates of our construction management program continue to be able to secure the jobs they seek in the industry because of the valuable mix of skills they acquire here at Western Carolina.”
Kimmel & Associates is one of the largest recruiting firms in the country specializing in placing candidates in the construction industry.
Michael Watson, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, contends the state’s overhaul of its behavioral health system doesn’t amount to an abandonment of its past reform effort of 2003.
“I wouldn’t call it a rollback of reform, I would call it a response to some of the issues that came out of reform,” Watson said. “I think if you look at reform where we really made mistakes is when we preferred access over quality.”
Under a set of changes called the Critical Access Behavioral Health Agencies (CABHA) program, the state is forcing mental health providers that use Medicaid funding to comply with a new set of requirements by July 31.
According to Watson the changes will improve quality by demanding accountability from private providers.
The most significant new requirement is that any agency that wants CABHA certification needs a full-time psychiatrist on staff to function as a medical administrator two months prior to July 31.
The changes were prompted in part by the state’s budget crisis and in part by criticism of a Medicaid-funded mental health program called “community support”.
Under direction from the General Assembly, DHHS will dismantle “community support” services, a major component of a system-wide reform initiated in 2003. The goal of the reform was to improve access to the public by decentralizing and expanding the netwokk of providers in the private sector.
Community support was a service in which mental health professionals, often without advanced degrees, offered clients mentorship and skill-building in real-world settings. The intent of community support was to deepen the contact between mental health providers and their clients. But at least in some systems around the state, the practice was abused, leading legislators to cry foul that the program was akin to expensive state-sponsored babysitting.
Between 2006 and 2009, the state spent over $800 million on enhanced services and a report by the General Assembly claimed that 97 percent of the money went to community support.
That decision set off a domino effect for services billed through Medicaid and led to a total overhaul of the system.
DHHS Assistant Secretary Michael Watson claims the CABHA program will improve quality and save money at the same time.
“The issue with quality really has to do with the problems with community support and the fact that we were beginning to see similar abuses in the services that would replace them,” said Watson.
Duncan Sumpter –– CEO of Appalachian Community Services, a mid-size provider that serves rural Graham, Swain, and Cherokee counties –– thinks the failure of community support had to do with the way the state administered the program.
“The state is saying lesson learned from community support,” Sumpter said. “But the lesson learned by the providers is the rules were never clear and some people took advantage of it.”
CABHA affects businesses that provide “enhanced services,” a catch-phrase for a menu of Medicaid-funded behavioral health services for people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
In 2003, the state moved away from a consolidated area program model in which large regional agencies were responsible for providing services and paying out Medicaid claims.
The reform effort was designed to eliminate the potential for abuse of the Medicaid billing system by ensuring that the same companies –– in the case of the seven western counties the regional entity was the Smoky Mountain Center –– did not both pay out claims and provide services.
The reform effort resulted in a privatized model where multiple service providers answered to a singe local management entity (LME) for paying claims.
The Smoky Mountain Center became the LME for the seven westernmost counties in the state and many of the center’s staff left to start their own companies to provide services.
With the implementation of CABHA, the private provider network will re-consolidate.
The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is at odds with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park over the status of the newly reintroduced elk herd.
The N.C. Wildlife Commission has come under fire for its plan to remove elk from the state list of species of special concern. As it scrambles to defend the delisting, the wildlife commission is pointing to a change in the herd’s status by the national park as the reason.
“From a biological perspective, with the information from the park we’ve gotten indicating they’ll declare the elk reintroduction a success, it means we don’t need to protect them with the special status,” said David Cobb, chief of the wildlife management division for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
But that’s not exactly right, according to Bob Miller, a spokesperson for the Smokies. Miller said the park has not yet categorized the reintroduction of elk a success.
“We never told them the reintroduction program was a success,” Miller said. “What we told them is we have a population that is stable barring some kind of disaster or human intervention.”
The park does plan to change the herd’s status from an “experimental release” to an official “reintroduction” later this year. Under the experimental release status, the park was monitoring the herd closely to see whether they were a good fit for the ecosystem. The shift to an official “reintroduction” is different from declaring it a success, however.
Elk were reintroduced to the Cataloochee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001. Since then the initial herd of 52 animals has grown in size to 110 animals.
Miller said the park would submit a formal letter clarifying its position to the Wildlife Commission before the end of the public comment period.
The state agency in charge of implementing new mental health rules this year says those changes will save money and improve quality, but some providers see it as a knee-jerk reaction that will limit access to services and put people at risk.
The Department of Health and Human Services has announced an overhaul of its mental and behavioral health model that will consolidate the state’s network of providers in six months.
“The biggest problem is they’re trying to implement sweeping changes across the system and they’re not giving us time to do it,” said Raymond Turpin, CEO of Jackson/Haywood County Psychological Services.
Turpin and other local behavioral health providers are concerned that the new program, dubbed the Critical Access to Behavioral Health Agency or CABHA, will put small providers out of business in the short run and threaten the stability of the provider network long-term.
CABHA is designed to create a new set of standards and requirements for behavioral health providers that use state and federal mental health funding. The range of services from providers include substance abuse counseling, crisis intervention, psychological assessments, and treatment for mental health issues like depression.
Under the new rules, mental health service providers must have a full-time psychiatrist on staff, national accreditation, and take on additional administrative duties in order to bill through Medicaid — which are tall orders for a small office of counselors.
Whether it succeeds in improving the quality and integration of services, CABHA will most certainly instigate a rapid consolidation of the provider network in a short time frame.
“The environment is going to become more and more harsh for smaller providers,” said Brian Ingraham, CEO of Smoky Mountain Center, the local management entity that oversees mental health services in WNC. “The state is clearly going in the direction of larger consolidated providers.”
Streamline or rollback?
When CABHA is introduced in July, many small providers who aren’t able to meet the program requirements will not be able to bill Medicaid-funded services, forcing them to close, contract with other companies, or lay off staff.
Marcia Lewis –– executive director of Mountain Youth Resources a provider of mental health services that contracts with Macon County Schools –– runs one of the small providers that stands to lose as a result of the changes.
Lewis said her agency could potentially join up with one of the new CABHAs, but is in limbo until the state makes key decisions about how providers will be reimbursed, from what type of services are eligible to the hourly billing rate. Until then, there is no way for companies to create a new business model.
