Giles Morris

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The Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has passed a new enrollment ordinance that requires DNA testing for new applicants to the tribe’s rolls. The DNA testing will be used to verify the applicant’s parental lineage.

The new enrollment ordinance also creates a process for disenrolling those who don’t qualify as Cherokee.

The Tribal Council’s vote earlier this month paves the way for non-Cherokee to be purged from the tribe’s rolls as soon as a month after Principal Chief Michell Hicks signs it into law. It is not clear when he intends to do that.

The council passed the new measures with a unanimous 12-0 vote on June 3.

The enrollment ordinance also puts a stop to new people enlisting as tribal members, with the exception of infants and 18 year olds, until an on-going audit of the tribe’s roster of nearly 14,000 tribal members is complete.

The updated ordinance is the result of months of debate on the Tribal Council floor about how the Eastern Band will implement its expensive and lengthy enrollment audit and avoid repeating the process again in the future. Tribal members voted to conduct the audit — designed to weed out people who don’t meet the tribe’s minimum enrollment requirements — in an intensely contested 2002 referendum.

Finally in 2007, the tribe hired an outside firm, The Falmouth Institute, to do the audit, which has cost $746,000 to date.

The audit turned up 303 tribal members with no direct link to the Baker Rolls, the 1920s-era document that served as a census of sorts of who was Cherokee at the time. Tribal members must be able to prove that they have an ancestor on the Baker Roll and have a blood quantum of at least one-sixteenth Eastern Cherokee. The audit revealed another 50 members who lack the adequate blood degree.

That last group is in the crosshairs of the new ordinance. According to the newly adopted policies, members in question will be informed of their status by certified mail and granted the right to a hearing before the enrollment committee within 30 days. If they don’t appear at that hearing, they’ll be automatically disenrolled.


Funding for the Downtown Sylva Association has caused a rift in the Sylva town board for the fifth year running.

Town leaders last week approved a $2.3 million budget for the coming fiscal year by a vote of 3 to 2. Board members Ray Lewis and Danny Allen cast their votes against the budget in protest.

Lewis said two appropriations particularly irked him: a $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association and a $2,500 contribution to the Jackson County Economic Development Commission.

“Ever since I’ve been on the board I’ve voted for a budget, but I just decided this time I wouldn’t do it,” Lewis said.

Allen would not comment on his vote, but he has previously been a critic of the town’s funding for the Downtown Sylva Association.

Town Commissioner Sarah Graham is stepping down from the board in a couple of weeks because she is moving outside the town limits, making her ineligible to serve as an elected town leader. An ardent supporter of DSA, Graham said she wanted to see the budget process through before stepping down.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody would have voted in the case of a tie, however, and he has always supported town funding for DSA, a point he drove home following a video presentation shown during last week’s meeting extolling the virtues of the North Carolina Main Street Program.

“That just highlights some of the benefits we do get from the Main Street program,” Moody said, pointing out the town was currently eligible for a $250,000 matching grant through the state and acknowledging Waynesville’s receipt of $300,000 through the Main Street Solutions program.

The funding for the two business development groups was a small portion of the overall budget this year. Sylva will spend nearly $1 million on its police department, $300,000 on streets and another $250,000 on administration.

Overall, the budget reflects a $40,000 decrease from last year, stemming from a decline in local sales tax.


The Veterans Administration’s community-based outpatient clinic in Franklin will be just two years old in August, but it’s already operating at capacity.

The clinic’s three full-time doctors have full dockets, and to them, that’s a sign the V.A.’s new service delivery model is working.

The Franklin community-based outpatient clinic is the only place the over 10,000 veterans from the far western counties in North Carolina and north Georgia can get basic services without driving all the way to the Charles George V.A. Medical Center in Asheville.

Kathy Spence, an Air Force veteran who lives in Clayton, Ga., comes to the Franklin clinic at least once a month for a variety of ailments from Parkinson’s to fybromyalgia. Previously, she’d drive two hours both ways to the V.A. Medical Center in Asheville.

“It makes a big difference for me,” said Spence. “Everybody here is friendly. If you have a question, they work on it as quickly as possible and when I talk, they hear me. They all treat me like a human being.”

Dr. David Ramsey, the clinic’s director, said the community-based outpatient clinics are the future of the V.A. medical system, and with two wars still going, he expects to see more of them in Western North Carolina.

“We do have two wars going on. We do have folks who will be returning, and it’s likely that we’ll be having more community-based outpatient clinics, but we’ll need to start thinking about how to handle these numbers,” said Ramsey.

The Franklin clinic is designed to provide integrated outpatient services for veterans in Western North Carolina so they don’t have to schlep back and forth to Asheville for all of their needs. But the benefits go beyond that.

“One thing I’ve seen is it’s a small community. Veterans know other veterans, and once they’re comfortable the word will spread,” said Dr. Mike Newberry, the clinic’s full-time psychiatrist.

Newberry and Ramsey are part of a new breed of V.A. doctors. Both men have experience with the military but spent decades in private practices. Their career shift to treat veterans was a calling, but they quickly found the V.A. was on the cutting edge of new health care models, like integrated medicine.

“If I’m with someone and all of the sudden they’re not feeling well, all I have to do is walk them down the hall,” said Newberry, the psychiatrist. “It’s a great way to practice medicine.”

The team approach — which stresses communication between providers rather than compartmentalized fields of medicine carried out in separate offices — is a national trend.

“You’re not a lone provider on the frontier anymore,” Ramsey said.

In addition to three full-time doctors, one of whom is a psychiatrist, the clinic has a full-time psychologist, a registered nurse, and two social workers. It offers an eye clinic, primary care, mental health services, and a remote lab.

“Putting all of those services together is a huge number of visits saved for the veterans,” Ramsey said.

In addition to saving veterans the travel time, the clinic also offers a more intimate environment.

“It does make it a more comfortable place to come,” said Newberry. “They don’t like big crowds, big buildings and lots of noise.”

The local setting made a real difference when a suicidal veteran called the clinic in the midst of making an attempt on his life but would not reveal his identity. Doris Elders, part of the clinic’s staff, recognized the man’s voice, called 911 and saved his life.

“It connects the veterans more to the providers and less to the facility,” said Ramsey.

For Ramsey, who has only been with the V.A. for two and a half years, part of his job is showing the veterans that the system has changed.

“The V.A. has improved so much in the past 15 years, and unfortunately some of the veterans have been in the system longer than that and almost felt like they were serving the V.A.,” Ramsey said. “Sometimes you have to let people know that they’re number one.”

Larry Funke, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran from Murphy, never dealt with the old V.A. Funke said he hadn’t seen a doctor in 35 years when he was hospitalized for heart failure in 2006. He still travels to Asheville for many of his specialized treatments, but the Franklin clinic allows him to travel shorter distances for his checkups.

“Everybody I’ve ever dealt with in the V.A. has been wonderful people,” Funke said.

Another aspect of the V.A.’s shift in service delivery is the move towards a web-based platform. My HealtheVet, a new program, allows vets to access their records, schedule appointments and monitor their treatments via the web.

The program builds on the V.A.’s use of computerized medical records, which are far better than paper charts still used in most private practices and can track patient data from state to state.

With a new generation of tech-savvy veterans, the Web-based approach may be the future of the system, but in the western counties the bulk of the population is still Vietnam-era and older.

“Moving the V.A. into the next generation, we also have to keep hold of the previous generations,” Ramsey said. “We have OEF vets using I-phones and older vets who don’t have computers.”

Serving a unique population

Veterans are a particular kind of medical population. According to Ramsey, they have a suicide rate seven times greater than the general population and a rate of diabetes three times as great.

Both of those numbers can be linked to high rates of alcohol abuse. Ramsey said the V.A.’s record of treating the veteran population speaks for itself.

“We have generally a sicker population, but we have better outcomes than any other healthcare system in the country,” Ramsey said.

Sandra Melter, the clinic’s administrator, knows the veteran population firsthand. Her brother was a Vietnam veteran who died of cancer as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange, and his experience has shaped her life.

“It leaves a lasting impression on you that you never get over,” Melter said.

Melter’s husband was a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific, and while he didn’t speak a lot about his wartime experience, it was part of their marriage.

She uses her experience as motivation to provide better care to the veterans she deals with on a regular basis.

“They are different from everybody else, and I have the greatest respect for what they went through for us,” Melter said. “Most of them are always in some kind of pain, and you have to realize they might not be happy all the time. The veterans have so much support right now, but they may not always know it.”

As a psychiatrist, Newberry sees the challenges young returning veterans face when they re-enter society. Post-traumatic stress syndrome leads to substance abuse, but the veterans avoid seeking mental health services for fear it will hurt their job prospects, Newberry said.

The nightmarish caricature of the V.A. system paints a picture of a veteran negotiating a Kafka-esque bureaucracy equipped with a file folder and an ID number, wandering the halls of an endless antiseptic hospital building begging some brown shoe doc to legitimize his claims.

The reality now is that more doctors, nurses and administrators are coming to the V.A. from the private sector because it offers meaningful work, stable employment, and good benefits.

That fact — along with the addition of the smaller community-based clinics — has made the V.A. experience a lot like what you would find in a civilian doctor’s office.

After spending two decades in private practice in Sylva, Ramsey, who grew up an Army brat, saw the V.A. as a great way to end his career.

“I wanted to help the people I grew up around,” Ramsey said.


The town of Sylva plans to impose a new parking law to stop shop owners and employees from taking up customer parking on Main Street.

While most towns in the region face the same challenge — what to do about downtown workers monopolizing coveted parking spaces — only Highlands has tried to legislate a solution so far.

Highlands has an ordinance barring employees from parking on Main Street, a model Sylva now wants to emulate.

The new ordinance comes as part of a larger attempt to fix the parking pinch in downtown Sylva, which has shop owners on Mill and Main streets infuriated by the lack of available customer parking during peak business hours.

To help alleviate the problem, the town board recently decided to rent a commercial lot near the intersection of Mill and Main and designate it for free public parking.

It will provide between 30 and 40 additional parking spaces downtown, but the board felt it needed to go a step further.

Last week, the town’s attorney Eric Ridenour offered the board a first draft of the ordinance, which would bar employees of downtown businesses from on-street parking along the one-way portions of Mill and Main streets.

Ridenour told the board that Highlands’ version of the ordinance includes an exception for service-oriented businesses like real estate offices, which need to keep their vehicles close to serve customers.

Board Member Sarah Graham said she didn’t see the need to make exceptions, particularly given the town’s investment in leasing an additional lot.

“We should free up as many spaces downtown as possible,” said Graham.

Board Member Danny Allen agreed.

“The town (now) has three parking lots, and they’re all in close proximity to one end of town,” Allen said. “It’s not going to require but a hop and a skip for them.”

The board considered a provision that would reserve spots in the newly leased lot for businesses willing to pay a rental fee.

That suggestion didn’t thrill Sylva Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who said it would be difficult to enforce.

“We’re going to be policing that lot as well as Main Street. Is that what I’m hearing?” Jamison asked. “That’s going to be difficult folks.”

The board ultimately struck the idea from the draft ordinance.

Enforcement a challenge

Ridenour said the ordinance would rely heavily on the cooperation of business owners to report violations to the Sylva police, since the department doesn’t have any staff dedicated to parking enforcement.

“The way I drafted it is in the hope that our downtown business owners will work as our eyes and ears,” said Ridenour.

The town not only lacks a dedicated parking cop, but enforcement would hinge on police officers’ ability to visually recognize the vehicles of downtown workers. If a worker’s car is indeed spotted in a parking space that’s off-limits to them, another challenge is determining whether that employee is on their shift — or happens to be shopping downtown on their day off. The board plans to hold a public hearing on the ordinance at its second meeting in July.

Sylva is not alone in confronting the issue of employees and business owners parking in spots that were meant for their customers. Waynesville’s Town Manager Lee Galloway said the problem is ubiquitous.

“I’ve worked in six towns, and I don’t think there’s one that didn’t have the same issue,” Galloway said.

Galloway recalled a running joke in Rockingham about a jeweler named Fox.

“Why does Mr. Fox park right in front of his business? Because he can’t get his car inside,” Galloway said.

Galloway said Waynesville has addressed the issue by adding more public parking –– in particular a large parking deck a block off Main Street –– and by enforcing three-hour parking limits on Main Street.

In addition, the Downtown Waynesville Association has taken on the responsibility of communicating with business owners about the need to keep customer parking free.

“We’ve tried to handle it amongst ourselves,” said Buffy Messer, the downtown association’s director. “I think the merchants try to communicate with their neighbors. We don’t mind if someone parks all day as long as they’re spending money.”

Bryson City has the same problem, especially during the high season, but Town Manager Larry Callicutt said thus far no one has suggested drafting an ordinance to confront it.

“I’m not sure there’s a town where that doesn’t happen,” said Callicutt. “They’ve always complained about it, but it’s not gotten to the point that anyone’s taken action on it.”

Galloway said he understands merchants’ anger over the issue.

“You have to turn those spots over to protect your merchants,” Galloway said. “I understand their frustration.”


As part of the major renovation of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, workers from Brantley Construction were set to remove the building’s signature dome last Friday. But three separate attempts to lift it off by crane failed.

The wood inside the dome has been compromised by rot, and Brantley’s carpenters are ready to restore it. But they need to be able to reach it first.

The removal process began at 10 a.m. on Friday morning, and the crews expected to have the dome off before lunch. But the project’s manager, David Cates, stressed all along that there was no exact schedule for getting the dome down.

Interested citizens, photographers and well-wishers gathered throughout the day to watch the momentous occasion, but in the end, the old dome proved stubborn.

The removal process entailed installing a steel frame around the dome to support its weight. The frame was hooked to a crane that could lift it free from the main structure of the Courthouse.

Before that could be done, work crews had to remove the bolts that held the dome to the courthouse roof then cut it all the way free with saws.

According to the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library, the project’s manager determined a heavier crane was needed for the job, and the attempts were abandoned around 5 p.m.

The removal will be re-attempted when the new crane is in place.


Every four years the World Cup interrupts business as usual for a month in countries that have nothing else in common. From Accra to Osaka to Ljubljana, sport’s most international event hits 90 percent of the globe with the unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament and the force of an international conflict.

You can barely feel the shockwave here in Western North Carolina, but look close and you will notice a co-worker showing up late to work or a group of Mexican guys in their green jerseys on a Saturday or the fearful gleam in the eye of a schoolboy striker.

For me, this year’s tournament is more engulfing than it’s ever been before.

For the first time, the coverage is complete. Every game live on television and the Web, wrap-up shows featuring European greats like Ruud Gullit and astute coaches like Roberto Martinez, a separate network running evening highlights and commentary.

This is the first time I have gotten to experience the event like everyone else around the world has since they were kids. Everywhere else, the games and scores and reports punctuate the day, as much for a student as a fishmonger.

I have one better on most viewers this time. My college soccer coach, Bob Bradley, is at the helm of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, quite possibly the best entry our country has ever had in the world’s biggest sports tournament.

When you have a coach like that at the age of 18, he is bound to make an impression, but Bob’s intensity was both problematic and inspiring to many of his players, myself included.

This year the World Cup takes place in South Africa, the first nation on that continent to ever host it, and a country so recently divided to its core. Add that to my personal connection to the U.S. team, and you have a recipe for fascination.

The South African people have gone to great lengths and great expense to make it a recognizably expensive tournament, but you can’t be in Africa without tasting Africa. The most superficial evidence is the ubiquitous vuvuzela, a three-foot stadium horn that the locals blow incessantly throughout games, creating an insect-like drone of deafening proportions.

There have been complaints about the vuvuzela from those who worry it will drown out Brazil’s samba crowd or the songs of the Europeans, but ultimately it’s just more evidence that when the world comes together for a party, it’s hard to control.

Brazil and Spain are the outright favorites, and the Germans and Dutch looking like contenders; then there are the tough nuts like Italy and Serbia.

In its first game the U.S. tied England in a riveting but nervy replay of the American Revolution. This time it was a draw. A good result for Bob and the boys, a group that includes his son Michael.

It could be I’m already succumbing to the optimism of the first part of the event, but maybe this year on the African continent something new will happen. Ghana will emerge from the shadows or ... or ... the United States will win and get to the last four in a game it’s still learning to play.

One thing missing here is the communal experience of watching the World Cup in a working city, where you can argue with a cabbie from Cameroon or get details of a goal from a French computer programmer ... both playing hooky.


In our commodity-driven world, it may seem absurd to spend a year making a table. But for Sylva woodworker Brian Bartel, a year is just a fiber in the grand tapestry of tradition.

“My grandpa lived across the street from me growing up, and he taught me how to work hand tools,” Bartel said. “I was older before I realized what he’d done to me.”

Bartel recently completed work on a nine-foot long dining room table, its top a slab of three-inch thick black walnut. The project, which took more than a year to complete, was commissioned by Sylva part-time resident Sean Weaver and required milling more than 75 board feet of lumber to fine the choicest grain.

Weaver had a vision in his head of a dining room table that would serve as the focal point of his house. He didn’t want the piece to be something you could find anywhere else.

“I started asking around to a bunch of different woodworking people, and the fingers all started pointing at him as someone who could pull this off,” Weaver said.

Bartel, who moved to the mountains from Central Florida 12 years ago, has followed his own path to becoming a master craftsman.

Having gotten his start woodworking through construction and remodeling jobs, he eventually began making furniture using recovered barn wood and featuring old designs that employed hand-cut joints.

Along the way, Bartel started buying old tools whenever he found them, assembling a collection of hundred-year old planes, chisels and saws that he outfitted in a custom cabinet complete with tiny toggles to keep them in place.

Weaver’s table assignment came along just as Bartel was looking for a challenge worthy of the name.

“This table right here is so far out of the realm of what I’ve ever done,” Bartel said. “It’s really pushed me. I’m pleased with it.”

The table’s top weighs more than 400 pounds and is adorned with hand-cut bow-tie inlays of white sycamore and African wenge wood. Ten metal screws affix the top to the base, and that is the only metal in the project. Every other attachment is functional joinery.

But the story of the table is not in its final design, its fancy adornments or its glossy finish.

“When I first met this table, I met it in the wood,” Bartel said.

Bartel and Weaver spent weeks looking for wood, before they settled on a massive black walnut tree that had been cut in a local yard and chopped into logs. The wood then had to be milled into slabs and studied for quality. Then it had to be kiln dried.

“There’s no drying schedule for wood that thick,” Bartel said.

Weaver and Bartel designed it together, using the vision of the patron and the know-how of the craftsman.

“You’re letting the wood be itself, but you’re conforming it to what you want,” Bartel said.

Bartel only uses Japanese planes because they cut so precisely, and he is as familiar with the philosophy of his art as its practice. He counts George Nakashima’s The Soul of a Tree and James Krenov’s A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook as parts of his toolkit.

To Bartel, wood is a living thing and woodworking is a live tradition, as evidenced by a restoration project he undertook recently for another customer.

Bartel was able to reliably date the antique as a 17th century relief-carving panel made of Honduran mahogany and fabricated in central Europe. That means the panel came from the New World to Spain on a ship and was sold to a merchant who moved the wood to the interior of the continent. Bartel’s first job was to take off the finish to see what he had.

“When I got the wash off of it I realize I was the first guy in 400 years to see this piece in that kind of detail,” Bartel said.

For Bartel, the connection to the past is not accidental.

“It’s like I could have been making my living like this 100 years ago and very little would have changed,” Bartel said.

But a year for a table can’t ever be considered typical. Bartel nearly lost his temper after he put a finish with too much talc on, layer after thin layer. The finish obscured the shine in the wood grain and he had to take it off.

“Right now I’m at that point. I’ve got blisters on my thumbs. I’ve sanded it a dozen times. Every aspect of the thing has to be perfect and over the course of a year, and it’s like...” Bartel stopped and shook his head.

But now the table is done, a work of art, the centerpiece of Weaver’s home. Weaver said he already has plans for more of Bartel’s furniture in his home. For Bartel, the market is telling him that in the end, people will pay for the winding road he has taken to his craft.

“It seems like value is coming back,” Bartel said. “People will spend money on something that will last forever.”

And now he has a piece of work that can stand the test of time with his own sign etched into the grain of the black walnut.

“As hard as this has been, it’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life,” Bartel said. “This process is still alive.”


With the Jackson County budget a few short weeks from completion, a split emerged among commissioners concerning raises for county workers.

Last week Commissioners Tom Massie, William Shelton and Mark Jones voted to eliminate employee raises in the upcoming budget and save the county $294,000.

Both Chairman Brian McMahan and Commissioner Joe Cowan opposed the measure.

McMahan isn’t happy with the decision, which he sees as abandoning an employee compensation system the board has already paid dearly for implementing.

Last year, the board commissioned a salary study for all county positions. The study recommended big raises for those already in the highest paid county positions. Commissioners enacted the raises but at a high political price.

“We took a lot of criticism about salary increases and the Mercer Study, and for us not to stay with the system was just backing up,” McMahan said.

Nonetheless, Massie proposed cutting step raises for 400 employees, an automatic increase of 2 percent of their annual salary.

Massie suggested the cuts in a budget work session last week. There have been more than a dozen budget work sessions in recent months, but last week was the first mention of cutting employee raises.

Massie said few workers are getting raises these days. State employees, school employees and the employees of surrounding counties haven’t gotten increases for two years, he said.

“We’ve bucked the trend the past couple of years, but this year just isn’t the year to raise salaries,” Massie said.

Massie said he doesn’t believe the commissioners should have to insulate the county’s workers from the economic troubles everyone else is feeling.

McMahan countered that a major portion of the money saved through the cuts is merely being reapportioned to other programs rather than used to lower taxes. Indeed, $112,621 is set to go back into the community in the form of contributions to the libraries and resources like the Community Table and the Jackson County Animal Shelter. Another $50,000 was placed back into the county’s contingency fund, and more than $200,000 will be set aside for future capital projects.

At a public hearing on the budget, the county heard from several community organizations requesting financial support.

For McMahan, the step increases are part of a larger employee compensation system that he said has helped the county attract and retain quality workers. He also objected to the late timing of the decision.

“If we were going to do this, it should have been brought up in January so the employees could plan for it,” McMahan said.

County employees had their insurance benefits changed this year, and their annual deductible was raised from $500 to $1,250.

The debate over the step increases was the one hot point in what has been a relatively amicable budget process.

The budget drafted by County Manager Ken Westmoreland called for a 9 percent overall reduction from last year. But the decrease was achieved primarily by leaving vacant positions unfilled, reducing capital expenditure outlays, and nickel and diming across the departments.

Jackson County has not had to cut services or jobs this year.

The commissioners also designated $80,000 for commercial investment in the county’s economic development fund, a signal that the county intends to get its Economic Development Commission back into action after years of controversy paralyzed it.

The county’s total budget in its most recent form weighs in at $66.6 million.


The Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees has settled on a replacement for outgoing President Cecil Groves.

Last week, the board approved the selection of Dr. Richard Collings, president of Wayne State College in Nebraska and a former administrator at Western Carolina University, as the college’s fifth president. His hiring is contingent upon approval of the State Board of Community Colleges next month.

The board arrived at its decision after narrowing the field of candidates to four finalists, a list they elected to keep secret while their final decision was pending. The finalists were interviewed in early June.

Collings served as vice chancellor for academic affairs at Western Carolina University from 1996 to 2004. He kept his house here when moving to Nebraska and rented it out with the intention of returning one day.

“We’d always planned to come back to the community to retire. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to come back and work,” said Collings, who is in his early 60s.

His son lives in Jackson County as well.

Collings has spent the last six years in northeast Nebraska at a four-year college with close ties to a community college system. Wayne State College recently opened a campus that is jointly owned and operated by Northeast Community College.

“When a student comes to that campus, they won’t know the differences between the four-year and two-year school,” Collings said.

Collings has worked closely with community colleges since 1989, and those interactions have accelerated during the last six years with the partnership between Wayne State and Northeast Community College.

His experience aligning the curricula of two systems could prove useful in the relationship between SCC and WCU.

In addition, Collings said his experience working with a rural student body, a neighboring Indian tribe and a strong community college system has prepared him for the job at SCC.

Collings said he has watched developments at SCC closely.

“I’ve seen the great trajectory that SCC has taken with all of the national acclaim and the acclaim from within the community college system,” Collings said. “I knew it was a great institution when I was there.”

Among his other accomplishments at Wayne State, Collings reversed a decade-long enrollment decline, improved graduation and retention rates, and led a successful $20 million capital campaign to commemorate the college’s 100th year in service.

Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, noted that Collings was chosen from a pool of highly qualified national applicants.

“Although our presidential search produced many outstanding candidates, Dr. Collings was chosen because of his impressive background and credentials. We feel his experience in education and knowledge of our service area will greatly benefit the college and the communities we serve,” Burrell wrote in a prepared statement.


Having already committed to a 1.5 cent tax rate increase to pay for building a new school in the north part of the county, Macon County commissioners were forced to cut departmental budgets to the bone this year in the budget adopted Monday night (June 14).

County Manager Jack Horton’s draft budget has been available since May 24, and since then, the commissioners have met four times in work sessions to discuss changes.

“There’s really no growth in the budget at all,” Horton said. “It’s just trying to hold back on operating expenses and fulfill the commitment we made to the schools.”

The board’s view of that commitment is apparently different from Horton’s. So far they have proposed reducing the $200,000 allocated for capital outlay at schools –– a pot of money that would come in handy if a roof needed fixing –– to nothing. School leaders asked for $800,000.

The decision by commissioners to cut the capital outlay was based on the fact that the board has committed so much money to school improvements in the past two years that everything should be ship shape for now.

Horton’s draft budget came in just slightly higher this year than his proposed budget last year, and that is in part because of one high-priced item a previous board committed to — a $313,000 contribution to an FAA grant that will help pay for the county’s airport runway expansion.

That money will come out of the county’s fund balance, but Commissioner Jim Davis was pushing his fellow commissioners to cut deep enough to reduce the tax increase to 1 cent per $100 of valuation.

In order to accomplish that goal, he suggested the county cut its $413,000 teacher supplement contribution. Davis also suggested that Horton cut another 1 percent from the department budgets to save another $750,000.

“I am adamant in my feeling that we are dealing with a real recession and that all government sectors should share some of that pain,” Davis said.

County Chairman Ronnie Beale and the rest of the commissioners didn’t want to do away with the teacher supplement.

“I’m in support of the teacher supplement for a lot of reasons,” Beale said. “When the county put this in, those teachers put it into their household budgets.”

Beale said trying to find ways to cut deeper was getting difficult, but he liked the idea of sending Horton back to the drawing board in search of another 1 percent.

“We don’t have much wiggle room,” Beale said. “Our job is trying to find ways to postpone purchases and to do everything we can not to cut people.”

Last Friday, the commissioners met for one last work session, and Horton had come up with an additional $821,000 in cuts from across all departments. Still, the tax hike couldn’t be reduced.

“We looked at it, but there was just no way to reduce it to less than 1.5 cents,” Horton said.

Davis had said on Friday he wouldn’t support the budget unless the tax hike came down, and on Monday night the commissioners voted 4-1 to pass a budget that tops out at $42,021,521, just a fraction above last year’s budget total. Davis was the lone dissenting vote.


Jay Coward is no stranger to Pinnacle Park.

When the work day ends, Coward often trades in his attorney’s suit and tie for hiking attire and escapes into the 1,000-acre wilderness at Sylva’s doorstep. An intergral player with the Pinnacle Park Foundation since the early ‘90s, Coward notices every spiderwort bloom, every bit of trash and every burgeoning erosion issue in the forest. Hiking with Coward, you begin to understand why so many longtime Sylva residents have put so much work into keeping it wild. He first visited the Fisher Creek watershed on a church retreat as a young boy.

“This is one of the most beautiful places in the world, I think,” Coward said. “It’s got two of the most beautiful peaks in the Southern Appalachians –– the Pinnacle and Black Rock.”

With the preserve safe from development in perpetuity as a result of a 2006 conservation agreement, the question these days is how to get it ready to deal with more people as discovery of the secret enclave is inevitable.

The History

Pinnacle Park is a 1,000-acre tract, bounded by steep ridges, that drains the east and west forks of Fisher Creek. The creek was dammed up and served as the source of Sylva’s drinking water.

During a period of prolonged drought in the mid-‘80s, the watershed failed to meet the town’s needs, which were also expanding.

At one point, things got so bad that National Guard tankers were forced to deliver water to the hospital. The crisis led to the mothballing of the old watershed in 1992 and the creation of the Tuckaseigee Water & Sewer Authority, which now pulls drinking water from the river.

The same scenario played out in Bryson City, Canton and Murphy, as small watersheds were no longer able to support water demands of their growing populations during drought seasons.

Bill Gibson, the head of Region A at the Southwestern Planning Commission, was watching closely, fearing what may happen to the vast tracts now that they were no longer needed as a source for drinking water.

Gibson said he first heard the idea of preserving Sylva’s old watershed from Tom Massie, who was assistant county manager for Jackson County at the time. Massie and Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver were behind the push to save the watershed from logging or development.

That same year, 1992, the town of Sylva passed a resolution to preserve the area for conservation, preservation, and recreation. But Coward wanted more certainty than a verbal pledge that could be reversed by the next slate of elected leaders.

“We really needed more than just a resolution,” Coward said. “Because we knew the board might not get re-elected.”

Coward worked with Gibson and others to form a broad-based board of directors for a new nonprofit, The Pinnacle Park Foundation, and they leased the watershed from the town for 25 years, ensuring a new town board couldn’t come in and overturn the policy of preservation.

But the concern persisted that future town leaders would see the old watershed as an asset to be exploited. Some people wanted to log it. Others saw it as a property ripe for development. As a town commissioner at that time, current Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody said the town needed to get more out of it than a nice view.

Those arguments came to a head in 2005, and the town contracted Peter Bates, a forestry professor at Western Carolina University, to survey the property and determine its value. Bates’ team spent the better part of the year studying the old watershed. It found that while there were a few stands of good timber, the area was so steep and inaccessible that it would cost more to log than it would yield.

“Based on that opinion from him, the whole idea of logging went away,” Coward said. “Plus by that time, we had significant enough ammunition to go to the town board and say, ‘Let’s get a conservation easement.’”

In 2006, with the assistance of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, Sylva entered a conservation agreement that would permanently restrict development and logging and keep it wild forever. The Clean Water Management Trust Fund gave the town $3.5 million in exchange.

“It was a sustained feeling and policy. A sustained set of ideals that transcended people and changes in the board. It never died,” Gibson said of the movement.

The Park

“The idea of having a park like this is a pretty unique thing for a little town,” Coward said.

Most towns don’t have the resources to deal with a 1,000 acres of wild green space. Pinnacle Park is a steep, rocky piece of land traversed by two old logging roads. One road travels along the west fork of Fisher Creek toward the ridgeline and Pinnacle Peak; the other follows the east fork up toward Black Rock and a rough trail that continues on to Waterrock Knob via the old foxhunter’s camp.

Both of the old roads — which are now foot trails — are gateways to tremendous tracts of public land, full of beautiful views and waterfalls, but they’re also very, very steep. Some stretches have a slope of 70 percent, poor for walking and worse for erosion control.

Ever since the Pinnacle Park Foundation was formed, it has had the challenge of maintaining and developing its trail system. The town has helped and so have civic organizations like the Rotary Club and the Boy Scouts, but much of the effort has been undertaken by Coward, who walks the land like a protective parent.

“Every long movement has to have one really pugnacious, patient guy who will do the same things over and over again,” Coward said.

On a recent trip to the park, Coward pointed out recent developments on the trail system’s lower section, which weaves in and around the old dam that anchored the watershed.

The trails in that part of the park, which Coward said are close to being considered handicap accessible recreation trails, were opened with help from the Rotary Club in 1999.

Last year, the town contributed $25,000 to the park. The money went to improve the parking area, which was severely undersized and inadequate; build footers for bridges over the creek; and create a more robust system of sediment control on the old logging road that is the principal path in the park.

As Coward crossed the creek, he spotted a Busch Lite box at the edge of a deep pool. He scrambled down the bank, retrieved it and told a story about the pool.

“One of the residents nearby came to me and said, ‘I saw naked people swimming around in there,’” Coward said. “And I said, ‘What’s wrong with that?’”

The man scratched his head.

Pinnacle Park is more open and accessible than it’s ever been before, but it’s still underdeveloped. Erosion and kudzu are ever-present concerns. The lower trail system needs four bridges before it provides real accessibility for people who won’t be able to enjoy the upper reaches of the park.

Meanwhile trail signage is limited, the park lacks an official map, and its main thoroughfares are too steep for most people.

But for Coward, the hard part of the battle has been won already.

“I think the philosophical achievement is just to set the example of what you can do. You can preserve a wilderness area. We did,” he said.

The Future

Too many people have put too much work into Pinnacle Park for it to remain inhospitable to the public.

At the same time, the wildness of the place, its lack of strict regulations, and even its very steepness are part of what make it great.

If you live in Sylva, you can drive to the park and be out of your car in 15 minutes. In another 30 minutes you can be sitting under a waterfall. And, unlike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you can bring your dog along, too.

Recognizing the park’s unique place in the public land structure in Jackson County, Emily Elders, Jackson County Greenways director, worked to get the county in line to offer some of its resources to the effort to develop the park.

“A lot of local people grew up fishing, hunting and hiking it, and it’s an opportunity to carry over that respect for the place to preserve a natural site in its wild state,” Elders said.

Elders has access to the N.C. DENR’s trail-building teams and has worked with area director Tim Johnson to map out a strategy for making the trails at Pinnacle more friendly to the environment and hikers both.

Coward also has ideas about where trails should be, and the town recently formalized a camping policy that will go into effect after three designated campsites are completed. Those are big steps in and of themselves.

In short, while Pinnacle Park has a long list of needs, it’s also a few baby steps away from being in pretty good shape to handle a moderate amount of locally driven traffic, particularly in its lower reaches.

As Coward got back into his truck in the new, roomy gravel parking lot, a truck pulled up and two young backpackers unloaded.

“We came up to do some paddling and stopped at Black Rock Outfitters and asked where we could camp,” said Derek Bradley 22, of Marietta. “And they said, ‘There’s the Pinnacle.’”

Coward whipped out a topographic map of the watershed he had in his truck. There are no maps sold or distributed locally. He showed Bradley and his friend Brendan Meyers what their options were, and the two spry young men headed up the trail headed for the one and a half hour walk to the Pinnacle.

“The Pinnacle, because it juts right out into the community is sort of an intimate place,” Coward said. “Black Rock is windswept. It really ought to be called Pinnacle.”

And just like that, Coward touched on the secret of the park. It’s an unlabeled green space with close ties to the people and the place.

The park still has plenty of secrets to unfold, like the falls on the West Fork, but for now, its mystery remains a part of its development.

“If it’s just sort of under the radar, it keeps the impact down a little bit,” Coward said, smiling slyly.

How to get there?

The Pinnacle Park trailhead lies at the end of Fisher Creek Road. To get there from Sylva, take Skyland Drive all the way out of town and cross under the Great Smoky Mountain Expressway. Make your second left onto Fisher Creek Road and continue to the end.


For decades the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wasn’t their own.

Tourists flocked to see Cherokee men dance in the streets dressed as Great Plains Indians, arrayed in long feathered headdresses. The tribe’s history play, “Unto These Hills,” which was supposed to tell the story of the Cherokee nation, was written and acted by whites and riddled with historical inaccuracies.

Meanwhile the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, built in 1976 as the repository of the tribe’s recorded history, didn’t have an exhibit that could communicate an impression of the Eastern Band as a people.

“There were artifacts everywhere, but you wouldn’t know anything more about the Cherokee when you left than when you’d come in,” said Ken Blankenship, the museum’s longtime director.

This weekend, when the Cherokee Voices Festival arrives on the museum’s doorstep, that will all have changed.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian will have opened its brand new $2 million Resource and Education Building, a project that will share its archives with the tribe’s members and signal the culmination of a decade of effort to recraft the tribe’s historical narrative. That work began with the 1998 update of the museum’s permanent exhibition, which turned the information held in tens of thousands of documents and thousands of artifacts into the story of a people.

At the same time, “Unto These Hills,” now in its 60th year of production, will feature a script written by the Cherokee for the Cherokee, and some of its leading actors will come from communities like Yellow Hill and Big Cove instead of Nashville and Asheville.

In short, the effort to re-cast the story of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and present it to people from outside the Qualla Boundary has reached maturity.

“For years, Native Americans –– Cherokees too –– have been followers,” Blankenship said. “They’ve wanted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to lead. But now we want to lead.”

For Linda Squirrel, program manager for the Cherokee Historical Association and scriptwriter for “Unto These Hills,” the change was a long time coming.

“It’s a breath of fresh air,” Squirrel said. “It’s such a great nation, and there’s nobody better to tell the story and present the culture than the people themselves.”

Turning the

museum inside out

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian opened its new permanent exhibit in 1998. Blankenship had learned museums had to be in the storytelling business, so he went to Los Angeles and spent time and money working with architects and designers associated with Universal Studios. The result of that effort was a building that looked like a part of the landscape and a permanent exhibit that was historically accurate but had a driving narrative and flow that left people with a story in their heads.

“We had to create that storyline over there, and we did that using what we have over on this side,” Blankenship said, referring to the archives.

Blankenship noticed the return on the investment immediately, as visitors began to leave comments that showed their understanding of the Cherokee.

“If you read the comment book, it shows people are starting to get it,” Blankenship said. “What we’re doing is educating them without them knowing it.”

Educating tourists is only one part of the museum’s mission. The other part is to foster a dialogue with the community of Cherokee about its own history. Until now, that effort has been carried out in makeshift spaces by Barbara Duncan, the museum’s education director; Bo Taylor, its archivist; and by the many knowledgeable elders and leaders in the community.

But on Friday, June 11, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian will celebrate the grand opening of its new Resource and Education Building. The centerpiece of the $2 million project is a new archives facility and digital reading room that will open up the tribe’s historic documents to its membership.

The new building also has a multimedia classroom and a community arts center, two spaces that will integrate the knowledge of Cherokee history with the practice of Cherokee culture in a way that brings the museum to life. The project was funded with help of grants from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the N.C. Arts Council, the EBCI, and individual donors.

For Blankenship, who has grown the museum through years of hard work, planning, and community building, the new wing is a bridge to the tribe’s vast cache of documents and artifacts.

“For the first time we now know where everything is, and we can find it with a computer,” Blankenship said.

The reading room in the new wing has eight computers that provide access to 25,000 image files, 12,000 pages of material from the 1830s and the Trail of Tears, 2,000 pages of Cherokee language material from the 1880s and much, much more.

For instance, with cooperation from the family of Will Thomas –– the white trader adopted by Yonaguska who was instrumental in preserving the Cherokee’s ancestral homeland –– the archives have landed 20 years of his diaries and papers, his writing desk and a valuable portrait of Thomas that dates to 1846.

Talk about bringing history to life, Thomas’s first trading post was located on a site where a Huddle House now sits near Soco Creek in downtown Cherokee.

Archivist Bo Taylor said the new facility makes the museum a national center for research on the Cherokee people.

“If you want to come do Cherokee research, you want to come here,” Taylor said.

The war dance

Taylor is not your average bookworm archivist. In addition to his duties keeping track of historical materials, he also teaches a 10-day Cherokee language immersion program for adults that has drawn visitors from China and leads traditional Cherokee dance classes in the schools.

“It’s about the museum teaching the public, but it’s also about Cherokees teaching Cherokees,” Taylor said, defining the museum’s education aims.

Taylor thinks the museum’s current temporary exhibit, “Emissaries of Peace: the 1762 Cherokee and British Delegations,” has gone a long way to changing the way both the tribe and the public view Cherokee history.

The exhibit is largely based on the memoirs of Henry Timberlake, an American colonial officer, and provides a seven-month window into Cherokee culture in 1762. It shows the Cherokee nation at the height of its power, negotiating with foreign governments and exerting an influence on the region. That’s a different view of history than the one learned in schools, which emphasizes the Trail of Tears and the dissolution of a nation.

“Now I have young boys wanting to learn the war dance. Their view is going to be different. They see us from a position of strength,” Taylor said. “I feel like the museum is doing this. The story we’re telling is giving our people the full sphere of who we are.”

The revival of the Cherokee war dance is a story emblematic of the effort to reclaim a distinct cultural heritage, separate from the pan-Indian movement of the 1970s.

Marie Junaluska, one of the tribe’s most influential translators and storytellers, approached Barbara Duncan about searching the records for a traditional Cherokee dance to welcome honored guests. Junaluska had the idea that the Eastern Band should perform the dance to welcome the members of the inter-tribal council held with the leaders of the Oklahoma bands.

In response to the request, Taylor worked with Cherokee elder Walker Calhoun and Duncan to breathe life into the Cherokee war dance, which was described as a welcome dance by Timberlake. They re-created the song and worked with dancers in the community to find the steps.

Since that first performance, the Warriors of Anikituhwa have been performing the war dance and teaching it to young people. Taylor said dancing the Cherokee war dance is a whole different feeling than the pow wow dancing the men of his generation grew up with.

“The warriors were pow wow people and now we’re bringing back the war dance. We’re researching the tattoos. Now it’s for real because we’ve researched it,” Taylor said.

A new kind of

community center

“When you’re an archive, you keep everything,” said Barbara Duncan, the museum’s director of education.

Duncan, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, believes the museum’s role is to present the information available in its rich store of records to the community in a way that they can breathe life into it.

She has already seen the revival of traditional Cherokee stamped pottery, a method that was nearly abandoned as a result of the popularity of the glossier Catawba pottery tradition.

But as a result of Timberlake’s descriptions, local potters took up the challenge of bringing their own tradition back to life. Stamped potters craft pots that can hold up to 20 gallons using coils of clay. They then use wooden paddles and stamps to smooth the clay to a remarkable thinness and pattern it before firing.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has the longest continuous pottery tradition on its own land of any tribe,” Duncan said of the tribe’s 3,000 year-old tradition.

Duncan said as the potters returned to stamped pottery, they rediscovered its secrets. The paddles and stamps pressed air bubbles out and enabled the potters to obtain thinness in the pots that could fire at high heats. The stamps, it turned out, weren’t decorative; they were functional.

“This is Cherokee science really,” Duncan said.

The archives have also provided for the renewal of the tradition of making feathered capes on net backings. No longer the sole purview of the tribe’s chiefs, the capes are now worn by Miss Cherokees.

Duncan recently visited Colonial Williamsburg with a contingent of Warriors of Anikituhwa and Miss Cherokees to take part in a re-enactment of a Cherokee delegation there. She hopes the revival of traditional crafts and practices will flourish in the museum’s new wing.

“You can research all you want, but there has to be someone in the community who can actually make the things,” Duncan said. “And we have that here.”

A new old story

“Unto These Hills” has run as a history drama for 60 years, providing many tourists their first real look at the historical narrative of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. For most of those years, though, the production was a kind of caricature of itself, conceived with a white audience in mind.

Starting in 2006, though, the Cherokee Historical Association set about updating the drama, making it more Cherokee.

“The rewrite came about in the beginning because there was a decline in attendance. The original scripts had gotten stale and the Cherokee people wanted more ownership of the drama,” said Linda Squirrel, who works as a program manager for the CHA and as a scriptwriter for “Unto These Hills.”

Kiowa author Hanay Geiogamah undertook the first rewrite of the drama, and while the result was magical, it didn’t do enough to teach audiences the history of the Cherokee.

“What he came up with was a wonderful production but not necessarily the story of the Cherokee people,” Squirrel said.

In 2007 the association hired two Los Angeles-based writers, Ben Hurst and Pat Allee, to carve out a narrative line. That version was better, but Squirrel said it didn’t really take into account the play’s function and setting.

Squirrel, who had been involved in each of the rewrites, took matters into her own hands.

“I really wanted the historical part to be as accurate as possible keeping in mind the show still has to have an element of entertainment about it,” Squirrel said.

This season, “Unto These Hills” is on its third rewrite, which combines elements of all the rewrites but has a new clarity of focus on the Cherokee narrative.

“It’s not really hard to tell the story because the story’s there. It’s the story of the Cherokee people, and it’s full of drama,” Squirrel.

For Squirrel, the script is just one part of a new ownership stake the local community has in the play.

“I think the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that you have Cherokee people telling their own story; whereas, in the past, you had local people who were only in the crowd scenes who were never given the chance to act,” Squirrel said.

The cast now boasts 35 enrolled members out of a cast of 47, including Mike Crowe Jr. –– a Yellow Hill native who plays Junaluska –– and Dustin French, a Big Cove native as Tsali.

Crowe has been with the drama for three years, and he said this year’s community night show last week put butterflies in his stomach.

“It’s the most intimidating night of the season because if we can’t get the stamp of approval from our own people, then what are we really doing?” Crowe said.

French said the community night show was a chance to prove to locals the show had changed.

“It feels good because we have the support of the local people now and that just shows we’re taking the show in the direction we’ve been talking about,” French said.

Eddie Swimmer, who runs the box office at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, is in his third year as director of “Unto These Hills.”

Swimmer got his acting break in Hollywood bit parts then graduated with a theater degree from Brigham Young University. After spending more than a decade with the American Indian Dance Theater, based in New York, Swimmer came home.

Swimmer is largely responsible for giving local actors like Crowe and French their breaks, which he sees as an opportunity to bring a new kind of energy to the play.

“It’s just about the energy of our cast members,” Swimmer said. “Some of our local cast members are literally reliving the stories of their ancestors.”

