More bestsellers? A computer lab? Meeting space?
This month, Swain County residents will be asked what it is they crave from their local Marianna Black Library. The surveys are part of an assessment funded by a planning grant from the State Library of North Carolina.
Jackson and Macon counties went through a similar visioning process — and in both cases it led to brand-new libraries.
At the top of librarian Jeff Delfield’s own list is simply more space. The Marianna Black Library is barely 8,000-square-feet when the state recommends about 20,000-square-feet for each county’s main library.
“I think we could at least double the space and not really be outrageous about it,” Delfield said.
Parking at the Bryson City library is so limited that would-be library patrons have to scour downtown for parking spots blocks away or simply come back another time.
Another deficiency is a section devoted solely to teens.
“Teens have nowhere to go in this library,” said Delfield.
Delfield points out that while Swain’s library is a fine one, it dates back four decades.
“Swain County has changed a lot in 40 years. We have, I think, doubled in population,” Delfield said. “Even if we could put another story on this building, that doesn’t solve our parking problem.”
Delfield admires neighboring Macon County’s spacious new library. It features a common area with a fireplace around which patrons gather with books and laptops. There are also plenty of small meeting rooms where students can get together to work on projects.
He said he can imagine something similar at the library in Bryson City for the future.
Another of Swain’s neighbors, Jackson County, is set to open a new 26,000-square-foot library of its own, far larger than its current 6,400-square-foot building.
Both Macon and Jackson county libraries utilized the help of Ron Dubberly, the consultant who will now tackle the library assessment in Swain.
Jackson County librarian Dottie Brunette said hiring Dubberly was helpful in coming up with a blueprint for the new library there. She estimated that about two-thirds of the plan for the library resulted from Duberly’s work.
“You have to know what your community wants before you can start doing those things,” Brunette said.
For instance, the Sylva community was adamant that the library’s location remain downtown, which eventully won out.
Dubberly said most communities that go through the public assessment are eager to move forward with an expansion or a new building. Dubberly said the needs for space are obvious in Swain County, but the final say rests with the public.
“The first thing is you find out what the community’s needs are,” Dubberly said. “And you only know that truly by asking.”
Residents will be surveyed in early October to choose from a list of “service priorities” the library should provide. These priorities range from children’s story time to foreign language to genealogy materials.
Dubberly and library staff want to hear from people from Cherokee to the Nantahala Gorge and from Alarka to downtown Bryson City to come up with a library that will serve all.
“We want to reach people who don’t even come to the library,” Delfield said.
Dubberly will also meet with city and county officials, library board members, Friends of the Marianna Black Library and other stakeholders. He will analyze demographics and population projections before coming up with a draft plan for the library. Another public meeting will ensue before Dubberly presents the final plan to the library board and county commissioners.
The plan will address Swain’s needs for library services and also provide recommendations on space, furnishings, equipment, shelving, collection items and more.
Dubberly said even with all his experience, there’s no way to predict what Swain County residents will want from their public library.
“I just start fresh. I don’t have a cookie cutter,” Dubberly said. “Every community is unique.”
Want to weigh in?
Public input is needed to shape the future of the Swain County library, whether its an expanded children’s section, more DVD rentals or a brand-new library. Drop by one of the following sessions to share your ideas. For more information, call 828.488.3030.
Monday, October 11
• noon, Marianna Black Library
• 3 p.m. Qualla Public Library in Cherokee
• 5:30 p.m. Nantahala Village in the Gorge
Tuesday, October 12
• 10 a.m. Alarka Community Center
• 3 p.m. Bryson City Presbyterian Church
• 5:30 p.m. Marianna Black Library
• 7 p.m. Marianna Black Library
Wednesday, October 13
• 10 a.m. Swain Senior Center
Taxes and spending in a recession economy have emerged as the top issue in the race for Haywood County commissioner this year.
Challengers vying for a seat on the board have jumped on the bandwagon of critics who have continually called into question county spending.
While county cut its budget dramatically in the face of the recession — from scaling back library hours to slashing public school maintenance —it wasn’t enough to avoid a small property tax hike last year.
As a result, commissioners caught flak for raising the tax rate by 1.7 cents amidst one of the worst recessions to strike the country. Critics claim the board is spending beyond taxpayers’ means.
But others criticized commissioners for making excessive cuts and slashing millions from the budget. Nonprofits in particular were hit hard after being completely dropped by the county.
“It’s something we had to do to reduce the tax burden on the people in the county,” said incumbent Kirk Kirkpatrick, adding that commissioners have cut the budget almost $9 million in the last four years — a 10 percent reduction. He anticipates the county board will have to make even more cuts over the next four years.
Democratic candidate Michael Sorrells said the commissioners could have reduced the budget further. “They cut the least painful things,” Sorrells said. “Well, now we’re going to have to look at the hard parts.”
But Upton says commissioners have already worked thoroughly and diligently to come up with the best possible budget. “[We] have put in many hours, most of it televised,” Upton said. “...I think this group has done an excellent job of balancing the budget and also listening to our citizens.”
Republican candidate Denny King disagreed. He pointed to big ticket items as the culprit: commissioners bought the abandoned Wal-Mart to replace crumbling DSS offices, expanded the landfill, bailed the Haywood County fairgrounds out of debt and tacitly signed off on a new Haywood Community College building.
“In my opinion the biggest thing that has caused taxes to go up is we are borrowing a lot of money. Every time we borrow money, budgets have to be cut or taxes have to be raised,” King said. “I think we will just really have to reduce the money we borrow on projects. If we don’t, the county services are going to have to continue to be cut and property taxes will have to continue to go up.”
Before tackling the budget, Republican David Bradley vows to communicate frequently with Western North Carolina’s delegation in Raleigh to underline the county’s needs. “Get more of a two-way conversation,” Bradley said. “Voice our concerns, not just carry out what’s dictated.”
With the recession likely to continue, Bradley said he would focus on diversifying the local economy. Tourism is always one of the hardest-hit industries during economic downturns, so Bradley wants to focus more on promoting emerging industries, like organic farming and technology-based business.
Meanwhile, Republican Tom Freeman said he would look at unconventional ways to save money, such as turning off the lights after hours at the historic courthouse and justice center. “I know it’s just lights, but it adds up,” Freeman said.
He would also keep employees from driving county vehicles home. If elected commissioner, Freeman would make unannounced visits to each department to see if all employees are being productive. “[Commissioners] need to go out and look, see what’s going on,” Freeman said.
The Wal-Mart debate
Earlier this year, commissioners decided to purchase the abandoned Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Department of Social Services and Health department, both of which have long awaited moves from aging buildings. The project will cost taxpayers about $12.5 million.
This comes on top of the tens of millions dropped over the past eight years on the new justice center, a parking deck, a major school construction bond, and property on Jonathan Creek to house a future county sports complex — although not all the current commissioners were on the board at the time of these decisions.
So when the old Wal-Mart purchase came along, “it sure enough put everybody over the edge,” Bradley said.
But Kirkpatrick says that commissioners don’t spend money without thinking long and hard first.
“It’s always been tough for us to actually spend the money,” Kirkpatrick said. “We weigh the good for the county versus holding on to it.”
Incumbent Bill Upton points out that the Wal-Mart decision took commissioners two years. As the recession worsened, the property’s price became unbeatable — and no one else was picking it up.
“To me, it was our chance,” Upton said. “We couldn’t refuse.”
Even if the old DSS building were repaired, there would still be the issue of insufficient space, privacy and parking, Upton said.
While $12.5 million seems like a lot of money, constructing a building from scratch could have taken up to $30 million, Upton said. Repairing the crumbling former county hospital dating back to the 1920s and 1950s where DSS is currently housed would likewise be more expensive, commissioners asserted.
Kirkpatrick said buying the deserted Wal-Mart was a good move, considering the substantial cost of repairing and updating the old DSS headquarters, pressure from the state to bring the building up to code, and the county health building also being in disrepair.
“It also creates additional viability for stores in that area,” Kirkpatrick said, citing the gaping hole left in the strip mall when Wal-Mart pulled out.
Bradley said commissioners knew for years that the DSS building was in major disrepair, and they should have set up a separate fund to address the problem, which could have been used as a down payment on the old Wal-Mart.
Bradley said the purchase will be very beneficial in the long-term, but commissioners should have saved ahead of time.
Since funding sources are in place from the state and from a lease agreement with Tractor Supply, Sorrells, too, supports the Wal-Mart purchase.
“It was an inopportune time, but inopportune times bring opportunity,” Sorrells said. “...It appears to be a solid move.”
But Sorrells adds that some of the commissioners’ spending has addressed wants and not needs in some cases. He pointed to the million-dollar purchase of a 22-acre Jonathan Creek property for a future county sports complex.
“Should that property have been bought? Probably not,” said Sorrells.
Freeman opposes the Wal-Mart purchase. As a self-employed building contractor for 25 years, Freeman says there was nothing majorly wrong with the old hospital building. It needed “cosmetic work,” a new roof and handicapped access to bring it up to state codes.
“It could be renovated and brought up for less money than what the Wal-Mart building cost,” King said. King said he would have voted against buying the old Wal-Mart, but that ideally it would been sent to the people for a vote. “It is their money,” King said.
County commissioners are considering an overhaul of Haywood’s current trash operations. Earlier this year, they decided to shut down the recycling pick line, laying off employees who manually sorted recyclables. Instead the county now sells loads of recycling in bulk without being sorted first. Commissioners also privatized operation of the convenience centers, where county residents who don’t have curbside trash pick-up can drop off their garbage.
As part of the ongoing overhaul, some commissioners want to shut down the transfer station, where town and private haulers take their loads of trash rather than making the long trek to the White Oak landfill. Commissioners are also considering turning over landfill operations to a private company, including selling off space in the landfill.
Kirkpatrick said the next county board must continue examining the efficiency of the county’s trash operations. It’s become increasingly expensive for the county to comply with strict environmental standards and replace aging equipment, and commissioners must scour for savings.
“You have to continually analyze what’s going to be best for the whole,” Kirkpatrick said.
At this point, Kirkpatrick opposes closing the transfer station.
“I’ll have to be convinced otherwise, and I’m not saying I can’t be,” said Kirkpatrick, who wants to maintain an open dialogue with towns before making a final decision. “What we want to do is what’s cheapest and do what’s best.”
Sorrells said he has already been researching and visiting the solid waste department. While he hasn’t come to a conclusion yet on whether the transfer station should be closed or the landfill privatized, Sorrells said making trash operations more viable is essential.
“The users are probably going to have to pay its way in order to make it more efficient,” Sorrells said of the transfer station, should it remain open.
Shutting it down has drawn ire from towns and private haulers as a double-standard, since convenience centers used by residents out in the county would continue to be subsidized.
Upton is still undecided on which path to take. The issue is a complicated one, so he’s waiting on more information despite all the research that’s already been done. “I feel like I’m back in school,” Upton said. “I think the more we research, the more we study and the more we listen to people, the better decisions.”
Bradley said commissioners must be open-minded when tackling the trash problem. Private companies will have a knack for solid waste operations since that is their main focus. As of now, Bradley is also undecided on the transfer station.
Freeman is adamantly opposed to privatizing only parts of any county department or closing the transfer station. “That’s just running from the problem,” said Freeman, adding that the issue is one of proper management.
King said the county needs to study the issue more and that he doesn’t know enough yet to say what the right thing is.
Commissioners vs. HCC
For months, county commissioners were at odds with Haywood Community College over new construction and maintenance needs at the college. Commissioners eventually approved the $10.3 million professional crafts building after accusing HCC of overspending on a green design and showcase features. A quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters to fund new construction and expansions at HCC should be used responsibly, commissioners said.
Kirkpatrick said he and fellow commissioners asked the tough questions. Though he’s not “completely comfortable” with HCC moving ahead on its craft building, the college board of trustees unanimously stood by their recommendation that it be approved.
“I don’t think it’s my responsibility to usurp their responsibility as a board,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s their money.”
As a school board member for six years, Sorrells supports the community college’s pursuit of a craft building but questions putting so much of the quarter-cent sales tax proceeds in one basket.
Upton said it is “mighty tough” to vote against education. He felt better about the purchase after the HCC board of trustees came to a consensus. “I feel pleased that we moved on that one,” Upton said.
Bradley said the HCC craft building needed to be replaced, but its size should have remained under 20,000-square-feet so the college could avoid more stringent environmental regulations for larger buildings.
Freeman said he voted for the quarter-cent sales tax, believing it would only be used to fix roads and maintain existing buildings. “What do they need that new building for?” Freeman said. “Fix the ones that are there.”
If the economy was booming, the new craft building might be acceptable, Freeman said. For now, Freeman is wholeheartedly against the new construction.
King also said the building was too expensive and wouldn’t have given it the green light. He said rather than borrow money, the college could have saved up sales tax revenue until the building could be paid for upfront.
“I think most citizens in the county, including myself, felt like this money would be spent on a yearly basis as it comes in,” King said of the special quarter-cent sales tax.
The 9-12 factor
Bradley and King have been endorsed by the WNC Tea Party. A local offshoot of the Tea Party, known as the Haywood 9-12 Project, has been a recurring critic of commissioners during the public comment period at nearly every county meeting for the past year and a half.
Though a handful of 9-12 activists have been especially vocal, Kirkpatrick points out that its members don’t represent all 60,000 residents in Haywood County. Kirkpatrick says he has supporters as well as opponents within the ranks of the group, and he hopes all voters will research before casting their ballots. “Don’t just vote to get someone out,” Kirkpatrick said.
While some members get “extreme,” Sorrells says everyone can agree with the core principles of the 9-12 group: a small, efficient government and fiscal responsibility.
Upton said his goal has always been to listen to the people, and he doesn’t mind the 9-12 group constantly turning up at commissioner meetings.
“I haven’t taken the 9-12 Project as a negative,” Upton said. “Because we want people voicing their opinions. If we don’t hear, we don’t know.”
Bradley said the group has been consistent in calling for fiscal responsibility.
“This is a nonpolitical organization,” Bradley said. “They’re looking for people to make best use of county funds.”
King said he appreciates the endorsement.
“I am glad they did chose me. I have a lot of respect for the Tea Party,” King said.
Freeman would not comment on the group because he said he wasn’t familiar enough with them.
Many candidates said the budget and setting the tax rate after the property revaluation will be the two biggest challenges in the next four years. The value of lots and homes in upscale developments are expected to drop, while the value of medium priced housing will hold steady. Property taxes will be adjusted according to the new appraised values.
“I’m afraid there’s going to need to be a greater tax burden on those with less valuable properties,” Kirkpatrick said.
“It’s going to disproportionately affect the lower-income portion of the population,” Bradley agreed.
Kirkpatrick said another major hurdle will be funding the school system, which will soon suffer the absence of stimulus funds that have helped prop it up during the recession.
With the senior citizen population set to mushroom, there will be an increasing need to provide services to the elderly. Upton said commissioners must plan for the impending crisis.
— Staff writer Becky Johnson contrbitued to this story.
In the running
Three of the five seats on the Haywood County board are up for election this year. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis will not be running for re-election this year, meaning at least one new face will join the board come fall.
Kirk Kirkpatrick (incumbent)
41, attorney, Waynesville
“I’ve seen the good times and the tough times. I think that experience will be helpful for this county in the next four years.”
Bill Upton (incumbent)
65, retired superintendent of Haywood County Schools, Canton
“I feel like I listen...I’m sensitive to the needs of the people.”
54, owner of service station, convenience store and cafe, Waynesville.
“I’m very knowledgeable about Haywood County...I understand how government works, and I’m already educating myself to be in the position.”
David Bradley, 44, sales, Clyde
“I try to look long-term versus short-term...We can’t always take a hammer to the project.”
Tom Freeman, 53, self-employed building contractor, Waynesville
“I’ve had my own successful business for 25 years...When projects come up...I could go look at them, give my opinion on it and go from there.”
Denny King, 53 manufacturing engineer, Beaverdam
“I am in favor of a limited government to keep our taxes low in the county.”
Swain and Graham county commissioners agreed Monday to let their respective county managers look at solid numbers before deciding on a resolution to the Deal’s Gap quandary.
Graham County, which provides rescue service to the satellite Swain County territory and motorcycle mecca, wants Swain to contribute financially for the service, take care of its own terrain despite the distance or cede the 1,900-acre area to Graham.
Meanwhile, Swain has countered that it loses money each time it transports Graham County residents and those injured in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area— one of the nation’s premier mountain biking destinations — from its Bryson City hospital on to larger hospitals in Sylva and Asheville. These patients end up in Swain County’s hospital because Graham County does not have a hospital of its own.
Contrary to what Graham County had originally asserted, Swain County Manager Kevin King claimed Swain was the real financial loser on the two counties’ mutual aid agreement.
King presented the results of his research to the two boards at the second meeting called specifically to address this issue.
Assuming that the county recoups the typical 70 percent of its expenses from the patients it transfers to hospitals, each ambulance trips equals a loss of $214 for the counties, according to King.
Last year, Swain County made 55 trips to the Tsali area and 110 trips transporting Graham County patients from Bryson City to bigger hospitals. That would mean a total loss of more than $35,000 for Swain County.
On the other hand, Graham County made 29 trips to the Deal’s Gap area last year, which according to King’s calculations, signifies that Graham County lost a bit more than $6,000 last year.
But Graham County Manager Lynn Cody said the expense is much greater than that.
“It’s costing little over $100,000 to compensate our EMS, fire and rescue service and our law enforcement,” said Cody.
King said Graham County has not backed up that figure thus far.
“Up to this point, they have not proven it,” said King. “I’m empathetic to what they’re saying. I just don’t think it’s costing them what they’re saying it costs.”
According to Cody, however, the final figure must take into account the added costs associated with Graham County ambulances making a long trip on windy roads to arrive at an accident scene, only to find both the victim and motorcycle missing. Furthermore, some of the injured refuse to be treated after the ambulance has already arrived. In these not so rare occurrences, Graham County can’t bill anyone for their trip, leading not only to a loss of time and money, but also more wear and tear on their vehicles.
Terry Slaughter, EMS director for Graham County, agreed that responding to calls at Deal’s Gap has not exactly been easygoing, even if it is only an issue in the summertime when throngs of motorcyclists crowd the roads there.
“It’s a little more time consuming than just a typical call where you pick up someone at their home,” said Slaughter. But fortunately, they have never had a situation where ambulances were too tied up at Deal’s Gap to respond to calls in Graham County, thanks in part to mutual aid agreements with other counties, he said.
Out of Swain County’s $11 million budget this year, about $798,000 has been allocated to EMS. Meanwhile. Graham County expends about $884,000 of its $12.6 million budget on EMS services.
Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said he hoped the two counties would carry on with the status quo.
“I would like to see us get along together and continue a mutual agreement,” Jones said. “[But] if we have to go it alone, we probably are prepared to do that.”
If Swain County took over rescue service at Deal’s Gap, its ambulances would have to travel nearly 50 minutes to respond to calls. The only other option would be to put up an EMS substation in Deal’s Gap.
Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said he would be willing to give Swain County six months to prepare an such a facility.
But Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said it would be hard to pull off that special service for 8 full-time residents out of about 13,500 residents in Swain County.
“I don’t see that we could justify it to the taxpayer,” said Monteith.
King said that people who move into the outskirts of Swain County, like Deal’s Gap, realize what they’re getting themselves into.
“They know when they buy that property where EMS is, where law enforcement is, where the courthouse is,” King said.
Redrawing county lines?
Swain stands to lose $195,000 in annual tax revenue from the 34 homes and businesses in Deal’s Gap if it were taken over by Graham County.
Odom said Graham County is not following through on its annexation proposal at this point, but it isn’t yet out of the question. He said Graham is fully prepared to petition the state legislature to move county lines.
“If they failed to give us enough money, if they fail to take care of it yes, then I don’t know why we shouldn’t pursue it, “ said Odom. “Even if it’s a long drawn-out process, I think the argument is on our side.”
Ben Steinberg, general manager at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said he doesn’t see a need for Graham County to take over since he doesn’t mind living in isolation.
“This area, while it may not offer the creature comforts of modern life, it’s a small price to pay for the beauty of the natural surroundings,” said Steinberg. “We run to town once a week, get all the things we need. Our sign out front says population 8, and we absolutely love it.”
Steinberg said even if Graham County did annex the territory, life in Deal’s Gap probably wouldn’t change drastically.
“I’m not sure either community will be able to provide all the services we would need,” Steinberg said.
Probably very little about freshmen move-in day at Western Carolina University has changed over the years: the “nervous but excited” students, the teary-eyed, mostly just nervous parents following close behind, the authoritative, no-nonsense Resident Advisors directing their new underlings, and of course, the rows of suitcases and cardboard boxes lining the sidewalks. Adding to the usual excitement of move-in day this year, WCU premiered a brand new four-story 426-bed dormitory that will predominantly house Honors College students and Teaching Fellows program participants.
Balsam Hall is part of a two-building complex where a total of about 800 students will reside. The other section, Blue Ridge Hall, has yet to be completed and is scheduled to open next fall. The cost of the complex was about $50 million.
The dorm, which students helped design, features plenty of study rooms, common areas with kitchens, offices for Honors College staff, and meeting rooms. Also new to the campus is Courtyard Dining Hall, a $17.6 million, 53,000-square-foot building.
Jeremy Cauley, a graduate of Smoky Mountain High School, is one of Balsam Hall’s first residents. A recipient of a teaching fellowship, he plans on majoring in history with a minor in physical education.
Cauley, who is rooming with one of his best friends from high school, said he looked forward to starting college life, beginning with setting up his room.
“I can’t wait to get everything where it’s supposed to be,” he said.