“My own personal view is the state is reacting to things without thinking them through and without determining how they’ll operate and in the meantime clients will suffer,” Lewis said.
Lewis said the CABHA program will add another level of bureaucracy to the service delivery system and create a new layer of costs.
“They keep adding levels of cost instead of levels of service,” Lewis said.
Lewis’ complaint gets at the philosophical debate underpinning the current changes. During the state’s 2003 reform effort, the implementation of community support services was a wide-ranging attempt to offer people in need of behavioral health services more contact with their providers.
The community support model failed. But while the providers that billed for community support agree that its cost spiraled out of control, they also maintain that the state’s poor implementation of reform deserves the lion’s share of the blame for its failure.
“North Carolina was moving so fast that we were being pushed to implement services even before the service definitions were set,” Turpin said.
Turpin said his agency spent big money bringing in state-mandated trainers who couldn’t even explain what types of services community support would cover. He fears the newest round of changes will be managed the same way, preferring a political mandate to the reality on the ground.
Either way, with the General Assembly ordering the department to kill community support by July, systematic change is a political reality.
“The time frames are what we have to deal with,” Watson said. “We’re operating with specific direction from the General Assembly to phase out community support by June 30.”
So far the DHHS has gotten letters of interest from 200 providers who want to establish CABHAs and 20 full applications. Ingraham said he thinks the state will end up with around 100 CABHAs, and only three or four in WNC.
Turpin said the rapid consolidation will hit rural areas hardest, because many people who need services won’t know where to go to get them.
Watson acknowledged access could be an issue initially.
“There may be some access issues initially and that’s something we’ll have to monitor closely with the LME’s,” Watson said.
Duncan Sumpter, CEO of Appalachian Community Services, a mid-size provider that serves rural Graham, Cherokee, and Swain counties, sees the consolidation as a step back to a model that prioritizes economics over human needs.
“There’s a difference between covering a community and serving a community,” Sumpter said. “As we move back towards consolidation, we may go back to covering instead of serving.”
Between theory & practice
Turpin believes the requirement that CABHAs maintain a full-time psychiatrist as an administrator is a deliberate attempt to put rural providers under the gun.
“Now they want to go back to a few huge Wal-Mart agencies and they’re using the psychiatrists as the magic bullet to wipe us out and make room for some national provider to come in and take over,” Turpin said.
Brian Ingraham –– CEO of Smoky Mountain Center, a regional entity that manages the network of private providers –– said psychiatrists are already a scarce resource in the state’s rural areas and shouldn’t be used as administrators.
“The psychiatrists we have now in this part of the state need to be working in a clinical and medical capacity, not in an administrative one,” said Ingraham.
Watson explained that the requirement is intended to create built-in medical oversight in a system that supports medical programs.
“These are Medicaid services and they are supposed to be medically necessary,” said Watson. “With community support you had a program where 90 percent of the providers were high school graduates.”
The difference of opinion over the medical director requirement points to a lack of trust between the state and its provider network.
The state feels it has been burned by providers milking the system. Its providers contend the state never defined its programs in a way they could be administered properly.
Ingraham believes the CABHA program is based on good theory, but he wonders whether the short timetable slated for its implementation will create a new kind of problem.
“The good news is it’s an opportunity to integrate services that really should be bundled under one roof because we are dealing with a fragmented system right now,” said Ingraham.
Not every provider sees CABHA as a threat and most providers agree that the system could benefit from a more regional approach in which services are better integrated.
For instance, under the current system a patient could receive counseling from one agency but their prescription from another.
Joe Ferrara, CEO of Meridian Behavioral Health based in Waynesville, said CABHA could improve the quality of behavioral health services. Ferrara agrees with Watson that the reform effort didn’t work.
“There was a belief that there was going to be collaboration from the providers that would create continuity of care, but it never really happened,” said Ferrara. “The reason community support was removed, let’s be frank, was because the costs associated with it went through the roof.”
But Ferrara also fears that the CABHA program will operate in practice as an unfunded mandate.
“Whenever there are unfunded mandates for the provision of services, the state uses the explanation that they will tweak the rates for the services,” Ferrara said.
The state has promised that the added administrative costs CABHA mandates will be offset by an increased billing rate for case management services, the program that will replace community support.
The state’s budget crisis has created the political reality that those changes must be made by the end of July. In the past year, the state has already cut $40 million out of its mental health system and cuts may be even deeper in the next budget cycle.
With providers strained, the task of overhauling their business models in six months in response to CABHA could force some of them out of business. Even the providers who are well positioned to weather the changes question the wisdom of such a narrow time frame.
“Providers are reeling and all of the sudden they’re going to introduce CABHA and they’re saying the costs will be picked up in the billing rates for case management,” said Ingraham. “Well I really hope so because if not we’ve created a big mess. There’s a lot of risk there.”
The road ahead
At the root of the debate over CABHA is a discussion about winners and losers. Some middle-sized behavioral health service providers stand to grow as a result of the consolidation. At the same time, the regional entities like Smoky Mountain Center that oversee the network of private providers will lower overhead costs by dealing with fewer agencies with better built-in oversight capacities.
Meanwhile though, in Western North Carolina’s rural areas, the people who rely on services will almost certainly face a reduction in service hours and some will likely deal with an interruption in services. In addition, some service providers will likely go out of business entirely.
In the seven western counties, three existing service providers have already begun the process of applying for CABHA certification –– Haywood and Jackson County Psychological Services, Meridian Behavioral Health, and Appalachian Community Services.
All three businesses were created by former employees of the Smoky Mountain Center when the provider network was privatized during the 2003 reform effort.
Now those businesses and many others are facing competition with national providers and forced consolidation.
“It’s just one more change in a stream of changes along the timeline,” Ferrara said. “This is an incredibly difficult time to be providing behavioral health services in North Carolina.”
Elder abuse takes many forms and, thanks to a national grant program, law enforcement officers in Western North Carolina now know what to look for.
In 2007, the Department of Justice awarded the 30th Judicial District Sexual Assault Alliance a grant to train law enforcement in the seven western counties how to identify the signs of elder abuse.