Swimmer said part of the purpose of the play is to bring the Cherokee characters to life, to complicate the assumptions the audience has about Native Americans. French’s portrayal of Tsali, the resistor who sacrificed his own life so his people could stay in their mountains, is a prime example.

“We have to show the general public that we are a people and we want to develop the characters,” Swimmer said. “Tsali was a real man. I want to show people how he felt.”

“Unto These Hills” is still a stage play, full of musical numbers and bright costumes, and it even still has a rousing rendition of “Rocky Top.” But now the professional actors who come to play leading roles are rubbing elbows with local talent, and both sides stand to benefit from the collaboration.

Swimmer believes the play can become an incubator for Cherokee talent and an example for other tribes for how to shape their narratives for outside audiences.

“I think we could be a stepping stone for other native nations to set up their own theaters and start telling their own stories,” Swimmer said. “It’s a good way to show Americans who we are.”

Swimmer understands the play’s role and his own role in a much larger drama. After many years of living up to other people’s expectations of them, the Cherokee are telling their own story.

“Like the play says, we did rise from the ashes,” Swimmer said. “Our children now days are speaking the language, and the traditions are being upheld.”

See the change

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian will celebrate the old and the new June 11 and 12. The Museum will dedicate its new Education and Research Center Friday, at 3 p.m., June 11 with a ribbon cutting ceremony and demonstrations of its purpose. On Saturday, centuries old Cherokee traditions will be celebrated at the Cherokee Voices Festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 828.497.3481 x306


Years of complaining by Sylva merchants that there isn’t enough parking downtown has spurred the Sylva town board to lease a private parking lot near the intersection of Mill and Main Streets.

The board voted 4 to 1 to lease the Sammy Cogdill parking lot for $400 per month in order to alleviate a perceived parking crunch and to address concerns about the safety of oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots.

The ongoing debate over parking in downtown Sylva resurfaced in May when Western Carolina University student Thaddeus Huff published the findings of a downtown parking study he conducted as part of his graduate research. His conclusion contested the idea that there was a parking shortage in Sylva. Huff’s study found there were plenty of spaces in the greater downtown area — people just weren’t willing to walk more than a block to their destinations.

Huff’s study did identify the south end of Main Street as the area most in need of parking, and he suggested encouraging people to park in other parts of town as a solution.

Many local merchants, however, believed that Huff’s study — which was conducted in March — didn’t take into account congestion during the most heavily trafficked time of year or during festival weekends. They cited anecdotal evidence that customers routinely struggle to find parking at key times of day.

The town board’s vote to rent the Cogdill lot for a year should put the discussion to rest.

“It’s an opportunity for us to see if it makes an impact,” said Town Commissioner Chris Matheson.

Matheson said her vote was based as much on safety concerns as on the lack of available parking spaces downtown. Matheson said oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots make Main Street dangerous.

“If you’re on the right side of one of those vehicles, you’re backing into an abyss,” Matheson said.

Board Member Ray Lewis was the only dissenting vote. Lewis objected to the notion of the town committing more money to downtown Sylva and suggested the money to lease the Cogdill lot should come out of the town’s annual $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.

Lewis’s stance on the subject may foreshadow a point of contention in the upcoming budget discussions. Town financial support of DSA has been controversial each of the past four years during budget time.

Mayor Maurice Moody said parking and DSA funding were separate issues, however.

“I think those are two separate issues and the majority of the board wants to leave DSA funding at $12,000 where its has been for the past few years,” Moody said.

The board also discussed other ways to alleviate the parking shortage in Sylva, including the option of adopting a parking ordinance similar to one in the town of Highlands that prohibits merchants and their employees from parking on the Main Street during business hours. Another alternative would see the town rent some of the spaces in the Cogdill lot to businesses that wanted to reserve spaces for their employees.

All of those discussions were informal. Moody confirmed that the Cogdill lot would be open to the public July 1 and that the bulk of the spots would be used for additional free parking.


Duke Energy wants an option to buy land at the Swain County Industrial Park with the intention of using it as the alternate site for an electrical substation, which was originally slated for the Ela area.

According to Jason Walls, Duke’s spokesperson, the company has offered to pay the county $15,000 to reserve an option to buy the 13-acre site of the proposed Swain County IT building at a price of $400,000. The option would give Duke six months to consider whether to follow through with the purchase.

In addition to the $400,000 price tag, Duke Energy would give the county $1.1 million in community development grant money to help with the cost of relocating the IT building, which has been in the development stages for nearly a decade.

“It’s part of our commitment to continue to work towards an alternate site,” Walls said. “We haven’t settled on an alternate site, but we continue to examine a few sites very closely.”

Duke has been in negotiations with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Swain County over relocating the substation after both entities voiced their disapproval of the current site.

The substation project is part of a massive upgrade of Duke’s West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with a 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers and constructing new substation facilities to accommodate the increased amount of power.

Duke began work on a substation on a hill near the Kituwah mound in the picturesque valley of Ela between Cherokee and Bryson City in November 2009, but this March, Swain County imposed a moratorium that halted the project after both the EBCI and a citizens group opposed it. Protests by citizens are also playing out before the state utility commission.

Should Duke follow through with the purchase of the land and the relocation of the substation, it would signal a monumental compromise between the energy company, the tribe and the county over a sensitive cultural preservation issue.


The demand for stress-free, turnkey living was largely an untapped market in the region until the recent debut of VantagePointe Homes, a newly completed apartment community located in Waynesville.

The 160-unit apartment development on 13.5 acres isn’t the first community of its kind. There are comparable apartment complexes in most major metropolitan areas. But the arrival of one here has reshaped the rental landscape in the mountains.

“The exciting thing for us is that it really is an unparalleled living opportunity in Western North Carolina,” said Jessica Roberts, the leasing manager.

So far, 113 units have been rented, and the staff expects to see the place full by the end of the summer.

According to Roberts, VantagePointe Homes — with a clubhouse, pool, gym and no yard work— crosses demographics.

“When we first opened, it was retirees in the area looking to downsize who saw us and came in,” Roberts said. “Now it’s shifted, and we’re seeing a lot of corporations looking for housing for new hires and young professionals who want this kind of lifestyle.”

It’s like being on vacation all the time. Outside the apartment, everything is taken care of by the on-site staff.

“You never have to worry about your yard or bad neighbors or anything,” said Jonathan Ammons, a 28-year-old tenant who grew up in Waynesville. “If something goes wrong, there’s 24-hour maintenance. It’s honestly just easy.”

Even getting into an apartment is easy. There’s no first, last and deposit rule. Instead VantagePointe pro-rates rent and requires a modest move-in fee.

Every apartment has access to paid wireless Internet service, and there is free wireless at the clubhouse and pool. A stream runs along one side of the property.

Katherine Koch, 26, originally from the Detroit area, picked the apartment based solely on emailed photos after landing a job as the marketing director for Western Carolina University’s athletic program.

“I didn’t have time to come down and get a place so I did everything online and over the phone,” Koch said.

Now that she’s here, Koch says she likes living midway between the WCU campus and Asheville, and appreciates having a gym with weights and machines at the clubhouse.

And that’s what Roberts and VantagePointe Homes are selling.

“It is maintenance-free living as much for a retired person who wants to relax as it is an accessible upscale development for a professional who wants those amenities,” Roberts said. “To hit both ends of that spectrum is something we’re pretty proud of.”

To learn more, visit


“The only reasonable verdict here is for Sheriff Ashe,” Patrick Flanagan told the jury. “He did not commit any wrongdoing here.”

The eight-person jury in the Bryson City federal courtroom agreed, taking slightly less than an hour to clear Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe on five complaints that alleged he used his position and influence to interfere with the business operations and free speech of David Finn, owner of Blue Ridge Public Safety. Blue Ridge Public Safety is a private security force hired by upscale developments in the greater Cashiers area to patrol their communities.

The case pitted two of Jackson County’s leading law enforcement officers against one another in the federal district courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger.

Finn’s lawyer, Frank Contrivo Jr., spent three days calling witnesses, reviewing subpoenaed phone records, and otherwise building the case against Sheriff Ashe.

Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan took only a few hours to offer a defense.

His message was simple: The only evidence that Ashe had interfered with Finn’s contracts was circumstantial, and Ashe’s own testimony that he had not used his office to put Finn under duress was credible.

Finn first sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his position to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale.

The complaints alleged that Ashe, working in concert with a lawyer for an influential group of Cashiers-area residents, inappropriately shared information that led to a slew of investigations into Finn’s business, which holds security and patrol contracts worth more than $1 million.

The day before Flanagan called his defense witnesses, Contrivo withdrew the leading claim driving the case thus far –– that Ashe had actively participated in ruining the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to John Hale for $1.5 million.

With that claim off the table, the case came down to whether Ashe interfered with six existing Blue Ridge Public Safety contracts and on whether he infringed on Finn’s First Amendment right to free speech.

According to Finn, Ashe was motivated to disrupt the business of Blue Ridge Public Safety because of a disagreement between the two men over proposed legislation that would have given company police broader powers, including jurisdiction on U.S. highways adjacent to the communities they patrol.

An important component of Contrivo’s case for Finn was the extent to which Ashe communicated with Cary-based Lawyer Mark Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee.

Seifert testified that he was hired by Cashiers property owners in 2006 to investigate Finn and that his goal was to put Blue Ridge Public Safety out of business.

Contrivo alleged that Ashe and Seifert “were singing a duet” as they worked in concert to manufacture claims against Blue Ridge Public Safety that hurt the business and ruined contracts. He showed through phone records that Ashe and Finn had had extensive contact with one another –– nearly 150 calls amounting to 30 hours of conversations.

“What we’ve seen in the past three days is a snapshot of the nightmare experienced by Mr. Finn’s business,” Contrivo told the jury in his closing argument.

Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, presented an argument that was repetitive, process oriented and clinical. He focused on the fact that not one witness testified to Ashe’s direct participation with Seifert or even to the fact that Ashe had spoken ill of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

“What we didn’t hear at all –– there was no evidence, no testimony –– was that the sheriff has ever made a derogatory comment about Mr. Finn or his company,” Flanagan said.

In contrast, Contrivo at times raised his voice to cajole the jury and at other times spoke in a barely audible whisper to contribute to the gravity of the moment. He tried to paint a picture of Ashe as an expert at behind the scenes deal-making who managed to get away with a crime by staying at arm’s length from it.

“We hear about a man who was turf conscious, jealous of his power, and jealous of what he perceived as a threat to his power,” Contrivo said, pointing at Ashe.

Contrivo asked the jury for $200,000 worth of damages to cover Finn’s lost contracts and legal fees. The jury wasn’t convinced. They cleared Ashe on each charge and entered zeroes in the spaces on the verdict sheet that asked for award amounts.

After the trial, Ashe said the verdict upheld his faith in the system.

“This has been a long process that needlessly burdened the taxpayers of our community,” Ashe said. “The quick verdict of the jury attests to what we have asserted from the beginning of the matter.”

Ashe also indirectly expressed his dismay that he had spent so much time over the past two years embroiled in the civil suit.

“There is no business more important than the people’s business, and I am proud of the confidence that the good people of Western North Carolina have shown in me and our deputies,” Ashe said. “I look forward to many more years of public service, and it’s time to get back on task.”

Neither Finn nor Contrivo responded to requests from comment on the case after the trial, so it is not clear whether they plan to appeal the verdict.

Flanagan said a potential appeal could take two forms. In the first scenario, Contrivo could make a motion to Judge Reidinger to set aside the jury’s verdict in his final judgment, which will be entered in the next few weeks.

A second approach would be for Contrivo to file an appeal with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. within 30 days of the final judgment being entered.


On May 25 the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library marked the completion of their astonishing two-year fundraising drive, reaching their goal of $1.6 million to outfit the interior of the new library on Courthouse Hill in Sylva.

Jane Smith, president of the Friends group, put into perspective the effort to raise the money in the worst economy in recent memory.

“It is so amazing, because there were people at the beginning who said, ‘You can’t do this. Not around here,’” Smith said.

Kathy Proctor, chair of the Fontana Regional Library Board, accepted a $200,000 grant from the USDA’s Rural Library Fund on behalf of the Friends. The grant, which required a $1.2 million local match, pushed the fundraising drive past its $1.6 million target to a grand total of $1.726 million so far.

The Friends have raised $1.2 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment at the library and the $200,000 will be added to that total. In addition, the Friends raised $225,985 for the library’s collection and another $100,000 to offset costs association with the campaign.

The USDA grant came as the result of cooperation between the Fontana Regional Library and the federal representatives of Western North Carolina, including Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, and Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.

Freddie Harrill, Hagan’s representative at the event, praised the local fundraising committee for meeting its goals.

“Projects like these are economic drivers for small towns,” Harrill said.

Bill Hobbs, community programs director for USDA Rural Development, said he was happy to deliver the $200,000 check.

“We are tickled to death to bring this check to y’all,” Hobbs said. “We can’t wait to come back when the project is complete.”

Mary Otto Selzer, chair of the Friends’ fundraising committee, said the group would continue to raise money for collection materials at the new library.

“Not too long ago, we realized $100,000 doesn’t go very far for a collection so there are still steps to climb,” Selzer said.

Selzer took time to thank the volunteers at the Friends of Jackson Library Bookstore in Sylva, who contributed $155,000 and countless hours to the campaign.

“That’s the little engine that keeps the library offering great services,” Selzer said.

The Jackson County Public Library Complex is a $7 million building project that includes the construction of a 20,000-square-foot library and the renovation of the historic Jackson County Courthouse, which will be used as a community resource facility and cultural center for the county.


Martie Hoofer was driving her motorcycle into Cherokee from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when an Anikituhwa warrior dressed for battle stopped her and asked for her passport.

“I was shocked,” Hoofer said. “I believed him. My passport is at home.”

Sonny Ledford, a founding member of the Warriors of Anikituhwa, stopped Hoofer and her son Sam and addressed them in Cherokee, his war club clasped in his right hand.

Ledford was participating in a new effort to market the Cherokee Passport, a tourism booklet produced by the Goss Agency that highlights the many cultural activities available in Cherokee.

“It feels like when they used to do it in the earlier times,” Ledford said. “In a way it’s telling people you’re coming onto our land to hear about our people, and we are going to give you a passport so you are welcome.”

The Anikituhwa Warriors are a group of men who speak Cherokee and dress in 17th century traditional costumes. Ledford’s traditional name through his paternal bloodline is Usquetsiwo, which means “wears something on his head,” a reference to the Cherokee warriors’ headdress.

“There’s too much stereotypical Indian out there and people believe it’s true,” Ledford said. “This is who we are.”

The passport checkpoint was essentially a public relations stunt, but it was a significant way of reframing Cherokee as a tourist destination.

The passports have event schedules, write-ups of rich cultural offerings and a short list of free things to do, but their focus is on Cherokee as a cultural landmark.

Robert Jumper, travel and tourism manager for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, helped organize the event.

“It’s a fun reminder of the culture of the Cherokee,” Jumper said. “Certainly you can see the sovereignty of the nation in this, but it’s really just a fun way to introduce visitors to Cherokee.”

Mike Crowe, another of the warriors, said dressing up in traditional attire was an honor.

“We don’t speak in terms of pride. We speak in terms of honor. Adelagwodi. It’s like honor a thousand times,” Crowe said.

Crowe was wearing wampum prepared by Robert Saunooke and a war club fashioned by Ledford.

He said he hoped the checkpoint would encourage tourists to dig deeper into Cherokee culture during their visits.

“Hopefully they’ll get it through their head to check out our museum, our village, and come away with a better understanding of who we are as a people,” Crowe said.

If Karen Bess of Fishersville, Va., is representative of the other tourists that passed through the checkpoint, the plan worked.

“I liked it,” said Bess. “I’ve always been fascinated by Native American culture.”


In March Swain County commissioners voted to enact a moratorium that put a halt to Duke Energy’s substation project on a hill overlooking the Cherokee mound site, Kituwah.

The moratorium was passed amidst a heated dialogue between the county, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Duke about the location of the project. It was intended to give the county time to develop an ordinance that would regulate the construction of telecommunications and utilities facilities on county land.

The Swain County commissioners will convene for a public hearing on the draft ordinance at 1:30 p.m. on June 7. County Attorney Kim Lay wrote the draft ordinance, and County Manager Kevin King said it is the first of three ordinances that together will give the county the power to enforce zoning regulations on building projects.

King said the document that will be considered at the June 7 meeting is a “policing ordinance” that gives the county the right to make sure utilities and telecommunications construction projects comply with its land disturbance regulations.

King said the county would work with outside legal counsel to develop two additional ordinances that would impose certain types of zoning regulations on public utility and telecommunications projects.

The major proviso of the first draft ordinance is its requirement that any project that involves the “construction and demolition of certain structures not otherwise subject to the North Carolina building code” and requires a land disturbance permit must wait six months from the date it files its application to begin work.

Homes, because they are subject to the building code, are not affected by the ordinance. But the language does mean that Duke Energy would not be able to resume the work on its substation for six months, should the board adopt the draft ordinance.

Duke has initiated a $79 million upgrade of its West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing unobtrusive 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with 17.5 miles of 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers. The proposed 300-by-300-foot substation on a hill overlooking Kituwah mound is part of the line upgrade.

Duke has been in discussions with the county and the EBCI and both King and Principal Chief Michell Hicks have expressed their opinion that the dialogue has progressed to the point that they expect the substation to be moved.

“We’re all working toward the end of the substation project being up there,” King said.

The substation would mar the viewshed of the Kituwah site and the picturesque valley that lies between Bryson City and Ela along the Tuckaseegee River. Both the county and the EBCI have offered Duke alternative sites for the substation.


“Putting Mr. Finn out of business is not a duty of the Jackson County sheriff. Is that a fair statement?” asked Frank Contrivo Jr., the lawyer representing David Finn.

“That statement or thought has never crossed my mind,” said Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe.

On the witness stand on one side of the courtroom sat Sheriff Ashe, arguably the most powerful politician in Jackson County. On the other side, next to Contrivo, sat David Finn, whose company police officers at Blue Ridge Public Safety have kept order in the upscale district of the Sapphire Valley for the past 10 years.

The two men, once allies, are now locked in an unusual power struggle that has led to a civil trial now playing out in front of a jury in a federal courtroom in Bryson City.

Ashe is the homegrown, hard-working sheriff from Sylva in the midst of his second re-election campaign. Finn is a Florida transplant with a long career in private law enforcement who has built a successful business enterprise patrolling private developments in the unincorporated communities around Cashiers.

Finn sued Ashe in 2007, accusing the sheriff of using his office to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety to an Asheville buyer named John Hale. After Ashe’s lawyer, Patrick Flanagan, failed to convince the court to dismiss the case for lack of evidence, the civil suit landed in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger last week.

At stake in the trial are damages that stem from a series of tort claims. The sheriff could end up paying Finn a lot of money if the eight-person jury decides he misused his office to injure Finn’s business dealings. But for the people of Jackson County, the trial has broader implications.

Testimony in the case has revealed that a power struggle between Finn and a small group of influential Cashiers property owners developed into a full-scale donnybrook that to one extent or another pulled in Sheriff Ashe.

Former Jackson County Sheriff Jim Cruzan, District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, N.C. Sen. John Snow, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, and Jackson County sheriff candidate Tim O’Brien have all been named during the testimony of witnesses called by Contrivo.

One of the key issues raised by the case is the extent to which southern Jackson County functions independently, and how Sheriff Ashe has incrementally sought to increase his influence there since succeeding Cruzan.

The question in the trial is relatively straight-forward: Did Ashe use his position as sheriff to hurt Finn’s business and eventually to scuttle the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety? The question for the county is more complicated: How can law enforcement in Jackson County, which at this point depends on the cooperation between sheriff’s deputies and private police, function while their leaders are at war?

Where it began...

By all accounts, the relationship between Ashe and Finn was a good one back in 2002. Finn, who had purchased Blue Ridge Public Safety in 1998 and acted as its police chief since 1996, backed Ashe in his bid to take the sheriff’s office from his former boss, Jim Cruzan.

“Sheriff Ashe had called me and asked if I would support him, and I told him I would and I did,” Finn said.

Ashe won the primary against Cruzan and went on to become the Jackson County Sheriff.

For Ashe, the tension between the two men began just after the election, when Finn tried to get him to issue traffic enforcement cards to his private police officers. Ashe said he refused on advice from county attorneys, and Finn got angry.

When Contrivo asked Ashe to characterize the relationship between the two men in 2003, Ashe was reserved.

“I would say good, but there was conflict,” he said.

The relationship was good enough that when Ashe’s former boss and erstwhile opponent offered to buy out Finn in 2003, Finn called Ashe.

Finn and Ashe remember that telephone call differently.

“It was clear to me he did not want me to go through with that sale,” Finn said.

Finn said Ashe told him Cruzan was under investigation by federal authorities for the misappropriation of funds. Finn said he decided later — largely on the basis of the phone conversation — to call the deal off.

Ashe, meanwhile, said Finn called him to belittle Cruzan and scoff at the $600,000 offer.

Either way you look at it, the moment was significant in that it showed how the origin of the dispute between the two men could be traced back to their cooperation as political allies.

Cruzan had lost to Ashe in a bitter sheriff’s race and was working to get a foothold at the south end of the county by buying Finn’s business. Finn testified that he met Cruzan clandestinely on a dead-end street to sign the papers, which included a confidentiality clause and a trial period during which Finn could back out.

The fact that Finn would consult Ashe on his decision is a sign that the two men wanted to preserve the professional equilibrium they had created during the election.

Also in 2003, Ashe supplied Blue Ridge Public Safety with a glowing recommendation to the North Carolina Company Police Association, which was later cited when the security company was named best in the state during the association’s award ceremonies.

Between 2002 and 2006, Blue Ridge Public Safety grew dramatically. The business Finn bought for $150,000 in 1998 took in more than $1.2 million in gross receipts in 2006, largely due to his ability to corral the numerous property associations in that part of the county into lucrative security and law enforcement contracts.

According to Finn, his relationship with Ashe broke down over a political disagreement.

In 2006, as president of the N.C. Company Police Association, Finn was advocating for a bill in the General Assembly, The Company Police Modernization Act, that would have given private security forces like his jurisdiction on state and county roads adjacent to the properties they patrolled.

Ashe, co-chair for the legislative committee of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association “vigorously opposed” the measure.

In early 2007, Contrivo alleges that Ashe met with a group of Cashiers property owners who had had disagreements with Finn. According to Finn, that meeting led to a change in Ashe’s disposition.

“The first change I noticed was March 5, 2007,” Finn said.

On that day Ashe instructed his officers not to call Blue Ridge Public Safety for backup anymore, a practice that had resulted in over 1,000 collaborations over a 10-year period.