Marty Cauley, his father, said he knew Jeremy would be back home in Sylva sooner or later.
“For laundry if nothing else,” he said. “I try not to look at the baby pictures. It doesn’t help.”
James Hinnant, a WCU junior and vice president of the Leadership Institute, has been volunteering to help freshmen move in since he himself was a freshman. As a member of the Institute, he moved in a few days earlier to help out freshmen on WCU’s official move-in day. Hinnant said he mostly knows what to expect by now.
“I know the fridges are gonna be there,” he said. “It seems like those are getting bigger every year.”
Hannah Painter, an 18-year- old freshman from Sylva, found a welcome surprise when she moved into Balsam Hall: a private room with an adjoined bathroom that she’ll share with only one other girl.
“Wow! Nice,” Painter said, as she walked in for the first time. “Being a freshman, it’s nice to have your own room.” Painter, whose parents, grandparents and siblings all graduated from WCU, said her room was “way better” than she expected.
Across the street in Scott Hall, Monica Gatti, a WCU freshman from Nantahala, said she chose to attend WCU because it was nearby and had a great teaching program. As valedictorian of her high school class, Gatti experienced the added excitement of receiving a free laptop on move-in day.
According to Gatti, move-in day at the university had been very well-organized.
“The only thing I’m afraid of doing is getting lost,” she said. “I have a map. That’s gonna be my lifeline.”
Her mother Cindy Gatti said she would leave the campus feeling much less nervous than when she first arrived.
“I feel very secure now that I’m here,” she said. “Everyone’s been very friendly and supportive.”
WCU By the numbers
Enrolled (As of Aug. 19) 1,535
High School Academic Profile
Average Weighted GPA 3.44
Average SAT Combined 1,034
Average ACT 21
From 22 states and 11 foreign countries
An inspiration for songs, poems, and pilgrimages by motorcycle enthusiasts from around the world, the challengingly curvy stretch of U.S. 129 that crosses over from Western North Carolina to Tennessee has become the center of a political dispute between Swain and Graham counties.
This mythical road, known as The Dragon, becomes packed every summer with motorcycles and sports cars that navigate its famous 318 curves in 11 miles. But the road’s ever-increasing popularity has led to a parallel rise in accidents on the Dragon and the North Carolina roads that lead up to it, including the “Tail of the Dragon” and N.C. 28, or “Hellbender.”
Accidents range from minor falls to wrecks off the road that require intensive rescue efforts and airlifts. Further complicating the rescue effort is the isolation of the roads, as well as gaps in cell phone service that make it difficult to call for help.
Graham County has traditionally provided EMS and rescue service to the area, including in Deal’s Gap, a satellite part of Swain County that’s bordered by Graham County and Tennessee. But as the number of calls from the area go up, so do costs for Graham County.
Officials from both counties have met as recently as Monday (Aug. 24) to discuss new arrangements. Graham County has presented three possible courses of action: annexing this estranged portion of Swain County, receiving annual contributions from Swain County to cover expenses, or handing over full responsibility for the area to Swain County.
Meanwhile, Swain County has countered that it transports patients from Graham County at no charge from its hospital in Bryson City to larger facilities in Sylva or Asheville. While the two counties attempt to decide the fate of this 1,900-acre section of Swain County, throngs of riders and drivers continue to flock to the roads there that enjoy legendary status.
The allure of the Dragon
Visitors to the Tail of the Dragon don’t come looking for standard views, according to Ron Johnson, co-owner of the informational Web site TailoftheDragon.com.
“The pavement is beautiful. The scenery is the road itself,” said Johnson, who has been riding the Tail since 1975. “It’s the most unusual road I have seen in my life. It’s out in the middle of nowhere — no intersecting roads, no houses, driveways, businesses. Every corner is different.”
Wayne Busch, owner of Waynesville-based America Rides Maps, said the Tail of the Dragon is well surfaced with nicely banked and cambered turns.
“It’s a very challenging road,” said Busch. “There’s one hairpin turn after another and another.”
Despite the thrills that come with negotiating the Tail, Busch said there are times he avoids the road altogether.
“I don’t go over there on the weekend,” he said. “It’s a zoo.”
According to Johnson, thousands of people have fun traversing the Deal’s Gap area every week. Many of them are passing through en route to the Dragon, especially during the summer and early fall.
There is at least one spot on the Tail where riders can pull over to watch the parade of notable cars and motorcycles, from antiques to “unique cars you’ve never heard of,” said Johnson, who once counted 74 Ferraris on the road in just one day. Vehicles there tend to run the gamut, from million-dollar cars to a rally of beat-up $500 cars passing through on a journey from New York to Louisiana every year.
But according to Busch, who has mapped more than 3,000 miles of road, people who focus only on the Tail are missing out on the “great stuff.”
“It’s really a shame. They don’t realize we have hundreds of hundreds of miles just like it,” Busch said. “That one has the fame and notoriety, and that’s what brings in the draw.”
Busch said those with high-performance machines come to the region to put them to the test, and that’s one possible theory for the rise in accidents.
“The road has been promoted as a challenge, and there are people who go there looking for a challenge,” he said. “They go there with expectations, and they try to go live them out.”
But Brad Talbott, owner of the Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, said the increase in accidents is simply the natural result of more traffic.
Moreover, he said the Tail is relatively safe, compared to other roads.
“For the number of folks we have, we don’t actually have that many accidents,” he said.
Johnson concurred, saying he felt safer riding on the Dragon than he felt on I-40.
“I don’t have to worry about dodging cars,” Johnson said. “I’m doing 30 to 35 mph, not 70.”
In 2008, there were no motorcycle fatalities in Deal’s Gap nor on Graham County’s Cherohala Skyway (N.C. 143), another challenging road that sees heavy traffic from motorcycles. In a sharp upturn, there have been five motorcycle deaths on those roads this year.
Four of the five were on Hellbender, with two falling in the Swain County section and two on the Graham County stretch. The fifth death this year occurred on the Cherohala Skyway.
Terry Slaughter, Graham County’s EMS director, said there is no one type of wreck that is typical.
“Some wreck in the road, some out,” Slaughter said. “Sometimes, you have to have rescue personnel to work up drags, ropes and baskets.”
It usually takes Graham County ambulances about 20 to 30 minutes to get to the accident scene, but it takes witnesses 10 to 15 minutes on top of that to find a phone at a local business to call 911. If Swain County took over EMS and rescue service in Deal’s Gap, it would take 40 to 50 minutes to make the trip from Bryson City.
Over the years, Graham County EMS has responded to motorcyclists suffering everything from minor bumps and bruises to broken necks and heart attacks.
“There’s no coverage with the motorcycle,” said Larry Hembry, interim EMS director in Graham County. “I don’t think you can get your helmet to protect you.”
While speed is an issue on the Skyway, the majority of accidents on Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender are a result of inexperience and inattention, according to Sergeant Chris Wood with N.C. Highway Patrol.
In the past, fatalities in the Deal’s Gap area have resulted from riders not keeping their eyes on the road or pushing too hard on the curves.
“This is a very unforgiving area regarding mistakes,” Johnson said. “You got the mountain on one side and a drop-off on the other.”
Even years of riding on a motorcycle might not be enough preparation for the Tail of the Dragon and Hellbender if a rider isn’t accustomed to the mountainous terrain.
All five killed on Hellbender and the Cherohala Skyway this year came from out of state, Sgt. Wood said.
Talbott agreed that the type of terrain is instrumental to how well a motorcyclist can ride on certain roads. Talbott learned how to ride in Western North Carolina, so he had no trouble handling two-lane curvy roads, but it’s another story with bigger roads.
“Four-lanes scare me to death,” he said.
Talbott said he commends the highway patrol for ramping up efforts to promote safety, like putting up more signs and having conversations with bikers to warn them about dangers on the road. The state has even sent a few of its motorcycle squads to Deal’s Gap on request to create a better rapport between patrol officers and riders.
For Johnson, riding a motorcycle is similar to other risky activities like mountain climbing or hiking, and there is only so much officials can do.
“You can’t make everybody safe,” Johnson said.
The state will ban plastic bottles, motor oil filters, and wooden pallets from landfills starting this October. The ban aims to fuel more recycling, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create more jobs.
On the local level, Haywood Builders Supply in Waynesville is promoting a bulb-crushing machine to area businesses to contribute to recycling efforts as well. The contraption, known as the Bulb Eater, crushes spent tube and U-shaped fluorescent lamps into 100 percent recyclable material, while capturing nearly all of the mercury vapors released. The crushed bulbs are picked up and recycled by local entities that handle hazardous materials.
“We don’t have to worry about it contaminating us, contaminating the landfill and our drinking water,” said Allen Newland of Haywood Builders.
Newland recalled the first time Haywood Builders put the Bulb Eater to the test. They had not known what to expect and were surprised when the entire bulb crushing process was over in what seemed like just half a second.
“When it pulled it and crushed it, the whole group jumped,” Newland said.
So far, Haywood Builders has made the machine available at no cost to Haywood Community College, Haywood County Schools, and Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. Interested local businesses can see a demo and purchase the Bulb Eater at Haywood Builders.
While the $3,800 price tag may not be exactly affordable for some businesses, Newland said he believed it was a great investment for large industries or groups of smaller businesses.
Newland said Haywood Builders is already saving tons of money with the machine, which can hold up to 1,350 crushed four-foot bulbs. Whereas it had previously cost 47 cents to recycle each four-foot bulb, it now costs them only 17 cents per bulb.
Don Ebaugh, director of property management at Lake Junuluska Conference and Retreat Center, said he was definitely interested in the Bulb Eater after seeing it work.
“If we can’t buy one individually because of cost, we could probably join forces with other businesses,” he said.
Ebaugh said despite the budget crunch, he hoped the county would also buy the machine and make it available to the wider public.
The Maggie Valley Zoning Board of Adjustments approved a special zoning exception to make way for a 114-bed assisted living facility in the Campbell Creek area.
The proposed facility, located in a 5-acre section of a 16-acre tract, would be built on a vacant field between Crockett’s Meadow and Joey’s Pancake House.
Maggie Valley Health Investors, which operates the Canton Christian Convalescent Center in Canton, would develop the 40,000-square-foot facility, estimated to cost $12.5 million.
While the land is zoned residential, the board can grant special exceptions for hospitals, convalescent homes, schools and parks.
Nearly all of the members of the public who came to the Aug. 20 meeting supported the project.
Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, said there was a tremendous need in the community for such a facility so people wouldn’t have to travel to Waynesville or Canton to visit their families.
“Everybody’s talking about this being a tourist town. This goes a long way in making us more of an actual town,” she said. O’Keefe said she has absolutely no problem with the development, even though it borders both her business and her home.
Billy Case, a real estate broker, was the only one to speak out against the project at the meeting. Case asked if anyone had investigated the development company and wondered if the possibility of using other sites had been explored.
Board member Bill Banks said he supported the project because it would increase the tax base and bring in some needed jobs.
Against the backdrop of a nation embroiled in an emotional, high-stakes debate on health care reform, the voices of Western North Carolina citizens seemed remarkably calm and polite during a telephone town hall meeting with Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, last week.
Shuler reiterated his opposition to H.R. 3200, the House health care reform bill, to the deeply concerned callers throughout the “meeting,” which lasted more than an hour.
Callers had to state their questions before being allowed to directly talk to Shuler during the teleconference. Citizens who dialed in to listen to the conversation were sometimes met with busy signals due to the teleconference reaching full capacity.
A cautious attitude toward the meeting was evident, as Shuler’s office at first held back the telephone number to prevent organized political groups from infiltrating the meeting.
Participating citizens on both sides of the issue voiced wide-ranging concerns. Some worried about paying for illegal immigrants’ health care, covering abortions with public money, losing Medicare coverage, and adding millions of new patients without also adding doctors and health care facilities. Others asked how much of Shuler’s campaign contributions came from the health care industry, recommended looking to countries like Switzerland that are reportedly happy with their health care system, and expressed anxiety about the political process stymieing the passage of reform.
Carole Larvee, a Waynesville resident who listened in to the meeting, said as a retired nurse and volunteer for the Good Samaritan Clinic, she has personally experienced the plight of uninsured patients and hopes to see a solution soon.
“I know Congressman Shuler wants to get the health care reform bill right, but again I see people suffering. I see a sense of urgency,” she said.
According to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, about 23 percent of the population — or 154,000 individuals in the 11th Congressional District — are uninsured.
Shuler has said that he wants to spend time crafting a bill, even if it takes longer than the end of this year.
He is pressing for a bill that will stress wellness, disease management, and prevention to drive down costs; does not place mandates on small businesses; does more to cut waste, fraud, and abuse; and adds a clause to ensure abortions are not funded with government money.
“We’re only going to get one shot at this,” said Shuler. “Let’s do this right.”
Shuler expressed much hope about driving down health care costs by promoting healthier lifestyles and possibly providing tax incentives to curb excessive smoking or drinking.
A few callers from Waynesville, Maggie Valley and Franklin were able to get through and ask questions, though many of the callers came from Asheville.
Susan from Waynesville said Congress could not reform health care without also tackling tort reform. But Shuler said doing that has not lowered costs in states like Texas and Alabama.
“There’s still gross negligence on behalf of everybody,” said Shuler.
Kathy from Hendersonville expressed her concern about pre-existing conditions.
“I have a daughter with a congenital heart defect and I’m very concerned about people being penalized by pre-existing conditions and just the high cost of health care [and] insurance premiums in general,” she said. “I don’t want to see this issue die because the perfect plan doesn’t evolve.”
Shuler responded, “We need to get a health care reform done ... but we have to do it right ... Could you imagine, the bill was presented to us and then three weeks later to actually vote on the piece of legislation? That’s very, very difficult.”
Ron from Maggie Valley asked for Shuler’s position on the center of comparative effectiveness, which has been characterized by opponents of the bill as a “death panel” that makes health decisions for the elderly.
Shuler laughed, and said, “Obviously there is no panel. You don’t have to worry.”
He added that he understands why citizens do not want the government to make health decisions for them.
“You don’t want the federal government doing it, and you certainly don’t want the insurance companies telling you,” he said. “We need to put it in the hands of qualified people who understand health care, and that’s our physicians, our nurses, and the people that are in our hospitals.”
Shuler plans to gather more input from his constituents with another tele-town hall meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 1.
The Town of Waynesville plans to step in for Haywood Vocational Opportunities in procuring state money to help with an estimated $2 million expansion at the old Wellco site in Hazelwood.
HVO must create at least 40 jobs in exchange for the town’s efforts in obtaining a $480,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. HVO cannot apply for the grant directly since it is only open to local governments and governmental agencies.
HVO CEO George Marshall predicts that the company will well exceed the 40-job requirement with 75 new full-time positions within two years of beginning operations at the newly-renovated facility. HVO hopes to have the factory, which formerly was a shoe plant, up and running by January 2010. Wellco recently announced it is moving out of Haywood County and plans to relocate the Hazelwood production line at a newer plant Tennessee.
Haywood Vocational Opportunities, a private, not-for-profit corporation, manufactures and assembles medical supplies. It also provides vocational training and employment to adults with disadvantages and disabilities.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said the town chose to work with HVO because of the social and economic benefits the company provides to the community.
“It benefits us by creating jobs for people that the traditional marketplace doesn’t do,” Brown said.
This is not the first time HVO and the Town of Waynesville have partnered up. In 2005, the town helped HVO acquire a grant from the Rural Economic Development Center for expanding a water line.
So far, HVO has obtained a $300,000 grant from The Golden LEAF Foundation. The company is seeking yet more grant assistance from other foundations.
HVO currently employs 321 on a full-time basis and serves over 250 individuals in its employment and training programs annually.
Energy efficiency dominated the agenda at Waynesville’s last town meeting, with the passage of a strategic energy management plan and discussions on how to meet state requirements for contributing to renewable energy sources.
The Town of Waynesville is exploring ways to reduce a fee being passed down to electric customers in 2010. The fee is the result of a state bill passed in 2007 that requires power companies to either produce or contribute to renewable power. The rule applies to Waynesville, one of only a few towns in the state that runs its own power grid.
The fee, which would reach a cap of $10 a year for residential clients until 2011, would be used to subsidize renewable energy project across the state. Commercial and industrial customers might have to shell out as much as $50 and $500 a year, respectively, by 2011 to support renewable energy.
But the fees are not set in stone. If the town reduces its customers’ energy consumption, charges can be brought down.
For a start in its endeavor to reduce energy use, Waynesville is considering handing out or selling compact fluorescent light bulbs to its citizens, subsidizing hot water heater blankets, and possibly installing solar panels at the town recreation center.
Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said he hoped to involve citizens personally in conservation efforts rather than having them send out checks anonymously every month.
“You want to be the carrot. You don’t want to use the stick,” Brown said.
If electric customers don’t succeed in conserving enough energy, they will start feeling the impact of that stick. Fees could reach a maximum of $34 a year for residences, $150 a year for commercial clients, and $1,000 for industrial clients by 2015.
Before reaching out to citizens, Waynesville will begin conservation efforts with its own town employees and facilities with the passage of its strategic energy management plan.
The plan states four major goals: utilizing energy and water resources efficiently, educating and engaging town employees in energy conservation, designing and maintaining high performance buildings, and providing reliable, cost-effective and environmentally sound energy and water supply.
The town adopted the plan in part to qualify for federal stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Town of Waynesville hopes to grab a piece of the $12.5 million being offered up to towns in North Carolina with populations of less than 35,000. The money would be used to replace a diesel boiler at the public works building and fund energy efficiency improvements at the wastewater treatment plant.
Other than providing the opportunity to pick up a grant, the energy management plan will provide both environmental and financial benefits to the town.
Waynesville hopes to accomplish these goals by retrofitting town stoplights with energy efficient bulbs and creating a quarterly newsletter to educate employees on energy conservation, among other steps outlined in the plan.
More parents in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties opted to teach their children at home this year, concurring with a recent statewide report that found a record high in the number of students being home schooled in North Carolina.
“Homeschooling is becoming a more viable option for some families as resources and support are increasingly available,” said Anna Henderson, member of the Great Smokies Christian Home Educators.
In Haywood, the estimated number of students being homeschooled rose from 598 last year to 657 this year. Jackson County’s number went from 266 to 322.
Parents might choose homeschooling because children receive greater individual attention with lessons tailored to their needs and because schooling can be adapted to each family’s schedule. Homeschooled students may also grow closer with their parents due to more time spent together.
However, possible disadvantages of homeschooling include lack of socialization, lack of expertise and equipment for some subjects, as well as the need for one parent to set aside a career. Henderson said that homeschool co-ops, where students from several families meet together for lab work or a group class, could help overcome two of those three disadvantages.
“It provides time for kids to work together, learn, play, and even hang out afterward,” she said.
Parents who are new to homeschooling can find guidance from more experienced homeschoolers and homeschool associations alike.
As for the last downfall of homeschooling, she added that even though a parent must sacrifice a career, home schooling is “an intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding challenge.”
Henderson emphasized that one of the benefits of homeschooling is that it does not have to be conventional. “Don’t try to look just like a public or private school,” she said. “You are free to be more creative.”
Some homeschoolers have done exactly that by following classical methods and introducing their children to Latin and Greek early on, while others emphasize educational games and play.
“Learning should not be boring — at least, not always,” said Henderson.
Jackson County leaders are considering an economic development incentive that will provide property tax credits to Stonewall Packaging in exchange for a minimum $10 million investment in a new facility in Sylva and creation of at least 40 full-time jobs by 2010.
The new hires must make a salary of at least $39,000 per year, which is well above the county average of $27,820.
The county would provide grants of $32,500 per new job with a cap of $1.3 million. The grants would come out of property taxes Stonewall pays to the county, which would then be returned to the company. Jackson County officials who support the measure insisted on Monday that it will not be a handout.
“Jackson County decided not to do a cash outlay from our coffers,” said Commissioner Tom Massie. “This essentially doesn’t cost us anything. Without the jobs being created, we wouldn’t have gained anything at all. We’re simply providing a financial incentive.”
But Carl Iobst of Jackson County Citizens Action Group is far from convinced.
“Why is a private corporation that seems to be doing pretty good...why are they coming to the county with their hands out?” said Iobst. “They’ve been in business for a while. It seems like they could find some funding.”
Stonewall Packaging, a joint venture of Jackson Paper Manufacturing, is planning a 200,000-square-foot addition to its current corrugated cardboard plant in downtown Sylva. Jackson Paper has said that it will exceed the county’s requirements by creating 61 new jobs and investing more than $16 million. It will also receive a $200,000 grant from a state economic development incentive program.
County Manager Kenneth Westmoreland said he believed emphatically that the financial incentive would be good for the community.
“Obviously in this day and time, any new jobs are very attractive,” he said.
The county says it has worked closely with experts in formulating an exact contract for the deal.
“Everything’s in writing. There’s nothing left to chance, nothing left to speculation,” Westmoreland said.
Jackson County will accept written comments from the public about their opinions on the plan for the next two weeks before it comes to a vote.
Indie film brings big economic boost: From stunt pilots to bar scenes, movie producer weaves local people and places into script
Western North Carolina has seen its share of Hollywood productions. But unlike many of the other movies filmed here, “Road to Nowhere” features a story that is actually set in the area.
Very little had to be changed for the sake of filming, whether it was “Waynesville Police” emblazoned on cop cars that peel through one scene or the historic environs of the Balsam Mountain Inn.
“This is not North Carolina doubling for something else,” said Steven Gaydos, co-writer and producer for the film. “This is a story set in North Carolina.”
Gaydos joked that scenic backdrops here are so plentiful they could put up their fingers and frame a shot any direction they looked.