The grant comes to maturity in October and so far the program has trained 200 law enforcement officers and over 1,500 individuals who regularly deal with the elderly from church volunteers to hospital workers.
Michael Rich, director of the 30th Alliance, said the organization recognized the need to train law enforcement personnel on elder abuse because cases weren’t getting prosecuted.
“What we discovered in the early ‘90s with domestic violence is that unless law enforcement is trained to use the statutes, they won’t use them,” Rich said.
Because 85 to 90 percent of elder abuse crimes are perpetrated by family members, the cases were confusing to prosecute.
“It used to be that the police would say, ‘This is a family problem and we’re not getting involved,’ and now they’re realizing it’s a family problem but it’s also a crime,” Rich said.
Stats indicate the training program is working. The first year of the grant, the 30th Alliance dealt with 18 cases involving elder abuse. The next year the number increased to 27. This fiscal year, the agency has already addressed 27 cases in just the first six months.
Rich said the faltering economy has also played a role, leading to an increase in financial exploitation of elderly family members.
Detective Jeff Haynes of the Waynesville Police Department has acted as the law enforcement training liaison for the grant. Haynes, who also spent 15 years in the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, said the trainings have created a better working relationship between groups that deal with elder abuse issues.
“By raising the consciousness through the grants, the law enforcement personnel, the social services and the courts are coming together,” said Haynes. “You might not see the impact directly on the statutes but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Haynes said North Carolina still needs to strengthen the statutes with regard to elder abuse. The state put specific elder abuse statutes on the books in the mid-1990s.
“We use them but they’re weak in the state of North Carolina and hopefully we’re moving towards some improvement at the legislative level,” Haynes said.
Next month, the first successful indictment relying solely on elder abuse statutes will be heard in Jackson County Court. For Rich and Haynes, the case, which centers on financial abuse, represents the culmination of a colossal effort.
“The beauty of it is that due to the grant and the training, the awareness was there and the people involved knew what to do,” said Haynes.
The WNC elder abuse grant was one of only 10 awarded around the country, mostly to programs in major metropolitan areas like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver.
The 16-hour training deals with physical, sexual and financial aspects of elder abuse. For Haynes, one of the most important messages for law enforcement officers is that elder abuse isn’t the problem of the poor.
“The face of elder abuse runs the gamut. I’ve dealt with cases with wealthy families all the way down to the people who don’t have anything,” Haynes said. “The vast majority of the families view this as an entitlement issue.”
Rich believes elder abuse is an issue that will continue to emerge as the population ages.
“We’re just a handful of folks that are advocates for elders in abuse situations, and if we’re not doing it there won’t be anybody,” Rich said. “The way the demographics are going there will be more and more seniors, and the need will increase.”
The Upper Cullasaja Watershed Association and the Cullasaja Club are pursuing state funding to restore the headwaters of the Cullasaja River. The partners have applied to the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund for money that would allow them to clean up 4,300 lineal feet of impaired stream located on the Cullasaja Club’s golf course in Highlands.
The project would restore native habitat and streambed structures as well as mitigate the impact on water temperature and runoff effluents caused by the golf course.
Highlands Mayor David Wilkes said the project could be the start of a broader movement aimed at restoring the Upper Cullasaja headwaters between Lake Ravenell and Lake Sequoia.
“One of the problems with the river that’s run through these communities that have golf courses is we’ve altered the stream habitats,” Wilkes said.
Wilkes said the project would work to re-route the stream in a way that would insulate it from the temperature fluctuations caused by water released directly from ponds on the golf course.
“Their intent is just to clean up that section of the river but you would hope that as the work is finished there that the next property owner down the line would recognize the value of the effort,” Wilkes said.
The entire project would cost an estimated $755,710 and would require the permission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
On Monday night the Macon County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution in support of the effort and the Highlands town board is expected to adopt a similar resolution at its meeting later this month.
For the first time in history, the government, the military and private healthcare providers are working together to deliver the appropriate counseling resources to returning war veterans.
This year, the Haywood Regional Medical Center, working with a Department of Defense grant in conjunction with the Smoky Mountain Center and the Mountain Area Health Education Center, has launched a counseling clinic for returning veterans and their families. The pilot program is aimed at providing support to soldiers and their families in an environment that encourages confidentiality and an integrated approach to their behavioral and medical health needs.
At the same time, the North Carolina National Guard has spent the last year putting in place a new system for reintegrating its citizen soldiers back into their civilian lives. The Yellow Ribbon Program, also DOD-funded, is a four-phase curriculum designed to make National Guard service men and women aware of the resources available to them when they come home.
The long road back
Glenda Sawyer, a licensed clinical social worker with over 30 years of experience counseling military personnel, is in charge of the Service Members Counseling and Support Center at Haywood Regional Medical Center. Sawyer has spent the bulk of her career counseling Marines deployed from Camp LeJeune, but her new challenge is to reach out to soldiers without a base. Haywood County has more combat veterans than any other county in Western North Carolina, and many of them are members of the National Guard.
“The purpose of this is to take care of people not connected to a military installation,” Sawyer said. “As a percentage, guardsmen tend to have a higher incidence of mental health issues.”
The Veterans Counseling Program at HRMC also attempts to treat the military family as an entire unit. In Sawyer’s experience, separating post-combat symptoms from family issues is artificial, but the Veterans Administration does not have programs for family counseling.
“There’s really nothing for families at the VA and many times it’s the family, usually the spouse, that initiates the call for help,” Sawyer said. “They’re not coming because of PTSD, they’re coming because they need marriage counseling.”
Sawyer said the program integrates medical treatments like pharmaceuticals and physical screenings with counseling techniques to help soldiers regain a sense of normalcy.
“When they’re over in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re constantly in hyper-arousal –– that’s the fight or flight instinct –– and they miss that because it’s like a natural high,” Sawyer said.
Veterans returning to their families often use coping mechanisms that push away the people they love.
“When they see something terrible, they numb out,” Sawyer said. “It’s not conscious. It’s a coping mechanism and that just doesn’t stop when they get home.”
Sawyer also said the economy has made a difficult situation nearly untenable. Military personnel are increasingly re-enlisting because of the combined effect of emotional and financial pressures.