From that point, Finn’s complaint alleges, Ashe used his office and his deputies to hamstring Finn and the personnel of Blue Ridge Public Safety then later worked in conjunction with the group in Cashiers to sabotage the sale of Blue Ridge Public Safety.

Finn lined up a buyer for the company –– an Asheville man named John Hale –– in May 2007. In July, Hale rescinded the offer to pay $1.5 million for Blue Ridge Public Safety.

The lawsuit alleges specifically that Ashe’s office generated and shared arrest reports that implicated wrongdoing at Blue Ridge Public Safety and that those reports became the basis for investigations of the company that led to the scuttled sale.

“The investigations instigated by defendant James M. Ashe were based upon groundless and false accusation and were the specific reason the prospective purchasers did not perform under the contract,” the complaint alleges.

The case

There were three major flashpoints in the relationship between Ashe and Finn, according to the testimony of the two men.

The first, according to Ashe, was Finn’s demand that the sheriff issue traffic enforcement cards to his staff in return for support rendered during his election race against Cruzan. Ashe refused to sign the cards, which Cruzan had signed regularly according to Finn, and Finn was furious.

For Ashe, that moment opened the gap between the two men, and it got a whole lot wider in 2006 when the second flashpoint took place. Finn, as president of the N.C. Company Police Association, pushed the passage of legislation that would give his people limited jurisdiction on U.S. highways, like N.C. 64. As co-chair of the legislative committee for the N.C. Sheriff’s Association, Ashe and 88 other sheriffs around the state vehemently opposed the measure and it was killed.

Ashe readily admits his opposition to the bill but denies retaliating against Finn because he was president of the N.C. Company Police Association.

The third flashpoint is murkier. According to Contrivo, Ashe began looking for ways to shut Finn down. Having been approached by a group of Cashiers property owners who had complaints about Finn, Ashe, allegedly, supplied arrest reports to their lawyer, Mark Seifert, that helped to generate a number of cases against Finn. The cases were investigated by the oversight bodies that regulate private law enforcement services over a two-year period, and Finn was issued two minor cease and desist orders. None of the investigations showed that Finn had abused his power or made illegal arrests, as some of the allegations contained in the incident reports contended.

An important component of Finn’s case is the extent to which Ashe communicated with Seifert and his clients. Seifert created and represented two groups: the Committee of Sapphire Homeowners (COSH) and the Sapphire Association of Concerned Citizens Committee (SACCC). Seifert, an attorney based in Cary, N.C., has testified that he came to the cases in 2006 as a result of his friendship with Cashier’s property owners Robert Tillery of Sterling, Va., and Paul Hilliard of Lafayette, La.

As lawyer for COSH and SACCC, Seifert spent two years pursuing complaints before state oversight bodies in order “to bring proper regulatory oversight to BRPS.”

“I wanted the Attorney General to shut down Blue Ridge Public Safety,” Seifert said.

“Was that your goal?” Contrivo asked him.

“Indeed,” Seifert said.

“Did you discuss that with Sheriff Ashe?” Contrivo said.

“I did,” Seifert said.

Seifert filed seven separate complaints over a two-year period with the Police Protective Services Board, the Company Police Association, the State Bureau of Investigation and the North Carolina Alarm Systems Licensing Board.

Included in the filings were incident reports generated by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office that included complaints against Blue Ridge Public Safety. Ashe claims he merely offered up public records and documents when they were requested, most significantly when he was served a subpoena by Robert Tillery’s attorney.

Tillery was suing Finn over a dispute about a gate security contract at Golf Course Estates, a private residential community in Sapphire Valley.

According to Contrivo, though, Ashe essentially generated the arrest reports to fuel the flames of Seifert’s complaints to the Private Protection Services Board, on which Ashe served.

Contrivo supports that claim by pointing out that Ashe’s office never released incident reports for any of the other law enforcement bodies that functioned in the county over the same period of time.

Citing Ashe’s cell phone records, Contrivo showed that Ashe and Seifert exchanged 150 phone calls that represented more than 50 hours of conversation between the two men. In addition, Contrivo has pointed out that despite two years of hard work, Seifert never managed to get Blue Ridge Public Safety in anything like serious trouble.

Just doing his job

Ashe’s attorney, Patrick Flanagan, who served as a captain in the U.S Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, is painting a different picture of his client’s role in the struggle between Finn and the Cashiers property owners.

Having established that Ashe is a hard-working sheriff with deep roots in the community, Flanagan argued that the relationship with Seifert was basically one in which a public servant obsessed with details was hounded and cajoled by an over-aggressive lawyer with an agenda.

Flanagan has also pointed out that Ashe recused himself of any role on the PPSB that involved Finn.

During his testimony, Ashe called Seifert “annoying” and seemed exasperated by the repeated references to their cell phone conversations, many of which Ashe said were missed calls and phone messages.

Flanagan is expected to present Ashe’s defense on Tuesday afternoon (June 1), and the jury will likely reach a verdict by the end of the week.


In Sylva, the buy local mantra is being reinterpreted as grow your own.

Volunteers at the Community Table, a nonprofit that provides free, nutritious meals to anyone who needs them, helped to create the Sylva Community Garden six years ago as a way to supplement the kitchen’s supply of food.

The demand for free meals has increased dramatically over the 10 years the Community Table has been in existence, and consequently, so has the need for fresh vegetables. Last year, the Community Table provided an average of 40 meals per night. This year, the number is closer to 120.

For Kevin Hughes, kitchen manager and volunteer coordinator, ramping up the effort to feed more hungry bellies is all in a day’s work.

“It means getting here earlier in the morning to prepare, a lot more food, and a lot more volunteer hours,” said Hughes.

The mission of the Sylva Community Garden is community service. Using a 1/3-acre plot owned by Dr. Gwang Han, the garden provides a common space for local organic gardeners to ply their trade and at the same time provide food for local families that need it.

Over the past three months, 71 volunteers have worked the 20 plots that make up the garden. The individuals that maintain the plots put in countless hours cultivating food. Half of what they grow must be donated to the Community Table or other organizations that feed hungry people.

For Ann Tiner, who helps coordinate volunteers in the garden and serves on the Community Table steering committee, the result of the two organizations working together is amazing.

“I think it’s a magic show to watch these guys come into this tiny little kitchen and provide this delicious food,” Tiner said. “It’s fresh and it’s like you’re in a restaurant and you can just choose what sounds good to you.”

There is nothing institutional about the Community Table. People who come are given a choice of food and sit at common tables in a cozy room that feels like a tavern.

Likewise, there is nothing institutional about the Sylva Community Garden. It’s a loose collective of volunteers who grow what they want to eat. As the demand for fresh produce at the Community Table has grown, Tiner and Hughes have had to work harder to coordinate the harvesting, processing, and storage of the food the garden produces.

“A little sack of lettuce doesn’t really help,” said Tiner.

In addition, farmers and gardeners from the surrounding area make frequent contributions to the Community Table.

Hughes came in one day last August and found 500 pounds of fresh produce waiting for him on the doorstep. To him, dealing with the fresh produce may be challenging, but it’s also the point of his job.

“Seasonally, you come to expect things, but there’s always the surprise aspect of what’s coming in from local farmers and gardens,” Hughes said.

This year, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Citizen’s Bank have collaborated to plant a vegetable garden in a plot behind the church. Tiner, a parishioner, and Patty Curtis, the pastor, are working hard in the garden to produce food that will end up at the Community Table.

Hughes loves working with local, organically grown food.

“It’s fantastic because our mission statement is to provide a nutritious meal,” Hughes said. “The fresh produce we are getting doesn’t have any pesticides, it’s not genetically modified, and it’s just that much better.”

Tiner said finding a way to bring the food from the community’s garden to its table is about more than having fresh produce. It’s about communicating the message that we are all responsible for our land and for each other.

“As much as the growth of the food is important, it is also about education and making people aware,” Tiner said. “I still fight the notion that this is a luxury. This is how it’s supposed to be. It goes back to the way things used to be.”


State-of-the-art defines just about everything the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians builds these days.

Gorgeous architectural lines, native mountain building materials, energy efficient green design — with price tags to match — are hallmarks of everything from a $140 million K-12 school to a $630 million expansion of its casino complex.

But even when it comes to tribal functions that are typically “back of the house” the tribe hasn’t wavered its high standards. A new emergency operations center — which houses dispatch for 911, emergency management and the IT department — may serve a utilitarian function, but the exterior suggests anything but. It is even an environmentally LEED-certified building.

It also serves as proof that the Eastern Band has big plans for its technological future.

“The chief issued an edict to say we had to be energy efficient, but also that we had to be smart about the way we plan our buildings,” said Brandon Stephens, who was the tribe’s construction manager at the time the project began.

Stephens said the most unique component of the building is that it brings the tribe’s emergency operations –– dispatch and emergency services –– under the same roof as the tribe’s IT department, which functions as the nerve center for 100 tribal programs and administers a 27.5-mile fiberoptic broadband network.

The idea is that if a disaster struck the reservation, the building could become a command center for all types of emergency operations, allowing multiple agencies to have their finger on the pulse of the tribe’s communications and data network. The building has a backup diesel generator that can keep it running for seven days.

“We’ve never had a facility to be able to handle that type of situation,” said Bob Long, the tribe’s IT manager. “This gives us that.”

The building has an emergency office for Chief Michell Hicks and several meeting rooms that can double as command centers for cooperating agencies in the event of a disaster.

But the new emergency operations center also accomplishes a more mundane goal –– providing a home to a number of important programs that were dealing with less than ideal conditions.

The 20 employees in the tribe’s IT department, for instance, were scattered among three buildings at a time when their work is becoming more and more central to the tribe’s structure.

With the growth to tribal coffers from gambling revenue over the past decade, Cherokee’s government has grown from 50 to 200 tribally operated programs. The tribe now has 70 buildings connected to a 27.5-mile broadband fiber optic network with a 10-gigabyte capacity.

“We’d been trying to get the council’s ear to get us a better place to work, because we’re becoming so dependent on our data,” Long said.

The Tribal Council heard the appeals and authorized the expenditures for what Long called “a focal point of technology” on the Qualla Boundary.

Ray Stamper, director of emergency operations, said the new setup is a vast improvement for his team. Dispatch shares the second floor of the building, about 10,000 square feet, with Emergency Management Services.

“We were in a 10-by-12-foot room stacked in like sardines with three consoles,” Stamper said. “Now we have so much room, we’re having a hard time knowing how to act. It’s a high-tech environment, and everybody’s happy.”

The building achieved LEED gold certification for its energy efficient and worker-friendly environment. State of the art HVAC and wiring give the building good bones, but the building also features an automatic thermostat and lighting that conserves energy.

“A couple of the girls have gotten scared, ‘cause if they sit still too long, the lights will go out,” Stamper joked.

Stamper said the tribe’s dispatch department has had to ramp up its operations to deal with the high call volumes that are now part of day-to-day business.

“We have a million plus visitors from the [national] park alone, so we needed an upgrade, and we needed more dispatchers to deal with the heavy call volume,” Stamper said.

The building also houses classroom facilities that can be used for community training. Long said the facility lays the groundwork for the larger goal of bringing high-speed wireless to every home on the boundary.

Having played an integral role in bringing cable television to Cherokee in the 1980s, Long said the tribe’s newest digital revolution is still yet to reach about two-thirds of the homes on the reservation.

In the meantime, though, the tribe’s government is hardwiring for the future.


Gary Mann was working as a mortgage banker in Philadelphia when he read Cold Mountain during a trip to the beach. The book, written by his second cousin Charles Frazier, made his heart ache for Haywood County.

“About the second day after reading it, I told my girlfriend I was moving back,” said Mann.

Mann, who grew up moving every three years because of his father’s work, attended Tuscola High School, and his mother’s family has lived in Ratcliffe Cove for a couple centuries.

Having decided to leave the mortgage industry and move back to his mountain home, Mann was in the market for a new line of work. Eager to get in some fishing while he figured it out, he pulled up the Waynesville Fly Shop’s website looking for flow schedules on local rivers controlled by dams. That’s when he noticed the business was for sale.

“It was basically a done deal when I saw that,” Mann said.

And that’s how Gary Mann, a local boy who had wandered in search of his fortune, came home to buy up a fly.

If you walk into the Waynesville Fly Shop, you’ll notice a long plastic folding table with a fly tying vice on it and three or four men sitting around talking. At any given time, you could be in the presence of more than 200 combined years of fly fishing experience. The table is the heart of the Waynesville Fly Shop, and in many ways it’s the heart of Haywood County’s fly-fishing scene.

Rex Wilson, 70, a regular at the shop, has been using dry flies to fish for trout since 1962, the year his father-in-law Gary Smith took him on a trip to the Davidson River. Back then you could fish Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, and after checking in and paying a buck, you were entitled to 10 fish.

Wilson and shop manager Doug Mitchell grew up fishing Haywood County in that era, when the mills were everyone’s line of work and fishing knowledge was kept close to the vest.

The two men now carry on the fly tying traditions of Frank Coffee and Benny Jo Craig, two men who standardized the region’s most distinctive fly-tying patterns.

“Way back it was kind of a secret how to tie flies,” Wilson said. “People wouldn’t just tell you.”

Wilson earned his stripes filling orders for Coffee, who sold to distributors in East Tennessee and Asheville. He remembers tying his first dozen and looking on nervously as Coffee went over each fly with his magnifying glass.

“I reckon I could use these,” Coffee had said.

Since then, Wilson has tied thousands of dozens of flies and is still the primary local source for the Coffee Stone Nymph — or sometimes referred locally as the “Dayco Nymph” in reference to the rubber factory in Waynesville where the materials for the fly originated.

“Rex won’t tell you this, but he is a master fly tier,” said Mann.

Mitchell, now 56, grew up in Hazelwood. He first went fly fishing on the West Fork of the Pigeon River as a 7-year-old with his uncle and has been fishing for everything from large and smallmouth bass to wild trout since then.

Mitchell ran guided trips for the shop’s previous owner, Matt Rosenthal, and was a regular at Roger Lowe’s fly shop in Waynesville before that. Lowe raised the bar for the fly fishing industry in Western North Carolina and served as an important generational link in the chain of mountain fly tying traditions.

Mitchell got hooked on tying flies at Tuscola High School, where his biology teacher Pat Powell initiated him to the mysteries of the art.

“My biology teacher was a fly fisherman and a fly tier, and I asked him to show me,” Mitchell said. “I might have flunked biology, but I passed fly tying.”

For Mitchell, being a mountain fisherman is about upholding a code and refining a skill that takes a lifetime to perfect.

“True mountain fisherman are so good with a dry fly, they can catch anything, but these are humble people,” Mitchell said. “They don’t go around telling people everything they know.”

Another regular at the Waynesville Fly Shop, Rodger McIntyre, was born and raised near Pine Bluff, Ark., and started work at the Canton Paper Mill in 1966. He floats Lake Junaluska with Mitchell regularly, and after 50 years, still marvels at the thrill of watching his quarry rise.

“It’s just seeing that little fish come up and take a dry fly. You see that once, and you’re hooked,” McIntyre said.

For McIntyre, the fly shop is a place you can act like a fisherman.

“You see what’s going on and you get new ideas,” McIntyre said.

Jason Van Dyke, 36, started fly fishing when he was 14 and runs guide trips for Waynesville Fly Shop. You can hear the reverence in Van Dyke’s voice when he talks about the other guys in the store.

“A lot of shops aren’t like this anymore. They don’t have a hometown feel. It’s a rare thing these days,” said Van Dyk, who likes to sit at the table and mine for knowledge about tying patterns, local hot spots and hatch schedules.

While the Waynesville Fly Shop may be the last best repository of local fishing knowledge, it’s also a community exchange for a host of fishermen who have come to the area later in life.

CFOT stands for Codgers Fishing on Tuesday, a group of men who frequent the shop and fish together every week. The group’s name is self-explanatory and owes its origin to the fact that member Dick Morgan has Tuesday off work.

William “Billy” Lamar III, 71, originally from the South Carolina low country, has been fishing “since Moby Dick was a minnow,” having gotten his first bamboo rod at the age of 6. Lamar is CFOT’s historian.

“We fish a little, but we kibitz a lot,” Lamar said.

Tom Hopkins, 69, another CFOT mainstay, started fly fishing for bluegills at 10 years old on Lake Schaeffer in northern Indiana. He met Lamar at the Waynesville Sub Shop and asked him about a fly-fishing pin in his hat. Lamar invited him fishing.

“I knew him for about 90 seconds, and he invited me into his world of fishing,” Hopkins said. “I’ve never had the nice, close relationships I’ve had since I moved here. I guess it’s a Southern thing, and I do appreciate that.”

Barney Neal, who recently moved up from Tampa Bay, Fla., full time, is the newest addition to the Tuesday fishing gang. Neal spent 35 years as a golf professional and picked up fly fishing last year after taking a few out of town guests on one of the shop’s guided tours of the Cherokee trophy waters. Now he fishes every week in good company.

“All of my fishing companions have at least 50 years of experience. How could I go wrong?” Neal said.

Lamar recently returned from a fly-fishing trip in Yellowstone National Park during which he fished the Lamar River, named for his ancestor Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, a former U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The experience, while thrilling, didn’t hold a candle to his experiences in the wilds of Western North Carolina.

“I prefer living where I live and fishing where I fish,” Lamar said.

The reason, according to Lamar, is the community at the Waynesville Fly Shop.

“You know what this table really is?” Mitchell said. “It’s fishing out of water. More fish have been caught at this table than any stream in the mountains.”

“And the fish are getting bigger every day,” Lamar said.

The Waynesville Fly Shop offers guided tours on rivers throughout the region, fly tying materials, and all the goodies and gear that come with the sport of fly fishing. But it also offers knowledge and community to those with the patience to appreciate it.

“I think it’s one of the few industries left where you need people to tell you what’s going on,” Mann said. “Otherwise people would just go to the big box stores. The reason we’re competitive is because of the knowledge.”

For Mann, the effort of keeping a tradition alive is especially rewarding because he dropped everything for a chance to come home to his family tree.

“Having a deep-rooted history here just makes it mean much more to me personally,” Mann said. “It’s important for me to carry on the tradition of the fly patterns of the Smoky Mountains.”


The Jackson County Green Energy Park took center stage last week as Governor Bev Perdue and the Appalachian Regional Commission dropped in for a tour, touting the initiative as a model of the new green economy.

Perdue spent about an hour watching artisan demonstrations, and visiting with state and local leaders at the park, which uses landfill methane gas to power a blacksmith’s shop and a glass-blowing studio. She even left with an armful of Christmas presents, having purchased hand-blown vases and cheese spreaders forged in the blacksmith’s shop.

For the park’s director Timm Muth, the tour was an opportunity to emphasize the human side of green science.

“What I wanted them to take away even more than just the fact that we use landfill gas is that the park is an example of people thinking outside the box to meet the energy needs and the economic needs of our local community,” Muth said.

The Jackson County Green Energy Park has received $100,000 in grants from the ARC since 2007, and it’s rapidly becoming a showcase as a creative use for small-scale methane gas, a byproduct of decomposing trash.

In the past year, Muth has hosted visitors from Ukraine, Mexico, India and China who have come to see how the landfill methane can drive the furnaces that power the park’s glass blowing and blacksmith shops.

“It helps provide a buzz so people can get interested in green energy,” Muth said. “When they’re standing 10 feet from one of these glory holes and they feel the heat or see a blacksmith melting steel, they see how it works.”

Local blacksmith John Burtner has rented shop space at the park for the past two years. Burtner uses a modified methane furnace to heat his metal at temperatures higher than 2,000 degrees. He says his energy source is part of the marketing appeal of his final product.

“As far as I know, I’m the only blacksmith that uses landfill gas to forge,” Burtner said. “I make sure when I show in a gallery to let people know it’s a green energy product, and it’s a huge selling point.”

The green energy park is also an example of how county government can attract state money by taking a risk. Methane levels in the county’s landfill were dangerously high. It would cost $400,000 to simply remediate the problem. Instead the county put that money toward a more ambitious project.

“We were going to have to spend money one way or another, and I’d been studying methane uses for some time,” said County Manager Ken Westmoreland. “The technology had changed to open up the possibility for small landfills.”

Jackson County followed in the footsteps of a similar project at a landfill near Burnsville, another small mountain town.

Since its opening, the park has landed more than $600,000 in state and federal grants, including $140,000 from the State Energy Office and $120,000 from the N.C. Rural Center.

When the park first began tapping its methane reservoirs, Muth estimated there was a 25-year supply of gas. Westmoreland said last week there’s enough methane now to tap 10 more wells. The county is currently in the process of adding a pottery studio at the complex that will require more energy to heat the kilns.

N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the park showed how the region is working to implement Perdue’s push towards a renewable energy economy using local, state and federal dollars.

“In effect, we’re recycling,” Haire said.  “You couldn’t do anything with methane for years, and we started this project five years ago and now it’s creating jobs. It’s the first step towards a renewable economy.”

For County Chairman Brian McMahan, the tour was a gratifying chance to see the reward for making an environmentally sound decision.

“We had a vision when we were told by the state that we had methane levels we needed to deal with,” McMahan said. “We could have flared it off and put it into the environment, but we put our heads together and this is what we came up with.”


When Boone resident Matt Jenkins began his 760-mile barefoot run across North Carolina, he didn’t figure it would end with a snake bite.

Just before 11 p.m. last Wednesday (Aug. 4), as Jenkins crossed from Jackson into Macon County, a copperhead struck him on the foot and halted his progress in the 672nd mile of his journey.

Six days later, Jenkins resumed his run.

“The point of the run is that we can’t be defeated. It’s a symbol of our struggle, and I have to finish,” Jenkins said, lying with his foot elevated in Ellijay last week.

Jenkins is running to raise awareness and money for a youth program in Boone that helps kids stay away from drugs and succeed in school. The program, where Jenkins works as a counselor, lost its state grant funding this year.

Jenkins was already exhausted, having traveled close to 30 miles in sweltering heat over roadways that wound up, over and through the Balsam and Cowee mountain chains when the snake bit him. He felt a sting akin to a yellow jacket and then saw a snake slither onto the dark road behind him. Adrenaline and fear coursing through his veins, he looked for someone who could help.

Ellijay resident Will Staples was in his house getting ready to turn in for the night.

“I saw a light coming through the side yard and I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Staples said. “But it was Matt with bare feet.”

Staples said he didn’t know what to make of the sun-baked traveler and his breathy tale of adventure.

“I just said ‘I’m doing a barefoot charity run across the state, and I just got bit by a snake,’” Jenkins said.

Since the story was too strange to be fiction, Staples helped Jenkins off of his feet and called 911. In a matter of minutes, members of the Cullasaja Gorge Fire and Rescue team were on hand. Jenkins was taken by ambulance to Angel Medical Center, treated and released. Staples and his wife took Jenkins in for the night.

For Jenkins, the kindness of strangers has been a hallmark of his trip.