The movie began shooting in the area in early July and wrapped up in North Carolina this week. The filmmakers have shot scenes at Fontana Dam, Balsam Mountain Inn, Boyd Mountain Log Cabins in Waynesville, Doc Holliday’s bar in Maggie Valley, and the Jackson County airport in Sylva.
“Road to Nowhere” is working with a budget of under $5 million, all of which was raised privately. According to Gaydos, the rough plan is to submit it to a festival like the Sundance Film Festival or the Cannes Film Festival early next year. He hopes that the independent movie will be bought and released by fall 2010.
When a movie shooting comes to town, it brings with it more than just Hollywood glamour. “Road to Nowhere” has provided tangible benefits for local hires and businesses alike during its time here.
The cast and crew occupied 34 out of 50 rooms at Balsam Mountain Inn for four to five weeks. The inn also served them breakfast, lunch, and dinner for much of that time.
While tourists usually flock to the inn during the summer, the recession has certainly created a bit of a downturn in business.
“July is one of our busier months. This year has been a little slower,” said Marla Brown, front desk manager for the inn.
But housing and feeding the cast and crew for more than a month has made a “very positive impact” on business, said Innkeeper Sharon Shailer.
Jim Rowell, a Cullowhee resident, struck a deal with the moviemakers that allowed him to make a fuel pump repair at the airport in exchange for flying his plane as a stuntman in the movie. Rowell said the repair would probably have cost a few hundred dollars, something the cash-strapped airport couldn’t afford.
In Haywood County, Boyd Mountain Log Cabins was compensated for permitting filmmakers to shoot several scenes there for two days.
Movie co-writer and producer Gaydos said they have bought gallons and gallons of paint, among other materials, from local building supply stores to construct their sets.
And it’s not just businesses that profit from moviemakers coming to the area. Ella Kliger, a Franklin woman who serves as the movie’s production assistant coordinator, estimated that about 40 percent of “Road to Nowhere” crew members were North Carolinians.
Kliger, an independent documentary filmmaker who moved to the area from Mississippi in May, said she was surprised to see a call for crew members so close to her new hometown.
“I expected to have to go to Atlanta to get this kind of work,” said Kliger.
Several area students worked as production assistants in the film, including North Carolina School of Arts and Film sophomores Nick Fanego of Canton and Quentin Noms of Sylva, as well as Mandy Hughes, an Asheville native who attends Western Carolina University.
While the students say they appreciate the firsthand experience and learning opportunities with some “extremely friendly” staff, they acknowledge the need to keep cool.
“It would be really unprofessional to go up and ask, ‘Can you sign this?’” said Noms.
“This is a job. They’re not just here to welcome us,” said Hughes. “They expect us to get to work.”
And what does that work actually involve?
“Anything and everything,” according to Hughes, who has helped with make-up and wardrobe, rounding up actors, ensuring there’s quiet on the set, and even first aid for an actor who accidentally got a cut on his neck.
Production assistants are often used as extras in the film. Hughes said a make-up girl once grabbed her without warning, put down her hair and immediately began preparing her for a scene.
“You don’t know what to expect,” said Fanego.
Setting the scene
Despite a key scene that involves a dramatic plane crash into Fontana Dam, pilot Jim Rowell reassures us that no airplanes were killed in the making of the film. As the stuntman who flew the plane near the dam, he would know.
Rowell did eight or nine passes over the lake, flying as low as 300 to 500 feet above the water’s surface and turning a few times. With almost 20 years of experience flying his 1966 Piper Cherokee four-passenger plane, Rowell said he wasn’t nervous about doing the moves, but he admits it was a bit unnerving flying for the cameras.
“I was doing a lot of sweating in the plane to be right where they wanted me to be when they wanted me to be,” said Rowell.
Rowell also worked as a kind of airport coordinator, moving planes as needed by the filmmakers. Video editors will cut back and forth between shots of Rowell flying the plane near the dam and the actual actor sitting in Rowell’s plane pretending to fly while in front of a green screen backdrop at the airport hangar.
“We’ll use the magic of Hollywood,” said Gaydos, adding that Tennessee Valley Authority probably wouldn’t like them to crash a plane into the dam.
Shooting at the Boyd Mountain Log Cabins did take a little preparation. Crew members covered the floor with linoleum and used styrofoam boards to protect furniture while filming.
Owner Betsy Boyd said she was impressed with the neat and precise way in which the crew operated.
“It was just fun to see so much activity,” Boyd said. “Our cabin renters here were welcome to come in and watch the filming.”
Shailer, innkeeper at Balsam Mountain Inn, said her biggest concern about the shooting had been that it would be a distraction from what guests normally expect: peace and relaxation. But Shailer said her guests also lingered to watch.
“They thought it was neat,” she said.
There were some inconveniences during the shooting of “Road to Nowhere,” including housekeepers not being able to get to certain rooms to clean them or quiet hours not always being strictly observed with all the hubbub of cast and crew. But Boyd and Shailer had only positive things to say about their experience.
The two businesses have been no strangers to productions in the past. “In the Shadow of Cold Mountain” was shot at Boyd Mountain Log Cabins, while Balsam Mountain Inn once hosted an episode of the Travel Channel show “Weird Travels,” which focused on haunted hotels.
Boyd and Shailer say they are in favor of more filmmakers coming to western North Carolina.
“Not just for the local economy, but so that people get a better flavor of [the area],” said Shailer.
Gaydos admits that Hollywood tends to treat the America “outside of New York and Los Angeles” with a bit of condescension.
“Monte [the director] and I are almost religiously against that,” said Gaydos, who assures the public that “Road to Nowhere” will avoid such an attitude.
“This is Hollywood meets North Carolina, but it’s not like people in Hollywood are sharp and smart and all the people in North Carolina are naïve. It’s maybe the opposite,” Gaydos said.
Moreover, Gaydos said anyone will be hard-pressed to find even one cast or crew member who hasn’t “completely fallen in love” with the area.
“I mean, how could you not?” Gaydos added.
Battle for film makers
One might think it a no-brainer that a movie taking place in North Carolina would be shot in North Carolina. As evidenced by “Cold Mountain,” filmed in Romania, that isn’t necessarily the case.
“When an executive decides where the movie will be...it’s a financial decision,” said Aaron Syrett, film commissioner for the state.
Tax incentives have played a vital role in whether filmmakers come here, or go to places like Michigan, where a tax credit of a whopping 42 percent of their in-state expenditures is offered. Georgia hands out a 30 percent tax credit, while North Carolina offers half that.
In North Carolina, a motion picture must spend a minimum of $250,000 to qualify for a tax rebate. The state will then perform an audit, after which it will provide a tax credit of 15 percent on goods, services, and wages taxed by North Carolina.
Syrett said North Carolina had always been a destination for Hollywood until Canada launched aggressive financial incentives that “killed U.S. film industries.”
Louisiana reacted to that in 2003 with its own film incentive: a 25 percent tax credit. New Mexico followed along with other states after them. North Carolina was a bit late but got back into the game in 2006 with a newly-instituted tax credit.
While North Carolina doesn’t offer as much as other states, the plethora of studios and convenient infrastructure combined with the incentive makes film production here “very, very viable,” said Syrett.
According to him, motion pictures spent a little under $99 million in North Carolina in 2006. After the rebate was instituted, that number jumped 67 percent in 2007 to $161 million. With increasing competition from other states with higher tax incentives, spending decreased to $95 million by 2008.
Now, the N.C. Senate recently passed a bill to increase the state’s incentive to 25 percent. It is now awaiting approval in the House of Representatives.
While a battle of ever increasing tax incentives among states seems to loom ahead, Syrett said there has to be a limit.
“There’s a point where we have to stop, and we believe that 25 percent is a benchmark,” said Syrett. “We have to be fiscally sound. We’re not in an arms race.”
Even when one leaves competition among states aside, there’s still competition within states.
“When producers think of filmmaking in North Carolina, they think of Wilmington,” Rowell remarked. “They have studios down there, but there’s a lot of good potential out this way, too.”
So with all these options, how did Gaydos and his film wind up in Western North Carolina?
“The wonders of Google,” Gaydos said. Gaydos had his heart set on a scene with a plane crash into a dam. He typed in a search for “dam,” “lake,” and “mountains,” and there it was: Fontana Dam.
Intrigue and mystery drive movie’s story line
Despite its title, a movie being shot in WNC called “Road to Nowhere” has nothing to do with the local political controversy of the same name. Forget the heated dispute over constructing the North Shore Road in Swain County — this film is about a movie director entranced by a financial scandal that results in a double suicide and a murdered cop.
The movie director stumbles upon a journalist’s report of a true crime story involving a businessman in Western North Carolina. The businessman was caught in a financial scandal, and as his world unravels he flies his private plane into Fontana Dam to commit suicide. Meanwhile, his girlfriend and assistant drives her car over a cliff.
The director travels from California to North Carolina to shoot a film based on the crime story. But as the director delves into the story, he unearths some mysterious twists.
“ [The director] starts to discover that nothing in this true story is true,” said Steven Gaydos, co-writer and producer for the film. Thus, the title of this film about a film serves as a metaphor for the plot.
Proposed cuts to the state budget have threatened after school care for middle school students, with programs in Canton, Franklin, Bryson City and Sylva already shut down or in jeopardy of closing.
As a result, middle school students who have benefited from adult supervision after school could end up home alone in the afternoons.
The after school program was funded through the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which could face a $33 million cut — or 20 percent of its total budget. The cut would claim $5.7 million in grants given out through the Support Our Students program, which funds after school care and summer programs at low to no cost for about 14,000 students statewide.
Local responses to the budget cuts have ranged from resignation to resolve.
When Susan Waldorf, a former coordinator of the program in Franklin, heard of the proposed budget cuts she wrote her state senator and governor in search of additional funding to keep the program running. But the grants they found amounted to $5,000 or $6,000, which was miniscule compared to the $77,000 they had been receiving from the state.
The after school program in Franklin had 45 children on the roll, with an average of 20 students attending. Waldorf said the SOS program provided valuable homework help, gave kids a chance to do arts and crafts, and brought in outside speakers who talked about their careers and experiences. The main focus was to encourage students to stay in school and provide supervision during a critical development period.
“You see a body of a growing teen, but they’re still kids,” said Waldorf. “They’re still not wise enough to be turned loose for three hours.”
Ginger Middleton said her 12-year-old daughter Breanna Hill will undoubtedly miss the program in Franklin, which awarded Breanna with a Wii last year for her stellar attendance. Middleton is now exploring multiple options, including possibly having Breanna dropped off at her workplace for two hours after school.
“I know Breanna would rather be in SOS with her friends,” said Middleton. “She really misses it.”
Middleton said it would be difficult to start paying for a program similar to SOS since she already has to pay for Breanna’s younger sibling’s childcare.
Meanwhile, Jackson County already cut its SOS program last year due to budget cuts, and Swain County is also looking for alternative means to keep the after school service afloat.
Steve Claxton, community schools coordinator at Swain County, hopes to find grants that may help them continue the SOS Program at Swain County Middle School. They had received $75,000 from the state through SOS grants and charged an “extremely minimal” fee or provided scholarships for the service.
He said if the program isn’t kept alive, there may be some dire consequences.
“I can see test scores going down and higher dropout rates in high school,” he said. “These kids are struggling. They’re really not at the age that they need to be left home alone.”
William Lassiter, director of Communications at the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, said SOS is one of 27 programs that could potentially be cut, including long-term youth development centers, group homes, and therapeutic wilderness homes for kids.
“The cuts will be very painful for our department,” he said. “If it were up to us, we wouldn’t make any cuts.”
Lassiter said that since most juvenile crimes occur between 3 to 6 p.m., that’s the time kids need the supervision most.
Keeping it going
A vestige of the SOS program in Haywood County is being kept alive, albeit in a new home in a martial arts studio in Canton.
Chris Lowe, former SOS advisor in Western North Carolina and coordinator at the program in Canton Middle School, said he decided to continue the summer program, even without the local school system’s backing.
“We were asked to call parents and tell them until we got our budget fixed, not to bring the kids. I declined the option,” said Lowe. “No, we made a commitment to these kids to operate the summer program, and that’s what we’ll do.”
Lowe wanted to continue to hold the program at Canton Middle School, but the school requires a $1 million liability policy for external groups who want to operate on school premises.
“It is a great program and Mr. Lowe has done a wonderful job, but we don’t sponsor programs that we do not fund,” said Haywood County’s Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte. “It would be like us being responsible for every childcare program in the county.”
With the school counted out as an option, Lowe turned to Jeremy Sears, who offered the use of his Academy of Martial Arts in Canton — for free. Lowe said the plan is to seek additional funding and reach out to the community to hopefully continue the service in the fall. As of now, he hasn’t changed the $50 a week fee for the 25 kids who have showed up to the program this summer.
“It wouldn’t be fair to go to parents and say ‘Hey, we got the boot, fork over the cash,’” said Lowe. “In spite of budget cuts, kids and families still need a place to go.”
Haywood County Schools is going through its own budget woes, with a loss of 14 teachers, 18 teacher assistants, a central office of student services director, two assistant principals, three custodians, and three secretaries this year. While Associate Superintendent Nolte acknowledges the need for an after school service for middle school kids, he said there simply is no additional funding to support it.
Lowe has changed the name of the Haywood program to My Sunshine, a company he founded with business partner Deborah Jackson this week.
Those who would like to contribute to My Sunshine may contact Deborah Jackson at 828.734.2115 or send donations to 129 Main Street, Canton, NC 28716.
Bridging the divide: Maggie struggles to find new identity among tourists, second-home owners and year-round residents
Home to 3,000 motel rooms yet only 1,610 year-round residents, Maggie Valley can’t exactly escape the term “tourist town.”
Anyone driving through the main drag passing a long line of lodging options would know. But perhaps less evident to visitors is the precarious balancing act the town constantly faces in satisfying both tourist and local needs.
In helping to achieve that delicate equilibrium and develop a vision for future growth, Maggie Valley has formed its own Economic Development Advisory Committee. Though the town officially created an economic development advisory commission way back in September 2005, the ball finally got rolling on the committee only recently.
The seven members appointed to the committee last month will serve as a liaison between businesses, the town and citizens of the community. The commission has met twice so far to formulate a better idea of its responsibilities and avoid redundancies.
The EDC faces the gargantuan task of creating an attractive model of growth that will satisfy everybody, from year-round residents to the increasing number of second-home owners to tourists simply visiting for a few days. Since Maggie Valley has long catered to tourists, one of the EDC’s tasks may be to update the town’s tourism model, which has been criticized in the past for being somewhat outdated.
As the main breadwinner for the Haywood Tourism Development Authority, with nearly 60 percent of the authority’s revenues coming from Maggie Valley, how the town handles its growth - and how that affects tourism - will clearly be relevant outside its borders.
What Maggie Valley wants
The EDC has discussed the idea of surveying residents and local business owners to learn more about what the community craves in terms of growth. Asking Maggie Valley residents about what they’d like to see developed in their town will naturally elicit some divergent reactions, but there does seem to be a near consensus on some issues. While many acknowledge that tourism is the “lifeblood” of Maggie Valley, they would like to see more services for full-time residents.
One step in that direction is to keep businesses open year round.
“Some of us who are open need to survive the winter,” said Gabriela Edwards, co-owner of A Holiday Motel. “The ski area is great and Tube World is great, but they’re done in the evening so it’s like, what do we do now?”
“More businesses in Maggie Valley need to bite the bullet and stay open year round,” Joe Moody, who serves on the board of directors for the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Bob LaBracio, who owns Specialty Lock & Door Company, said he’d like to see stores selling more than just “T-shirts and trinkets” open all year.
Also on LaBracio’s wish list are healthier choice restaurants and specialty grocery stores like Earth Fare and Greenlife. Many residents interviewed expressed interest in having a grocery store of any kind developed so they wouldn’t have to drive elsewhere to pick up groceries.
Ken Johnson, chairman of the newly formed EDC, said it’s been difficult to bring a grocery store to Maggie Valley since there are so few full-time residents, but a specialty store might be a feasible option. Making up for Maggie Valley’s sparse population, a specialty store would have a broad demographic and attract people from neighboring counties.
However, there is at least one point of contention for residents: fast food chain restaurants. Some residents prefer more options for a quick bite to eat, while others are strongly against chain establishments.
“I’d like to see McDonald’s and Dairy Queen [rather than] go all the way over to Waynesville,” said Gene O’Kelley, a regular on the front bench of the Shell gas station in town. “McDonald’s would do good here.”
“I don’t mind going to Waynesville,” said Joanne Martin, owner of Fireside Cottages and Mountaineer Restaurant. “I don’t want Burger King and McDonald’s up and down.”
Other suggestions for businesses included a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, a dentist’s office and more medical facilities in general.
Preservation as a goal
Jim Higel, owner of Legends Sports Grill, said Maggie Valley might just need more of the same.
“We need more shops, motels and restaurants,” Higel said. “If you have a motel in the middle of the desert, you’re bankrupt. If you have 500, you’re Las Vegas.”
But being akin to Las Vegas is a far cry from what other residents want.
“It’s not what you want to see, it’s what you don’t want to see,” said Wayne Busch, owner of America Rides Maps. “I prefer not seeing any change at all, but it’s going to come.”
Though some Maggie Valley residents can spout off a list of things they’d like to add to the town, there are some facets of Maggie Valley living they do not want touched.
Busch said industry and manufacturing should not even be considered. “What we got here is somewhat fragile,” said Busch.
Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, said she’d like to see Maggie Valley take a step back and focus on its mountain culture.
“I think we can market ourselves in a different way,” said O’Keefe. “I have always wanted this area to look back toward heritage culture.”
Kathleen Klawitter, a member of the EDC, moved to Maggie Valley a month after her first visit last year. She said she is interested most in preserving what brought her here in the first place though she knows growth is somewhat inevitable.
“I believe Maggie Valley will grow anyway. Its beauty and tranquility will invite growth,” said Klawitter.
Steve Shiver, another EDC member and president of Ghost Town, said there is a need to officially gather community input and data collection to see both what residents desire and what is possible.
According to Shiver, Maggie Valley’s infrastructure can handle more tourists. Drawing more visitors to the area would benefit everybody in town with better tax revenues, he said.
But for now, the town’s major projects seem to include a focus on residents. The town is putting in two wheelchair accessible river decks in Parham Park near Jonathan Creek and working on getting a “very promising” $1.3 million in stimulus funds to build the first residential sidewalk in Maggie Valley. It has also recently approved a special zoning exception for an assisted living facility.
When the Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen purchased land for a town festival ground in 2002, it had high hopes for success.
Events held there would reel in visitors to stay at local motels, eat at local restaurants, and shop at local stores.
As well intentioned as the act may have been — seven years and more than $1 million later — the festival grounds is still not producing enough money to cover expenses. The town recently decided to write off the debt, which means money generated from the festival grounds won’t be used to pay back the town’s general fund, which has been covering costs ever since the festival grounds were created.
The town rushed to develop the festival grounds to compensate for a potential dwindling in tourism after Ghost Town, an amusement park and one of Maggie Valley’s anchors of tourism, shut down temporarily.
The Town of Maggie Valley has paid for roughly half of the $1 million cost of buying the property and installing improvements, with the rest of the money coming from grants and donations.
Annually, the festival grounds has brought in an average of nearly $11,000 in revenues, paid by groups holding festivals there. Meanwhile operating expenses runs an average of about $31,000 annually.
“The festival grounds fund doesn’t generate enough money to pay off the expenses to run the festival grounds,” said Town Manager Tim Barth.
Furthermore, revenue doesn’t begin to cover debt on the property, both from land purchase and improvements made over the years, such as a stage, restrooms and concession stand. The debt has averaged $147,000 a year.
“The general fund is still making the payment every year for the land,” Barth said.
The result is that town taxpayers, including residents with no personal stake in tourism, have been saddled with subsidizing the operation.
Barth said the town never envisioned that the festival grounds would be a profitable venture. Its main function was to bring tourists to “spend time in Maggie and spend money in Maggie.”
But Alderman Phil Aldridge said while others claim the festival grounds will never be a “money making proposition,” he begs to differ. According to Aldridge, the town could make a better effort to promote the festival grounds.
“Why say the race is over when it’s only half run?” said Aldridge. “You’re investing into something. It takes money to make money.”
The town is hoping to bring in fresh talent yet again to aid the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds in attracting events. Town leaders have oscillated over the years on whether the town needed a dedicated festival director, seeing a few come and go without lasting success. The last festival director, who was fired in May, lasted a mere three months.
Barth said the town board decided to see if it could go without the position and still have events materialize. The laissez-faire approach has now been put aside, as the town is once again on the hunt for a festival director who will better market the venue.
A 1 percent tax on Maggie Valley’s lodging will fund about $20,000 of the next festival director’s salary, with the town making up the rest.
Maggie Valley’s festival season, which runs from May to October, saw a total of 11 festivals this year, compared to 13 the year before.
Some business owners said the festival grounds has great potential for success, and the move to hire a festival director should have happened a long time ago.
“They need to put somebody in charge,” said Jim Higel, owner of Legends Sports Grill. “Nobody knows who to call.”
“The problem with the festival grounds is who’s managing it,” said Joanne Martin, owner of the Mountaineer Restaurant and Fireside Cottages. “The festival grounds is an important part of the town’s well-being. They really need to get that hitched up.”
Tammy Brown, chairwoman of the town’s parks, recreation, and festival advisory committee, said even though the town has been very dedicated to making improvements to the festival grounds, there has been a need all along for someone to market it to the public.