“The economy is so bad. You’re talking about a lot of people who may only have a high school education, and they can’t find work,” said Sawyer. “For a lot of them, that’s why they joined up in the first place.”
Faced with a difficult re-integration to a civilian life that offers little potential for success, on the one hand, and high-risk pay on the other, many soldiers re-enlist. The impact, according to Sawyer, will be felt across society.
“We’re just now seeing how bad it is,” said Sawyer. “It’s right now that people are coming back form third and fourth deployments.”
Sawyer said the center is currently treating 18 veterans and family members and has added a full-time nurse practitioner to address medical issues. Sawyer said the combined medical and psychological approach is most appropriate for transitioning veterans because the overall aim is to get them feeling again.
“Everything is about re-conditioning themselves to be in a calm and relaxed state instead of an aroused one,” Sawyer said. “To feel again and get back in touch with their emotions.”
The center also has the advantage of being totally confidential. One of the largest barriers for soldiers who need counseling support is still the military culture, which stigmatizes any kind of perceived weakness.
“There is still stigma, even though the military is working hard on it. Particularly in low levels of command,” Sawyer said. “The biggest thing is confidentiality. Knowing that they can come in and no one in their command will ever know.”
While the Service Members Counseling Center at HRMC signals a new level of public-private cooperation around veterans services, the National Guard has also stepped up its own efforts to help its soldiers return to their civilian lives.
The Yellow Ribbon Program, funded in 2008 by the Department of Defense, is a mandatory curriculum for National Guard members that encourages the participation of family members.
John Gattis, formerly Command Staff Sgt. Major of the North Carolina National Guard, is the program’s administrator. Gattis said Yellow Ribbon is a proactive approach that maintains contact with service members throughout all the stages of their deployment. Because it’s mandatory, Gattis believes more soldiers will feel free to utilize its resources without worrying about what other people think.
The program deals with demobilization by maintaining contact with service members during each of their first three months back from their deployment in a series of all-day workshops.
The monthly checkups include surveys that can help soldiers inventory the effects of combat-related mental health issues. In the past, some soldiers have not used counseling supports for fear it could jeopardize their futures in the military.
“All we’re asking them to do is be honest with their assessment and identify potential problems,” Gattis said. “It’s not designed to identify problems in order to keep them out of the military as was once thought. It’s been developed for them.”
The program is in place just in time to deal with the return of the 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team –– comprised of National Guard troops from North Carolina and West Virginia –– later this year.
Gattis believes it’s crucial to ensuring a successful transition back to civilian life.
“We are at war and as long as soldiers are returning from combat zones, we have to take care of them,” Gattis said.
For more information about Yellow Ribbon visit www.nc.ngb.army.mil/index.php/yellow-ribbon/.
For information about the Service Members Counseling and Support Center call 828.452.8354.
The National Guard’s moniker evokes the best of American values and hearkens back to a Greek ideal. The citizens of a nation, its moral fiber during times of peace, should be ready to take up arms during war.
Increasingly, though, the phrase also represents a contradiction.
National Guard soldiers returning home from multiple deployments face a complex world. The same instincts that served to protect them on the battlefields and roadways of Iraq and Afghanistan can shut them off from their families and their lives as civilians.
“I’ll be honest with you. As soon as we got the call that we were going back, I knew my marriage was over,” said Staff Sgt. Shane Trantham of Haywood County’s 211th Military Police Company.
Sgt. Trantham’s experience, as he will tell you, is not unique. National Guard soldiers returning from the combat zone are expected to resume the life they left behind as fathers, mothers, friends and co-workers, but in many cases they don’t have the support they need to transition successfully.
Episodes like the Ft. Hood shooting have instigated increased scrutiny into the psychological impact of two simultaneous wars on the men and women who execute them.
But while intentions are good, resources are stretched and, perhaps even more importantly, the military culture is still one in which psychological issues are thought of as weaknesses.
Nine years into the country’s war on terror, soldiers are starting to get the support they need, but for some of them the damage is already done.
A father at war
Staff Sgt. Shane Trantham learned his military police company was being deployed on Christmas Eve in 2002. He kept the news a secret until after the holiday. On Jan. 2 his youngest daughter was born. Newly married with a newborn baby, he left on Jan. 10 for his deployment.
“The first thing you have to think of as soldiers is what’s going to happen when you’re gone,” Trantham said. “You’re passing all of that to someone else, and that places a huge amount of stress on the family. I don’t know what’s worse. What we go through over there or what they’re dealing with at the house.”
Trantham, who graduated from Tuscola High School in 1995, spent most of his time in Iraq driving convoys on main supply routes, the principal targets for improvised explosive devices, in ragtop Humvees without armor. He remembers the scene after a U.S. Abrams tank was blown skyward by a homemade bomb fashioned from four daisy-chained 150 mm shells and a primitive detonation system. The blast killed two crew members and wounded two others.
“That stuff was everyday stuff,” Trantham said.
The National Guard experience is unique in that when soldiers demobilize they return home and resume life without the support of their comrades or the services of a base command.
“It was like, ‘If you need help here’s the chaplain’s phone number,’” Trantham said. “And that wasn’t even close to what we needed. It affected everybody, not just the young people.”
Trantham worked for a utility company in Asheville reading meters.
“For six months I lived in a bottle. I’d get off work and get a 12-pack and go after it ‘til it was gone,” Trantham said.
At the same time he was dealing with post-combat stress, Trantham was also trying to hold onto his marriage, a relationship that had stalled during his absence.
“I told my wife, ‘I left in January of 2003 and I came back in January of 2003.’ Life just passes you by and you’re trying to play catch-up,” Trantham said.
Like many soldiers, he had a hard time fitting into the household dynamic, and in particular sharing power with his wife.
“You know the saying –– staff sergeants run the army,” Trantham said. “Then you come home and someone else is in charge. I’ve seen so many soldiers lose their marriages over that power struggle.”
Trantham said he knew his marriage was doomed when he got word of a second deployment just a few months later. “There’s so much distance created in a family. You become a picture and a telephone,” Trantham said.
After he got back from his second deployment, Trantham wasn’t comfortable sleeping in a bed, he was quick to anger, he had nightmares. He realized how serious the situation had gotten during a summer thunderstorm.
“In my head I thought it was a mortar attack and it just froze me to the couch,” Trantham said.