“It’s opened my eyes. I expected some kindness, but North Carolina is just a great state. Great people live here,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he’s been given free groceries, drinks and places to stay by well-wishers. But the kindness of the Staples, who took him into their home as he recuperated, has been a highlight of the trip.

As an after school teacher and coach for the Western Youth Network, a nonprofit in Wautauga County, Jenkins’ work is his motivation.

Western Youth Network relies on grant funding for its $155,000 operating budget. But this year it lost three of the state grants that are its lifeblood.

“Everybody was like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Jenkins said.

So far, national media outlets like CNN and the Huffington Post have picked up on the adventure and all the attention has raised the stakes of the game.

“If I fail, I don’t just let myself down, I let everyone has supported me in this down, and I let the kids down,” Jenkins said.

The run itself has been a trial by fire. Jenkins is carrying his own supplies in a modified baby stroller. He left Manteo July 15, and he’s covered nearly 30 miles a day in the summer heat over roads.

“I can’t say I’ve found a rhythm yet. There’s been a breaking point every day. Everyday I doubt myself,” Jenkins said. “I’m not an elite athlete. I’m a back of the pack marathon runner.”

The snake bite forced Jenkins to return home to Boone to recuperate, but he vowed to resume the journey as soon as he could.

“The day I can walk a mile is the day I’ll come back and finish,” Jenkins said at the time. “If it was just the pain, I’d walk through it, but I don’t want the venom to move up my leg.”

But it turned out the waiting was worse than the pain, which has receded considerably. After trying out a four-mile test run, Jenkins decided to pick up where he left off — right outside the Staples’ house, a scant distance from where the copperhead got him.

“I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” Jenkins said. “I kind of feel like I belong out there, and I’m excited to get back on the road and see how many miles I can do.”

Jenkins doesn’t see the snake bite as a cosmic curse on his trip, but rather as a chance to prove that nothing can stop him. He’s planning to finish this Friday, the 13th.

To learn more about Matt Jenkins’ journey visit


Just over a year ago, the members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voted to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel while the rest of the reservation would remain dry.

The controversial ballot measure pitted economic development proponents who saw alcohol sales as a necessary step in developing a world-class resort against opponents with moral qualms about alcohol, believing it would lead to social ills.

While the social impacts of alcohol sales at the casino are impossible to quantify, the effect on the casino’s bottom line has been instantaneous.

Meanwhile, Harrah’s Cherokee is in the midst of a massive $600 million expansion project that aims to position its brand as an international resort destination.

For general manager Darold Londo, the business’s aspirations made the addition of alcohol sales almost a requirement.

“We never really would have gotten to a resort definition without certain amenities,” said Londo. “Although it’s arguable whether alcohol was totally necessary, it’s brought us in line with our competitors.”

Londo also said the fears of alcohol opponents haven’t come to fruition.

“It has not created the problems that were anticipated by some tribal members,” Londo said.

To Jessica Nifong, 23, a tourist who stopped in to the casino while visiting Cherokee last week, alcohol is indeed necessary.

“I expect it. I think it’s part of the environment because it helps people relax,” said Nifong, who is from Winston-Salem. “I just assumed it would be there.”

So far this year Harrah’s Cherokee has recorded $1.3 million in alcohol sales, serving nearly 200,000 drinks to around 15 percent of its guests. The casino’s management estimates that guests who consume alcohol have contributed $5 to $10 million in gaming revenue during the same period.

The sale of alcohol has provided a quick revenue boost and evened the playing field, but it hasn’t brought in as much money as the management predicted.

See also: Casino impact on ABC sales not a windfall yet

Rolling out in a harsh environment

“The alcohol sales have been less than expected, and there are a number of reasons,” said Norma Moss, an enrolled member of the tribe who served for 10 years on the Tribal Casino Gaming board and recently took on the role of assistant general manager of resort operations.

Moss, who pushed hard for the ballot measure, said the casino’s slower-than-expected alcohol sales have to be seen in relation to what’s happening at all casinos around the country. The casino business is down like many other sectors of the economy, and alcohol sales in particular have dropped off.

Londo said that has to do with the consumer mentality.

“People out there, including me, aren’t buying that second glass of wine or that extra dessert,” Londo said.

Also, Harrah’s Cherokee spent 13 years attracting customers who didn’t need alcohol.

“By definition, we were serving a customer base for whom alcohol wasn’t a requirement,” Londo said.

Lastly, the rollout of alcohol sales has been gradually phased in, and it’s still not fully integrated into the business model.

At first, the casino introduced only beer and wine sales and only at its restaurants in October 2009. Beer and wine made it to the casino floor in December.

Liquor became an option in January, but mixed drinks didn’t really hit the floor until May of this year when the first bona fide bar opened.

In July, an entertainment lounge with a full bar, televisions and a stage came online. The lounge offers patrons the first environment designed with alcohol consumption in mind, a place you can listen to music or watch football only 20 feet from the gaming floor.

Roger Clarke, 74, of Ft. Myers, Fla., was shopping in downtown Cherokee last week. He’d been to the casino the night before and appreciated the new bar.

“I prefer having the option myself,” Clarke said.

At the same time, the gaming floor and casino entrance have been totally renovated. The new design scheme feels clean and modern.

Moss said the new HVAC system could handle the 100 percent transfer of circulated air, which means that even when people are smoking right next to you, you can still breathe.

In the meantime the gaming floor went from 3,400 games to 4,700 — 160 of the new additions are table-based.

Londo wants to see all of the casino’s features operating before he guesses at the impact of alcohol revenue on the business model.

“The whole process is still in its infancy. It’s still developing, but for the customer’s, there’s the impression of a full-service alcohol environment,” Londo said.

Gamers and walk-ins

The casino business serves two distinct client segments, casual walk-ins that form the retail customer market and loyal “gamers” who spend their money playing the odds.

According to Londo, the recession has cut deepest into the number of retail visitors the casino gets, but “gamers” are the ones who tend to drink, according to industry stats.

“It’s not 20-year-olds or 30-year-olds or 60-year-olds who drink,” Londo said. “It’s not females or Asians or anything else. But if you’re looking at gamers, they tend to be more likely to consume alcohol.”

The recession has unsettled gamers as a group too, because they were used to amenities like free drinks on the floor as long as they were gambling.

Londo said the Harrah’s Cherokee model didn’t support alcohol as a freebie.

“Some gaming customers have been used to getting the product free or at cost, and it was incumbent on us to introduce the product at closer to market price,” Londo said.

He believes the shift away from free drinks and food may be a broader paradigm in the industry.

Londo, sees alcohol sales as a defensive measure that will help the business hold its ground as the recession grinds on.

“It gives us a hook or a stickiness that from a defensive standpoint has allowed us to hold customers or keep customers,” Londo said. “It’s hard to quantify that because year after over year, organically, all businesses are off, including us.”

While revenue is up at the casino compared to last year, it is still down compared to pre-recession levels. Tribal members who supported alcohol sales hoped the new revenue stream would offset losses stemming from the recession.

Fifty percent of the casino’s profits go back to the tribe’s membership in the form of per capita payments. After years of growth, per capita payments dropped 11 percent in late 2008, and proponents of alcohol sales were hoping alcohol sales at the casino would help reverse that trend.

Creating a new brand

“If you look at Harrah’s casinos east of the Mississippi, the properties that continue to update and invest in the future seem to be holding up better than their peers to weather the storm and position themselves,” Londo said.

According to Londo, the Harrah’s operations in Hammond, Ind. and Atlantic City, N.J., have out-performed their peers, precisely because they’re still trying to grow at a time while industry giants like Mohegan Sun, the nation’s second largest casino, are still off.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel planned its expansion before the recession hit, but it began in earnest last year. By January 2011 the resort will boast the largest hotel in the state, 21 stories offering 1,108 rooms, 68 suites and 8 premium suites.

Moss called the new hotel tower, which sits in a valley surrounded by high peaks, the “miracle in the mountains” during its topping off ceremony in April.

In addition to the hotel, the newly constructed 3,000-seat concert venue opening Labor Day weekend will bring in acts like Hank Williams Jr. and Crosby, Stills and Nash. A 16,000-square foot spa will be the last element in the expansion to open in 2012.

The new amenities are all designed to create a resort feel for patrons. Cherokee already boasts a championship golf course and trophy fly-fishing water.

Londo said by expanding and including alcohol, the casino has been able to pursue branding partnerships with Paula Deen’s Kitchen and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

Londo said so far, it’s been hard to track the impact of alcohol sales separate from the other pieces of the expansion on the business.

“It’s hard to say this one area is responsible. They’ve all helped us improve the package,” Londo said. “If it was an excuse not to come before, we’ve satisfied that.”

The customers’ experience

“The bottom line is customers expect to have alcohol in a casino environment, and it’s gratifying to know we can offer it,” Moss said.

But after more than a decade operating without alcohol, Harrah’s Cherokee has had to implement a whole new business model in the midst of a recession. If the climate wasn’t ideal, at least the expansion afforded the opportunity to create a building with the distribution and delivery in mind.

“The property was never set up to accommodate alcohol from the distribution standpoint so all of that had to happen, and it was timely because we were in the midst of an expansion anyway,” Londo said.

Now everything from distribution loading docks to plumbing to multi-game consoles in the bars make it possible to keep the drinks flowing. Londo said because most Harrah’s casinos have alcohol, the model was already there.

“The processes, the procedures and the know-how to implement it in the business model were readily available to us,” Londo said. “It has its uniqueness, but it’s not as challenging as you might think.”

One of the most unique elements of the business model is that it took a referendum of a sovereign nation to get the green light.

“The message of the referendum was that the membership wanted it and they believed it was necessary to the casino’s success,” Moss said.

Londo is less worried about alcohol sales than with how the overall economy is looking. He said there could be worse things than running a casino in a mountain valley situated between Charlotte and Atlanta.

“You take the good with the bad,” Londo said “There’s not a more beautiful place to operate a casino.”


Last month the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University partnered with The Smoky Mountain News to conduct a poll testing the voter climate in Jackson County.

The results of the poll showed voters had low confidence in county government, but the format of the poll didn’t capture why. Only 33 percent of the registered voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government.

Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan pointed out that a government approval rating doesn’t mean much if the people being polled don’t know how the county works.

“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”

Meanwhile Commissioner Tom Massie said the lack of a frank dialogue about issues sometimes lets political candidates off the hook and other times keeps them from explaining their positions.

“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”

WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts, who co-authored the poll, wrote in an editorial letter that county politicians have a responsibility to open government up to the public.

“Local politicians should create more opportunities for citizens to learn about county government and for citizens to communicate with their elected officials in a safe and partisan neutral environment,” Knotts and Cooper wrote.

And Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod talked about how a candid dialogue in the media about politics could help the county confront its challenges.

“Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems, McLeod said.”

With the intention of instigating a deeper discussion about the way local government, the media and the voting public interact, Smoky Mountain News conducted a follow up questionnaire with Jackson County commissioners, asking them five questions that touched on the duties of the county government, the media and the voting public.

Four members of the board –– McMahan, Massie, and Commissioners William Shelton and Joe Cowan –– chose to respond to the questions.


1. What, in your opinion, is the primary responsibility of county government? And how is the role distinct from state and federal government?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

By state statute, the primary responsibility of county government is to provide for the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens residing within the county’s geographic boundaries. The statute is very broad and has far reaching implications for making budgets and setting tax rates. These taxes are used for law enforcement, social services, the health department, the courts, county administration, planning, veterans affairs and other general administration services.

Counties and their powers are derived from state law and therefore the county is a creation of state government and subject to state laws.


Chairman Brian McMahan

Rather than offer an opinion, I will simply quote how the N.C. Supreme Court defined a county and its role from a legal point of view.

“A County is a body politic and corporate, created by the General Assembly of North Carolina for certain public and political purposes. Its powers as such, both expressed and implied, are conferred by statutes, enacted from time to time by the General Assembly, and are exercised by its Board of Commissioners.... In the exercise of ordinary government functions, [counties] are simply agencies of the State, constituted for the convenience of local administration in certain portions of the State's territory, and in the exercise of such functions they are subject to almost unlimited legislative control, except when the power is restricted by constitutional provisions.”

The “certain public and political purposes” includes, but is not limited to, providing:  the buildings and facilities necessary to conduct the local judicial proceedings of the state, the buildings necessary for both the public K–12 school system and the community college, conducting elections, maintaining property ownership and mortgage records, enforcing much of the state's criminal law through local law enforcement, administering public health and public welfare programs, exercise planning and zoning powers, developing local laws, and etc.

It is the responsibility of the county board of commissioners to exercise and carry out the powers granted to counties by the State.  G. S. 153A-12 states that “except as otherwise directed by law, each power, right, duty, function, privilege and immunity of the corporation [i.e., the county] shall be exercised by the board of commissioners.”

Commissioner Tom Massie

County government’s primary responsibility is to provide the services demanded by the local citizens, which improve our lives, protect our health and safety, and provide for the welfare of society as a whole. Some of the services we provide are purely local decisions: a new park for recreation, for example, or a public building to house a county department. Other services are mandated by state or federal governments that local governments must provide: courtrooms and public school facilities, building code enforcement and sanitation laws, for example. Still other services we provide are regulated by the state or federal government, such as solid waste, OSHA standards, water and sewer permit limitations. Thus, the relationships between the county government and the other levels of government are multifaceted and intertwined. However, one distinction is very clear: County governments are creations of the State of North Carolina and they can only do what the state constitution and legislature allow them to do by statute. 

Commissioner William Shelton

The primary responsibility of county government is summed up pretty well in our mission statement, and that says “To represent the best long-term interests of ALL the citizens of Jackson County by providing effective leadership and clear direction.” We are responsible for being good stewards of the county’s financial and environmental resources, and for clearly articulating a vision for the future of the county. The role of county government is distinct from state and federal because we are on the “front lines” of politics, as we live in and amongst the communities we serve, and deal less in platitudes and more in day-to-day quality of life issues.



2. What is the best way for citizens to bring issues and questions to the county board?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

The best way for citizens to bring issues to the county board is by confronting individual board members and making their wishes known. This should be done face to face if possible. There is no good substitute for this method.

Chairman Brian McMahan

Citizens have several options in respect to bringing issues before the board of commissioners. Those options include:  written appeal (emails or letters), verbal appeal (in person or by telephone) to an individual commissioner, or by public appeal to the board at an official meeting of the board of commissioners. The preferred process would be to contact a county commissioner and ask for an opportunity to discuss an issue. The commissioner then can add the issue to the agenda if necessary. Everyone is invited to participate in the public comments section of the agenda and the public hearings. The board of commissioners is very much interested in hearing from the citizens.


Commissioner Tom Massie

The best ways for a citizen to bring an issue to the attention of the county government are in order of effectiveness:
A) Contact the County manager.  It is his business to look after the day-to-day workings of County government.
B) Attend one of the bi-monthly Commissioners meetings and speak about the issue.  Every meeting has a public comment period, which allows any citizen to address the board about any topic for up to 3 minutes.

C) Call, write or e-mail any or all of the county commissioners about your issue.


Commissioner William Shelton

There are several ways that citizens can bring issues and questions to the county board, including attending meetings, e-mail, writing, or calling. The real question in my mind is how do we get more citizens to become involved? We as a board are very open to public input, both negative and positive, and welcome public opinion as a way to gauge our job performance.



3. What are some ways the county board could open up the discussions around tough, complicated decisions so the public can better understand the work you do?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

The board should be totally transparent with the public and encourage public questions and participation in every way possible. Personally, I miss the question and answer session that was sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Let’s revive this process!

Chairman Brian McMahan

One of the ways that the county can open up the discussion of certain issues is through delayed action.  It has been our policy in Jackson County to have a public hearing for most all ordinances, even if they don’t require one, allowing for the public to comment.  It has also been customary to delay a vote on an issue to the next meeting to allow for the public to have additional opportunity to comment, both verbal and written.  Adequate public discussion is the best way to educate everyone (the public and the elected officials) to the particulars of any issue.

Commissioner William Shelton

This is a good question, because many of the decisions we make are indeed complicated. Communication with the public is crucial, and this is an area where we have perhaps fallen short. I think having a more extensive dialogue with the local press would be helpful, perhaps by offering time at the end of meetings for a “press conference” to give them an opportunity to ask specific questions and gain more clarity or perspective on the issues. However, the local media is only as good as the citizens’ willingness to read or listen to it, and that can be frustrating. Another possibility for opening up the discussion with the public would be looking into televising our meetings, which is already being done in some counties.


4. How can the local media do better in communicating the issues the county faces to the public?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

Stop so much editorializing. Get the facts, get the facts, get the facts! Present the facts to the public and stop trying to influence by grandstanding editorials. 

Chairman Brian McMahan

It is important for the media to relay the happenings of county government to the citizenry. The media often times is the eyes and ears of those that cannot physically attend the meetings of the board of commissioners. It is crucial to remember that while the media is often the eyes and ears of the general public, they are NOT the brain of the general public. Relate the facts and let the public interpret for themselves what has happened and how they feel about it. Editorials and opinions have their place and purpose, but not in the news story, or even in the way the story is being portrayed.


Commissioner Tom Massie

The media must do a better job of digging for the facts behind each issue of interest. Ask for press conferences, ask of in depth interviews on specific issues with the manager and politicians. Ask us what our positions are and why. And if we refuse, then report that to the public. But like wise, it is incumbent on the media to report responses accurately and without prejudice and whenever to explain the complexities, except in opinion pieces.


Commissioner William Shelton

I sometimes think that the local media falls into the same “trap” that the national media has fallen into, and that is that negativity and controversy sell much better than positive news. I appreciate that local media brings crucial and sometimes controversial issues into the eyes of the public. That is a wonderful thing. What gets lost sometimes, sadly, is the realization that most of the county’s business is conducted in a very professional and effective way. I think the citizens would be proud of many things the county does that they never know about because no one is telling that side of the story. One thing the local media could do to “bridge the communication gap” would be to take on more of an educational role. What the general public too often does not realize is that county government is trying to apply policy to various situations in the county. In other words, many of the decisions we make are driven by what is required by state statute, as county governments are actually an arm of the state, and less by emotion or ideology. The local media could do a better job of pointing that out.



5. What is the role of politics and political parties in county government? What should it be?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

The $64,000 question… political parties at the federal, state and local level have become so evil, mean-spirited, and rancorous that most reasonable people in the U.S. no longer listen to political party leaders. This is especially true at the federal level. Thankfully, this is least true at the local levels, because the local public can hold their officials to a greater degree of accountability.

Chairman Brian McMahan

All county commissioners are elected by the people in partisan elections held in November of even-numbered years.  The state constitution does not require that a person be nominated as the candidate of a political party in order to run for the office of county commissioner, however, it is the most common procedure.  For the most part, county government is the least partisan of the federal, state, and county system.  Most issues facing boards of commissioners are not Democrat or Republican issues.  However, the general philosophy and vision of a commissioner most often reflects the values of the local party in which they have chose to be a member of.

Commissioner Tom Massie

Most local issues are non-partisan in nature.  Most are pocketbook issues.  But, political parties are essential to local governments as a way to find interested committed citizens who want to participate in their government and work to make a difference for the benefit of their community.  Our system in this state is designed to work off a recognized two party system.  Independents and less organized parties face other barriers to getting on the ballot than the two main party’s candidates.  This is currently being challenged in court, but it is how it exists today in our state.  The critical factor is that regardless of party affiliation, we must be able to work together (yes, I do mean we need to compromise at times) to achieve positive things for the citizens of our county.

Commissioner William Shelton

As I have met commissioners from across this seven county region, I have found them to be genuine, caring public servants who are simply trying to do what is right for their various communities. As boring as it seems, I have not found a “liar” or a “crook” in the whole bunch, regardless of the political party involved. It is often hard to tell in one on one conversation just what political party a commissioner is associated with, because we are all dealing with similar challenges, and that is where most of the focus lies, not on party politics. That said, I do believe that party politics do play a major role in the big picture. County commissioners share the same constituents as their state and federal counterparts, and must work cooperatively with them, as well as municipalities, to get things done. Party ideology does play a part in setting the tone, or the overall direction of governance as a whole, and that is perhaps as it should be.


“I’ll tell you what this is, and I’ll tell you what it’s not,” said Franklin Mayor Joe Collins, opening a public hearing on a special use permit for a proposed Wal-mart Supercenter just outside the town limits.

Collins had anticipated that the capacity crowd gathered in the town hall on Monday night had come to express their opinions about whether they wanted a new Wal-Mart. But he was keen to limit the discussion to a very narrow topic: the size of the building’s footprint and a request for larger signs.

“This is not the time or the place to have a general discussion about whether you do or do not want to have a Wal-mart,” Collins said.

Developers Bright-Meyers, LLC, appeared on behalf of Wal-Mart to secure a necessary special use permit to proceed with the new store.

According to Collins, the public hearing was a carefully proscribed step in a process that began on May 21, when the application was first submitted.

The project’s special use permit application was vetted in a neighborhood compatibility meeting on June 8 in which nearby property owners voiced their opinions, and it was stamped for approval by the town’s planning board on June 15 after a thorough fact-finding process.

At the end of Monday night’s hearing, which was full of opinions from opponents and supporters of the project, the town board voted 6 to 0 to approve the special use permit and open the way for the store. But the vote didn’t do anything to dispel the idea that Wal-Marts are still controversial. The hearing was boisterous and at times contentious, as supporters and critics of the project shouted back and forth.

The proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter would be located at the corner of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads just off of the N.C. 441 bypass. The 33-acre site is outside the town limits, but within its zoning district and adjacent to the site of a recently constructed middle school.

The town’s unified development ordinance, created in 2007, requires any building over 30,000 square feet to go through a special use permit process.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter will measure 120,000 square feet and include two additional outbuildings of 32,000 square feet and nearly 800 parking places. Wal-Mart also wanted larger signs than are allowed under the town’s ordinance — one on the side of the building and one at the development’s entrance.

Town Planner Mike Grubermann, who has overseen the application process, said the developer’s proposal met the standards of the town’s universal development ordinance in all respects except the two conditions outlined in the special use permit application. He said the roads that provide access to the site are overseen by N.C. Department of Transportation and would require their approval, but traffic counts provided by the developers met his department’s standards.

Franklin developer Marty Kimsey summed up the case for those in support of the special use permit, saying that in a down economy, the new store offered jobs and a boost for the private sector.

“The bottom line is that this site will not be used as a Wal-Mart unless the special use permit is given,” Kimsey said.

Opponents of the project questioned whether Wal-Mart would bring new jobs or hurt existing businesses. They pointed out the potential environmental impact of its placement on the banks of the Little Tennessee River and raised concerns about its effect on traffic patterns in close proximity to the new school.

“I don’t think you could choose a worse area to build something that big,” said Mike Kegan, a resident of Dowdle Mountain Road.