“It’s time to actually go after folks that have the ability to come in and put on an event,” Brown said. “The town is not in the business of putting on events and festivals. It’s time-intensive, labor-intensive ... There are folks out there that are promoters that do this for a living.”
Try, try again
Earlier this year, the outgoing festival director complained that cost charged for using the festival grounds was a deterrent in landing events. Brown said the festival advisory board asked the former director to do a study on costs at similar venues, but it was never completed.
When the festival grounds was just starting up, Brown’s board did research rents for similar-sized venues to ensure prices were fair.
Running an event at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds currently costs for-profit organizations $500 per day and non-profits $250 each day. In addition, there’s a $1,000 deposit and $250 per day charge for using the stage, water, electricity and lighting.
Earlier this year, Jeff Cody, sponsor for Rocky Mountain Events, cancelled a mini-truck show due to higher than anticipated fees. According to Cody, the additional fee for the use of electricity, the stage and the water was “ridiculous.” Cody said insurance costs were also more expensive in North Carolina than in Tennessee, where he eventually moved the event.
Regardless of the festival grounds’ somewhat lackluster revenues, there are still some who are optimistic about its future.
Joe Moody, who serves on the board of directors for the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said the festival grounds is a great venue even if it isn’t a moneymaking venture. Moody said the grounds is successful in supporting local businesses.
In his opinion, a full-time festival director would be valuable for the entire county and could be pursued as a joint effort.
“It should be rolled together,” Moody said. “[The director] needs to be able to sell the whole county, not just Maggie Valley.
Graham County delivered yet another jolt to the three-month debate over who should provide emergency services to Deal’s Gap, a motorcycle mecca in a satellite portion of Swain County that sees serious wrecks each year.
Graham commissioners voted 3-2 at its latest meeting to stop providing rescue and law enforcement to the Swain County territory starting Jan 1. Graham routinely handled all emergency calls to the remote area as a favor to Swain, but grew tired of providing the service and demanded $80,000 annually from Swain as compensation. Swain refused, however, prompting Graham’s surprise move to end services.
“The negotiations just don’t seem to be going anywhere,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “They need to realize that that is their county. If they are genuinely concerned, they’re going to have to get out their checkbook. We can’t continue to do it for nothing.”
Since Swain doesn’t seem eager to pay up, Odom suggests that a part of the $195,000 Swain gets in property taxes from Deal’s Gap be used to set up an EMS substation to ensure quick response times once Swain has to take over the calls. It currently takes Swain from 45-50 minutes to reach the Deal’s Gap area.
At Monday’s county commissioner’s meeting, Swain County Manager Kevin King said the cost of installing such a substation in Deal’s Gap would be “astronomical” considering that there are only 34 homes and businesses in the area. The emergency calls to the area, however, stem from hordes of tourists riding sports cars and motorcycles on the famed twisty roads in the region known as the Hellbender and Tail of the Dragon.
One possible solution is to expedite the setup of a proposed substation in the western part of Swain County, which would cut response times to Deal’s Gap to 35-40 minutes. King said Blount County in Tennessee has comparable response times to similar wrecks on the other side of the state border near Deal’s Gap.
Glenn Jones, chairman of the Swain County Board of Commissioners, said while that response times may not be the best at first, the county would “iron the kinks out” in time.
At the same meeting, Graham County also voted unanimously to end trash pickup services for Deal’s Gap, breaking a $21,000 annual contract with Swain County. While Graham claimed the service actually costs close to $36,000, Jones said he doubts the bill will go over a third of the original $21,000.
Swain County had contracted that service out to Graham since its garbage trucks pass by the Deal’s Gap area anyway. But King said he will now look at how Swain County can take over the garbage pickup services itself.
Swain continues to point out that it responds to calls in the Graham County portion of the Tsali Recreation Area, a popular area for mountain bikers, and provides ambulance transport for Graham residents who end up in Swain’s hospital — both of which balance out Graham’s assistance in Deal’s Gap, Swain claims.
Another unanimous vote from Graham at its last meeting, however, resolved to take over the transport of its residents from Swain County Hospital to other area hospitals.
Meanwhile, Swain County plans to continue providing services in the Tsali area.
During the negotiations, Swain had offered to station an ambulance in Deal’s Gap during heavy traffic weekends and give Graham a discount to house any overflow prisoners in the Swain jail, offering to charge $40 instead of $50 per day. The offer was somewhat self-serving, as Swain would like to lure Graham to house prisoners in its new jail, which is struggling financially.
Odom said Graham County is still open to hearing other offers from Swain before the year’s end.
While Swain County Commissioners have not voted yet on a resolution on Deal’s Gap, no one brought up the idea of renegotiating with Graham at the latest meeting.
“It’s kind of like we’re beating a dead horse,” said Jones. “I think they know and we know, we don’t have $80,000.”
Move over rabbits, it’s cats that multiply like crazy in Haywood County. According to the Haywood Animal Welfare Association, there are about 12,000 lost or stray cats in the county, nearly a fifth of the Haywood’s total human population.
To help curb growth of the “community cat” population, HAWA recently received a $10,000 grant from PetSmart Charities. The grant will fund spay/neuter surgery for about 200 stray cats.
Penny Wallace, HAWA president, said sterilizing the cats will make a “significant dent” in their numbers by the end of 2010.
In addition to sterilization, the cats will be vaccinated against rabies, treated for parasites, and have their left ear “tipped,” or squared off to show they’ve already gone through the trap, neuter and return process.
Since launching the pilot program, HAWA has been learning about the explosion of “cat colonies” across the county.
“Daily we’re learning about colonies of 20 or more cats,” said Wallace. “There are huge numbers of people in our county feeding the cats who won’t turn them over to the shelter because of euthanasia. Many of these people have been spaying and neutering the colony cats on their own dime for years.”
Susan Kumpf, a field coordinator and volunteer for HAWA, is currently working with “cat colony caregivers” to humanely trap the cats before transporting them to Humane Alliance for the spay or neuter surgery.
Kumpf said it’s vital to establish a relationship with the cat caregivers since they can aid greatly in trapping the cats that trust them most.
“Sometimes we set them up with traps, stand back and let them do the whole thing,” said Kumpf.
The caregivers, who are usually retired people, those with fixed incomes, and cat lovers in general, have been very cooperative with the program so far — only after they are reassured that the cats will be returned.
“You have to really exude trust and shared care about the animals,” Kumpf said.
Two such caregivers, Ruth and Bill Green of Waynesville, started off feeding a couple of cats that seemed to be starving to death. Now, they take care of approximately 30 cats in their colony.
“We got more than we can handle,” said Bill. “I couldn’t name them all to save my life.”
Bill and Ruth have named a few of their favorites, however. Both say they have never gotten sick from handling the cats.
Though cat lovers obviously have the interest of community cats at heart, they do face some stiff opposition from those who prefer birds.
The American Bird Conservancy states that free-roaming cats kills hundreds of millions of birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians each year. They are exposed to injury, disease and parasites and are capable of transmitting diseases and parasites like rabies.
The ABC launched the “Cats Indoors!” Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats in 1997 to advocate keeping cats indoors, in an outdoor enclosure, or trained to go outside on a harness and leash.
According to the ABC, managed cat colonies don’t always decrease in size because cats that have been spayed or neutered, vaccinated and regularly fed will also live longer. Cat colonies also attract more cats, whether it’s because of the food provided daily or because the colonies serve as a “dumping grounds” for unwanted cats.
While Wallace admits that the community cats do kill birds, she pointed out that they also handle the vermin population very well.
“The real danger is when they’re not spayed or neutered,” said Wallace. “They expand exponentially.”
Swain County Manager Kevin King has an ambitious idea for finally addressing the years-old issue of animal control, or lack thereof, in the county.
King would like to set aside some money to hire an animal control officer to handle the most serious calls and to possibly share a new facility for animal control with PAWS, a nonprofit that runs a no-kill shelter in Bryson City.
“We get a call at least three or four times a week concerning animal issues,” said King at Monday’s Swain County Commissioners meeting.
The county currently has no animal shelter other than the nonprofit PAWS, which is perpetually full. It also has no animal control officer to collect strays. The county had contracted with a private agency to make weekly rounds through the county to pick up strays, but the $20,000 arrangement was terminated.
Although the county is cash-strapped, King said the county could spare $10,000 for a 10-hour a week in-house position.
For now the lack of any attempt by the county to provide animal control has left PAWS to shoulder the entire burden of stray animals, overwhelming the small nonprofit shelter that relies solely on donations.
King said he has explored a diverse slew of options and is recommending a joint venture with PAWS to run an animal shelter. PAWS could house an adoption center on one side with county animal control on the other. King estimates that it would take at least $100,000 to get everything off the ground on the new facility. Although King has searched high and low for two years to find grants to fund the project, he said they simply are not out there.
King emphasized that the county should get moving on the animal control issue since the matter has been left in its hands indefinitely.
County Commissioner Phil Carson agreed with King.
“We have to start somewhere,” Carson said.
While the county has no leash law, people who meet up with a vicious dog outside the owner’s property can address a letter to Linda White, health director for Swain County. If White deems the animal potentially dangerous, it must be confined or kept on a leash and muzzled when taken outside. White said she makes routine visits to these dog owners’ households just to make sure that the guidelines are being followed. She also administers rabies vaccinations every time there’s a bite or a complaint.
“There’s a lot of dangerous dogs in Swain County,” White said. “It’s a very time-consuming effort.”
King suggested the new animal control officer could report to a seven-member board that would include the sheriff, the health director, a veterinarian, and others. The commissioners have asked King to keep refining the plan and report back to them at the next meeting.
The Haywood Tourism Development Authority announced some good news last week for all those miffed by the incorrect spelling of “Smoky” on its official Web site’s address.
The TDA has put up $14 to buy a new URL, www.visitncsmokies.com, to eventually replace the old address, www.smokeymountains.net. Jay Sokolow, who helps market the TDA, said the new URL is advantageous for multiple reasons.
“It’ll be much more recognizable, memorable,” Sokolow said.
For starters, there’s the use of an action word “visit.” Another improvement is the phrase “NC.”
“It really reflects and addresses a concern of the TDA that the Smokies are more heavily associated with Tennessee than North Carolina,” Sokolow said.
But the improvement that may stick out most to sticklers for correct spelling is the nixing of “Smokey” in the site address — which incorrectly boasts the letter “e”.
“They don’t want people to think we don’t know how to spell Smokies,” said Sokolow.
Having a .com ending rather than a .net is also beneficial since most of the well-known Web sites have that suffix, Sokolow said.
Until the new site is fully set up, visitors to www.visitncsmokies.com will be redirected to the existing site. The TDA will soon begin to use the new site address in its marketing materials, literature, and the visitor’s guide.
In addition to news of the new URL, Sokolow said his marketing company would try to decrease dependence on Google Adwords while optimizing SEO terms. In plain speech, that means the TDA will try to help online searchers find its site more easily with tactical placement of keywords, rather than via pay-per-click advertisements that show up at the top of Google search results for those very same words.
Still, the TDA will have to continue paying to show up on top when it comes to such generic terms like “Smoky Mountains,” and even “Smokey Mountains” since there are so many business names and Web sites that include those particular words.
Other keywods the TDA has purchased in the past include “Ghost Town,” “North Carolina Mountains,” and “NC getaways.”
Sokolow said while Google Adwords clients must only pay up when someone actually clicks on the link to their pages, it would be best to pay nothing and have the page show up “organically” in search results.
According to Sokolow, the TDA has spent a ceiling of almost $2,500 a month on Google Adwords alone.
Small business expert Tom Shay told local store owners in Franklin, Sylva and Waynesville that recessions are good for one thing: weeding out the weak.
“A recession is a wonderful thing,” said Shay. “It clears the landscape.”
At the same time, Shay doesn’t advocate a cutthroat approach when it comes to keeping downtowns alive. During a presentation in downtown Waynesville last week, he advised small businesses to work together.
Shay, who has 25 years of experience in family business, was brought to the three towns to offer expert advice to local entrepreneurs to help them prosper in rough economic times.
One of Shay’s tips was to become actively involved with the downtown association, speaking up at meetings and providing input as events are organized and promoted.
“When the vote’s taken, shut up and participate,” said Shay, prompting applause from some audience members.
Charlie Trump, who co-owns Olde Brick House Country Store in Waynesville, said he always sees the same six or seven people at Downtown Waynesville Association meetings.
“If more people would come, we would have more of a voice,” said Trump.
Shay said he would also like to see small business owners offering their own expert advice to each other.
For example, Shay asked Edward Sullivan, co-owner of The Chocolate Bear in Waynesville, to offer his decades of branding and design experience to area businesses that need it.
Sullivan said he has already done so in the past, but he thinks the ultimate key is for a business to care deeply about presentation.
“You get out of it what you put in it,” said Sullivan. “I think it shows here how much effort we put into the store.”
Shay’s other advice included keeping in constant contact with existing customers through e-mails or postcards, looking for new opportunities as other businesses close, letting go of unproductive employees to take advantage of a bigger job pool, predicting monthly profit and loss a year out in advance, and continuing advertising even in tough times.
“Stopping your advertising to save your money is like stopping your clock so that you can save time,” Shay said.
Shay also advised storeowners to not allow gloomy news in the media to dictate their business plan.
While some business owners voiced opinions in favor of forming a merchant’s association at the meeting, Shay said smaller towns would be better off with just one organization.
At the Waynesville presentation, he said there simply are not enough people to justify so many associations.
“It’s like the quarterback taking the ball from the center,” said Shay. “Hey, if you’re gonna fight, get someone in a different jersey.”
Margaret Osondu, owner of Osondu Booksellers in Waynesville, agreed with Shay and said it would be better for the town to have only one organization.
“We could support each other better,” said Osondu.
As it stands, there’s a merchant’s association for the Frog Level district, a Waynesville Gallery Association, and a Waynesville Downtown Association.
Outside of the official presentation, Shay offered some creative advice during his one-on-one sessions with local businesses in the three towns.
Shay suggested Olde Brick House make the switch to some “mood lighting,” a move that would create a better ambiance while lowering energy costs.
Over at The Chocolate Bear, Shay asked Sullivan to try to stimulate all five senses with his store offerings. Sullivan almost had all bases covered but was missing something from the smell category. Sullivan said he might add waffle cones to his gelato store next door to help lead customers into the store by their noses.
Shay suggested that David Lewis, owner of The Glass Shoppe in Franklin, change his product offerings to better reflect the needs of his customers in this economy.
“We’ve gone from a lot of new construction to remodeling,” said Lewis. “We need to adapt to what’s going on around us.”
Lewis said he came in to have a talk with his employees to catch them up to speed and impart the importance of providing good customer service.
“We need to concentrate on being more customer-oriented, for everybody from the low guy to the high guy,” Lewis said.
Osondu said after her session with Shay, she is considering putting a book cart outside her store or holding a sidewalk sale to bring in more people, especially locals.
Osondu said Shay’s visit was well-timed since the recession has definitely hit home.
“It’s a very scary time,” Osondu said. “We’re always trying to figure out how to get people downtown.”
Becky Trump, who co-owns Olde Brick House, said though customers continue to steam into her store, they are markedly buying “smaller dollar” items.
Despite Shay’s claims that he was not a motivational speaker, he ended the presentation with an adage that reflected a positive way of viewing the recession: “It’s not about waiting for the storm to pass; it is about learning to dance in the rain.”
After years of fruitlessly demanding fire protection from a local volunteer fire department, homeowners on Buck Knob Island in the middle of Lake Glenville are finally inching toward their goal.
So far, the state fire marshal’s office has assessed the situation and provided recommendations to local officials on how to cope with the sticky situation.
Jackson County Manager Ken Westmoreland has instructed the county fire marshal to come up with a cost estimate for providing fire protection to the island, while Cashiers Fire Chief Randy Dillard said he hopes to have a proposal for fire protection ready within a couple of weeks.
Dillard did not provide any other comment since Buck Knob homeowners have threatened legal action in the past.
Jackson County commissioners had planned to discuss the issue at their meeting in Cashiers on Monday, but the meeting was cancelled due to bad weather.
According to Brian Colona, president of the Buck Knob Homeowners Association, Jackson County would like to see a comprehensive plan that addresses fire protection not just for Buck Island, but also for two other islands on Lake Glenville: a smaller island that houses only one residence, and another island that is yet to be developed but can accommodate 10 to 12 homes.
The final decision about fire protection, however, rests with the Cashiers/Glenville Fire Department’s nonprofit board of directors, since Jackson County is not the entity that provides those services.
Jackson County, which does contribute significantly each year to fire departments across the county, is currently acting as mediator to hopefully settle the dispute between the fire department and the Buck Knob Homeowners Association.
One possible solution is to purchase fireboats, which can effectively tame fires on islands as long as each home lies within 1,000 feet from the lakeshore. Kristin Milam, spokeswoman for the state fire marshal, said such is the case for houses on Buck Knob.
“If the fire department can successfully purchase one of those, that would solve a lot of problems,” said Milam.
But a fire protection consultant the homeowners hired earlier concluded that a fireboat would not provide adequate service to most of the homes on the island, according to Colona. The fireboat may not provide full coverage for the three lots that sit high at the crown of the island and only partial coverage for the 16 lots ringing the island’s perimeter.
“The main concern and problem with the fireboat is that it’s limited,” said Colona. “The fireboat would provide no protection to the back side of the homes.”
The consultant’s suggestion was to install a high capacity pump permanently on the island, so it could easily draw water from Lake Glenville. The consultant also recommended that fire hydrants be strategically placed throughout the island.
Colona said a fire truck and all equipment could be stored on the island, so that only the firefighters would have to be transported to Buck Knob, speeding up response times. The homeowners are willing to put up community land for that purpose.
The Buck Knob Homeowners Association has even offered use of two boats to rush firefighters out to the island, which lies just 250 yards from the shore. Colona said that the fire department indicated that it would instead maintain its own boats to ensure that they meet state standards.
Property owners on Buck Knob have campaigned to bring fire protection there for years not only to improve safety, but also to lower homeowners’ insurance costs.
The island has the lowest fire protection rating of class 10, which inevitably equates to higher charges for homeowner’s insurance.
The Cashiers/Glenville Fire Department has said that Buck Knob, however, is not the only area in Jackson County with such a rating. The department would not state where else in their coverage area has a rating of 10.
Buck Knob homeowners have argued that as taxpayers, they should be provided what they consider a basic service. Colona said that Buck Knob homeowners contributed about $48,000 in taxes in 2008 and a total of about $130,000 from the three-year period prior to 2008.
The Macon County committee charged with proposing regulations for building on steep slopes is still swimming in a sea of ideas but has agreed on one point. It will incorporate landslide hazard maps into a proposed ordinance, though the maps won’t be the end-all, be-all.
“If we based it totally on that, I think we would be leaving out a lot of issues,” said Al Slagle, chairman of the committee and planning board member.
“I think everybody wants to see the risk maps used as a cross-reference,” said Susan Ervin, who serves on the committee and the planning board. “It’s very clear there’s going to be some kind of coordination.”
The high-resolution topographic maps pinpoint exactly where landslides have occurred in the past, where they are likely to occur in the future, and how far they might travel if they occur. The North Carolina Geological Survey will eventually create maps for every mountain county to better identify high-risk areas.
While the maps have been available for curious eyes at Macon County’s GIS office, as well as online, since 2006, they have not been formally integrated into the slope development process so far.
Members of the slope development strategies committee said the maps could come in handy for deciding which sites require technical study before development occurs. Other counties that have tackled similar ordinances have not had the luxury of such maps while making the major decision of which thresholds would trigger regulation.
Macon County currently has no regulations for steep slope construction. Developers and contractors can build on slopes as steep as they like without consulting with engineers or geotechnical experts.
Committee members said the ideal ordinance would not crush development on slopes with an iron fist. Rather, it would allow for safer, better-informed development.
“It’s not that those things can’t be done. It’s got to be done right,” said John Becker, a committee member and local Realtor.
Rick Wooten, senior geologist at the N.C. Geological Survey, said the landslide hazard maps could be helpful in this capacity.
“If you’re building a house, this can tell you the areas where it makes sense to take a close look at the landscape,” Wooten said.
In many cases, the path to improving safety can be as simple as moving a house 20 or 30 feet to one side.
Nevertheless, the landslide hazard maps are only one part of the equation.
“The maps are useful, but it still requires boots on the ground,” said N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who has spearheaded a campaign to require minimal slope development ordinances for all counties in Western North Carolina.
While looking at where landslides are likely to strike can be valuable, the committee is considering other criteria, like the slope’s steepness and soil composition, both of which can affect safety.
The committee analyzed similar ordinances in Haywood and Jackson counties, as well as White County in Georgia, before beginning work on one for Macon County.
One idea floating around is to create no regulations for slopes under a 30 percent grade, mandate that the county conduct an in-house study to determine the need for a geotechnical investigation for 30 to 40 percent slopes, and call for an engineer or design professional to study slopes above 40 percent. Falling into unstable territory, as determined by the landslide hazard maps, would also require a technical inspection.
Others on the committee prefer a lower threshold for triggering the regulations. The in-house county oversight would kick on slopes greater than 25 percent, and mandatory engineering would be required on slopes over 35 percent.
Making data available
Traditionally, development in Macon County occurred in more accessible, gentle lying areas. But with an increasing number of second homes, as well as innovations in engineering, there has been more and more building on steep slopes and ridges.
“That’s likely to continue, so we would like it to be done in a way that did not endanger the people building those [and] people living in proximity,” said Ervin, who added that the county should not invest in public infrastructure for “unstable” projects.
But when it comes down to it, Ervin admits the committee is evaluating development on a “pretty low percentage of private properties,” since most of the steepest slopes in Macon County lie within the Nantahala National Forest..