In two years, Trantham experienced two wars, the loss of a marriage, the deaths of his uncle and grandfather then started a new full-time job with the National Guard. The transformation forced him to acknowledge his mental health issues.
“All that changed my life. I was talking to the doctor and I said, ‘Look, maybe there’s something going on,’” Trantham said.
Trantham got a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis and was prescribed an anti-depressant, but the drugs created new problems.
“I had no emotions. Being a soldier you have to be able to maintain yourself in any situation and something inside me was saying ‘This won’t work,’” Trantham said.
Ultimately, it was counseling that helped Trantham deal with his issues.
“The turning point was that counselor telling me that what I was feeling was normal, that most people would have cracked and I didn’t,” Trantham said. “It’s not been easy, but things are falling back into place.”
As a full-time staff sergeant in charge of the headquarters of Haywood County’s National Guard, Trantham said he has watched the system change for the better, but it has taken the bulk of eight years for it to happen.
Trantham’s grandfather, Rubin Inman, spent 30 years in the same National Guard unit, so the staff sergeant has a sense of historical perspective.
“This ain’t Vietnam and this ain’t Korea. This is a whole new thing, and the Army wasn’t ready for it but they’re catching up,” Trantham said.
with multiple deployments
Ron Putnam, veterans service officer for Haywood County, is the guy many veterans turn to when they don’t know where else to go. He and county service officers like him all over North Carolina help soldiers get the benefits and services they have earned.
“Now days, for the first time in history, society, the medical field, the government has learned to try to get a hold of these guys early,” Putnam said. “We’ve finally woken up to the fact that we’re wearing these kids out.”
Putnam served in Lebanon and later in the Gulf War. He sees the issues facing current returning veterans as part of a broader shift in the military culture between Vietnam and the present. An all-volunteer army, rapid advances in communications, and a lightning fast workplace environment have created a new complex of issues.
The biggest challenge is dealing with the impact of multiple deployments on an individual and their family.
“The problem with these new kids is the multiple deployments allow for no relief at all from duty,” Putnam said. “In Vietnam, if you could get through it, you were done. Now you just barely have time to stand down, de-brief, and get relief. How in the world can you get back into any kind of home life?”
Putnam said the Internet and instant messaging have also added complexity to life in a combat zone.
“Let’s say you get an email that your baby’s sick and you gotta get up in the morning and go on patrol,” said Putnam. “That’s a two-edged sword.”
During the 1980s, that level of contact was unheard of.
“I called home from Lebanon one time and it was mandatory because our building had just blown up and they were trying to make sure we weren’t dead,” Putnam said.
Putnam said the economy has added additional stress. Many veterans come home to a life armed with a GED after spending three years or more with free housing and subsidized living expenses. Throw a young family into the mix and the worst job market in recent history and you’ve created an inhospitable environment that makes it increasingly hard for veterans to seek counseling help.
Veterans worry a mental health record will affect their ability to re-enlist or find work.
“Your new vet is just like your old vet in some respects,” said Putnam. “He wants a Chevy, baseball and apple pie. He wants a job. Does he want people to know he has mental health problems?”
Putnam sees veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, in addition to those from Iraq and Afghanistan on a regular basis. His experience has shown him that veterans share many issues, but each generation of soldiers has had to deal with a unique set of challenges. For this generation, the pressure of multiple deployments is brand new.
“Even the saltiest born-again hardest vet from World War II cannot say they’ve had five deployments,” Putnam said. “My analogy for the vets and the young families is it’s got to be like being on LSD. It’s just one extreme to the other.”
The World War II era military was about 12 percent of the country’s total population. During the Cold War, it contracted to about 2 percent. Today, the all-volunteer military is only about a half percent of the country’s population.
Because today’s wars are fought by a relatively small portion of society, Putnam worries that people treat the soldiers as if their war experience is their own problem, not the country’s shared responsibility.
He thinks that if veterans are to reintegrate back into their lives, they’ll need the help of the civilians around them.
“One issue is these young people being willing to ask for the help they need and the other part is society embracing them, and particularly the employers being willing to take a chance on them,” Putnam said.
Lessons from Vietnam
Putnam believes many of the strides today are a result of hard lessons learned during the Vietnam era. While there is no such thing as a typical war experience, Rick Strubeck’s tour in Vietnam was the kind you see in the movies.
Drafted at age 18, the Pennsylvania native landed in Vietnam in 1970 with an infantry assignment. He spent eight months in the jungle then drove an ammunition truck for four months.
Strubeck returned home at the height of the anti-war movement and remembers being spat on. He looks back on the experience with a sense of understated pain.
“I went through a pretty tough time for about the next 15 years,” Strubeck said.
Strubeck couldn’t sleep, so he drank himself to sleep. He ruined his marriage, wrecked three good jobs, and still didn’t care.
“I felt like I wouldn’t see the next sunrise, and I just threw caution to the wind,” Strubeck said.
At a John Denver concert in Madison Square Garden in the mid-’70s, Strubeck’s combat experience exposed him to a group of friends. The lights went out and the flash cameras set him off. He jumped out of his seat and fought his way through 15 rows to the exit.
“The people I went with were afraid to ride in the car with me on the way home,” Strubeck said.
He filed a disability claim with the VA for exposure to Agent Orange that never got recognized.
“I attributed all of my problems to Agent Orange and at the time if you mentioned Agent Orange, they didn’t want any part of you,” Strubeck said.
Finally, in the early 1990s, after being diagnosed with bone cancer, Strubeck also got a PTSD diagnosis that helped him move on with his life. He spent seven years in counseling.
“I thought I was crazy or an alcoholic and it turned out I had PTSD,” Strubeck said.
Strubeck credits the counseling with turning his life around.
“It gave me self-worth, and it made me realize I and my family were more valuable than I was giving them credit for,” Strubeck said. “I needed to live up to my responsibilities and stop hiding behind my combat experiences.”
After 20 years of sobriety, Strubeck looks back and wonders what life could have been like had he gotten the proper help upon his return from Vietnam.
“I’m glad they’re helping these guys now, but it still really hurts me to think of all the guys who are pushing up daisies because they ruined their lives,” Strubeck said. “War is hell and combat is bad. It’s something you never forget.”