Collins, presiding over the hearing, policed the comments closely at first, but as the hearing wore on, the speakers increasingly used the microphone to talk about their general views on having a new Wal-Mart in town.

John Cantrell, a former high school teacher who was against the permit, was exasperated when Collins cut him off. Cantrell complained about the proximity of the giant commercial complex to the nearby middle school, but Collins deemed them unrelated to the permit application.

“Well, who is it, who is supposed to hear these concerns?” Cantrell asked.

“I don’t know. It’s not us. Not here,” Collins said.

After the hearing was closed, Collins explained the guidelines for public hearings on special use permits are governed by state statutes and that, at the advice of Henning, he attempted to keep the discussion focused on the issue of exceeding square footage requirements.

“It may be that there are [towns] that take a looser approach than this, but I think that’s risky,” Henning said, adding that the developers could appeal the vote of the board if they felt the hearing was stilted.

Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, agreed that quasi-judicial hearings must be held to a different standard from other types of public hearings.

“If it was a quasi-judicial hearing, there are different rules. It would need to be relevant to the situation,” Hibbard said.

However, exactly how much of the comments should have been reined in is subjective.

In the end, in spite of Collins’ best efforts, the meeting did provide a forum for the public to express their opinions about the proposed Wal-mart. While more members of the public spoke in opposition to the project than in support of it, the decision rested with the board and it chose to grant the application without requiring any additional measures from the developers.


Franklin Alderman Bob Scott recused himself from the vote on a special use permit for a Wal-Mart Supercenter this week after conducting an online survey on the issue. Town Attorney John Henning said he believed the survey compromised Scott’s impartiality, citing state statutes that govern the procedures for quasi-judicial public hearings.

The pertinent passage in G.S. 160A-388 says that “impermissible conflicts include, but are not limited to, a member having a fixed opinion prior to hearing the matter that is not susceptible to change.”

Kim Hibbard, general counsel for the N.C. League of Municipalities, said determining whether Scott had compromised his impartiality was ultimately a judgment call.

“Are they really impartial? Have they fixed their opinion already? Have they been getting communications from one side or the other?” Hibbard said. “That’s where you would need to make your judgment, whether the actions fall into that category.”

Scott said his survey was an attempt to gain perspective on the public’s opinion.

View the results of Scott's survey

“All I was trying to do before all this came up was just find out how people felt. I wasn’t trying to make a determination of whether it was a pro or con, I was trying to feel what the feeling of the public was,” Scott said.

Scott also questioned whether the other aldermen were impartial, adding that it seemed they all had their minds made up which way they were going to vote prior to the meeting.

He did confirm that he would have voted against granting the special use permit had he been allowed to vote.

“I am concerned. If we have this ordinance then allow variances because it is Wal-Mart, is that fair? Why do we have the ordinance if we are going to grant exceptions?” Scott said.

Scott’s public survey had 329 respondents. Over 75 percent of them were in favor of the Wal-Mart. Over 80 percent had a favorable opinion of the company. Perhaps the most interesting response to the survey showed that 40 percent of the respondents thought the public should have a say in the store’s design scheme.


After nearly eight months of wrangling with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Swain County leaders and a vocal citizens group, Duke Energy agreed to relocate an electrical substation from a controversial location — one that would loom over a Cherokee spiritual site and mar views of a rural farming valley.

Despite putting money into the site work and grading, Duke announced this week it would move from the location.

While Duke and the tribe have hailed the move as a sign of cooperation between the two entities, a citizens group fighting the substation and a major upgrade to electrical lines associated with the project stopped short of calling it a victory.

In November 2009, Duke Energy began work on a knoll in the picturesque valley located between Ela and Bryson City as the site of the new substation, which incidentally overlooked Kituwah, a sacred Cherokee site that historically served as the tribe’s political and spiritual center.

Swain County leaders imposed a moratorium on new utility projects in March of this year, partly due to the public outcry and partly because the county was miffed Duke had started grading the site without informing the county of its plans.

Along the way, citizens filed a complaint before the North Carolina Utilities Commission while lengthy negotiations played out between Duke and the tribe, which had hinted at the possibility of legal action.

Throughout those negotiations, Duke maintained that one of the principal reasons for the line upgrade and, consequently, the substation was the need to provide more power to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which is in the midst of a $600 million expansion project.

Duke’s announcement that it will move the substation to one of two alternative sites by the end of the year solves the point of conflict with the tribe over the cultural impact on Kituwah.

Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, used Duke’s announcement as an opportunity to reinforce the tribe’s intent to vigorously protect Cherokee cultural sites.

“It is my honor and responsibility to protect our land base and our Cherokee culture,” Hicks said in a release prepared by Duke and the tribe. “The land of Kituwah, our mother town, is central to our identity as a tribal nation and I will do everything in my power to ensure this sacred site is protected.”  

But Hicks also reinforced his appreciation of Duke’s efforts to work with the tribe regarding the issue.  

“I appreciate Duke Energy’s understanding of these sensitive issues and their hard work to identify alternate locations for the electrical station,” Hicks said. “We are pleased that through the cooperation with Duke Energy, we will continue to have reliable electricity and the landscape around Kituwah will be protected.”

New substation site

Duke Energy has offered Swain County $400,000 for a 13-acre site in the county industrial park. In addition to the $400,000 price tag, Duke Energy would give the county $1.1 million  to help defray the cost of relocating the county IT building, which has been in the development stages for nearly a decade.

Swain County commissioners voted unanimously on Monday to grant Duke a six-month property option on the site for $15,000.

Duke has another site under consideration as well in the Sheppard’s Creek area. Duke announced that it would decide between two alternative sites by the end of the year.

Should Duke move forward with the purchase of the site in the industrial park, the company would have made up for its lack of communication with the Swain County board that led to the imposition of a county-wide moratorium on utility projects.

Line upgrades still at issue

With the county and the tribe appeased, Duke still has the citizens group to deal with, however.

Katy Travitz, spokesperson for Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley, said her group will continue to pursue a complaint before the North Carolina Utilities Commission that alleges Duke Energy broke the law by not filing the proper paperwork for their line upgrades.

“I don’t see it as a victory,” Travitz said. “I think they made a smart decision, and there’s still work for them to do.”

The new substation is part of a massive upgrade of Duke’s West Mill transmission line, which serves parts of Jackson, Swain and Macon counties. The upgrade entails replacing the existing 66kv line mounted on wooden poles with a 161kv line mounted on 120-foot steel towers and constructing new substation facilities to accommodate the increased amount of power.

A complaint filed by Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley is still playing out before the state utility commission. It essentially alleges that Duke Energy intentionally misrepresented its project as an upgrade when it is actually a new infrastructure project that should have triggered a long list of requirements including public hearings.

“We believe Duke broke the law, because they didn’t file for the certificate to do the work,” Travitz said. “Moving the substation doesn’t satisfy the complaint, and we intend to stay the course.”

The citizens group represents both enrolled tribal members with a cultural interest in protecting Kituwah, as well as Swain County residents whose properties are directly affected by the line upgrade.

But other citizens have been a part of the discussion, too. Nate Darnell, a farmer in Swain County who appealed to the board of commissioners to implement the moratorium, said moving the substation from the site near Kituwah to an alternative location over the hill in Shepard’s Creek doesn’t solve the problem that drew him into the debate.

Darnell saw the issue from the perspective of the impact it had on the environment and the agri-tourism businesses in the valley.

“I like the idea that they’re looking at the industrial park,” Darnell said. “You got to have this stuff and if you’re going to have it, you need to localize it so you can regulate it more easily and consolidate the impact it’s going to make.”

Cultural site views saved

If there is a clear winner in the scenario, it’s the Eastern Band, which preserved its cultural legacy without jeopardizing the supply of power to its growing casino complex.

The tribe’s historic preservation officer, Russ Townsend, said Duke’s willingness to negotiate over a cultural viewshed sets an important precedent.

“I hope it’s an example to other agencies that we deal with that our concerns are legitimate and there are often alternatives to finish a project without undermining our cultural concerns,” Townsend said.

Townsend said the concept of viewscapes and cultural landscapes have been a part of regulatory discussions dealing with the way federal agencies approach cultural sites like the Gettysburg battlefield, but they’ve never been a part of discussions with private companies.

“I think if there’s a precedent set it’s that there wasn’t a federal agency that made Duke come to the table,” Townsend said.

Duke’s narrative of the events in the release announcing the company’s intent to move the substation acknowledges the cultural issues raised by the tribe, but it also defends the line upgrade as a necessary attempt to meet the needs of its customers.

“Initially, a new electric tie station was planned at a site within view from Kituwah, an ancient and sacred gathering place of the Cherokee people that is adjacent to the Tuckaseegee River, east of Bryson City, N.C.,” the company’s statement read. “After hearing concerns from the Cherokee people about the initial site, the company worked for several months with tribal and other community leaders to identity alternate locations.”  

Brett Carter, president of Duke Energy Carolinas, stated the company’s position succinctly.

“Our customers expect and rely on Duke Energy to provide the electricity that powers their homes and businesses,” said Carter. “Finding a new location for this important infrastructure allows us to deliver on our commitment to customers, without impacting the landscape around Kituwah.”


The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is urging the state to formally license Cherokee language teachers, enabling Cherokee courses taught in public schools off the reservation to count toward a student’s foreign language requirement.

Earlier this month, tribal and school officials met with representatives from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to finalize the steps in the process.

The move is part of tribe’s push to revitalize the language and preserve the Eastern Band’s cultural identity.

“Salvaging the language salvages our tribe. It continues to identify us as a unique people, and it continues to protect the sovereignty of who we are as a nation within a nation,” said Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

The tribe’s language efforts include everything from street signs in Cherokee to language emersion programs for infants — as well as required Cherokee language classes for grades K-12 school on the reservation.

However, not all enrolled members of the tribe live in Cherokee and attend school on the reservation, so the tribe hopes to offer language courses in public schools in neighboring counties as well.

Cherokee language and history classes are currently taught in the public schools in Graham County, where a small satellite portion of the reservation lies. The tribe foots the bill for the instructors’ salaries, but the classes do not fulfill the state’s language requirements.

By creating a teacher certification test that meets the standards of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the tribe hopes to get Cherokee included on Department of Public Instruction’s list of languages for study.

“We want the language to be recognized and credit to be given in all North Carolina schools,” Hicks said. “Right now in Swain County, you can get credit in Spanish and Chinese but not in Cherokee. That’s what we want to change.”

Dr. Hartwell Francis, chair of Western Carolina University’s Cherokee language program, has taken the lead role in creating a teacher certification test that meets ACTFL as well as state education standards. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma went through a similar process and has proven a useful model for Francis to draw from.

Renissa Walker, director of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program, which oversees the tribe’s language revitalization efforts, said the Eastern Band feels it’s important for the tribe to develop and administer the test themselves.

“We want to maintain ownership of the test,” Walker said.

Walker has helped organize a panel of fluent Cherokee speakers who will be trained by ACTFL and DIP to administer and grade the tests for language teachers. Once that is done, the tribe will start the work of testing its first round of 25 or more Cherokee language teachers, most of whom speak Cherokee as a second language.

Walker said the tribe hopes to have the certification process wrapped up by the end of the school year.

But there is another hurdle in the process: the status of the Cherokee language in American culture. DPI considers Cherokee a foreign language for administrative purposes, but the tribe objects to the classification.

“We’re not a foreign language like the other languages taught in the high schools,” Walker said. “It’s ironic that the oldest language in North Carolina would be the last one to get recognized by the schools.”

Walker said the tribe doesn’t blame the state, however.

“It’s not their fault. The responsibility lies on our shoulders. We’ve been aggressive over the past five years, but if we’d started this process 20 years ago, there would be fluent speakers of child-bearing age today,” Walker said.

Swain County schools have expressed interest in introducing a certified Cherokee language program in the future, and they’ll offer a language and history course this coming year that’s similar to the one offered in Graham County.

Hicks said the tribe would pay the salaries of Cherokee teachers in neighboring counties where a critical mass of enrolled members go to school once the state has approved the teacher certification process.

Walker said her department is working to get the project finished by the start of the new school year.

“We’re moving quickly,” Walker said. “The fall is our goal.”

Once the certification test is created and approved and an oversight panel is created, the process will have to be verified by a state specialist in education research methodology before being submitted for final approval to N.C. DPI.


The town of Dillsboro, once a thriving retail market for tourists, has taken a beating in the past two years. First, the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, a business that delivered 60,000 visitors per year to the downtown, moved its operations to Bryson City and cut train routes to the quaint shopping hamlet. Meanwhile, the recession hit the mountains full force.

“What Dillsboro experienced is the perfect storm,” said Dr. Betty Farmer, communications professor at Western Carolina University. “That railroad left and the economy tanked, and the timing really could not have been worse for them.”

Farmer is one of a cadre of WCU professors working with the town and its business community to redefine its marketing strategy and enliven its retail district.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald said the partnership could help the town develop a new identity, something that’s not tied to the success or failure of one business.

“I think that identity — with or without the train –– is what we’re working on right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re at a crossroads.”


Life without the railroad


For two decades the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad drew visitors to Dillsboro’s Front Street and created foot traffic for a downtown retail district that emphasized local crafts.

In 2008, the train line pulled out for economic reasons, leaving 22 full-time employees jobless and the town without a major tourist draw.

Walt Cook, owner of the Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery, opened his business just six weeks before the train left. When the train stopped coming, so did his walk-in customers.

“My particular type of business relies on a certain amount of walk-around traffic, and Dillsboro doesn’t have enough of that since the train left,” Cook said.

The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad resumed limited service to Dillsboro from Bryson City last year, and this year they’ve expanded service further. But businesses downtown can no longer rely on sheer volume of tourists to turn a profit.

Cook has decided to move his retail business to Waynesville because he doesn’t think Dillsboro has enough to draw tourists.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon last week, Douglas Siegrist, 33, of York, Penn., sat out front of Bradley’s General Store with his son, Tanner, eating ice cream cones. They had come on the one o’clock train from Bryson City, where their relatives run a campground.

Siegrist said he didn’t think they would have visited Dillsboro without the attraction of the train.

“Probably not,” he said. “We really haven’t heard much about Dillsboro.”

But having discovered the town, Siegrist said he would like to come back.

“It’s a nice little town, and it seems like there’s a lot going on,” Siegrist said.

Frank and Diane Lauterman of Clermont, Fla., arrived on the same train. The Lautermans were also staying in Bryson City, and Frank said that while the railroad lured them to Dillsboro, the town had its own selling points.

“I would move here,” Frank said. “This is the area I’d like to retire.”

Those reactions point at something most Dillsboro business owners can agree on. The town’s attraction is about more than the train.

“This town was a thriving tourist town even before the train was here,” said John Miele, owner of the Golden Carp, a home furnishings store that draws visitors from all over the region.

Miele said train customers were never a mainstay for his business, but he appreciated the energy they brought to the retail district. He thinks the struggles retailers are facing now have more to do with the state of the economy than anything else.

“The train leaving has nothing to do with what’s going on right now,” Miele said. “That we have any business at all is a miracle.”

Jean Hartbarger, owner of The Jarrett House and former mayor of Dillsboro, summed up the situation succinctly.

“The train didn’t kill Dillsboro,” Hartbarger said. “The economy did.”


The partnership


Last year, at the instigation of Western Carolina University Chancellor John Bardo, WCU began a multi-departmental partnership with Dillsboro and its downtown merchant community.

Bardo, whose academic background is in urban planning and community development, said the partnership fits the university’s mission of community engagement, but it’s also an effort to lend a hand to a neighbor.

“It became clear that, with the train not coming on a regular basis, people in Dillsboro were suffering,” Bardo said.

Bardo said the goal for the university is to offer its resources to small business owners who want help.

“A university can never tell the people of a community or region what to do,” Bardo said. “We’re trying to give the people of Dillsboro some help, so they can re-shape their course the way they want to.”

Dr. Betty Farmer, a WCU professor in communication and public relations, has taken the lead in coordinating the partnership. She said the first six months have been to a large extent about building trust and identifying issues.

Now that a working relationship has been established between the university and business community, the challenges have gotten more concrete.

“I feel like we have a firm grasp on what the problems are now,” Farmer said. “But the business people needed help yesterday, and it’s almost impossible for us to move as fast as they need us to.”

Farmer said one business owner confided to her that gross receipts had fallen from $130,000 per year to $30,000 during a three-year period.

In January, Farmer facilitated a large group meeting to discuss the action plan for the revitalization campaign. The result was an eight-step strategy that involves creating a coherent brand identity for the town, increasing the number of WCU faculty and staff who use the downtown district, and updating the town’s presence on the Internet.

So far, half of the downtown businesses have worked with WCU’s Small Business and Technology Development Center to develop better business planning, marketing and finance strategies. Also, economics professor Steve Ha has conducted surveys of the business community, WCU’s faculty and staff, and visitors to help figure out what the town needs to do to reach potential customers.

The faculty and staff survey, which was offered on-line, yielded more than 600 responses.

Miele has participated in the partnership, and he’s pleased with its results so far.

“It’s like anything. Sometimes you can’t see your mistakes until someone comes in from the outside and points them out to you,” he said.

As a result of his work with WCU faculty and students, Miele has developed a Facebook page that’s linked to his business home page, and he’s already found that it’s helped walk-in traffic.

“Just when I was going to 86 the whole thing, I started hearing from customers saying, ‘We saw your website,” Miele said. “Now it’s my catalogue.”

Farmer is confident that the business owners can learn from the partnership.

“I think there are some things Dillsboro businesses can do and they’re open to it,” Farmer said.

But she’s realistic about what the university can do for the town.

“We don’t have $500,000 to run a slick ad campaign,” Farmer said. “So we have to use other ways to increase the number of visitors.”


Playing to strengths


While the challenges facing all small tourist towns are great, Dillsboro has some natural advantages. Its location at the junction of U.S. 23/74 and U.S. 441 makes it extremely accessible. The town has public access points on Scott’s Creek and one on the Tuckasegee River.

Tyler Davis recently opened Blue Ridge Outing Company, a rafting business, in part of the old train depot. Davis has owned an outfitter business in Bill’s Flea Market on the Smoky Mountain Expressway for the past five years, but he jumped at the chance to open a location in Dillsboro.

“Nothing against the flea market. I love the flea market,” Davis said. “But for a business like this, it’s a much more appropriate location.”

Davis like the fact that his customers have access to public restrooms and a shopping district, and they only have to walk 150 yards to the boat launch to start their trips.

What’s still missing, he said, is a major draw.

“It has the buildings. It has the shops. It’s the amount of attractions. That’s what the town still needs,” Davis said. “The place has such a cool image as a mountain town.”

Carrie Blaskowski, a Dillsboro resident and assistant director of the Jackson County Green Energy Park, believes the partnership with WCU has helped the business community get a grip on what it needs to do.

“We can become complacent and rely on what we know or we can start over and collaborate on building the future together,” Blaskowski said.

The Green Energy Park has become a destination for travelers interested in sustainable business practices, in large part because it uses landfill methane to power a crafts studio for glass blowers and blacksmiths.

Blaskowski sees crafts as a lasting part of the town’s identity, but she thinks the future of the town relies on diversity.

“Dillsboro may be going back to its roots with some of the efforts in the crafts community but we’re also trying a lot of other things,” Blaskowski said.

For Farmer, Dillsboro has one asset money can’t buy. Location, location, location.

“It’s in the middle of so many great things,” Farmer said.

Mayor Mike Fitzgerald is quick to point out that while Dillsboro’s retail businesses are struggling, the town is thriving as a residential community. He believes the town just needs to develop ways to build on its assets.

“It’s a historic crafts community, and it’s a quaint mountain town,” said Fitzgerald. “Unfortunately with the economy down, the crafting side of things isn’t bringing in the same revenue it used to.”

Over the hill in Cullowhee, Bardo has committed his university to the partnership for the long haul.

“It has to be a long-term relationship,” Bardo said. “What we’re seeing in the mountains is the local effect of what is a global economic downturn. It can’t be turned around quickly.”


Not even the looming shadow of the nation’s worst environmental disaster in two decades could spoil the mood at the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative listening session in Asheville last week.

Recreation, conservation and preservation-minded environmentalists from all over Western North Carolina streamed into the Ferguson Auditorium at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College for a chance to influence federal policy.

“They’re calling it a listening session,” said Abe Nail, 56, of Globe. “I can’t imagine the Bush administration doing anything like that.”

Judi Parker, 63, also of Globe –– which is tucked into the middle of the Pisgah National Forest just south of Blowing Rock –– marveled at the crowd of people swarming around her.

“I’m just glad so many people came,” she said.

Nail and Parker were two of more than 500 people who came to participate in a project inaugurated by President Barack Obama in April. Administration officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Interior –– all of which have a stake in overseeing America’s public lands –– have joined together for a road show to listen to the people their policies impact.

Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee based in Franklin, said the administration’s willingness to send senior officials to the listening sessions showed it was serious about supporting locally-based conservation efforts.

“Those are pretty senior guys and for them to be out there taking that kind of time to listen to us is pretty impressive,” Carlson said.

The group has toured a dozen cities already to meet with stakeholder groups and talk about how the federal government can do a better job expanding access to outdoor recreation and land conservation in everything from city parks to national forests.

Will Shafroth, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior, is one of a handful of officials who have been to every city so far. Shafroth said the trip has given him a lift during a trying period.

“It’s invigorating because with the dark cloud of the oil spill in the Gulf, which has been a real drag on our sense of what’s happening, you come into a place like this and it’s just full of energy,” Shafroth said.

The strain of the past months showed on Shafroth’s face, and during his opening remarks he managed to forget where he was, thanking the people of “Asheville, Tennessee” for the turnout.

Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy handled the slip graciously and led the audience –– which was made up of a wide range of characters from AmeriCorps volunteers to non-profit executive directors to local politicians –– in a rousing call and response that confirmed the real venue for the event.

The value of the listening session as a policy tool may not yet be determined, but its worth as a morale building exercise was evident from the start.

Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, invoked the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in his remarks and set the tone for the dialogue later in the day.

“We know now that the solutions are not going to come from Washington, if they ever did,” Strickland said.

The room buzzed as Julie Judkins of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a facilitator in the morning’s youth event, offered some feedback direct from the young people to the big bosses.

“Even though we love Smoky [the Bear], maybe it’s time to get him on the iPhone,” Judkins said.

John Jarvis, head of the National Park Service, offered a succinct summation of the aim of the event in his address.

“We need your ideas so we can spread them around to other parts of the country,” Jarvis said.

The listening sessions have been organized to inform a report that will be on President Barack Obama’s desk by November 15. After the hour-long introductory session that included an eight-minute inspirational video invoking the nation’s relationship with its public lands, the participants headed to breakout sessions in classroom settings to discuss their own experiences.