“The risks really are quite low,” said Reggie Holland, another committee member and president of the Macon County Home Builder’s Association. “If it happens, the danger is quite high.”
According to Wooten, many of Macon County’s debris flows occurred on the east facing slopes of the Nantahala Mountains.
In case the landslide hazard maps are not incorporated into the ordinance, they would still serve an important function by helping forecast where landslides may occur.
“They’re very useful to have,” said Joshua Pope, GIS coordinator for Macon County. “It’s like predicting weather. It’s not set in stone, but watching The Weather Channel is still useful.”
And as always, they are available to anyone who wants to take a look.
“Aside from regulations, the most important thing is that people have that information,” said Stacy Guffey, committee member and former county planner. “We have this information, we should use it.”
The reason Macon County has this resource in the first place is because it suffered the most severe damage from the 2004 hurricanes in WNC, according to Wooten.
The Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005 required the maps to eventually be created for all counties in WNC.
Each set of landslide hazard maps has taken a year to complete, with three counties finished up so far: Macon, Watauga and Buncombe.
The N.C. Geological Survey is currently working on landslide hazard maps for Jackson and Henderson counties. It will take at least a year to finish the maps for Jackson County, Wooten said.
Pending final approval and funding from Raleigh, the agency will study Haywood County after maps are completed for Henderson and Jackson counties.
The cost of regulations
After the landslide at Peeks Creek in 2004 claimed five lives, Macon County became well aware of the dangers of locating development on hazardous areas.
“We don’t want to see another Peeks Creek going on — ever,” said Becker. “Profit shouldn’t go before safety.”
Still, Becker said he would like to see an ordinance that ensures the safety of Macon County residents without imposing too many rules and regulations.
Teresa Murray, president of the Franklin Board of Realtors, said Realtors do have concerns but understand that something needs to be done.
“There’ll be some costs no doubt when it comes into play,” said Murray. “Hopefully, we can have an ordinance that benefits everyone.”
Requiring technical studies to evaluate dangers obviously would tack on to the cost of developing, but Rapp reminded real estate agents that it would be beneficial to sell property on a steep slope five or six times rather than sell it once and have it torn apart by a landslide.
Initially, Rapp hoped Realtors would be required to inform clients about properties that lie in areas prone to landslides.
“I’m willing to compromise on that as long as we require that the structures be built safely,” said Rapp. “If you’re doing it right from the beginning, then it takes the fire out of this issue.”
Rapp said he will continue to push for legislation that mandates those minimum slope development ordinances in Western North Carolina.
“It’s so fundamental. It’s so basic,” said Rapp. “It’s hard for me to fathom why people will be opposed to it, other than we’re talking about serious, big dollars that can be impacted.”
Rapp said the next big challenge is to make sure homeowner’s insurance for landslides is made widely available.
What other counties are doing
As Macon County crafts its first set of steep slope building regulations, one issue confronting planners is when the regulations should kick-in. Other counties with steep slope ordinances faced a similar debate: what is the treshhold for triggering oversight?
• Macon County has the benefit of state landslide hazard maps, which will play a role in determining that treshhold. Other counties didn’t have such maps when crafting their ordinance, and instead rely solely on the slope.
• Jackson: Steep slope ordinance applies on slopes with a grade of more than 30 percent.
• Haywood: Steep slope ordinance applies on slopes with a grade of more than 35 percent.
• Swain: No steep slope building regulations.
• Proposed state bill: A state bill that has been percolating in the legislature would require builders to consult an engineer when building on slopes that exceed a threshold of 40 percent.
With much controversy circling around how to conduct the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a conference at Lake Junaluska this weekend will instead focus on how to bring about lasting peace.
The second annual Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, scheduled for Sept. 20 to 22, promises to stimulate a deep dialogue among followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as encourage everyone involved to be effective “peace builders” in their local communities.
The conference will be held at Lake Junaluska, which may come as no surprise to those peacemakers who already live in the community. The lake has long been an epicenter for peacemaking efforts, as well headquarters for organizations that support those endeavors like the Lake Junaluska Assembly and the World Methodist Council.
Jimmy Carr, director of the Lake Junaluska Assembly, said the lake is a kind of “magnet” for people who care about making the world better.
And while striving for peace can sometimes be tied to religious and political themes, Haywood County peacemakers are anxious to include people of all backgrounds.
“It’s kind of hard for one group to bring about peace by itself,” said Carr. “You need to have persons of other faiths besides just the Christian faith if we’re going to really be sincere.”
In accordance with that idea, many of the peace activists in Haywood County, from middle school kids to 20-somethings to the retired population, say they are not driven solely by religious or political views.
Rather, their vision is fixed on achieving peace on a much grander scale, whether it’s improving daily interactions between friends and neighbors here or ending violence definitively thousands of miles away.
Working toward unity
After Wright Spears, a Lake Junaluska resident, came up with the idea for a peace conference at Lake Junaluska, a grassroots movement quickly materialized to turn his vision into reality.
“It was a group of people about two years ago who decided the church had been way too silent in the midst of war and violence, and we needed to be speaking out,” said Carr.
Now, the conference is an annual event, with plans for peace conferences in 2010 and 2011 already in the works.
Attendees this year will learn how scriptures and practices from each of the three Abrahamic faiths promote peace. Speakers at the conference include Archbishop Elias Chacour, a native Palestinian who was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize; Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow, one of the 50 most influential American rabbis according to Newsweek magazine; and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, the national director of interfaith and community alliances for the Islamic Society of North America.
Syeed said there’s been a more pressing need to achieve mutual understanding after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“There is so much negative stereotyping,” he said. “There are extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq who are giving a bad name to the religion of Islam. That’s why it’s critical that our partners and neighbors understand that those extremists do not represent Islam.”
He said there are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims in the world with 57 countries having a Muslim majority.
“If every Muslim were a terrorist, then the world would have ended a long time ago,” he said.
Syeed said we must understand what went wrong and focus on the core of each religion and build on that, rather than focusing on differences and all that has gone wrong in the past.
“We want religion to play a major role in promoting brotherhood, friendship, values, [and] to help fight against injustices,” he said.
Garland Young, chair of the Peace Conference Committee, said he hopes the conference will help people of different faiths move beyond just tolerance to real acceptance and understanding of each other.
“Tolerance kind of says we’re going to put up with each other,” said Young.
Ambassador for peace
When it comes to peacemaking, Waynesville resident Joe Hale ranks among such notables as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Kofi Annan. All five, along with many others, have been distinguished recipients of the World Methodist Council’s Peace Award, which recognizes those who strive for peace with courage, creativity and consistency.
Hale had personally presented the awards to some of the world’s most famous peacemakers for 25 years as general secretary of the World Methodist Council before being surprised with the award himself after retiring.
The peace award went to Hale for his dedication to making sure the voice of the Methodist Church was heard in opposition to apartheid, reconciling national churches in conflict, and promoting peace with justice in the Middle East.
Despite the breadth of his accomplishments, Hale is quick to deflect attention away from himself to pay homage to other recipients of the award.
“They were all great people who had a vision of a better world, of people living in peace,” Hale said. “They were people of real quality and very modest.”
Hale said the award recipients had wide-ranging visions and did more than just make a speech here and there.
But according to Hale, it doesn’t really take someone extraordinary to strive for peace.
“It just takes sensitivity to others and a concern for others. It’s something we can all do,” he said.
Some students from Waynesville Middle School and Tuscola High School have taken that message to heart. They spent all day this past Saturday washing cars and selling baked goods as well as handmade jewelry at the K-Mart parking lot. They weren’t fundraising for a trip, sports equipment or for that matter, anything that would benefit them directly.
The $531 they raised will go toward buying 2,124 meals that they will bag themselves to ship off to the other side of the world. The students are well on their way to achieving their goal of 10,000 meals that will serve as school lunches in impoverished areas of the world.
Their hope is that parents will more likely send kids to schools to get that one good meal a day. In return, the kids will receive an education, hopefully breaking a cycle of poverty that sometimes breeds violence.
Inspiration for the fundraiser came from the students’ participation in PeaceJam, an international program that connects youth to Nobel Peace laureates and asks them to create their own local projects to address some major global issues.
“The idea that the laureates have put out is that peace is not just the absence of war,” said Frank Pollifrone, a teacher at Waynesville Middle School who helped organize PeaceJam here. “As long as there is hunger and poverty and people don’t have access to clean water and education, there will never be world peace because there’s suffering.”
Pollifrone said the Stop Hunger Now campaign will have a marked impact on the kids this year.
“Kids physically get to touch what they’re doing,” Pollifrone said. “They’re holding it, it’s tangible. They’re not just sending money off.”
The local PeaceJam program launched last year at Waynesville Middle School. The eighth-grade students who participated mentored sixth-graders, collected items for 100 hygiene kits to donate to a local homeless shelter, and raised enough money to buy 50 LifeStraws, or water purifiers, to send to people in developing nations without access to safe water.
Some of the eighth-graders who participated last year have enthusiastically signed up for the PeaceJam program that just started this year at Tuscola High.
“I liked it a lot last year,” said ninth-grader Maddy Thurman. “It was really fun to know you were actually doing something.”
“It really meant a lot, showing kids our age care,” said Morgan Trantham, another ninth-grader, who added that it’s important for young people to learn about pressing global problems now and work toward fixing them when they become older.
Thurman also realizes the need to stay active all throughout life. “When you’re little, you believe in things,” she said. “When you’re older, you can come back to that. It’s just so much wasted time in between. We can do a lot, too.”
Next on the agenda for the students is helping to start more PeaceJam programs, including at schools in Cherokee and Macon counties, and even Jamaica.
Peacemaking every day
Haywood Peace Fellowship plans to start mentoring local students involved in PeaceJam, as well as those who attend Western Carolina University, as part of its efforts to encourage peacemakers in the region. In addition, the peace fellowship is sponsoring the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference this year.
Coincidentally, the fellowship had its roots in a 1987 peace conference between Haywood County residents and citizens from the Soviet Union. Its objective is to provide a forum for those who are interested in peace and justice and to deepen understanding of local, national, and global issues.
At its monthly meetings, the fellowship learns about and discusses solutions to controversial issues like illegal immigration.
Diana Warren, chair of the fellowship, said the organization as a whole, however, does not take a position on political issues, though she has no objections to some of the members being vocal on their own.
“I think it’s important to express your opinions to others. The important thing is that you can do everything in a nonviolent way,” said Warren. “If you avoid violence, you have more of an opportunity to communicate and potentially reach a middle point.”
Warren said achieving peace is not necessarily a lofty goal. It can be something as simple as feeling a sense of calmness that helps one better understand co-workers, family members, and friends.
“You could reduce abuse among people if people could remove that anger and hatred and the desire to lash out physically against someone,” said Warren. “We could reduce the amount of gang violence, reduce the need for drugs if people had that calm and content attitude.”
Warren said anybody could become an advocate for peace by not immediately throwing up a barrier to understanding what another person is saying.
“We may have built in our minds barriers and prejudices toward a thought or an idea,” she said. “If we can push those back, be open, give eye contact, we can have more of an open dialogue.”
Illegal temporary signs are so commonplace in Waynesville that Byron Hickox — the town’s land use manager — does a sign sweep once every week.
Hickox drives around the main thoroughfares, grabbing any sign that is not allowed and amassing a collection of banners, sandwich boards and small, plastic posters on stakes. The signs proliferate so rapidly that on a recent sign sweep, Hickox saw a new sign had cropped up exactly where he had carried one away just an hour earlier.
“There will never be a day when every temporary sign is picked up,” Hickox said at a town meeting last Tuesday.
It’s no wonder that Hickox is hoping the town board will make a change.
“You kind of hate to reopen that issue,” said Hickox. “But it may be time to do that.”
Hickox wants to see a fine system, especially since about three of every four signs he picks up are from repeat offenders.
“It doesn’t seem fair to the people who voluntarily follow the rules to pay for my time, wear and tear on the vehicle and gas to collect signs,” Hickox said. “The rule breakers ought to be the ones paying for the compensation.”
Hickox said the fine system shouldn’t “drop out of the blue sky,” and that proper publicity should be given so everybody knows the drop-dead date.
The town board can choose among three options: putting into place that fine system, changing the sign ordinance to make it less restrictive, or continuing with the status quo.
Waynesville Alderman Gary Caldwell said he objects to the idea of fines since it would disadvantage smaller businesses.
“I do have a real, real hard feeling for the little restaurants ... that just want to put out soup of the day,” said Caldwell.
Alderwoman Libba Feichter said the board should take action to make the situation more manageable, but she would not like to see a fine unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
“We can make it work for both extremes,” said Feichter. “We don’t want unlimited signage, and we don’t want our regulations to be punitive for small businesses.”
Sharon Wall, owner of Beau Monde Salon & Spa, admitted she was one of the habitual offenders Hickox mentioned, but for good reason.
“It does make a difference in my business whether that sign is there or not,” Wall said. “If it’s your payday, it’s very important.”
Compared to other communities, Waynesville’s sign ordinance is definitely on the more restrictive end of the scale. Several compromises were discussed. One was to allow temporary signs only for small businesses and only in certain parts of town. Another was to regulate the aesthetic appearance and placement of the temporary signs rather than ban them outright.
But Alderman Wells Greeley said his main concern is not the actual content of the ordinance.
“Whatever the code should be, if we’re consistent with it, I’d back it 100 percent,” said Greeley.
Charles Rathbone, a sign maker and owner of Sign World WNC, said the ordinance is too strict and could definitely use some clearing up.
“You think y’all are confused? This is my second career,” said Rathbone, who often calls Hickox to ask for clarifications on the sign ordinance.
What’s allowed and what’s not
Waynesville’s sign ordinance prohibits temporary signs, such as banners and sandwich boards. There are exemptions for certain kinds of temporary signs, however, including:
• Directional signs within a parking lot.
• Real estate signs, with only one sign per street frontage.
• Political signs, which can go up a maximum of 60 days before elections and must be taken down 14 days afterward.
• Construction company signs during construction.
• Garage sales signs on the property only.
The team of experts conducting an ecological assessment of Waynesville’s 8,600-acre watershed has collected so much data that they have had to hunt down a bigger software package that can actually handle the load.
“We cannot fit this on Excel,” said Dr. Peter Bates, the director of Western Carolina University’s natural resource and conservation management program who is heading up the study of the watershed.
One of three creekside stations that collect data on water quality every five minutes has already generated more than half a million data points.
As overwhelming as that sounds, Bates said the data is “good to have” as he updated Waynesville town board members at a meeting last week. Waynesville conserved its giant watershed several years ago, protecting the town’s pristine drinking water supply. The town engaged Bates and his team to develop baseline data that will gauge both water quality and forest health over time.
While the former has been relatively straightforward, the latter has been difficult to define, according to Bates.
“It’s a little more fuzzy than water quality,” Bates said. “It’s ambiguous how you actually quantify in numerical terms what a healthy forest is. What we’re trying to do is create or increase natural diversity.”
Bates said diversity is the key to healthy water, plants and animals.
According to him, cutting down white pine trees would actually help create that natural diversity, since those trees were never native to the watershed anyway. Waynesville residents planted them in the late 1800s and early 1900s to stabilize the soil after they started harvesting the land.
Now, the white pines are more harmful than helpful to the watershed, according to Bates.
“White pines are shading other trees out, keeping them from coming in,” Bates said. White pine themselves are stagnating because they were planted close together and compete for sunshine.
If these trees are cut down, the end result would be more sunlight, moisture and all-around vigor for native plants and the forest floor.
When Waynesville placed the watershed in a conservation agreement several years ago, town leaders reserved the right to cut trees on the property rather than create an untouchable lockbox.
The prospect of future logging has caused controversy in the past, but as leaders promised at the time, it won’t be happening any time soon. Waynesville officials are being deliberate and gathering as much public opinion as well as scientific data as possible before making any decisions.
“The trees aren’t going to be cut for a long time,” Bates said.
Bates said he’d like to see more yellow poplars, oaks and ash trees in the watershed, as well open savannah-like pine forests reestablished along the ridges.
In the meantime, the team studying the watershed will continue working toward a complete forest inventory to keep track of any changes in forest conditions over time.
The team has also observed that some culverts and improperly graded gravel roads were causing impure water to be channeled into the stream. The team has accordingly begun a study of every road-stream intersection in the watershed.
As the main coordinator of a comprehensive transportation plan for Macon County, Ryan Sherby faces a long road ahead of him.
Sherby and a local steering committee — with the help of public input — aim to determine the transportation projects that Macon County needs most.
The comprehensive transportation plan will look as far ahead as 25 years, also exploring alternative means of transportation like public transit, walking and biking.
The process is a joint effort undertaken by the towns of Franklin and Highlands, Macon County, the N.C. Department of Transportation, and Sherby’s organization, the Southwestern Rural Planning Organization. Sherby hopes to wrap up the process in 12 to 18 months.
As if the prospect of planning a quarter century in advance isn’t daunting just on its own, there’s also the task of winning the community’s trust.
At a public meeting last Thursday, Macon County residents voiced their concerns, exhibiting eagerness to engage in the comprehensive plan as well as skepticism about whether their opinions would actually be taken into consideration.
Some said the DOT turned a deaf ear to their protests against building a new road in the vicinity of Southwestern Community College and the Macon Library. The road was billed as improving access to the college and library, but in the process cuts through undeveloped land and spans the Little Tennessee River, all the while paralleling an existing road. Opponents lobbied for upgrading existing Siler Road instead of building a new one.
“I collected 500 signatures against the road,” said Sharon Taylor. “We were never given an opportunity to have any participation in the design and now it’s a 100-foot swath across the county ... without a bike lane.”
Sherby reassured the audience that things would be different this time around.
“The DOT is going through a transformation process, trying to be more accountable and engage the public more,” Sherby said. “They have not been sensitive to the public in the past, but I think they’re working toward that direction.”
Kay Coriell, president of the Friends of the Greenway, said officials from the DOT came in twice recently to ask for opinions on the bridge that will span the Little Tennessee and the greenway as part of the new road.
“It shows that they’re listening,” Coriell said, adding that whether they actually do anything after listening is anyone’s guess.
Throughout the meeting, Sherby repeatedly invited citizens to pick up his business card and give him a call or shoot him an e-mail to share their opinions about the plan. He has already collected more than 300 surveys on transportation issues from Macon County residents and will continue to accept those surveys until Oct. 1.
Macon County citizens have already filled out more than twice the total number of surveys submitted in Jackson County.
On the survey, respondents rate the importance of goals like safety, faster travel times, environmental protection, economic growth and alternative transportation. They also can indicate whether they support widening existing roads and building new ones versus improving the flow of traffic on existing roads — or both. Survey takers can also weigh in on the need for bike lanes, greenways and park-and-ride lots.
Citizens at Thursday’s meeting said they would like to see lanes widened to accommodate school buses, a commercial bus line into Asheville, more sidewalks, the creation of bike paths, and flexibility in design.
After gauging how local citizens want their transportation systems to evolve, Sherby and the steering committee will collect and analyze data. Next is formulating a vision statement, and the final step is coming up with a list of transportation projects to endorse.
Macon County’s comprehensive transportation plan will be the second in the western region of the state, following Jackson County’s lead. The Rural Transportation Planning Organization will eventually coordinate plans in Swain, Cherokee, Clay, and Graham counties as well.
A quiet gathering of people stood outside Haywood County’s courthouse on a recent Wednesday afternoon holding colorful signs and flags calling for peace. They waved back to smiling drivers who honked their car horns in support or gave thumbs up signs.
The scene has become a familiar part of every Wednesday for the protesters, who have stood their ground promoting the cause of peace at the same time every week for the last seven years.
“I am here to remind myself and others that the United States continues to participate in unnecessary and harmful military conflicts,” said Bob Kimzey, one of the regular demonstrators.
The informal group started showing up in front of the courthouse six months before the invasion of Iraq when war seemed almost inevitable, much to their displeasure. It began as a handful of friends, all women dressed all in black, protesting the war in silence. Men who also opposed the war joined them right away.
The numbers and makeup of the group have remained fluid, as some protesters have gone away to school, moved away, entered retirement homes, or even died.
But no matter who joins or who leaves, the group is devoted to delivering a message of peace, through every soldier and civilian death, through every twist and turn in the story of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, just hoping to raise awareness and make a difference.
Linda McFarland, who was a part of the inaugural group and continues to protest today, said she did not participate in protests against the Vietnam War as a college student but decided to get involved this time around.
“I tend to think of it more as a vigil, that we’re there to help people remember what’s going on,” McFarland said.
Regardless of how controversial these activists’ beliefs may be even now, they continually shy away from politics and partisanship in their protests — as difficult as that may be to achieve in the public eye.
Through all seven years, the protesters have never held partisan signs or worn T-shirts that support specific candidates.
“I’m a pacifist. I’m not big into politics,” said Dillon Roop, 22, who has attended the protests for three years now.
The activists say they have noticed increasing support from passersby since they started back in September 2002, though there’s still the occasional thumbs down or negative comment.
Some “flip us the bird,” said Roop, who chooses to respond by putting up a peace sign or blowing back a kiss. Fortunately, Roop said, most of the responses are positive.
McFarland said she sees no contradiction in simultaneously supporting the troops and still working to bring them home. Though there are people who disagree with the protesters’ views, McFarland said that is to be expected.
“We don’t expect 100 percent agreement,” she said. “It’s nice to have some people at least respond ... As people drive along, they probably see us ... Maybe they have a chance to think about the implications of what’s going on in the world.”
At the very least, the protests make a difference to the protesters themselves.