Strubeck has a simple message for returning combat veterans.
“I just hope they have a good response to these programs, and I hope the guys are wise enough to take advantage of it,” Strubeck said.
Responding to a Smoky Mountain News article covering the debate over prayer at public meetings, a group of Macon County residents attended the county’s first board meeting of the New Year to urge the commissioners to hold their ground on praying in Jesus’ name before its meetings.
Rev. Greg Rogers thanked the board for taking a “bold stand” in defense of Christian prayer. His speech was punctuated by “amens” from a large group of supporters gathered in the county’s boardroom.
The meeting began, as it does normally, with an invocation. Rev. Guy Duvall prayed at length and finished his prayer with the familiar words, “In Jesus’ name we pray.”
The county-sanctioned prayer confirmed the position Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale established in last week’s news story when he said he supported the use of praying in Jesus’ name.
Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on the practice.
A current lawsuit, being waged in Winston-Salem, specifically challenges the practice of guest pastors from the community being invited to give the invocations. The same practice is used in Macon County. But Beale said earlier that unless a court case landed on his own doorstep, he has no intention of changing course.
Rev. Rogers promised his support and the support of his congregants in the event of a court battle.
“Thank you. We support you,” Rogers said. “I know there are many who will come to oppose us and say we need a moment of silence instead, but we believe that prayer only works in Jesus’ name.”
What is a bookstore?
The question was unimaginable when Joyce Moore bought City Lights Books in Sylva from Gary Carden in 1986. But as Moore calls time on her career, e-books and online booksellers have challenged bricks and mortar bookstores to re-justify their existence. Moore announced just before Christmas that she would sell her business to long-time employee Chris Wilcox. The transaction took place last Friday, and now Wilcox has the task of taking City Lights Books forward in a difficult climate for independent booksellers.
Moore has left him with a recipe for success that has nothing to do with technology.
“If you don’t have community support it’s impossible to succeed,” Moore said. “Sometimes you have to build that support and nurture it and keep letting people know why it’s important.”
It’s important because Sylva’s downtown and City Lights have grown together and, in many ways, their futures are intertwined. Moore can look back on a successful career running the store, during which time she was one of the leaders of the downtown’s revitalization movement.
Wilcox meanwhile looks forward to a new challenge in an atmosphere he has known intimately since he was a child.
The other City Lights
Sylva didn’t have a bookstore when Gary Carden opened up City Lights in the vacant front of the old Carolina Hotel on Main Street. Carden had operated a bookstore in an abandoned barbershop in Cullowhee before, and he saw the chance to start something the town needed without a lot of upfront investment.
“I stocked the shelves from my own books (mostly paperbacks), rented a coffee-maker and bought a stock of New Age cassettes, which turned out to sell better than the books,” Carden said. “I added a video section which was mostly foreign films and early American classics and hung a poster of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’ over the door.”
The name City Lights, then, didn’t come from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s iconic bookshop in San Francisco, but from Carden’s eclectic decorating style. Carden only ran the shop for a little over a year before he realized he didn’t have the money to make it what he wanted. Joyce Moore, a mother of two with a degree in library science, had just received a lump sum of money as compensation for her childhood home being re-located for an interstate right of way.
Moore bought the store, kept the name, and began making incremental improvements.
“The world was really a lot smaller in 1986,” Moore said. “The idea that anyone could ever confuse City Lights in San Francisco and City Lights in Sylva was inconceivable. It has happened though.”
Downtown Sylva was smaller then, too. Virtually nothing was open after 5 p.m. Running a business on Main Street allowed Moore to imagine what Sylva might look like with a vibrant downtown.
“As it grew, it just sort of began to fit into a bigger picture of what Sylva might possibly be,” said Moore. “At that time Meatballs was the only restaurant in town.”
Moore realized that if her shop was to succeed, it would do so as part of a new business district.
“You sort of realize there needs to be a few businesses that say, ‘I make a commitment to the community and if you join us we’ll have success,’ and I think that’s still true now,” Moore said.
Sylva got its Main Street designation from Raleigh and Moore became a pillar of Sylva Partners for Renewal, the precursor to today’s Downtown Sylva Association, which enjoyed the support of Mayor Brenda Oliver and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners. Moore credits that nexus of support for giving the business owners the support they needed to survive and, ultimately, to thrive.
“I think one of the important things in any economic development effort is that you can’t do it yourself,” Moore said. “We were fortunate in the early 90s that we had all the right players on board.”
The business grew, in part because of its connections with Western Carolina University, which not only meant that high-quality used books were available, but also that there were people around to read them, and, more importantly, people around who wrote them. Alan Moore, Joyce’s husband, was a biology professor at WCU and many of the store’s supporters, patrons, and personalities over the years have had some connection with the university.
Moore scheduled readings and discussions and City Lights really became the intellectual fountainhead of Sylva.
“Often times bookstores are a focus in a community,” Moore said. “We aren’t the only small town in which the bookstore is a kind of nucleus.”
After a few years on Main Street, Moore saw an opportunity to move City Lights into Dr. Ralph Morgan’s office on the corner of Schuman and Jackson Streets. The move meant that Moore could eventually run a business out of a building she owned, but it also gave the store a homey feeling, a sense of place.
With the advent of bigbox book retailers and then on-line booksellers, small bookstores around the country began closing their doors. But City Lights didn’t. Moore is clear about the reason. The community, she said, chose to keep her store alive.
“In many respects I think we weathered the big box stores and Amazon.com. I think those were battles we fought and didn’t lose,” Moore said. “ You can’t win, but the reality is the community has been behind us and helped keep us alive.”
Now Moore is a grandmother and she doesn’t want to pour her heart and soul into making sure City Lights stays above water.
“Change is a part of life. I don’t know if I have the energy at this point in my life to take on those changes. I think it really does come down to energy,” Moore said.
A community of readers
Gary Carden looks at the store he created with amazement, wonder, and a humble sense of a amusement.
“I see very little in the store that has survived from my ownership,” Carden said. “The movable shelves are still in the stores ‘used paperback’ section, but the music, the videos, the underground comics and the girlie magazines are gone. What has happened to the store is marvelous. Never in my wildest dreams did I envision what City Lights has become.”