The sessions were organized to record what strategies were working, what challenges organizations were facing, how the federal government could better facilitate change, and what existing tools could be used to create improvements in the system.

In a breakout session focused on outdoor recreation, participants affiliated with trail clubs, mountain biking groups, paddling groups, tourism offices and scout troops piled into a room.

Mark Singleton, executive director of Sylva-based American Whitewater, participated in the president’s kickoff conference in Washington, D.C., back in April. Two months later he was telling the facilitator that the government had to work to create better and more accessible options for recreation on public land so the younger generation would grow up with a conservation ethic.

“It’s hard to protect something if you don’t love it,” Singleton said. “There can’t be a disconnect with the younger generation.”

Eric Woolridge, the Wautauga County Tourism and Development Authority’s outdoor recreation planner, hailed the new cooperative model in Boone that uses a local tax on overnight lodging to fund outdoor recreation infrastructure projects.

Woolridge oversees an outdoor recreation infrastructure budget of $250,000 derived from proceeds of a 6 percent occupancy tax.

“The key is that we have a revenue stream, and it always stays there,” Woolridge said.

There were specific asks for cooperation from the Feds, too. A woman from North Georgia wanted to know how to get memorandums of understanding with various agencies to help her youth orienteering program.

Don Walton, a board member with the Friends of the Mountain To Sea Trail, asked that the U.S. Park Service to consider allowing more camping opportunities on land owned by the Blue Ridge Parkway.

While each set of stakeholders had their own pet issues, nearly everyone was urging the Feds to ramp up their contribution to the Land And Water Conservation Fund, which uses revenues from off-shore oil leases to benefit outdoor recreation projects across the country.

Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar authorized $38 million for state projects through the fund this year, but the administration has announced its aim to authorize the full funding level of $900 million for the LWCF by 2014.

Woolridge, Singleton and many other outdoor recreation stakeholders also waned to emphasize that their work isn’t just about playing, it’s about economic development.

“Outdoor recreation and conservation is a legitimate development strategy,” Woolridge said. “In fact, it may be the only development strategy for rural communities.”

For Shafroth, who ran a non-profit in Colorado before taking his job at the Department of Interior, the economic challenges of the moment are an ever-present reality.

“With the shortfalls with resources we have right now and the size of people’s goals… in some cases, there’s a pretty big gulf right now,” Shafroth said.

But more than just dollars and cents, the listening tour is an organizing effort, a way to get conservation-minded people in front of their government to start a long-overdue conversation.

Abe Nail said his attendance at the event wasn’t about money.

“You can’t buy conservation. Conservation is passion driven,” Nail said.

To submit comments online to the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, visit or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Four years ago, new laws regulating the sale of pseudoephedrine in pharmacies slowed the illegal production of methamphetamine. The chemical compound commonly found in over-the-counter cold medication is a fundamental ingredient in the production of the illegal drug.

But a new method for cooking meth has emerged over the past year, threatening to increase the number of “mom and pop” labs at a moment when demand for the drug is high.

“It definitely is on the rise, and I think you can see that in the numbers,” said Special Agent Lee Tritt of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.

In 2009, the SBI busted 206 meth labs across the state, compared to 195 labs in 2008 and 157 labs in 2007.

Tritt, who grew up in Sylva, is part of a five-person tactical team charged with dismantling and evaluating clandestine meth labs across the state. Last month, he and other agents took apart a large-scale lab in the Ellijay area of Macon County at the residence of Pamela and David Holland.

It was the fourth such lab discovered in Macon County since the new laws governing the sale of pseudoephedrine took effect in January 2006.

Meth is made by cooking a concoction of household cleaners and over-the-counter medicines. Meth labs peaked in North Carolina in 2005, with 328 labs discovered that year. The number of labs dropped significantly the next year when the new law was passed. Specifically, the law required anyone buying pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to show a photo ID and sign a log book. The law limits buyers to no more than three packages within 30 days from a single location.

But Tritt said the rise of “shake and bake” meth labs, which only use one pot and are highly mobile, has shifted the battle lines during the past year. Now big labs aren’t the primary targets, because anyone with a kitchen can be cooking. And a large quantity of the ingredients are no longer necessary to make a batch.

“Shake and bake is primarily the method we’re seeing in Western North Carolina,” Tritt said.

SBI agents first encountered shake and bake labs in North Carolina around July 2009 in the eastern part of the state. Shake and bake labs have since moved west. The shake and bake process is fast, easy to set up, and produces little waste or evidence for the cook to dispose of.

Meanwhile, the method also requires less pseudoephedrine and yields a cleaner final product.

“It used to take more to cook with,” Tritt said. “Now they can literally cook with one box.”

Tritt has processed more than 300 labs since he began this work in 2003, and he is adamant that if there is one rule to meth production, it’s that it has no boundaries.

“In the western part of the state it could be anywhere. It’s not a rural or an urban thing. It’s everywhere,” Tritt said.

Around 30 percent of all meth labs that SBI agents have responded to so far this year have been shake and bake labs.

With cooking methods readily accessible on the Internet, N.C. Department of Justice spokesperson Noelle Talley said she expects the practice to grow.

“We expect the popularity of shake and bake labs to rise as the method becomes better known throughout the meth production community,” Talley said.

Detective Rick Buchanan of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office investigates drug cases. Buchanan said the poor economy always increases the incidence of drug crime.

“Things are getting worse all over, and I think the economy has a lot to do with it,” Buchanan said. “When the economy is down, our business goes up.”

Buchanan said while the majority of the meth used in his jurisdiction still comes from Mexico, the shake and bake labs have changed the landscape because of what they produce.

“We’ve got labs in Western North Carolina, but a lot of our drugs are still imported,” Buchanan said. “The reason we’re seeing the influx in labs is related to the quality of the dope that’s being imported.”

According to Buchanan meth producers using shake and bake techniques produce products with extremely high levels of purity, while the quality of Mexican meth has declined in response to tougher laws there.

For investigators like Buchanan, the ravages of meth usage go beyond the individual horror stories of physical deterioration and mania. Addiction to the drug increases the rate of child abuse and domestic violence in the household. He said small-scale meth producers have nothing in common with the moonshiners of yesteryear.

“These people have two things in mind,” Buchanan said. “They’re making it to get high, and they’re making it to make money to get more stuff. It’s not like they’re doing it for their families to get by.”

Buchanan said investigators still rely on tips from citizens as the most reliable way to identify meth dealers and producers. Jackson County does not keep track of meth arrests separately, but in 2009 the sheriff’s office recorded 101 felony drug arrests and 52 misdemeanor arrests. Already in 2010 — only halfway through the year — the office has recorded 79 drug felony arrests and 81 misdemeanors, numbers that reflect an increase in drug activity.

For Buchanan, that means finding new ways to put the squeeze on meth producers, whether they’re using one pot or a basement worth of chemicals.

“It has no boundaries. It could be 200 feet from where we’re sitting, or it could be in a tent in the middle of nowhere,” Buchanan said.

For tups email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 828.631.1125


On Tuesday evening, 11-year-old Ronnie Patterson said goodbye to his home away from home.

Patterson is a skateboarder, and for the past year he’s spent nearly every afternoon at the Disciples Youth Center skate park on U.S. 441 in Jackson County.

Now the center’s creator, Jeff Kelly, said he’s been forced to close its doors because he can’t continue to pay the rent out of pocket.

Kelly started the center as a non-denominational youth ministry to offer an alternative environment for kids who didn’t participate in team sports.

“We knew how much time we had,” Kelly said. “We did it because we saw the need was there, and in the bigger picture, maybe the county would see it was a good thing for the community.”

Kelly, Ronnie’s father Jack and Doug Nickel attended a Jackson County board meeting this week to urge the commissioners to appropriate funds for a county skate park.

Nickel, who spent 20 years in law enforcement, currently runs a skate ministry in Franklin called The Walk. He told the commissioners how the image of skateboarders as law-breakers and punks is a stigma that adults need to leave behind.

“A lot of these kids have completely turned their lives around,” Nickel said. “I am not a bleeding heart, but I am a reformed skater hater.”

Kelly hopes the county will act on his suggestion quickly. He has offered to donate the ramps from his skate center and organize the volunteer effort to staff the park, as long as the county can provide a space and the necessary insurance.

“We’re willing to do whatever it takes so it doesn’t really cost the county anything,” Kelly said. “We’d love to do something quick, because we’ve got the ramps.”

Kelly said he had spoken to county parks and recreation staff about the possibility of building a skate park at Mark Watson Park immediately while plans for a larger park with a permanent home are in the works.

County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan responded positively to the group’s pleas, recounting a story of visiting an impressive municipal skate park in Syracuse, N.Y.

“I think it’s a great idea, and I look forward to working with our recreation department to get this on the county’s master plan,” McMahan said.

The positive reaction was music to Ronnie Patterson’s ears. The Scott’s Creek Elementary School student summoned his courage to address the county commissioners on his own terms, telling them a story about losing a friendship before the skate park helped him find his way to positivity.

“This park has been a good community for everyone that’s gone to it, and everyone there would hate to see it go away,” Ronnie said.

His father, who has six other children, seconded the emotion.

“Having a place for these kids to go in Jackson County would be a big benefit for a lot of young people,” Jack said.

The Town of Waynesville has been working toward an outdoor skate park for more than a decade. The skate park is currently in the design stage, but the road to get there has been long and costly.

So far, the town has spent $28,500 simply to create a plan. The cost of building the park on land the town already owns will fall between $275,000 and $325,000.

Meanwhile the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has plans to replace its existing skate park in Yellowhill with a state-of-the-art facility on a 3.5-acre tract just up the road.

Tribal Council approved up to $600,000 in funding for the project, which is now in the design phase and could be completed by early next year.


Haywood County hops farmer Scott Grahl is a dreamer with his feet planted firmly on the ground.

“One day a buddy of mine called and said ‘Did you know there is a worldwide hops shortage?’” Grahl said. “From then on, I’ve spent the last three years learning about this plant.”

Grahl still works 12-hour shifts in shipping at the Evergreen Packaging plant in Canton, but he spends the rest of his waking hours on his one-acre hops plantation, the seed project for a dream that one day could evolve into a regional beer festival and the transformation of local agriculture.

Hops plants are essential for making beer, providing the essential acids that deepen its flavor profile and act as a bittering agent. North Carolina brewers mainly rely on hops produced in Washington and Oregon, but agriculture specialists believe hops could one day become a viable cash crop that could replace tobacco on small farms across the state.

Grahl and his girlfriend Stephanie Willis both come from families that farmed tobacco in Haywood County. With the help of a Tobacco Trust Fund grant aimed at converting historic tobacco farms into other means of sustainable agriculture, Grahl started Winding River Hops on one-acre of pine scrub off Thickety Road, within spitting distance of I-40.

After burning the land, Grahl added three truckloads of horse compost, two of mushroom compost and a whopping three tons of lime to bring the pH in line with what hops need to grow.

“We wanted to see how quickly we could take poor soil and turn it around,” Grahl said.

Grahl’s project isn’t the only one in Western North Carolina. He has joined experimental farmers in Madison and Buncombe counties to form the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild.

That group is relying on scientific expertise from the N.C. State Soil Science and Horticulture Departments, which have initiated their own statewide project to improve the market opportunities for North Carolina hops farmers by bettering yields and quality. Their work is funded with a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation.

Rob Austin, one of the N.C. State scientists involved in the study, said it’s the first time anyone in North Carolina has systematically studied hops production. Austin’s crew has created its own hops yard in Raleigh as a way to try out 10 varieties of plants, but in the meantime, they are also taking regular soil and tissue samples for startup growers around the state.

If there has been a big surprise for the scientists and growers alike, it’s the amount of work required to cultivate hops.

“The amount of labor that’s involved is insane,” Austin said.

“It’s a lifestyle change,” Grahl agreed. “It really is.”

Austin has nothing but admiration for Grahl and his magic acre. The hop plants at Winding River started as rhizomes in May 2009, and now there are three varieties of hops growing in 20 rows on 18.5-foot trellises. That’s 1,320 plants now producing lupulin, the yellow grains that give hops its quality as a bittering agent.

“He’s a true pioneer,” Austin said. “Scott is leading the way in Western North Carolina.”

Grahl has plans to move his operation just down the road to a 30-acre field in Clyde. In preparation for that effort, he’s started exploring the region’s craft beer scene.

“I’ve started drinking micro brews because I like to taste the essence now,” Grahl said, who used to be a Coors Light man.

Asheville was recently named Beer City USA, and the burgeoning brew business in WNC is one impetus for the new hop growing initiative.

“Every brewery from Asheville has said, ‘If you guys will grow it, we’ll buy it,’” Grahl said.

Currently, local breweries have to buy hops from the Pacific Northwest, which has long-dominated the market.

But hops production isn’t just labor intensive in the field; it’s also expensive during processing. In the Pacific Northwest and Germany, hops producers often rely on growing collectives that pitch in to cover the costs of huge industrial dryers and the equipment to convert the dry hops into pellets, which most large-scale brewers use to make beer.

None of the growers in Western North Carolina can afford to make that kind of investment up front.

Grahl believes his immediate future as a grower relies on his ability to market his product as a locally-grown additive for wet-hopped beer, which is a seasonal item that uses recently harvested hop cones.

“I expect from the wet-hopping scene, you’ll one day have a festival in Asheville that the whole Southeast could be a part of,” Grahl said.

In the meantime, he’s working on a project close to his heart: preserving historic farmland by using it.

“We want to maintain land in agriculture that would otherwise be split up for development,” Grahl said. “We can’t stop progress but maybe we can slow down some of the negative aspects and keep what green we still have around here.”



Hoppy Trails

• Winding River Hops farm is participating in a collaborative hops farm tour on July 31. The event includes two farm tours and a tour of the French Broad Brewery. $10. 828.255.5522
• To learn more about Winding River or the Southern Appalachian Hops Guild visit
• For information about the science of hops growing, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


The mountains of Western North Carolina are rapidly becoming the top destination for serious cyclists east of the Mississippi.

The latest long-distance race to join the local cycling scene is the Blue Ridge Breakaway on Aug. 21, the first of its kind to be held in Haywood County. Organizers hope to attract top caliber riders from across the South to enjoy the topography of the highest county this side of Colorado.

“The cycling community in Western North Carolina is huge. It’s a hobby, a sport, and a lifestyle here in the mountains, and we wanted to bring the cycling community together to lead us through it,” said Katy McLean, of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber Director CeCe Hipps hatched the plot for a ride that would showcase the county’s terrain, but she relied on the cycling community to pull the event together.

While the ride will feature a 32-mile stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway and a breathtaking descent from Soco Gap into Maggie Valley, perhaps its greatest feature is its accessibility for riders of all skill levels with 25-, 40-, 60-, and 100-mile options.

“One of the things that’s unique about this ride is there are four different routes, and it really has something different for every type of rider,” said Ken Howle, chair of the organizing committee.

Larry East, an avid cyclist and a regular in weekly group rides around Waynesville every Wednesday, took on the challenge of designing the course. It runs through wide mountain valleys, up narrow coves, and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it reaches its highest elevation at 6,100 feet.

It was East’s job to make sure the rides were safe, full of right-hand turns, and scenic.  East tipped the 40-mile loop as the prettiest ride.

The century loop features an astonishing 8,000 vertical feet of climbing over 105.72 miles that traces a ring around the county and finishes with the drop into Maggie Valley from Soco Gap.

“Make sure your brakes are working,” East said.

Howle has high hopes for the ride’s future, which he believes will solidify the county’s place as a cycling destination among the already burgeoning WNC scene.

“Our long-term vision is to grow it into a destination ride that will attract between 600 and 1,000 riders,” Howle said. “It’s a great time of year for folks from the low country to come riding in the mountains.”

This year, organizers expect between 200 and 400 cyclists. The event has permission from the National Park Service for up to 500 cyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The riders already registered for the event come from as far away as Michigan and Ohio, but many are from Atlanta, Spartanburg, and Charleston. Howle thinks destination cycling is becoming an important part of the tourist economy in the mountains.

“We’re going to be bringing a kind of tourist that Haywood County doesn’t normally attract,” Howle said. “And I think it will establish this area as a destination not just for paddling and rafting but for cycling.”

MedWest hospital system has underwritten the event, which has also had major support from bike outfitters like Liberty Bicycles in Asheville and the Nantahala Outdoor Center bike shop in the Gorge.

Kent Cranford, owner of Motion Makers in Sylva and Asheville, is excited about a new ride, especially since Jackson County’s Tour de Tuck won’t run this year.

“It is always good exposure for the region's great riding when a good cycling event traverses some of our landscape,” Cranford said. “The Breakaway has been very organized from the beginning, and I'm sure that they are going to pull off a great event, especially with so many options to ride. Obviously, the long options that get on the Blue Ride Parkway are going to be the most breathtaking.”

For Howle, the strong local support in the event’s first year has been a vote of confidence.

“The thing that’s really surprised me is the overwhelming support we’ve had from the community and the sponsors,” Howle said. “It just proves that people see this as the type of event we should be doing in Haywood County.”

Meanwhile, the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce has accomplished the task of opening up new terrain in destination marketing while taking care of its hometown community.

“We just have such a great cycling community and there are so many riders around that we needed an event like this in Haywood County,” McLean said.

For more info, visit

Weekly road bike rides


• Waynesville: Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Meet at Rolls Rite Bicycles on the Old Asheville Highway. Beginnger to intermediate rides led by Bicycle Haywood advocacy group. 8- to 12-mile rides. 828.276.6080 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

• Bryson City: Wednesday around 6 p.m. Depart from the East Swain Elementary school in Whittier on U.S.19 of exit 69 from U.S. 23-74. All levels. 800.232.7238, ext. 158.

• Bryson City/Sylva: Women’s ride on Mondays at 5:45 p.m. Departing from Whittier Post Office. Three groups do 8-mile, 13-mile and 17-mile rides. No one will be dropped.

• Bryson City: Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Meet at Bryson City Bicycles on Everett Street for casual, moderate ride. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.488.1988. “Bike and Brew” ride ends with a local microbrew at Nanthala Brewing Company.

• Sylva: Tuesday at 6 p.m. Depart from Motion Makers bike shop for a tough 25-mile ride up to the Balsam Post office via back roads and back into Sylva. 828.586.6925.

• Franklin: Sunday at 1 p.m. departing from the Franklin Health & Fitness Center on Main Street in Franklin. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.369.5608 and ask for Tom.

• Franklin: Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. departing from Smoky Mountain Bicycles at 179 Highlands Road. Geared for all levels. 828.369.2881.



Franklin Alderman Bob Scott wants to know what people think about a proposed Super Wal-Mart on the edge of town.

Instead of stumping on the street corners, Scott has posted a survey on the web using an online polling tool.

“I like to get some kind of a sample of what people are thinking when there’s an important vote coming up,” Scott said.

The Franklin Town Board will hold a public hearing on a special use permit for the project at 7 p.m. on Aug. 2. The new Wal-Mart would be located at the corner of Wells Grove and Dowdle Mountain roads just off of the N.C. 441 bypass. It is just outside the town limits, but within the town’s zoning boundary.

Scott said the blind survey would help him cast an informed vote on the issue.

“The sole purpose of the survey is that I really want to get a handle on how people feel about this project, particularly in the business community,” said Scott.

The survey will close July 20. To participate, visit



When the Summit Charter School found a new home last year, it left behind an empty space in the heart of the Cashiers’ Village Green, a 12.5-acre green space created with private donations in 1992.

The board of directors for the village park complex saw the space as an opportunity to create a new open-air community center — a place that could be the center of the Cashiers arts scene but also a festival venue for the larger community.

“The Village Commons is the first multi-purpose outdoor venue in Cashiers. Nothing like this was ever available before,” said Jochen Lucke, president of the Village Green board.

This week, the potential of the new space will be on full display, as 24 painters and 10 sculptors gather for a weeklong exhibition of plein air art demonstrations during Arts on the Green, one of two primary fundraisers for the new Cashiers Commons. In addition to the plein air demonstrations –– which feature artists plying their trade out in the open like Claude Monet did in Normandy –– more than 300 works of art will be available for sale.

For Lucke, the event is a chance to show the entire community the value of a space that’s been outfitted for their enjoyment.

“We really hope there will be daily visitors on the green enjoying the space and that everyone in the valley uses it,” Lucke said.

The demolition of the school buildings that occupied the Village Commons began in 2009, and the board of the Village Green began hashing out the next step.

After raising close to $100,000 from private donors in the community, the work of creating a multi-function event site that blended in with the beauty of the green as a whole began in earnest.

The Village Green complex has an 8,000 sq. ft. playground, a wetlands nature trail and a magnificent azalea garden.

Board member Dan Duckham –– who is also the architect of the new Cashiers Recreation Center –– took on the responsibility of designing an outdoor arts pavilion that could host a wide range of events.

The pavilion comes with a state of the art audio-visual tower that will allow for everything from screening outdoor movies to hosting musical performances, like the summer music series Grooving on the Green. There are already plans for yoga classes on the green during the week.

“The type of event is only limited by the imaginations of the people in the community,” Lucke said.

The Village Commons is available for private functions, and the proceeds will go back into maintaining and expanding the Green.

For more information about Arts on the Green or the new Cashiers Commons, visit



As Macon County closes in on a steep slope ordinance, some members of the building and real estate industry fear the new regulations will pose an unwanted barrier into a construction economy that is already hurting.

“No one so far has explained why we need this thing,” said Paul Higdon, a contractor who oversees sewer, water and septic projects. “Other than it’s just another level of bureaucracy that private landowners have to go through.”

But Lewis Penland, the planning board’s chair, has billed the ordinance as a way to protect lives and property from slope failures.

“We’ve got to have development,” said Penland. “All I ask is that when you build something above me, it doesn’t fall down on me.”

Penland, who works as a developer and grading contractor, also backs steep slope rules as a way to level the playing field between the contractors with scruples versus the ones who cut corners and can offer cheaper rates as a result.

“The way the system is set up now, you’re punishing the people who are doing it right,” Penland said.

Higdon is no stranger to regulation, having worked as Macon County’s environmental supervisor for 10 years. But he believes the county’s erosion control and subdivision ordinances already put enough restrictions on developers even though they don’t deal directly with mountainside construction.

“My concern is in a down economy –– a construction-based economy –– it will inhibit it that much more,” Higdon said.

Higdon also fears that landslide hazard maps, developed by the North Carolina Geological Survey, will become material facts that must be disclosed during land transactions, forcing Realtors to inform potential buyers if a house or lot lies in a landslide hazard area.

Higdon thinks the maps may open the door to more litigation on the one hand or lower property values on the other.

What role the newly created landslide hazard maps should play in steep slope regulations has proved controversial. The maps were created in the wake of the Peek’s Creek landslide that killed five people in Macon County in 2005.

“We’ve got to educate people on the maps,” Penland said.

But advocates of the slope rules aren’t stopping there.