“There’s a sense of community among those that come,” she said. “A reassurance that even if it’s just a handful of us, that we make an effort to get there.”
Sarah MacEwen of Waynesville said she attended the protests for six months but stopped since her new work schedule prohibited her from continuing. MacEwen said younger people just don’t always have the time to devote to peace efforts.
Roop said he wished more people his age were striving for peace anyway, even if it is hard to ever imagine a world without war.
“I’m sure a lot of people our age that believe in peace,” said Roop.
“Maybe they’re Twittering,” said MacEwen.
The group will continue their demonstrations from 4 to 5 p.m. every Wednesday in front of Haywood County’s courthouse in Waynesville until the wars in the Middle East end.
With an economy still recovering from a recession, local businesses are reaching for ways to keep customers coming. Downtown associations in Franklin, Sylva and Waynesville will assist in those efforts by bringing in the expertise of a small business consultant.
Tom Shay, who has more than 25 years of experience in family business, will present “Strategies to Win in 2010” to motivate small businesses and educate them on how to survive the rough economy. Shay is scheduled to speak in all three towns, as well as meet one-on-one with local businesses to give individualized tips.
At his talk, Shay will address topics as diverse as promotions, customer loyalty, business management design, employee skills development, and financial control.
June Hernandez, chair of the Franklin Main Street Program and owner of Primrose Lane Gifts in Franklin, said she is looking forward to hearing what Shay has to say.
“I’m very anxious to have him come in,” said Hernandez. “We’re thinking of everything, but when you get in a situation like the economy’s in, it’s hard to think outside of the box.”
Hernandez said her store is still doing business, but her numbers are nowhere close to what they were even a year and a half ago.
She discovered at a small business forum last month that she was not alone. Businesses across the board, from thrift stores to gift shops, admitted they were struggling.
Hernandez said tough times have led merchants to team up rather than continue to compete with each other.
“I really see people pulling together,” said Hernandez. According to her, the focus has shifted from promoting a single business to encouraging shopping at local businesses in general.
“You do not have to go out of town to go shopping,” Hernandez said.
A local family has started a coupon book called Clip and Save to promote shopping in Macon and Jackson counties, while some shop owners have opted for joint advertisements that list multiple businesses to avoid covering the cost of the ads alone.
The Downtown Sylva Association is promoting The 3/50 Project, which asks members of the community to spend $50 a month at three of their favorite independently owned businesses.
“The community has got to support local small business,” said Julie Sylvester, executive director of the Downtown Sylva Association. “It’s great to have tourists, but if you really build a strong base locally, you don’t have to count on what’s going on in the world.”
According to Sylvester, Sylva’s downtown has definitely been hit hard by the economy,
“We had one business close last Monday. We’re hoping it’s not going to set a trend,” she said.
Waynesville’s downtown seems to be doing comparatively well, with some local businesses saying they have seen their numbers improve this year.
Melanee Lester, general manager at the Mast General Store in Waynesville, said sales have been up, but not by much.
“The economy is getting a little better,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a slow recovery, but it’s happening.”
Lester said the store has done more promotions and sales than usual to attract clientele this year.
Lindsey Ramsey, at Fifi’s Fine Resale Apparel in Waynesville, said they also held more sales this year. Ramsey said she noticed customer traffic during the Folkmoot festival was definitely slower, but August had been busier than expected.
Buffy Messer, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association, said even though sales may be “a little down,” the majority of businesses in downtown Waynesville were satisfied with their numbers.
Even so, many of the shoppers strolling down the Main Street in Waynesville Friday afternoon acknowledged their spending habits had changed.
Barbara Michael of Asheville said she had been shopping less overall. But when she does go out shopping, she prefers to go downtown.
“I always love Main Street. It’s just a lot more special to shop there than going to a big mall,” Michael said.
Lake Junaluska Assembly is asking Haywood County commissioners to help it land state grants for maintenance on the lake and dam.
The Assembly faces two major issues: repairs to the aging dam and sediment removal from the lake. An engineering study is needed for the spillways and gate controls in preparation for improvements to the dam.
Meanwhile, removing silt from the lake has become a regular maintenance chore every three to four years.
Lake Junaluska hopes to get $30,000 or 50 percent of the cost for the engineering from the state. The lake is seeking either $440,000 or 66.6 percent of the cost for the sediment removal project. In both cases the state would provide whichever is less.
The Assembly will pay for the rest from its own funds, according to Jimmy Carr, director of Lake Junaluska Assembly.
The Haywood County Board of Commissioners plans to vote on an endorsement of the application at its next meeting on Sept. 21, after wording on the proposal has been changed to ensure financial and legal responsibility for the projects rests solely with the Assembly. Once approved, Haywood County would request the state funds on the Assembly’s behalf.
The Assembly has already spent $3.3 million on renovating the dam over the past six years. While Carr says the dam is “very safe” and no critical improvements are needed, work on the dam is not over.
According to the Assembly, the spillway is not in as good a shape as hoped, but that there is no cause for alarm. The study would be part of a general effort to maintain the dam.
The goal of the proposed dam study is to have engineers determine the extent of problems with the spillway, so the Assembly can make financial and structural plans to fix them.
At the moment, the more costly project deals with sediment removal, with much of the expense going toward creating a disposal site on top of Sleepy Hollow Road on property the Assembly already owns.
While the cost of building such a site is “a big unknown,” the proposed disposal site could be used for decades to come, said Buddy Young, director of residential services, at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.
Since 2001, the Assembly has done extensive sediment removal from Lake Junaluska.
“In one year, we removed 5,500 loads of silt from the lake,” said Carr. If it isn’t removed, it could fill the lake up over time, Carr said.
As development has increased on mountain slopes in recent years, so has erosion. Sediment washing off construction sites and into creeks is ultimately deposited in Lake Junaluska downstream.
According to Carr, there has been a lot of community support, both from Haywood Waterways Association and county officials, to enforce erosion policies.
Haywood County commissioners have taken the first step in constructing a more than $1 million methane collection system at two landfills.
After two 4-1 votes, the board this week approved doling out $92,200 to McGill Associates to handle the design and permitting of the system at both the main White Oak landfill and old Francis Farm landfill. Construction is estimated at $600,000 at White Oak and $416,000 at Francis Farm.
The county hopes to score carbon credits for the project by neutralizing the methane that emanates from decomposing trash and is otherwise a volatile greenhouse gas. The carbon credits are a commodity that can be sold to industries seeking to offset their own emissions.
Besides carbon credits, the methane collection has the potential to generate a small amount of electricity. A school bus garage near Francis Farm landfill might easily hook up to this electricity if a generator is put in.
County Manager David Cotton estimates it would take five to seven years to pay off the methane collection system. After that, it would be all profit, he said.
“This is one of the few opportunities that we have to actually have the trash work for us,” said Cotton.
However, Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who was the sole commissioner to vote against the engineering proposal, was not convinced.
“I just don’t know enough about it,” said Ensley. “I got some questions in my mind. I don’t think it’s very good.”
Commissioner Bill Upton disagreed, saying that it was a small risk worth taking, while Commissioner Mark Swanger said installing the methane collection system would be unusually beneficial.
“In this instance, we’re being paid to do the right thing,” Swanger said.
The county hopes to stay ahead of federal legislation that could hurt the county’s chances of earning carbon credits for the project. If the Senate passes the American Clean Energy And Security Act of 2009, the methane system would be mandated and no longer considered voluntary, making it harder to sell carbon credits on the market. Ensley said the uncertainty makes the project “iffy.”
Health insurance reform has garnered a seemingly incongruous ally: the already well-insured workers of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
The association held a forum in Haywood County last week to educate state employees on exactly what the 1,017-page health care reform bill entails. The meeting at Haywood Community College was one of several held across the state. The organization did not publicize the meeting to the masses to avoid a big turnout by protestors, but as a result the audience was small, numbering fewer than two dozen.
Will Cubbison, health care campaign director for SEANC, said his organization supported health care reform even though its members have quality health care coverage.
“Many of the spouses and children of state employees are not covered,” Cubbison said.
Speakers rattled off a barrage of statistics to win over the audience, mentioning the million-dollar profits of BlueCross BlueShield, the thousands of people who die each year because they do not have insurance, and the immense amount of time and money insurance companies spend on administration. Meanwhile, they disputed claims raised by opponents that illegal immigrants and abortions would be covered under health insurance reform.
The SEANC representatives directly admonished Rep. Health Shuler, D-Waynes-ville, who does not support H.R. 3200.
Dr. Ed Morris from Macon County, who was a guest speaker at the forum, suggested health insurance for members of Congress should be suspended until a reform bill passed, prompting the audience to break out in applause.
Morris, a family physician, added that he has seen at least two dozen doctors move away from the Franklin area because so many of their patients were unable to pay for their care. Given the lower average income of residents in the mountains, doctors here write off up to 23 percent of their patients.
“So these doctors end up going to Charlotte or Atlanta or somewhere,” Morris said.
Chuck Stone, director of North Carolinians for Affordable Health Care, said while many in the past considered the institution of Medicare as a move toward socialism, Americans now don't think twice about the government-supported health care. Stone asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they opposed Medicare, but no hands went up.
According to Stone, the cost of doing nothing is far greater than reform.
“The current system is unsustainable,” Stone said.
Ever since the launch of the Yellow Bike Project in late August, a new bike culture has quickly sprung up around campus at Western Carolina University.
The student-led initiative, which makes a fleet of fixed-up bikes available to anyone who wants to get around campus, has worked well under an honor system.
Chris Holden, co-president of the WCU Cycling Club, said he and the other organizers had anticipated that some of the bikes would go missing, but said he hadn’t seen any bikes leave campus so far. Moreover, students seem to be respectful toward their borrowed rides.
“I see people trying to take care of the bikes. I haven’t seen people trying to beat them up,” Holden said.
Sophomore Jimmy Pease said he had used yellow bikes about 30 times before they had been out for even a week.
“I love it,” said Pease. “I will honestly look for one of these things rather than walking.”
Holden said within the first 10 minutes of the first day, he saw three people already riding by on the bikes, which operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“They’re a hot commodity,” said Holden.
The project’s success can be attributed to the hard work of three students: Stephen Benson, who graduated from WCU earlier this year, along with Holden and Zach Heaton, the other co-president of the WCU Cycling Club. The trio worked for nearly a year collecting donated bikes, many from the police impound on campus, and making repairs.
The final step was spray painting the bikes yellow, a color chosen because of its visibility and closeness to gold, one of WCU’s school colors.
Holden hopes the project will promote an active, healthy lifestyle, as well as provide a benefit to the environment by reducing the amount of driving on campus.
Benson’s other goal is to bring bicycles to anyone in the WCU community who has always wanted one.
“I have a lot of friends who want to get into biking. They just cannot afford a bike to ride,” Benson said. “This is a good way for people who don’t want to invest in a bike to have the opportunity to ride and figure out if they like it.”
Although there are about 10 bikes out on campus now, Holden hopes to see a fleet of 30 or 40 by the end of the year.
The program has already received an influx of donated bikes.
Despite the popularity of these yellow bikes, they aren’t exactly in excellent condition.
A sticker on the bike lets riders know what number to dial if any maintenance is required. Holden said within the first week, he received calls about flat tires and tune-ups. One bike lasted a mere 5 minutes after being launched.
While Pease said he wishes the bikes were in better condition, he is grateful that they are even available.
“These are perfect for what you need,” said Pease.
Amy Street thought she could finally afford health insurance this year. But that was before Street’s employer slashed 25 hours from her 40-hour work week.
Street, a 62-year old Waynesville resident, recently applied for retirement and social security benefits, but said while that would help, it’s simply not enough.
When Street was recently told she might have kidney cancer, she fretted about more than her health. She worried she would lose her car and her home trying to scrape up enough money to pay for expensive treatment. Even worse for Street was the possibility of no one being around to care for her disabled daughter.
“I was in shock. Sometimes, I cried. Sometimes, I said wait and see,” said Street.
Luckily, Street learned she did not have cancer, but her continuing kidney problems have driven her to seek on-going care at the Good Samaritan Clinic of Haywood County, one of the few free clinics in Western North Carolina. While she waited for her appointment on a recent afternoon, a fellow patient who did not want to be named said she found out she had cancer just the day before.
Patients like Street represent almost 19 percent of Haywood County residents who are uninsured, a figure that includes 1,400 children.
While the number who can’t afford health insurance is on the rise, free clinics like the Good Samaritan are facing economic woes of their own due to funding cuts, forcing them to scale back services at a time they are needed most.
The Good Samaritan Clinic, which has offices in Waynesville and Canton, has reduced services by 40 percent and is no longer accepting new patients, who once came in droves of 40 each week.
The clinic had 4,500 patient visits last year, but can only afford to see 2,590 this year due to financial constraints.
Haywood County cut half of its funding to the clinic last year and ceased its funding completely this year, although it still allows the clinic to use one of its buildings for just $1 a year.
Donda Bennett, executive director of the clinic, said there’s little the clinic can do but step up fundraising efforts.
“Our budget is cut and dry, as bare as you can make it,” Bennett said. “There’s nowhere to cut it and still provide quality health care.”
No free ride
At a time of increasing need, free clinics across the area have had to turn away patients.
“We’re seeing a huge number of new patients coming to the clinic. People that have either lost their job or lost their insurance or both,” said Jerry Hermanson, executive director of the Community Care Clinic of Highlands-Cashier. Patients there are now waiting as long as three weeks for their appointment, and though the clinic does allow walk-ins, it has had to send away patients “more and more,” Hermanson said.
Haywood County’s Health Department, which sees 1,000 mostly uninsured, Medicare and Medicaid patients each month, no longer offers clinic hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays and has eliminated five positions. The department’s budget has decreased to almost $4.9 million, compared to about $5.7 million last year.
While government support is important to free clinics, contributions from individuals are just as vital. The Community Care Clinic of Highlands-Cashier has seen donations from individuals fall 20 percent below what was budgeted this year.
The Good Samaritan Clinic of Haywood County is reaching out to individuals and local churches but is still below target.
“A lot of people just think, we’ve been around since 1999, so surely we’ve figured it out and are able to support ourselves,” said Bennett. “Some people might not just realize it totally depends on individuals and organizations.”
While securing grants would certainly help, these types of clinics face tough competition.
“Most grantors want to fund something new and innovative and fun,” said Bennett. But when free clinics can’t even afford basic operational costs, it’s hard to pursue creative projects like the ones that attract potential grantors
Becky Olson, executive director of the Good Samaritan Clinic of Jackson County, also acknowledged that securing grants has been a bigger struggle this year with less money and more competition.
“At this moment, I’m working on four different grants to get a little piece for here, a little piece for there,” she said. The clinic is also trying to get more doctors to volunteer to expand the clinic and accommodate the increase in demand for services.
Meanwhile, the Community Foundation of Western Carolina has recognized the needs of clinics like Good Samaritan and the Community Care Clinic, and provided assistance through its Recession Response grants.
And the Good Samaritan Clinic of Haywood County is receiving help from churches that have stepped up and added the clinic to their budgets.
Dalton’s Christian Bookstore in Waynesville is teaming up with the clinic for nearly three months, to offer customers an opportunity to donate to the clinic, while the clinic will go in and do blood pressure checks on customers.
Good Samaritan continues to give presentations to a lot of churches to hopefully raise awareness about the clinic’s existence, as well as its troubles.
Turning to the big guys
Good Samaritan has been in talks with Haywood Regional Medical Center for two months now to see if the hospital can contribute financially to the clinic, as well as donate medical and office supplies.
HRMC already donates thousands of dollars annually in free laboratory and radiological services to the clinic each year.
“The hospital really realizes that we are struggling right now. By us cutting services, it puts them in a situation where they have to see more people who are uninsured,” said Bennett.
For every patient who does not pay up for an emergency room visit, it costs the hospital an average of $400, according to Good Samaritan’s research.
Carole Larivee, a retired nurse who works part-time at HRMC and volunteers at Good Samaritan, said helping the clinic would be beneficial for the whole community.
“The hospitals can’t turn people away who come to the ER. By the time they get to the ER, treatment is very, very expensive because they had to wait so long,” Larivee said. “Even before I was with Good Samaritan, I would see people admitted to the hospital because they couldn’t go to the doctor for preventative care. They had to get very, very sick.”
By the time the patient got to the ER, it would sometimes be too late, she said. “Whereas, if they had been seen regularly, what was wrong with them could have been treatable.”
Hermanson said about 10 to 12 percent of patients at Community Care Clinic would go to the emergency room if the clinic were not open. But most of the patients he sees at the clinic do not say they would have rushed to the nearest hospital.
“We ask every patient on every visit, ‘If we weren’t here, where would you have gone?’” Hermanson said. “The vast majority of patients say we wouldn’t have sought treatment.”
Catch-22 for the underserved
Carmine Rocco, health director at Haywood County Health Department, emphasized the need for the public to do their best to stay healthy, especially now.
“As more folks become uninsured, it’s even more crucial now that people do what they can personally to help reduce the risk factors that they have control over,” said Rocco.
The underlying issue, though, is that uninsured people who face a chronic condition have trouble managing what would be easy to handle — if they could afford care.
“Most people don’t worry about prevention if they feel well,” said Hermanson. “They may be diabetic and not treating it. Promoting wellness is a great thing, but getting it accomplished is another.”
Hermanson said one of the first patients at his clinic came in with a blood sugar level of more than 500, when 105 is the highest end of normal.
“It’s people like that who end up in the emergency room,” he said.
Street confirmed that it has been difficult for her to stay healthy without insurance.
“It’s really frustrating because you want to be ahead of the game to keep yourself healthy, but you can’t afford to do that,” she said. “It’s disheartening.
Even when patients get in through the door at swamped clinics, some have concerns about the quality of care.
Cynthia Teesateski, 49, said she worried that health care available to the uninsured might not stand alongside the care offered to patients backed by insurance companies.
Street said the urologist she was referred to did not fully inform her about her kidney troubles. It was only after she hunted down information on the Internet that she discovered more about her condition and decided to schedule another appointment at Good Samaritan.
Even if she wonders sometimes about the care she receives at clinics, Teesateski said she glad to have someplace to go to – for now. “As I get older, what’s going to happen? Will I have any place to go?” she asked.
Donna Brooks, a 46-year old patient at Good Samaritan in Canton, said she doesn’t worry about the care she receives at the clinic she refers to as her “lifesaver.” She has even become good friends with her doctor there.
Brooks is an avid supporter of the clinic and hopes it will make it through the recession.
“There should be no reason for these clinics not to stay open,” Brooks said. “If they don’t, not only me, but hundreds of people, are going to be in a world of hell.”
Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is employing an ambitious new marketing strategy to lure tourists, and their dollars, to the region.
The plan calls for a narrowing focus on certain niche markets, as well as soliciting sponsorships from local businesses. The TDA will unveil five new “micro” Web sites to target what the tourism board believes are “key” markets next year: golf, motorcycles, wedding destination, military and cultural heritage.
Each micro site will be sponsored by a relevant local business whose ads will be prominently featured online.
“We’re just trying to narrow the focus a bit,” said Lynn Collins, executive director for TDA. “You can’t be all things to all people.”
Collins said the TDA also aims to attract a younger demographic since the traditional market is literally dying off.
“We have tremendous repeat business. Those folks are growing older,” said Collins. “We have to go out and regenerate it.”
Tourism revenue collected by the TDA went down 9 percent for the fiscal year ending in June compared to the previous year — largely due to recession-driven belt tightening among would-be travelers. The TDA brought in less then $1.1 million last fiscal year, generated by a 4 percent tax on overnight lodging, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion.
Another of the authority’s major goals is to attract tourists year-round. Collins said with Cataloochee Ski Area’s investment in high-tech snowmaking equipment, the ski and snowboarding season is starting earlier and lasting longer and hopefully driving more winter visitors. And when the snow is no more and flowers start blooming, the TDA hopes visitors will come then, too.
“We want to promote that as our other color season,” said Collins of the spring shoulder season.
The tourism authority is hoping local businesses will chip in with a multitude of sponsorship opportunities at the Balsam and Canton visitors centers. Local businesses can pay to plaster their logos on newly instituted staff uniforms or debut ads on a new 32-inch flat screen television, just to name a few.
But these businesses won’t be alone on stepping up on advertising. The tourism authority itself plans to splash its logo on a vehicle of its own. At its monthly meeting last week, the authority’s board of directors authorized the purchase of a vehicle to avoid paying out mileage to its employees.
At the meeting, Chairwoman Alice Aumen said the vehicle would be akin to a “traveling billboard.”
Catering to online trip hunters
The Haywood Tourism Development Authority hopes to save big on stamps this year with the launch of its first interactive digital visitors guide in January 2010.
TDA spent almost $48,000 in postage last year in bulk shipping, as well as mailing out individual guides to interested tourists, according to TDA Director Lynn Collins.
“My goal is to cut that in half,” said Collins.
In past years, the TDA has provided a PDF of its visitors guide for people to download. The new electronic version will be interactive, allowing users to flip through pages and click on advertisements.
The Jackson County Tourism Development Authority has been doing an interactive digital visitors guide for several years already.
The Haywood TDA will revamp its overall Web site as well to match the format of the guide.
Meanwhile, the printed visitors guide will be smaller so that it can fit as easily into purses as backpacks.
Haywood County officials are racing against the clock to get a methane collection system built at two landfills before the U.S. Senate gets a chance to pass the climate change bill.
Haywood County hopes to score points for installing methane collection, which would neutralize the otherwise volatile greenhouse gas that emanates from decomposing trash. In exchange for such a system, Haywood would like to earn carbon credits — a commodity which could then be sold to industries trying to offset their own pollution.