Carden is just one of the many “regulars” that makes the store tick. Visit City Lights on a Friday afternoon and you’ll find readers of all ages and purposes perusing one of the stores sections.
Susannah Patty, who works for a local non-profit and helps manage the Sylva farmer’s market, was there visiting with friends.
“City Lights is more than an indie bookstore –– it serves as a vibrant meeting place that makes our community in Sylva both unique and cohesive,” Patty said.
Dan Schaeffer, Sylva’s public works director, had come to exchange mystery novels. Schaeffer, who just bought an e-reader, doesn’t like to waste paper, so he visits the store regularly and swaps out the novels he steams through at the rate of four per month.
“I mainly just exchange books here. I think it’s a great service because it kind of recycles the books,” Schaeffer said.
Blaine Eldridge, a retired professor who taught at WCU and SCC, has been patronizing the store since Gary Carden started it. Blaine was at City Lights with his wife Fitzallen, poring over the non-fiction rack.
“For an independent store they have a wide selection, and if they don’t have it they’ll order it for you,” he said. “The used books are really good. There are always some surprises back there.”
Fitzallen summed up the store’s charm.
“It’s friendly. The staff is fun. There’s always someone who knows what’s going on in the bookworld and they know what you like,” she said.
Lisa Lefler, a professor of medical anthropology at WCU, said City Light’s online ordering feature brings together the staff’s knowledge and the personal service that characterizes small businesses.
“It’s the attention to personal service. All of the people who work here have a useful and intense knowledge of various subject matter,” Lefler said.
If Lefler is looking for a book, any book, she can order it through the store after she has vetted it with the staff to make sure she’s not getting hoodwinked by a flowery review.
In the end, though, Lefler said her connection to the store is personal.
“You know that you’re going to be seeing the same people. There’s not a lot of turnover here. And you know that they will know your name and to me that’s really valuable,” Lefler said.
Raised in a bookstore
Chris Wilcox knows what he has, both in terms of City Lights’ reading community and in terms of Sylva’s place as an intellectual hub in the region.
“Sylva is a special town in that it’s just about the right size and it’s situated as a hub in a rural region,” Wilcox said. “We’re small enough that we’re not currently fighting off a big box retailer and we’ve got a community that values local business and backs it up with their pocketbooks.”
Wilcox was born and raised in Jackson County and remembers being in Joyce’s store from an early age.
“I really started hanging out at the bookstore before she bought it and a lot after it,” Wilcox said. “I just about grew up in the store.”
After a stint as a paramedic, Wilcox was considering going back to school for a master’s degree in library science. Moore needed extra help at the store and the rest is history. Wilcox has helped manage the store for years but he doesn’t take the transition in front of him for granted.
“I’m going to be in a new job. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing as an assistant manager for a lot of years, but there a lot of things that Joyce has done on her own,” Wilcox said. “My focus initially is to keep my nose above water and then I’ll look to improve the business incrementally as I see the opportunities.”
Wilcox, whose mother Margot has also worked with Moore for years, doesn’t see himself as a child of the Web generation as much as he sees himself a child of City Lights.
“My growing up parallels the store, so my reference isn’t that different from Joyce and my parents. Maybe I take for granted a little bit the community of letters that City Lights is responsible for, but I certainly try not to,” Wilcox said.
At the same time, he understands the realities of the business climate. At a time when the vast majority of book sales take place on the Web, even the name City Lights, which began with Carden’s Charlie Chaplin poster, presents challenges. People who search for City Lights San Francisco can end up in virtual Appalachia, which can be confusing for everyone involved.
“It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t have any immediate plans to change it. It’s a great institution Ferlinghetti built, and if we get some resonance off of it that’s OK with me,” Wilcox said.
Ultimately, though, Wilcox believes City Lights has what it takes to survive. Having grown up in the store, he understands that the bookstore isn’t about the building or even the books, it’s about a community that shares stories.
“It’s conceivable that this is the last stand of the printed book as an object,” Wilcox said. “But people are still going to be telling stories and we want to be a part of that in whatever form it takes. We’ve always been a place for sharing stories. That’s what Joyce has always emphasized.”
A year ago, state officials promised a group of Macon County residents that they would get a cost estimate for what it would take to rehabilitate the McCoy Bridge, a single lane truss bridge that dates from the 1930s.
That cost assessment hasn’t happened yet and now the North Carolina Department of Transportation says the project has dropped in priority because of the state’s budget crisis.
Residents want to save the McCoy Bridge because of its unique character and aesthetic value. The NCDOT, meanwhile, has argued that the bridge is not historic and needs to be replaced with a two-lane bridge with greater weight-bearing capacity. The bridge is seen by some as a symbol of the community’s rural character, something that could be comprised if a bigger bridge replaced it.
In response to opposition from residents to the NCDOT’s plan to replace the bridge, the agency promised it would provide a cost assessment for the bridge’s rehabilitation within the year, and a year is now up. Steve Abbot, communications director for the NCDOT, said that assessment hasn’t been completed and could not provide a concrete timetable for its completion.
The bottom line from the NCDOT’s perspective is that the state’s budget crisis and the I-40 rockslide have made the bridge a low priority.
“The project has been delayed due to the State’s financial crisis and other projects that are funded have been given higher priority for our resources,” Abbot said. “Until we work through the current issues, we will not be setting the project schedule.”
According to the DOT, the most current cost estimate for replacing the 290-foot bridge and its roadway approaches is $2.424 million, a figure that does not include any right-of-way acquisition or utility relocation cost.
Doug Woodward, a resident who has championed the McCoy Bridge cause, argues the bridge should be saved and that there is no good reason to put in new two-lane bridge on an access route that only carries about 300 vehicles per day.
School buses and emergency vehicles don’t use the bridge because the NCDOT has downgraded its weight-bearing capacity to three tons, roughly the weight of an SUV.
Pam Williams, the NCDOT’s engineer for the project, said the disagreement between her department and the residents boils down to a policy issue.
“DOT has a policy of not putting in one-lane bridges and they wanted us to look at the possibility of doing that,” Williams said.
Williams said the bridge has been up for historical designation three times and not been included on the register. Without a historic designation the bridge is not likely to be maintained in the state road system. As of 2009 there were only 36 truss bridges left on NCDOT-maintained roads.