The planning board has launched an education campaign in which its members will travel to communities around the county to educate people about the proposed regulations.

Some citizens have already joined the discussion. Last month, 12 people came to a planning board meeting to voice their reservations.

Bill Vernon, a retired developer who created the Featherstone subdivision in 2002, is another critic of the proposed elements of the ordinance. He thinks the engineering fees the ordinance requires in certain cases would prohibit development.

“The big issue I see is what will it will do to construction,” Vernon said.

He disputes the planning board’s estimates that engineering fees could range from $500 to $8,000 for projects that occur on slopes of a 30 percent grade or more, estimating instead that costs could climb to $20,000 on a house.

“If you’re going to add $8,000 to the cost of a building in this economic environment, I’m against it,” Vernon said. “I’m against it if it’s $20.”

Steep slope committee member Reggie Holland is president of the Macon County Homebuilders Association. Holland doesn’t think the steep slope ordinance will hurt his trade.

“I really don’t think this is going to be so significant an expense that it would cause people not to buy here,” Holland said, adding most buyers would want their home to comply with the cut and fill and soil compaction requirements.

For Holland, who changed his mind about the regulations during a year of slope committee meetings, the ordinance speaks for itself.

“When I was first on this committee, I felt similarly to Paul and Bill, thinking we didn’t need another government program to intervene in the work we’re doing,” Holland said. “The more I investigated it and thought about some jobs in the past where there were failures, I really thought there needed to be some standards.”

Penland said the development of the actual ordinance will take some time and he doubted if the commissioners would take the issue up before the November election. Between now and then, he hopes to turn doubters into supporters through a series of community meetings.

Holland doesn’t think the sell job will be a tough one.

“I think most people who are against the ordinance –– not all of them –– are people who haven’t really read it,” Holland said.

The Macon County Planning Board will hold its next meeting at 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 15, at the Pine Grove Community Center.


Macon slope rules in the works


In April, the Macon County Board of Commissioners charged the planning board with the job of drafting an ordinance that would regulate development on steep slopes. The directive came after the planning board’s steep slope committee had spent the better part of a year creating a set of guiding principles for the ordinance.

Below are the key elements of the committee’s recommendations.

For any development on slopes over 30 percent grade:

  • Cut slopes over 8 feet in vertical height cannot be steeper than a 1.5:1 ratio.
  • Fill slopes over 5 feet in vertical height cannot be steeper than 2:1.
  • No cut-and-fill slope can exceed 30 vertical feet.
  • Fill must be compacted and cannot contain stumps and logs.
  • 30-foot setback from streams.

On slopes greater than 40 percent, developer must hire an engineer or design professional to create a slope plan. An engineer is also required on slopes greater than 30 percent if they lie in high or moderate landslide hazard areas.

For development on slopes between 30 and 40 percent grade, an engineer is not required, but a site plan, showing the areas to be graded, cut and fill heights, and a drainage plan, is required.

The ordinance applies only to the portion of a tract that exceeds the slope threshold, not the entire tract.


For farmers who rely on the Tuckasegee River to irrigate their crops, a brutal summer heat wave and dry spell took a turn for the worst this month when too much mud in the river forced them to shut down their watering systems.

During the past three weeks, tomato farmers in the Thomas Valley near Whittier have been unable at times to run drip irrigation equipment to counter drought conditions because sediment in the Tuckasegee River was clogging their pumps.

“With the 90-degree days, it’s really critical that these farms get drip irrigation,” said William Shelton, who runs a vegetable farm in Thomas Valley. “That river’s our lifeblood when it comes to these crops. Particularly during drought.”

Tomatoes are 85 percent water. When the plants are overstressed, they will actually take water back from the fruit, ruining the crop.

Kent Cochran, who farms 20 acres of tomatoes just up the road from Shelton, doesn’t understand how the river can be full of mud when there is no rain.

“When it rains, there’s going to be mud for a day or two but that’s not really an issue,” Cochran said. “We’ve been needing the water bad these past three weeks, and sometimes we go over there and it’s clear, and other days it’s mud.”

Robbie Shelton, the Jackson County erosion control officer, has been equally perplexed. Shelton’s job includes monitoring construction sites that could dump sediment into the river.

Last week, Robbie Shelton traveled up and down the river in search of an answer to the farmers’ questions. The focus of his investigation was Duke Energy’s efforts to restore the streambed above and below the former site of the Dillsboro Dam.

Shelton took pictures during the first week of July that showed the river was clear above the dam and increasingly turbid below.

“The Tuck upstream of the dam is clear. It’s downstream that it’s muddy,” Shelton said.

Shelton said during the drought, the river was increasingly muddy as it moved downstream towards Barker’s Creek.

“The closer you get to Thomas Valley the dingier it gets,” Shelton said. “It’s a progression. I’ve tried to find a source, and there’s not been one that’s been found.”

Nate Darnell, who works an 8-acre tomato field in Thomas Valley as part of his North Face Farm, has tried to bring some levity to an otherwise worrisome situation.

“As a farmer, I have to deal with a lot of runoff regulations, and it strikes me as ironic that the upstream runoff from development is causing us the problems now,” Darnell said

The restoration of the stream bank at the former Dillsboro Dam site is monitored daily by personnel from Duke Energy in accordance with the Clean Water Act and overseen by the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

Duke has been monitoring turbidity below its work zone. It has not exceeded state standards. In fact it has been well below them, according to Duke spokesperson Jason Walls.

“The turbidity and the sediment in the river are coming in from other places,” Walls said. “We feel confident that our operations aren’t increasing the levels of sediment.”

If the dam site isn’t causing the sediment, then what is?

That’s the question Cochran and Darnell are asking. Darnell has observed that on dry days the river gets turbid in the middle of the day.

“It was coming on down here about midday, anywhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.,” Darnell said. “I really can’t give you a good reason, but I could speculate.”

So far this summer, Darnell estimates he has lost between one and three tomatoes from each of his plants. By the end of the season, those losses could add up to $25,000 in lost crops.

Darnell said farmers are constantly dealing with loss, whether from drought or insects or crows, but having the cause be the river that is the valley’s lifeblood is mystifying.

“The river’s not always going to be clear, but we really shouldn’t have to fight it during drought,” Darnell said.


The Sylva town board voted unanimously to adopt a new parking ordinance that will fine downtown employees and business owners if they park on Main or Mill streets — a move aimed at alleviating the parking pinch downtown during commercial hours.

The new ordinance says that downtown employees and business owners cannot park on the one-way portions of Main or Mill streets or in the Old Ritz Theater parking lot between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The ordinance will be aired at a public hearing 9 a.m. July 15 at the Sylva Town Building.

The town of Highlands has a similar ordinance barring employees from parking on Main Street. According to town officials, the policy has worked well, but its enforcement depends heavily on businesses to point out regular offenders.

Sylva’s new ordinance comes as part of a larger attempt to address the lack of customer parking downtown. Violating the new ordinance would result in a $50 fine.


The make-up of Sylva’s town board shifted this week when board members voted 3-1 to replace outgoing board member Sarah Graham with Harold Hensley.

The vote changes the town’s disposition from one with a progressive voting majority to one likely to be characterized by fiscal conservatism and a more traditional philosophy.

Graham, who came to the board after leading the Downtown Sylva Association, stepped down from her seat after moving outside the town limits, her new address making her ineligible to serve as an elected town leader. Hensley, 72, formerly served on the board for four years but narrowly lost re-election last year.

Graham and Hensley often had opposing visions for the town and voted on the opposite side of key issues.

It’s the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board has had to vote to appoint one of their own. Mayor Maurice Moody vacated his seat as a board member to move up to mayor after the November election. The other board members replaced him with Chris Matheson.

In the November 2009 election, board members Danny Allen and Stacy Knotts narrowly edged out Hensley. It was Allen who tipped Hensley for the spot at this week’s town board meeting.

“I think the fairest and the honest thing to do is consider the third runner up, previous board member Harold Hensley,” Allen said.

Only Knotts objected to the motion. In a dignified prepared statement, she explained her opposition to Hensley, who was seated in the crowd.

“To respect the voters who voted for me I’m going to vote ‘no’ to the motion,” Knotts told Hensley. However, “I will work with you for the betterment of Sylva.”

Knott’s opposition to Hensley was based on her support for town initiatives like downtown improvements, funding for the Downtown Sylva Association, the expansion of recreational facilities and land-use planning. That type of progressive platform is one that was largely shared in recent years by Graham and Moody — and more recently by Knotts, Graham and Matheson — giving them the three votes needed to push an agenda.

Now Hensley, Allen and Ray Lewis, who in general share a vision of fiscal conservatism, now hold the majority voting block.

Hensley downplayed his historic opposition to funding for the Downtown Sylva Association after the appointment.

“There probably will be a difference between mine and Sarah’s opinion, but I’m definitely not against the DSA,” Hensley said.

But he did indicate where his priorities lie.

“I hope I can do what I did before, which is never take a decision without the taxpayer in mind,” Hensley said.

Sylva Mayor Maurice Moody only votes in the case of a tie. Moody shares a progressive inclination with Knotts and Matheson, but has also used his energy to try to create consensus on the board. He had hoped to find a candidate that would result in a unanimous nomination.

“I’m not disappointed,” Moody said. “Harold and I agree on some things, and we disagree on some things. I can work with Harold. We’ve known each other most of our lives.”

Another result of Hensley’s appointment is that Knotts is the only sitting member of the board not originally from Sylva.

Moody said Graham had provided a fresh outlook and great experience to the board, and he said there was little point in attempting to draw meaning from a board member’s birthplace.

“I don’t put much importance on being a native, even though I am one,” Moody said. “I would put more importance on the welfare of the town.”

Hensley’s appointment lasts until November 2011.


Government approval ratings are low all over the country. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re also low in Jackson County.

“The state of the economy is the strongest predictor of trust in government that I know of,” said Chris Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute.

According to a recent WCU Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll of Jackson County registered voters, 46 percent of the respondents had an unfavorable opinion of county government and a whopping 62 percent had an unfavorable opinion of the federal government.

The flip side of those numbers shows that county government’s approval rating was only a bit higher than the federal government’s. Thirty-three percent of the voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government as opposed to 29 percent for the feds.

The poll questioned nearly 600 voters and has an error margin of plus or minus 4 percent.

At the same time, Gallup polls showed the national approval rating for Congress is 20 percent — as low as it’s ever been.

Cooper said without tracking the approval rating of county government over a period of years, it’s difficult to make any generalizations about what the numbers mean. But he still believes there is some cause for alarm at the county’s approval rating.

“I want to be cautious, because we don’t have a baseline, but the number strikes me as low,” Cooper said. “The one thing I’m comfortable saying is it’s lower than I thought it would be, and it’s lower than I’d feel comfortable with if I were an elected official in Jackson County.”

Negativity or fair criticism?

Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie is one of the five men who have to take county’s low approval rating on the chin. Massie said the numbers concern him, but without more detailed questions, it was hard to know how to read the causes.

“I’m disappointed. I’d like to see some follow up questions as to why. Is it something specific or is it a general feeling about government?” Massie said.

County Chairman Brian McMahan had a similar reaction to the results. He questioned how significant the data could be with the poll asking such generic questions. According to McMahan, the approval rating could be a measurement of the quality of services delivered, or of the popularity of the commissioners, or of the county’s stance on a particular issue.

“I’m not just going to stab in the dark to try to come up with why they responded the way they did,” McMahan said. “Those are the questions that should have been asked.”

Jackson County government at least fared better than the federal government in the poll — which is typical and to be expected.

“We’re the closest level of government to the people, and they know us,” Massie said. “They see us in the restaurants and in the streets and so they feel a little bit better about us.”

Rep. Phil Haire, who represents Sylva in the 119th District of the North Carolina Assembly, doesn’t put much stock in polls and, like McMahan, said more narrowly defined questions would be more useful.

“I’m not a big fan of polls,” Haire said. “A lot of the questions that were asked are what you could call knee-jerk questions.”

Haire said for poll data to be useful, it has to target a specific population and asked detailed questions about issues that are on the table for decision-makers.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe sees the poll results against the broader backdrop of national opinion.

“I think it’s a nationwide trend where society has become frustrated over the economic situation, and they’ve become anti-government and anti-authority,” Ashe said.

For Ashe, the confusing thing is that while government approval is at its lowest, voter turnout in this year’s mid-term primaries was abysmal.

“When we have a 14 percent voter turnout, we have a problem,” Ashe said. “It’s up to the people to take back the government.

For Cooper, whether or not the polls create a clear angle on issues, they are a starting place for improving the quality of communication between the public and elected officials.

“I would hope elected officials would take this and think about what they could do to communicate better with the public,” Cooper said.


Jackson County issues


County politics and federal politics are different. One of the things they have in common, though, is the economy.

“At the local level, we’re not as interested in partisan issues as pocketbook issues, but when the economy’s bad, we still need to raise money to provide the services that people ask for,” Massie said.

When the economy is bad, county voters look to government to explain their taxing and spending habits in greater detail. In Jackson County, a number of high-priced decisions by the county board have created a starting point for criticism.

The county’s drawn-out court battles with Duke Energy over the fate of the Dillsboro Dam, which ended last year, resulted in half a million dollars in legal fees and failed to produce their desired results.

Last year, commissioners awarded steep raises for the county’s highest-paid employees, a highly controversial move in a recession. The raises were recommended by a firm contracted to analyze the county’s pay structure, but that didn’t sit any easier with some members of the public.

This year, Sheriff Jimmy Ashe came under fire for his alleged misuse of a narcotics seizure fund while he was fighting a high-profile legal battle with Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn.

The county has also been embroiled in protracted struggles to reform its economic development commission and restructure its airport authority after controversial upheavals left both in disarray.

Mark Jamison, a member of the Webster town board who has also been active in county politics, said the cumulative result of those events has created bad feeling in the voting public.

“Whether or not there are legitimate concerns related to each and every one of these issues may not be as meaningful as the totality of their weight,” Jamison said. “Combine that with a county government that doesn’t have a very pleasant or helpful face and that generally doesn’t seem to communicate well and you have a prescription for disenchantment.”

Massie said all of the same issues may be playing a role, and he put some of their impact at the feet of the way they’ve been handled in the media.

“I think it’s a combination of all of those things,” Massie said. “The pay raises, the dam, the lawsuit against the sheriff’s office –– that’s all about the news media grabbing attention, and negative attention grabs more attention than what you’re doing well.”

Jamison acknowledged that the county might be getting the blame for a more general ill ease in the voting public. He also agreed that the local media coverage focuses on outspoken critics of certain county decisions. But he still believes the county hasn’t done a good enough job of communicating with voters around its decisions on key issues.

“One has to at least acknowledge that the presence of our local gadflies has somewhat poisoned the political dialogue,” Jamison said. “Still, communication and advocacy for local interests seems lacking.”

Cullowhee business owner Jack Debnam, who is running against McMahan for county chairman in November, focused his criticism of county government on its spending. Debnam said this board has been slow to recognize the recession and plan for it.

“The majority of the reason people are unhappy is the spending that’s been done and how it’s been handled,” said Debnam. “I’ve been angry and other people are angry and I believe they’re ready to do something different.”

McMahan takes issue with the idea that the county doesn’t communicate well with voters and at the same time wonders if people really know what the nuts and bolts of county government are all about.

“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”

Massie, who is also running for reelection in November, said the county lacks a forum for issue-based dialogue. Without a League of Women’s Voters or the chance to debate at the Rotary Club, Massie said county politicians take the path of least resistance.

“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”

For Massie, the lack of a forum for discussion combined with low voter turnout make it hard to figure out how to take the criticism of the public constructively. He wants to begin televising county meetings on cable so interested voters can see how the commissioners work.

“We’re human beings not mind readers,” Massie said. “If we don’t hear from the public, what are we supposed to do?”


The Cashiers question


Perhaps the most glaring statistic generated by the poll is that only 15 percent of Cashiers voters have a favorable opinion of county government — lower than even the federal government.

“The big question we’re trying to get at is why?” said Gibbs Knotts, one of the poll’s creators. “That could be for many reasons. If there’s a way to engage people in the southern part of the county, then that could be one take-away.”

Jackson County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents Cashiers, said he believes the dissatisfaction in his part of the county has a concrete cause.

The county began the construction of a new $4.3 million recreation center in 2006 but construction delays, mainly the result of unforeseen environmental engineering costs, have seen the completion date pushed back over and over again.

“I’m frustrated, too,” Jones said. “People up there feel like their tax dollars aren’t being utilized for them and that recreation center is an example.”

Jones said Cashiers voters often think of themselves as a sort of cash cow for the county, since the area contains many high-priced homes that add to the property tax base.

Jones thinks if the economy has turned around and the recreation center is finished when he comes up for election in 2013, he’ll stand a good chance of surviving the current approval rating.

“I think the people of Cashiers want to see visually what the county is doing for them,” Jones said.

Jones also acknowledged that the high-profile coverage of the legal suit between Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe and Blue Ridge Public Safety owner David Finn took its toll on the voting public.

Finn and a group of supporters ran a negative ad campaign through a political action committee called Taxpayers Against Ashe for Sheriff during the May primary.

“People read the stuff and if they don’t know what’s going on, they believe it,” Jones said. “Negative campaigns can be very successful.”

Ashe was cleared of allegations that he used his position to hinder Finn’s private security business, which has strong ties to many of the developments in and around Cashiers, but the lasting effects of the animosity between the two men could continue to affect public opinion there.

And then there’s the archetypal divide between the mountains and valley, a gap Jones feels is narrowing slowly.

“The distance from Sylva to Cashiers is a barrier that even the press has a problem with,” Jones said.


A new polling project developed by Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute and The Smoky Mountain News aims to get data that is the meat and bread of political scientists into the hands of the voting public.

“As academics, we’re pretty good at using rigorous methods to find things out,” said Chris Cooper, the institute’s director. “We’re not as good at showing our results.”

Cooper and his colleague, Gibbs Knotts, were interested in partnering with a media company to help disseminate the results of a poll measuring Jackson County political opinions and in turn instigate a larger conversation. They hatched the idea during the debate over tearing down the Dillsboro Dam. Because there were so many strong opinions on the issue, it was hard to get a feel for the sentiment of the majority.

“Most people like people who like them,” Cooper said. “Consequently they hang around people who think like them. The idea was to get a representative sample, so people could have some idea what others were really thinking about the issues.”

Smoky Mountain News publisher, Scott McLeod, saw the project as an opportunity to explore a partnership that could get to the crux of what is on readers’ minds.

“This is what good journalism and good newspapers are about,” McLeod said “We want to provide our readers with information about this region they can’t find anywhere else and present it in a way that’s interesting and useful. These polls and the subsequent stories we do will fulfill that mission.”

By combining accurate polling data and a platform for discussion, the first poll in the project is designed to create a baseline for Jackson County voters to discuss issues in the run-up to the November election. The project is called “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue.”

“Anytime you can get people to discuss their views on government and on elected leaders, there’s a chance it will lead to better decision making and better leadership,” McLeod said. “Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems.”


The poll


Cooper contracted Public Policy Polling in Raleigh to conduct a random sample survey of Jackson County registered voters. The polling firm has had great results with its relatively low-cost phone survey method. SurveyUSA’s report cards rated Public Policy Polling the most accurate pollster for South Carolina, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Indiana and Oregon during the 2008 election cycle.

The Jackson County poll, which was administered through a computerized phone call, asked 11 questions. In the end, just less than 600 respondents from all parts of the county offered their views on questions that asked what they thought of county and federal government; whether alcohol sales should be allowed outside incorporated areas; and how they felt about Congressman Heath Shuler, Governor Bev Perdue, the TEA Party and their local school system. It also measured political persuasions and collected demographic data.

Some of the results were surprising, like the fact that 95 percent of the respondents had an opinion about alcohol sales outside of Sylva and Dillsboro.

Cooper is quick to point out what the poll results — which canvassed registered voters only — can and can’t show.

“We can generalize about voters in Jackson County, but we can’t generalize about the people in a broad sense,” Cooper said.

Voters are, in general, more educated, more liberal and older than the public at large. They are also the people most likely to engage in the political process.

“The downside is we’re not getting the opinion of a whole group who by definition are disenfranchised and disconnected from the political process,” Cooper said.

Knotts estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Jackson residents aren’t registered to vote.

The poll functioned with a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error. Cooper said he only recognized one peculiarity in the results: more than 61 percent said they graduated from college, a larger percentage than normal for the voting public.

“We over-represented educated people, but it’s not because we called more, it’s because more of them answered the call,” Cooper said.

In the end, the survey provides a starting point for the discussion of what’s really on the mind of Jackson County’s voters. Past public opinion surveys in Western North Carolina have focused on the region so broadly that voters in Asheville or Boone have been lumped in with those from Cashiers and Whittier.

The newest poll hopes to lend badly needed specificity the conversation.

“We were very interested to see how it came out to, and I feel really good about the results,” Cooper said.


Reading the mind of Jackson County

Gauging public opinion can be a tricky proposition, but for the elected officials who run Jackson County, it can also provide a glimpse at what matters to the people who elect them.

County Commissioner Tom Massie is up for reelection in November, and he likes the idea of the poll.

“I think we genuinely need to know where there are issues of concern in the public, and people ought to participate more in their government at all levels,” Massie said.

Vicki Greene, director of the Southwestern Planning Commission, has conducted numerous polls in Western North Carolina aimed at getting information on how people are employed. Greene, who grew up in Sylva and Dillsboro, said it could be hard to get good, accurate information from people through an automated phone call.

“My initial reaction is it’s a waste of time, because I’d be real surprised if you can get somebody to stay on the line for seven minutes,” Greene said.

The poll called voters on the list six times before moving on to another name. The short duration of the poll and its touch-key response system limits the complexity of the questions, but it greatly enhances the chance that people will respond.

Greene acknowledged how important good data can be in informing the larger policy discussions that shape the region.

“Assuming the questions are asked in a neutral format, the results of the polls should be beneficial to elected officials in their decision making capacities,” Greene said. “When you do a random survey, you are getting the voices of folks that don’t often participate in the discussion.”

For Knotts, who helped design the list of questions, the poll is a starting place.

“We see this as a way to put some numbers out there and use them as a starting point for a regional dialogue,” Knotts said.

At a moment in history when the economy is still mired and approval ratings of government at all levels are low around the country, the Jackson County poll is a chance to find out why voters are so frustrated and what can bring them back to the table.

For Cooper and Knotts, gathering data is the best place to start.

“The goal is to get the word out there, get out of the academic silo and communicate data and empirical results to the people who make decisions,” Cooper said.

For Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod, the polling partnership is the first step in creating a broader regional dialogue around issues.

“I can’t recall there ever having been scientific polling data from citizens in the counties west of Asheville,” McLeod said. “If we can continue this project for a year and do a half dozen or so polls, we’ll have some great information about our region that no one else has ever made the effort to gather.”

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