But Haywood’s shot at carbon credits could be lost if The American Clean Energy And Security Act of 2009 passes first. The bill, which has already been passed by the House of Representatives, would mandate that landfills the size of Haywood’s take steps to neutralize methane.
Haywood’s effort would no longer be seen as a voluntary step — the county would merely be following federal orders. Thus, the county would not be able to sell the credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange, but would instead have to line up individual polluters willing to buy the carbon credits directly from the county.
Given the pressure, Haywood County hopes to have the system up and running by March or April 2010.
“I think realistically we could use that as a target,” said County Manager David Cotton.
Commissioner Mark Swanger said McGill Associates has been contracted for preliminary work on the project.
“We’re just going to proceed and start getting real numbers so we know exactly what we’re looking at,” said Swanger.
The firm estimates it would cost $92,000 to install a methane collection system at both the White Oak landfill and the closed-down Francis Farm landfill. According to Swanger, Haywood could make enough off carbon credits the first five years to pay for the system and after that, it would be “all profit.”
Depending on how much methane can be tapped, the county could install a generator to convert the energy from the burning methane into electricity. Francis Farm landfill — which was closed by the county several years ago — seems to be a site more likely to house such a generator than the currently open White Oak landfill, since it already has school bus garage nearby that could easily hook up to electricity generated by the landfill.
Putting that system up at White Oak would be “cost-prohibitive,” according to Cotton.
A new cell phone tower has been proposed on the south-facing side of Utah Mountain above Lake Junaluska.
It would bring cell phone service to the dead zone on Dellwood Road (U.S. 19) when driving between Lake Junaluska and Maggie Valley. Cellco Partnership would construct the tower on behalf of Verizon Wireless.
The tower would be 130 feet tall, falling within the maximum height allowed by the county’s cell tower ordinance. However, the tower does not meet setback requirements under the ordinance. The county requires a fall zone to be half of the tower’s height with a 25-foot setback from the property line.
Kris Boyd, planning director for Haywood County, said Cellco is now negotiating with an adjoining property owner to get an easement and would then come to the county for a variance.
“We asked for the variance so we would not have to take down any more trees, do any more clearing and grading,” said Buddy Young, director of residential services at Lake Junaluska.
Lake Junaluska Assembly is leasing a parcel of land to Cellco for the tower. Young said the property is already accessible by road and no grading would be necessary.
According to Young, the proposed cell phone tower would be camouflaged as a tree. County documents indicate likewise, describing the tower as a “Monopine” design that would look like a pine tree. However, a spokeswoman from Verizon Wireless said it would not look like a pine tree but would only be a regular cell tower. Young said the property contract with Cellco states that the tower will be a “Monopine.”
The tower would be located on Sleepy Hollow Drive. Young said the adjacent property owner has been kept well-informed about the project from the start. According to Young, he is “a bit disappointed” with the plans but has agreed not to contest the building of the tower.
An epileptic woman in Macon County is alleging that she did not receive proper medical attention after being arrested for a DWI last January.
Maureen Lackey, 45, is suing Macon County in a U.S. District Court and has filed complaints with the Sheriff’s Office and Highway Patrol, as well with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lackey, who is representing herself in the lawsuit, claims two sheriff’s detention officers and a state trooper withheld medicine from her while she underwent seizures under their custody.
Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland issued a statement that an internal investigation into employee misconduct found no evidence to support Lackey’s claims and has determined the allegations “appear to be unfounded.”
Highway Patrol said they would not comment because personnel matters are not subject to public information laws.
Meanwhile, Holland is not releasing video footage of the interrogation at the advice of the attorneys handling the DWI and civil cases, Holland stated. Releasing the videos would also interfere with security, according to Holland.
Sheriff’s Attorney Brian Welch said the sheriff’s department did not want to taint the jury or reveal the locations of each camera within the jail.
“We can’t take the risk that inmates will find out what’s being covered and what’s not,” said Welch.
Welch said the video could be released with a court order, but as of now, he would rather not prejudice the jury pool. Welch did add that the video bolsters the sheriff’s position that deputies behaved appropriately.
“Because it’s going to help us in this situation, we would love to release it,” Welch said.
What is known about arrest
When State Trooper Leah McCall arrested Lackey on Jan. 23 after EMS found her alone in a creek, just yards from the scene of a one-vehicle accident. Lackey and another passenger fled the vehicle when it wrecked, but Lackey claimed a third person had been driving — someone she paid to drive her home from a bar. Lackey said she recognized him but did not know his name. Lackey claimed that the driver fled in the other direction.
After McCall found the keys to Lackey’s car in her purse, Lackey said the driver could have easily put them there since her purse had been sitting between them in the car.
McCall also discovered unidentified pills in a Vitamin B bottle. Lackey said she told the officer they were ibuprofen, a hormone replacement pill, and Lorazapam, used to control panic attacks and seizures.
“I had no idea I was not allowed to carry them in a regular bottle, as I have done since I was 13 years old,” said Lackey.
Lackey was given a breathalyzer test then arrested for a DWI for having a blood alcohol content of 0.15 — nearly twice the legal limit — even though Lackey claimed she had not been driving.
While she was in jail, Lackey said she was initially not allowed to go to the bathroom and ended up urinating on herself because of her kidney problems.
“No one would offer me anything to wear, so I walked around or sat for a period of six hours in wet, stinky clothes,” she said.
Later, Lackey said she began having panic attacks.
“[They] laughed about me being wet and ‘hoopin’ and hollerin’ when I was having panic attacks,” Lackey said.
She begged for her medicine but they refused to give her the pills since they were in an unmarked bottle.
“In general, the doctor does not want any detention officer giving any prescription medicine that he’s not aware of ... especially when [the patient is] impaired,” Welch said. “The proper procedure was to call EMS.”
According to Welch, all detention officers receive medical training when they are certified in addition to yearly in-service training. There is also an on-call doctor under contract who supervises inmates with medical issues.
Lackey said she repeatedly asked the officers to call her doctor or take her to the hospital, but they refused. Lackey said she had already begun having partial seizures, which appears to others like daydreaming or being dazed. Her limbs went numb and officers had to shift her legs to help her go to the bathroom.
“If they don’t think those were seizures, that saddens me,” said Lackey.
Around 15 minutes before she was released, a detention officer did call someone for advice, but in Lackey’s eyes, it was too late.
Whereas seizures were few and far between in the past, Lackey said she now has them “all the time.”
Lackey had her license taken away due to her medical condition, but she suspects McCall called the DMV to take away her license “in retaliation” for filing a complaint against him.
To make matters worse, Lackey was arrested for another DWI in early August after she was pulled over for driving without a license. She was found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.14 — again almost twice the legal limit.
Meanwhile, Lackey is living at home with her 12-year-old son without a vehicle to get around.
Representatives from some of the biggest names in outdoor recreation will soon touch ground in Asheville for the 2010 Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous.
Industry leaders from major brands like Patagonia, The North Face, REI, Merrell, Mountain Hardwear and many more will be flying through the Nantahala River on a whitewater rafting trip and exploring the Smokies by next week.
“The focus of the international outdoor industry will be on our region,” Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which is hosting the conference.
Bacon and his peers say they hope the Rendezvous will encourage national and international businesses to open up shop in Western North Carolina.
“I think the WNC outdoor industry is certainly rolling out the red carpet,” Bacon said.
The major outdoor conference comes on the heels of Asheville being chosen as the site for a listening session as part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative earlier this year.
“It’s a validation of the kind of mountain lifestyle that Western North Carolina offers,” said Mark Singleton, executive director of Cullowhee-based American Whitewater.
Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation, said the Smoky Mountains are iconic for the outdoor industry.
WNC is home to the most visited national park in the country, and two of the most heavily visited national forests in the country, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. The region also serves as headquarters to major outfitters and outdoor retailers in the country.
“If there is a hub of outdoor recreation in the east, Asheville arguably can lay claim to it,” said Frank Hugelmeyer, president and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association.
Boost from recession
A major focus of the OIA Rendezvous will be to gauge the direction the U.S. outdoor industry is headed.
Since outdoor recreation tends to be more affordable than the typical vacation, the recession has actually driven more Americans outside than before.
At Mast General Store in Waynesville, employee Jay Schoon said the economic downturn has indeed brought a boom in business.
We’ve been having one of the best years, if not the best year, that we’ve ever had,” said Schoon, who has worked in the WNC outdoor industry for almost 20 years.
During tough economic times, the relatively low cost of outdoor activities holds clear appeal.
“When you look at hiking, all you need are a pair of shoes and a backpack,” Hugelmeyer said.
Fanning said connecting with nature can also provide physical, emotional and spiritual benefits and a healthy escape from the bad news of the day.
“People really are realizing outdoor recreation is something that can sort of disconnect you from the realities of today,” Fanning said.
Statistics also show that Americans are also opting for shorter outings. Rather than setting out for a week-long backpacking trip, they will take a day hike, mountain bike or go river rafting over the same period.
“The American is becoming a consummate sampler,” Hugelmeyer said.
Still, millions of Americans have yet to step into the great outdoors.
One point to drive across to these consumers, according to Fanning, is that reconnecting with nature doesn’t have to be an expensive or complicated affair.
“You don’t necessarily need to save up and have a once a year or once a lifetime trip to Yosemite,” Fanning said. “You can be right in your backyard.”
With the American population mostly gravitating toward cities and suburbs, Hugelmeyer said OIA hopes there will be great investment in urban parks, not just national parks.
Reaching out to youth
According to OIA, 90 percent of people who participate in outdoor activities now started between the ages of 5 and 18. Children who grew up camping, hiking and biking are more likely to continue as adults. Those who stayed inside as kids likely won’t take up backpacking as adults.
But OIA has found that there is a significant decline in the number of young people participating in outdoor activities. With more technological options for entertainment, youngsters are opting to stay inside. Kids cite lack of time, lack of interest and too much schoolwork as reasons for not getting outdoors more often.
Parents may have to shoulder much of the blame for that.
“Too many find it convenient to park a child in front of a TV set or computer screen,” Hugelmeyer said.
Melanee Lester, manager of Mast General Store in Waynesville, says that kids are often interested in the outdoors but don’t have the support of the parents.
Fanning and Hugelmeyer point out that more outdoor recreation for kids could provide tangible benefits, including better grades, closer family relationships and major health benefits. Those who appreciate the outdoors will also care about conservation and being good environmental stewards.
More outdoor activity could also curb the obesity crisis in the country.
“It’s a very small investment to head off what will be a very large medical bill later on,” Hugelmeyer said.
According to Fanning, the solution will come once parents are given the skills, information and confidence to schedule outdoor activities, and young people are empowered and inspired.
“At the end of the day, this is about parents and families taking personal responsibility to take their kids out,” Hugelmeyer said.
“For all of us who have a passion for the outdoors, we also have a responsibility to pass that passion to the next generation,” Fanning said.
By the numbers*
• 48.6 percent of Americans ages 6 and older participated in outdoor recreation.
• Americans made an estimated 11.16 billion outdoor excursions in 2008.
Spike in outdoor activities
• Hiking up by 9 percent
• Camping up by 7 percent.
• Backpacking up by 19 percent.
• Mountain biking up by 10.2 percent.
• Trail running up by 15.2 percent.
Youth less interested
• 6 percent drop in people ages 6-17 participating in outdoor recreation. This number has dropped by 16.7 percent in the previous 3 years.
Most popular activities by participation rate
1. Freshwater, saltwater and fly-fishing: 17 percent of Americans.
2. Car, backyard and RV camping: 15 percent of Americans.
3. Running, jogging and trail running: 15 percent of Americans.
4. Road biking, mountain biking and BMX: 15 percent of Americans.
5. Hiking – 12 percent of Americans.
*Statistics from the Outdoor Industry Association study conducted in 2009.
With North Carolina suffering from some of the worst unemployment rates in the country, the U.S. Treasury Department is dedicating $159 million to help laid off workers in the state avoid foreclosure.
Another $121 million is likely on the way, according to Margaret Matrone, communications director for the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.
Over the next three years, federal dollars will help 7,200 jobless people statewide keep up with mortgage payments while they seek new jobs or train for a career switch.
“It will help stabilize property values in their neighborhoods by reducing the number of foreclosure sales,” said A. Robert Kucab, executive director of the N.C. Housing Finance Agency.
The federal assistance has only been made available to the 17 “hardest hit states” that are suffering from high unemployment rates and dismal housing markets.
In 2009, about a quarter of the state’s population lived in a county with an unemployment rate of 12 percent or higher. North Carolina suffered the loss of 278,000 jobs between 2007 and 2009.
The Hardest Hit program will be made available in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties only in December.
Most of the allocated money will cover entire mortgage payments for the unemployed, while the remainder will refinance loans to reduce monthly bills. Residents in 50 struggling counties in North Carolina, including Swain County, will qualify for additional financial assistance.
With the Hardest Hit program, the unemployed may be eligible for 24 months of mortgage payments up to $24,000 in most counties. Those who reside in the 50 high unemployment counties in North Carolina could receive 36 months of mortgage payments up to $36,000.
The North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, which will administer the federal program, already offers similar assistance to the unemployed.
Unlike other states, North Carolina already has experience running a similar program. The state Home Protection Program helps struggling workers pay their mortgages through interest-free loans for up to 15 years.
However, Matrone points out that it will be much easier to qualify for the federal program. Also, those who receive Hardest Hit assistance won’t have to pay back anything if they don’t move from their house for at least 10 years.
But Matrone suggests that North Carolina residents struggling to keep up with house payments should not wait till December to seek assistance.
“If you’re on the verge of foreclosure now, it’s much better to go ahead and use the program that’s available,” said Matrone.
For more information, contact On Track Financial Education and Counseling Services in Asheville at 828.255.5166 or 800.737.5485.
A long-awaited affiliation of the hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties will become official in January 2010.
That’s when a newly created hospital company, dubbed MedWest Health System, will take over day-to-day operations for Haywood Regional Medical Center and WestCare’s two hospitals: Harris Regional in Sylva and Swain County Hospital in Bryson City.
At the same time, the two companies will enter into a management contract with Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System, which currently runs 29 hospitals in North and South Carolina.
HRMC and WestCare officials say joining forces with each other and with Carolinas HealthCare will bring many benefits, whether it is gaining expertise in hospital management or buying medical supplies in bulk.
With the country mired in a recession and possibly headed toward an overhaul of the health care system, some hospital board members see the need to partner up sooner rather than later.
“It’s a no-brainer. Something’s gotta happen,” said Fred Alexander, chairman of WestCare’s board of trustees. “What do you want to be in the storm, the aircraft carrier or the two little PT boats?”
HRMC officials were especially optimistic about the new venture, likening their company to a phoenix rising and making multiple allusions to the “dark days” when Haywood Regional failed federal inspections and lost its Medicare status, followed by an exodus of private insurance companies. The hospital was forced to cease all but emergency operations, touching off a financial and public relations crisis.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Mark Clasby, chairman of the HRMC board.
“It’s a new day,” said HRMC CEO Mike Poore. “We are no longer looking toward the past. We are looking toward the future.”
Vying for CEO
In the next few weeks, the new board of directors for the joint venture will have to decide who will become MedWest’s CEO. Both HRMC CEO Mike Poore and WestCare CEO Mark Leonard are vying for that position though they publicly downplay the competition.
“This is the right thing for all of our communities,” said Poore. “That’s more important than if I’m the CEO or Mark is the CEO.”
HRMC and WestCare will keep their existing boards, but they will retain autonomy in only limited areas, like approving credentials for doctors. Their main influence will be appointing representatives to the joint MedWest board, which will make most major decisions.
As of now, no name changes are planned for the three individual hospitals. The name “MedWest” will primarily be used for legal and accounting purposes.
“If we try to call this hospital MedWest tomorrow, a hundred years from now, they’re still going to call us [by the same name],” said Poore.
John Young, group vice president for Carolinas HealthCare’s western region, repeatedly stressed that his company was not interested in taking a dictatorial approach in running the three hospitals.
“We believe healthcare is a local event,” said Young. “Healthcare in this community will not be run out of Charlotte.”
Poore said the goal is to expand services locally, rather than send patients off on long trips to receive treatment at affiliate hospitals.
Advantages of partnering
WestCare has already experienced the benefits of affiliation in the past. CEO Mark Leonard said after Harris Regional Hospital integrated with Swain County Hospital, his company was able to improve services and introduce new programs.
Leonard said the goals with this affiliation are the same: reduce cost, improve patient outcomes, and expand services. The hospitals can split the cost of expensive new medical equipment they couldn’t afford otherwise. And by pooling their patient base, the hospitals can attract specialty physicians.
Linking up with Carolinas HealthCare, the nation’s third largest nonprofit public system, would also allow HRMC and WestCare to gain insight on best practices in financial management, staff recruiting, and safety and quality improvement.
Clasby said there are provisions for leaving the joint operating agreement, though he would not give specifics.
But leaving the agreement is far from anyone’s mind at this point, as HRMC and WestCare prepare to deal with a possible overhaul of the health care reform, an aging population, and a shortage in nursing and clinical staff.
“We want to be better strategically positioned,” said Alexander. “The last thing we want to do is just be a rural hospital hanging on by our fingertips.”
Western North Carolina is bracing itself for the impact of a massive rockslide that will shut down a major chunk of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for about three months.
The rockslide occurred 2 a.m. Sunday morning three miles from the Tennessee state line in Haywood County, burying both sides of the highway under a mountain of rubble 150 feet high and 200 to 300 feet wide.
Three vehicles crashed into the rocks shortly after the slide, and one person was transported to the hospital for minor injuries.
“We were very fortunate. There were no serious injuries or fatalities,” said Nicole Meister, spokeswoman for N.C. Department of Transportation.
Since the slide, the N.C. DOT declared an emergency, shut down 20 miles of I-40, and brought in workers to begin surveying the slide site.
The cleanup will cost from $2 to $10 million.
Visitors driving westward to Tennessee are being turned away at exit 20, while locals are getting the go-ahead to sneak up to exit 15, the main road access for the Fines Creek and White Oak communities, as well as the county landfill.
About 25,000 vehicles pass through the closed section of I-40 daily, with about half of those being commercial trucks, according to the NCDOT.
Geotechnical engineers are working with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, to determine how best to clean up the rockslide.
On Monday, this process involved flyovers with a helicopter and taking numerous pictures of the slide.
Workers will have to take a top-down approach when it comes to removing the rubble.
“If you pull it out from the bottom, it’s going to keep coming,” said Meister.
This stretch of the interstate in Haywood County has been no stranger to slides.
Sunday’s rockslide occurred just a mile and a half down the road from the series of slides that occurred in 1997, which shut down part of the interstate for six months. It is the third major rockslide in that area since the mid-1980s.
Joel Setzer, a division engineer with NCDOT, said the latest rockslide is comprised of more rocks and a lot less soil, compared to the one in 1997.
Setzer said the amount of unstable material above the road seems to be a bigger problem this time around.
“The remedy to stabilizing the slope and restoring the traffic is larger,” said Setzer.
Geotechnical scientists and engineers do not know the exact cause of the slide, but are looking at several potential factors, including possible tremors; freezing and thawing of water in cracks in a wedge in the slope, causing expansion and contraction of the rock plates.
By all indications, the closing of Interstate 40 due to a massive rockslide will be more than just a minor headache for many.
Through traffic heading west to Tennessee will be directed to I-26 from Asheville, where cars would have to travel 130 miles to link back up with I-40 across the state line.
Though much of Haywood County will still remain accessible off I-40, it’s feasible that widespread news of the rockslide might turn off visitors to the area.
Most likely to suffer from the road closing are the restaurants, gas stations, motels and tourist-oriented businesses that rely heavily on traffic coming through I-40.
Pilot Travel Center, a truck stop in Waynesville near exit 24, was already feeling the impact of a desolate I-40 on Monday afternoon. A few trucks were scattered here and there, but the vast majority of parking spots sat empty.
Ashley Duckett, an employee at the Pilot convenience store, said business was “dead” on Sunday, the day the rockslide occurred.
“It’s usually booming,” said Linda Henry, another employee at the store, adding that business will definitely hurt without truckers stopping by to fuel up, have a meal, or take a shower.
The people who did walk into the store were only interested in one thing: directions.
“Every other person coming in here is asking how do I get to Tennessee? How do I get to Knoxville? How do I get to Gatlinburg?” said Henry.
The store received so many requests for directions that the manager taped up directions on the door and readied a pile of printouts of Mapquest directions at the counter.
Next door at the Midway Motel, owner Brooke Gayne said she didn’t expect anyone to check in Monday night.
“It’ll be bad,” said Gayne. “I don’t see too many people coming past [exit] 27.”
Exit 27 leads to the heavily-trafficked Great Smoky Mountain Expressway.
Summer Smart, a waitress at the Haywood Cafe near exit 24 on I-40, said the restaurant had not seen one trucker all day.
Smart remembered a drop-off in business after the last rockslide in 1997 closed down a section of I-40 for months. Though locals remained faithful customers, holiday travelers who usually flooded the restaurant were hard to find that year.
James Carver, owner of Maggie Valley Restaurant, also recalled facing a hardship after the last rockslide.
“Business went down a great bit,” said Carver. “It just brought everything to a standstill.”
Carver said businesses would continue to feel an impact even after N.C. DOT cleans up the rockslide and restores traffic.
“It takes a while for word to get around that everything’s open,” said Carver.
The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority and the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce are already working hard to spread the word about alternate routes to keep tourists from Tennessee trickling into the region.
The TDA will post these very detailed directions on its Web site and social media sites, attaching to their Web site a map with alternate routes.