“They do consider it an historic and iconic bridge and I understand that, but it is a truss bridge and truss bridges are considered fracture critical. In North Carolina we don’t build truss bridges anymore,” Williams said.
Abbot said that in the case of bridges with strong sentimental value, the NCDOT often uses its bridge relocation and reuse program to move the bridge to a place where it can be maintained and utilized by private or public entities for non-highway uses.
McCoy Bridge came into the NCDOT system in 1960 but it is believed to have been built in the late 1920s or early 1930s, according to Woodward. It is an example of a Pratt Through Truss Bridge, a common technology for early steel span bridges.
Woodward understands that the NCDOT doesn’t want a single span truss bridge in its system, but he pointed out that many states have found ways to preserve and utilize truss bridges. Iowa has over 1,400 truss bridges in operation, Woodward said.
To Woodward, the issue comes down to logic. The bridge is beautiful and it serves a small community with little potential for traffic increases. Why get rid of a nice bridge with historic value when a new bridge isn’t needed?
“If it can’t be rehabilitated adequately there are other ways to bring it up to a load-bearing standard that is not limiting school buses or emergency vehicles,” Woodward said. “The DOT would put a $4.6 million bridge in that location with 80 percent federal funding which would essentially be a concrete slab.”
The Jackson County commissioners have breathed new life into the county’s airport authority by taking it over.
After appointing themselves to five of the six seats on the airport board last month, the commissioners met in their new capacity for the first time this week and began their work of running the airport. They voted to tap $150,000 in federal funds to fix the Jackson County Airport’s failed runway lighting system — a move that required a $16,500 matching grant on the part of the county, despite previous resistance by commissioners to plow tax money into the airport.
Taken together, the actions represent a new relationship between the county and the airport and may revitalize what had been a decaying piece of infrastructure. Jason Kimenker, the sole survivor from the last airport authority, saw the New Year’s first meeting in a positive light.
“I’d been waiting for a long time for the county commissioners to step up to the plate and take responsibility for the appointment of the authority’s members to make sure the airport was managed and maintained properly,” Kimenker said. “What happened today was a pleasant surprise.”
Still, the new arrangement is bound to pose its own challenges. In the first place, confusion over wording in the airport’s charter language led to questions about whether the authority should consist of a five- or six-person board. After determining that the most recent version of the charter stipulates a five-person board, Commissioner William Shelton offered to resign his seat.
That leaves the four other commissioners and Kimenker on a board that has the job of functioning as an independent entity, which means the commissioners must wear two hats.
On Monday, the authority approved bids for the runway lights, went over a list of other needed repairs and standing issues, then adjourned. The commissioners then donned their county board hats and voted to authorize the matching grant of $16,750 from the county’s contingency fund to land the federal grant money.
County Chairman Brian McMahan, who was elected chairman of the airport authority on Monday night, stressed that the commissioners would spend much of the next three months learning the airport’s business and determining the best way for the authority to move its agenda forward.
Commissioner Tom Massie, who had been an outspoken critic of the county’s allocation of money to the airport, was clear about the reason he wanted to take over the authority, pointing out the series of issues that had ended up in the county board’s lap over the past few years.
“If we’re going to have to face those things anyway, we may as well be on the airport authority and make sure it works and it’s safe for the public,” Massie said.
But the airport authority had languished for the past two years as a result of outstanding debts, a lack of county support, and a dwindling board. Monday’s meeting showed that the period had yielded a new string of issues. The lighting system failure, an inoperable fuel tank, lack of a routine maintenance plan, even concerns over the cost of toilet paper, and unresolved legal disputes with nearby landowners about erosion from the airport.
Massie wasn’t happy with much of what he heard.
“I was disappointed because I thought some of these issues had been resolved, particularly with regard to the lawsuits,” Massie said.
A large contingent of pilots turned out for the meeting, including former authority member John Glenn, a flight instructor. Glenn is pleased with the commissioners’ willingness to take on a leadership role at the airport.
“The airport is part of the county infrastructure. You can’t be separate from and part of the county at the same time,” Glenn said. “We’ve been little by little trying to turn the airport back into the county fold. It’s a good move. They’ll have to walk a mile in our moccasins now.”
Kimenker has enjoyed a peculiar transition, having woken up one morning to find himself sitting alone amongst the county commissioners.
“It’s interesting,” Kimenker said. “Now we have all the county’s concerns in the same room and that’s a good thing.”
In August a computer hacker broke into a North Carolina Community College System server and potentially gained access to the personal information of 51,000 library users across the state.
The cyber break-in was deemed harmless by investigators in the wake of the event, but it left behind glaring questions about the security of personal information on the Internet.
According to N.C. Community College officials, the perpetrator accessed the library patron information in August via a computer server housed in the community college system office in Raleigh by decoding a user password.
An initial investigation revealed that 8,300 driver’s license numbers, originally collected by 18 colleges to help identify library users, were stored on the server. However, an ongoing review of the incident revealed that an additional Social Security numbers of 42,500 library patrons were also stored on the breached server, including the information of patrons from Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.
Ryan Schwiebert, IT director at SCC, explained how the breach affected the college.
“As a college we stopped using social security numbers quite some time ago,” Schweibert said. “The social security numbers that were jeopardized in the breach were left in the library’s system from two years ago.”
Schwiebert said the state’s community college library server is an “open facing” system, which means it can be accessed via the Internet. He said best policy dictates that private information be maintained only on servers that don’t allow that level of access. For instance, the SCC’s student information database is secured on a server protected by layers of firewalls.
“That type of server would be very difficult for a hacker to access without being caught,” Schwiebert said. “Even for one of our own people.”
In the wake of the security breach, N.C. Community College officials notified 51,000 library users from 25 community colleges that a security breach had occurred on a computer server containing their personal information. While reviews and investigations after the event indicated that the hacker had not accessed any personal information, state and federal privacy laws dictated that the college system inform all of the users who had potentially been affected by the breach.
Forty-six community colleges that participate in the Community College Libraries in North Carolina consortium maintain information on more than 270,000 library users on this server. The security breach was discovered Monday, Aug. 24, during a routine security review and was reported to the state’s Information Technology Service at that time. Students potentially affected weren’t notified for another four months.