“With several alternate routes available, there really is no reason to cancel any travel plans to the area, whether for these last weeks of leaf-looking or the upcoming ski season,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority
Collins reassures those forced to make the detour that there are “terrific scenic routes with some amazing views along the way.”
Wayne Carson, a staff member at the Canton visitor’s center off I-40, said he’s noted a spike in the number of visitors who want to avoid the interstate anyway.
He said all summer, tourists have requested directions for traveling on back roads and visiting smaller communities on the way.
Carson directed some confused visitors headed toward Gatlinburg through Cherokee and then over the Great Smoky Mountains National Park via U.S. 441 on Monday. It is possible that towns along that route will see a pick-up in visitors who would have normally taken I-40 to Tennessee.
Unlike the 1997 rockslide, which shut down roads for the peak summer and fall seasons, this latest rockslide occurred at the beginning of the off-season for most businesses.
“Fall foliage is winding down, but we’re going into ski season. We don’t want to jeopardize that either,” said Collins.
According to Collins, many visitors who come to ski at Cataloochee Ski Area come from the Southeast, not Tennessee.
Tammy Brown, spokeswoman for the ski resort, said they still anticipate a good ski season since a colder than average winter has been forecasted.
Brown said the rockslide will definitely impact business, but by how much is anyone’s guess.
“We’re going to do our best to facilitate individuals from that neck of the woods,” said Brown.
Meanwhile, Alice Mosteller, vice president of a real estate agency in Waynesville, is worried that the rockslide might negatively affect a real estate market that’s just beginning to pick up.
“Just anything that would keep people from coming here is not good,” said Mosteller. “This is the most beautiful time of year possible. What a horrible weekend for it to happen.”
Macon County has won a partial victory in the fight over the permitting of an industrial wastewater treatment plant in Rabun County, just across the state line in North Georgia.
Earlier this month, Georgia environmental protection officials issued a discharge permit for effluent that will flow into the Little Tennessee River — but on the condition that it must treat its sewage by ultraviolet technology rather than via chlorination.
Concerned residents in Macon County had demanded that discharge be treated by the more environmentally-friendly UV technology to protect the biodiversity of the river, which flows north from Rabun County into Macon.
“Chlorine in its concentrated form is extremely toxic,” said Bill McLarney, project coordinator and aquatic biologist for the Little Tennessee Watershed Association. “If I wanted to kill everything in a stretch of river, one of my poisons of choice would be chlorine.”
Chlorine may kill pathogens, but it also preys on insects and microorganisms that live in the streambed and are “utterly critical” to the river. According to McLarney, the UV treatment works just as well as chlorination, without all of the associated risks.
“The only thing that’s kept UV from being the standard disinfectant is inertia. You have an established way of doing things,” said McLarney.
Sam Greenwood, Franklin’s town manager, was pleased with the concession on UV light treatment.
“The thing that still concerns us is that the permit was granted without a user. It was sort of a blanket approval,” Greenwood said.
Rabun County’s plan calls for converting a former industrial wastewater treatment plant at the closed-down Fruit of the Loom textile mill into a sewage treatment plant.
The permit would also be useful to any new industry that sets up shop at the former factory site, since the old discharge permit used by Fruit of the Loom was no longer valid. But no one knows exactly what industry might eventually materialize at the site and therefore what kind of pollution would be discharged.
Franklin Alderman Bob Scott hopes the move toward UV over chlorine is a trend and was pleased the Georgia environmental agency listened to the public, even if not all their concerns were addressed.
“It could have been worse. They could have just not paid any attention to us at all,” Scott said.
Rabun County Manager Jim Bleckley said the UV method will add costs to the project.
“Everybody else thought it was better,” Bleckley said. “Even though it was more expensive, it was environmentally friendly.”
The county has only one taker on the industrial park space so far: a wood-fueled biomass plant that generates electricity. The company, Multitrade Rabun Gap, will burn local forest byproducts to create power, which will be sold over the grid. The company will go into operation in November and will employ about 40 people.
As Haywood County commissioners grapple with a surge in this public input at their meetings, largely from the same crowd week after week, The Smoky Mountain News checked in with surrounding counties to see how they handle public comment periods.
Every county seems to have regulars, who are practically staples of every meeting, rarely passing up a turn at the mic during the public comment period that kicks off proceedings.
Theoretically, counties in the area all limit speakers to 3 minutes, with public comments not exceeding 30 minutes per meeting. What actually occurs, though, varies within each county and from meeting to meeting.
Buncombe is one of the few counties other than Haywood that air their county meetings on a government cable channel. But about eight years ago, repeat citizen speakers got so “nasty” and occupied so much time that commissioners decided to take the public comment portion off the air, while continuing to televise the rest of the meeting.
Buncombe also started a pre-meeting public comment period in addition to the 30 untelevised minutes of comment during regular proceedings.
Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene said once public comments were taken off the air, the commissioners noted a dramatic change. “We saw a drastic drop in the repetitive speakers,” said Greene. “There was an uproar by people who routinely came and spoke, but they could still speak. It just wasn’t aired.”
In January, Buncombe decided to give it another go and televise public comments once again. Since the commissioners re-aired the public comment period, the number of speakers has picked up again, Greene said.
There are other options for citizens who want to reach their commissioners’ ears, though. Greeene said many residents opt for the hassle-free method of e-mailing them their questions and opinions instead of regularly heading to meetings.
Jackson has one of the most dedicated group of regulars of any county.
“The same people come every time and they say the same thing, and that’s their constitutional right,” said Chairman Brian McMahan.
McMahan said he’s usually lenient with the time limit for speakers, depending on how many people are waiting their turn to speak. Most are gracious and conclude when their time is up.
Jackson County’s meetings are not televised, though portions are sometimes played on the local AM radio station. McMahan said he wished the county had the capability to televise their meetings.
“Most of your average citizens don’t show up,” McMahan said. “They have no clue what happens in their government.”
On those rare occasions that more citizens show up than the commissioners can accommodate, McMahan makes sure speakers strictly adhere to the 3-minute limit. When a public hearing on a proposed subdivision moratorium attracted a crowd of 1,300 people three years ago, a timekeeper held up flash cards with different colors indicating just how much time each speaker had remaining.
McMahan said other boards across the country allow citizens to call in with their comments or webcast their meetings to reach more constituents.
Meanwhile, McMahan estimated that 80 percent of public hearings in Jackson County don’t bring in any speakers at all.
“There will not be a single soul,” said McMahan. “That’s sort of sad that no one cares enough to come out and voice their opinion.”
Swain County keeps a timer visible at every meeting so citizens can know their time frame down to the very second.
Swain County Chairman Glenn Jones said he believes public comment should be allowed even if citizens sometimes use it inappropriately.
“A lot of people, they’ll just use it as a sounding board,” said Jones. “When it becomes that, it’s not being used properly. It’s for people who have a legitimate gripe.”
While Swain doesn’t air its meetings, a long-standing regular during the public comment periods videotapes county meetings as a personal endeavor.
Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said his board maintains a fairly liberal policy, depending on the subject and how many people sign up to speak.
“We usually don’t have big crowds coming to rag on us,” said Beale. But when citizens do show up en masse, that’s when Macon County’s timer comes out. Like McMahan, Beale said he wished Macon County could broadcast their meetings.
This November, the Town of Dillsboro will elect all five members of its town board, along with a new mayor to replace Jean Hartbarger, who is stepping down after eight years as mayor and eight years as alderwoman.
One incumbent and eight challengers are hoping for a spot on the five-person town board. Another alderman has decided to run for mayor, facing competition from one other challenger. The town board members and the new mayor, who does not hold voting power, will each serve a four-year term.
In those next four years, Dillsboro’s leaders will formulate a strategy to win back the hordes of tourists — about 60,000 annually — who once came to take trips on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, which pulled out of town in July 2008.
The excursion railroad’s headquarters were in Dillsboro before the company moved all its operations to Bryson City.
The Town of Dillsboro recently partnered up with Western Carolina University to create a long-term vision for the municipality and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed both by the recession and the train’s departure.
Another major issue facing the town is the fate of Dillsboro Dam.
Jackson County is battling it out with Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the dam.
Depending on who wins, the dam could be taken down by Duke or taken over by the county to be included in a riverfront park.
Many Dillsboro residents are infuriated with Duke and have circulated petitions to save the historic dam. Candidates for mayor and the town board recently weighed in on both key issues and discussed their vision for Dillsboro.
Mayor – pick 1
Teresa Dowd, 59, owner of West Carolina Internet Café
Dowd wants to work closely with Jackson County and the Town of Sylva, as well major employers, to help promote the town in a much more effective manner.
“I want to see the merchants not just survive, but thrive, and help them find the right niche.” Dowd said many ideas are floating around with the WCU initiative, but she would make sure those ideas are properly implemented.
Dowd added that businesses in town would do well to stay open later, thereby meeting residents’ needs.
Dowd, who is the chairwoman of Dillsboro’s planning board and holds a degree in environmental studies, said the dam is worth preserving. She has been a vocal supporter of saving the dam but said the town can’t interfere with the judicial process.
Dowd added that she hated to see Duke begin dredging backlogged sediment behind the dam in preparation for its demolition. “We’ll have to monitor the water quality, see what’s going on.”
Michael Fitzgerald, 57, owner of Fitzgerald’s Shoe Repair
Fitzgerald has served on the town board for five years and is now Dillsboro’s vice mayor. He said the town must redefine the way it does business to attract more tourists — without undergoing a complete makeover.
“We don’t want to look like Gatlinburg with Day-Glo Signs. We’re just a historic type of town.”
Fitzgerald said with such a small budget, the town probably can’t make another major investment until the Monteith Park project is complete.
Fitzgerald said he was asked about the dam four years ago when he ran for alderman. “The answer is the same. Dillsboro is not big enough to take Duke Power.”
Fitzgerald said he applauds Jackson County for trying to save a dam he sees as “picturesque,” but it may be time to move on. “I believe it’s time for it to end. I’m glad we’re going to get some closure.”
Alderperson – pick 5
Jimmy Cabe, 46, former carpenter
Cabe has served on the town board for the last 4 years. Cabe would like to cooperate with merchants in town and gain more input about increasing tourism before devoting town money to a specific strategy. “I’d be willing to listen to anybody’s plan.”
Cabe also said he’d like to see the town begin garbage pickup and build a sidewalk west of the Huddle House out toward the Green Energy Park.
When it comes to the dam, Cabe said he supports the county wholeheartedly. “My grandfather was the superintendent of that powerhouse. It’s an emotional thing for me ... I would like to see it stay.”
Walter Cook, 57, owner of Smoky Mountain Dog Bakery
Cook would like Dillsboro to be a “real living town rather than just tourist shops.”
He envisions a downtown where locals can have breakfast, lunch and dinner, visit a health food store and listen to live music — all within town limits. “We can’t depend on the tourists driving by. We need to market to the local folks, too.”
Cook said he would like to see the dam remain but is not sure it’s worth the cost of pursuing a legal battle.
“If it goes away, I think we should have bargained a lot harder.”
Cook said whatever happens, the town must adjust and do what’s best for its residents. That may include creating a riverfront park or it might mean using that land to develop housing to increase the tax base.
David Gates, 48, owner of Bradley’s General Store, Appalachian Funeral Services
Gates said his number one priority is to take care of Dillsboro’s residents. According to Gates, the town must bring in more glassblowers, potters, and local craftspeople to appeal to visitors.
“If we could attract more crafters, I think it would bring a lot of people.”
The dam is a “dead issue” to Gates. “I think the dam is gone. I don’t know that there’s anything that Dillsboro or the county can do to save it.”
Gates said it could end up being a win-win situation. Removing the dam would open up the area for rafting and tubing, or if it stays, it could be put into operation. “There’s opportunities either way.”
K. David Jones, 64, retired vice-president of administrative services at a community college
Jones would like to take an active role in promoting the town to tourists who are in the region but don’t know about Dillsboro.
He said he would also search for “more diverse” types of funding, like grants and even gifts, to supplement a “very lean” tax base. Jones wants to work with WCU in all aspects, including on environmental issues.
Jones said the dam is a “non-issue” for the town. “I’m not real sure that we should resist the dam efforts any further. ... It’s over with.”
Tim Parris, 54, mechanic and DOT worker
Parris said he favors increasing the tax base by attracting more businesses to town. “Everybody’s going to have to sit down and work together and get something back in Dillsboro.”
Parris said he would also like to see more support to keep the dam in Dillsboro. “They always talk about green energy, why get rid of one?”
Joseph Riddle, 69, retired car dealership manager
Riddle said Dillsboro is not big enough to bring in a major new attraction. “You can’t put a Dollywood here. There’s just not enough space.”
Riddle said there’s not much the town can do until the economy improves, but he believes the partnership with WCU is a positive development. Riddle said he’s focused more on providing more services to local residents.
Riddle acknowledged that locals feel strongly about the dam, which does draw tourists and is “nice to look at.” He said, “That decision’s been made. I don’t think there’s anything else that can be done.”
TJ Walker, 56, owner of Dillsboro Inn
Walker, who narrowly lost Dillsboro’s last race for mayor, said he’d try to bring forward thinking to the town. He would do so by appealing to younger people traveling by and bringing in newer and younger artists and craftspeople.
Walker said he’d love to see an artist’s cooperative or a farmer’s market set up at the old railroad station. He supports cooperating with WCU and Jackson County in general. “Dillsboro has suffered from self-imposed isolation.”
Walker was a leading opponent of tearing down the Dillsboro dam for years. But after settling a lawsuit with Duke to withdraw from the fight, Walker would not comment on the dam. In the past, Walker condemned town leaders for not doing more to join the county’s fight save the dam.
Charles Wise, 46, regional superintendent for property management
Wise said what Dillsboro needs is a new anchor for tourism that distinguishes the town from everywhere else in the area.
“Every town has the same thing. You gotta have something that separates you.”
Meanwhile, Wise said the town mustn’t leave out local residents in its considerations. For example, the town should keep parks open year-round, he said.
Wise said he supports Jackson County “120 percent” in its fight against Duke and is disappointed that the current town board did not join forces with the county to strike up a deal to acquire the dam.
He said the dam is a part of the town’s history. “You can’t hold on to everything. ... but I don’t see the reason for why that dam should come out.”
Emma Wertenberger, 63, owner of Squire Watkins Inn
Wertenberger is strongly interested in Dillsboro’s heritage, which she said might be the key to bringing in tourists from all around the world. International visitors appreciate the small-town American charm that Dillsboro represents, she said.
According to Wertenberger, restoring the Monteith farmstead could bring a big boost to tourism. Wertenberger emphasized that unlike the train, the farmstead couldn’t just get up and leave.
Wertenberger said she’d rather focus on cleaning up the waterways and fixing problems with the sewer plant than on Dillsboro dam. “Sometimes you can get too focused on a single issue ... there are other issues that need to be worked on.”
If there’s a buzz word for Maggie Valley’s town board elections this year, it’s “balance.”
Alderwoman Saralyn Price said she wants to “equal it out” between residents and businesses in town. Challenger Scott Pauley claims that he’ll bring balance and cohesiveness back to the board. Challenger Ron DeSimone wants to tip the scales back toward the residents’ side to create a true balance. Meanwhile, challenger Phillip Wight’s idea of balance concerns maintaining a balanced budget.
Two of these four candidates will win seats on the town’s board for the next four years, helping decide how to support the needs of residents and business owners alike, the fate of the festival grounds, and whether to approve proposed design standards that will shape Maggie’s future appearance.
Festival Grounds quandary
An issue on everybody’s mind seems to be how to handle the festival grounds that’s struggling to bring events in to Maggie Valley, thereby attracting tourists to local businesses. The greater underlying issue is determining how involved the town should get in supporting the tourism businesses that make up such a significant portion of its economy.
“I think we should try to help bring businesses in, but we’re not in the festival business,” said Price, who would rather leave the matter up to a festival director.
The town is looking to fill that position but has taken its time since firing the last director in May.
In the past, Price has not supported direct assistance to tourism businesses. Price voted against a request for a $200,000 loan by Ghost Town, an amusement park in town that had been an anchor for tourism before facing financial troubles.
“I didn’t feel like it was up to the taxpayers to do that,” said Price.
Pauley said he’d like to do what he could to help tourism and fill the void on weekends. Even though he owns a motel, he says he’s also a resident and has a “no strings attached” attitude.
According to Pauley, Maggie’s festival grounds is the most beautiful one in the area. If promoted properly, Pauley said the festival grounds could ease some of the effects of rough economic times.
Pauley agreed that the town’s taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize tourism-related businesses directly. However, the town could provide tax incentives to assist them, Pauley said.
According to Pauley, the town’s role is to not do anything that discourages new business. If elected, Pauley hopes to get the ball rolling a little faster on the search for a new festival director.
Wight, who is the president of the Maggie Valley Lodging Association, said more power needs to be passed on to some of the town’s boards, like the parks, recreation and festival grounds committee. Wight said they could have hired a festival director by now.
“All these other boards, they get second-guessed, give them a power,” said Wight. According to Wight, the town should also create a budget oversight committee to ensure greater attention to Maggie’s budget year-round.
“If you’ve got all those other committees, start an oversight committee to make recommendations,” said Wight.
Wight said the town should have handed at least a little money over to Ghost Town, which he considers a “jewel.”
“The worst thing I think the town did to themselves is to give them nothing,” said Wight. “They didn’t give them the $200,000, but didn’t give $5,000 either.”
DeSimone said the town should realize that tourism is only a part of the picture and not put all its eggs in one basket. He would like to see the town be more well-rounded with businesses open year-round for Maggie Valley’s full-time residents.
The town can still encourage enterprise by creating zoning and ordinances that are conducive to business, DeSmone said.
DeSimone spoke out against the creation of the festival grounds in the past, and he now says the town should just hand it over to private hands, rather than getting further involved.
“That festival grounds has really been a sore spot in Maggie Valley,” said DeSimone. “It’s always run at a deficit. It’s never done what it was intended to do.”
Regulating Maggie’s look
Maggie Valley’s planning board has drafted a proposed set of design standards meant to bring a cohesive look to the town. It will encourage designs that befit Maggie’s setting in new construction as well as renovations to already existing buildings. For example, the planning board’s draft now states that earthy colors and pitched roofs would be encouraged.
Price said she’d like to hear more public input on the design standards before deciding whether she supports it. Price does admit that she is not for people painting their buildings orange, yellow, or pink.
Meanwhile, Wight, whose motel’s roof is a bright blue, said the design standards are a “real hard sell.” Wight would like for them to be more suggestive than mandatory for existing construction.
“Deep down, I do not like telling people what the can or can’t do with their property,” said Wight, adding that sometimes having a purple or orange building can be integral to the character of a business.
DeSimone said he understands why the town is working toward bringing cohesiveness to Maggie’s look but acknowledges that it may be a hindrance to businesses, including franchises.
Sometimes their identity is wrapped up in their building,” said DeSimone. While DeSimone favors the concept of design standards, he would support them only if they were flexible enough to allow for special cases.
Pauley said he, too, is in favor of the concept. The key, he said, is to get a “good, healthy dialogue” with citizens started on this issue, as well as on others, before adopting anything.
Pauley added that the town should definitely consider that businesses are going through difficult times before subjecting them to standards that might make a renovation financially unfeasible.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians praised the new Kituwah Language Academy for the cultural renaissance that’s now unfolding within its doors.
The official ribbon cutting ceremony last Wednesday (Oct. 7) for the language immersion school’s opening led many speakers to break down in tears of happiness over the historic step forward in preserving the Cherokee language, while recalling with sorrow past efforts to stamp out that cornerstone of their culture.
“Our people were made to feel ashamed of our native language,” said Dan McCoy, former chairman of the Tribal Council and a parent of an immersion student. “This is a day in history. It’s a resurrection of our language, our culture.”
McCoy characterized staff at the school as “Cherokee heroes.” The significance of reawakening the Cherokee language was not lost on anyone who attended the ceremony.
“If we lose our language, we cease to exist as Cherokee people,” said Renissa Walker, manager of the Kituwah Preservation and Education Program and an immersion parent.
Walker reminded the crowd that in the past, Cherokee girls’ heads were shaved and boys were forced to wear dresses every time they spoke the language at boarding schools they were coerced into attending.
Though the stories Walker told were somber reminders of past injustices, her overall message was optimistic.
“The fire that represents our language and heritage was at risk of being extinguished, but there is hope,” said Walker.
At the ceremony, Principal Chief Michell Hicks said the tribe has made amazing progress, overcoming former government leaders’ attempts to obliterate the Cherokee language and culture.
“This is not just a beautiful facility, but we’ve completed a circle,” said Hicks. “It’s not a matter of we show them that they are wrong. It’s a matter of strength and perseverance ... I believe we have put our best foot forward.”
Hicks said he hoped he’d still be alive to see the very first children graduate from the academy.
Revitalizing the language
The language immersion program, which started in 2004, moved to the new $6.8 million building in September with more than 30 students in tow. For now, the students range from 2-year-olds to kindergarteners, but the school plans to add a new grade each year, eventually accommodating children from birth to the fifth grade.
A sense of urgency sped up the building’s creation since currently there are only 300 remaining fluent speakers, a select group that has an average age of 53. The Cherokee community here is losing about three speakers every two months.
After accounting for holidays, weekends, and other time spent outside the school, the academy estimates that children in the immersion program spend about 20 percent of their time in a Cherokee-only environment. The school wanted to move to a separate facility to avoid English interference.
Walker is not worried that the students will become any less versed in English since 80 percent of their time will still be spent in an English-speaking environment.
The goal now is to not only see the children in the language immersion program become bilingual in Cherokee and English, but also to grow up to become leaders in the tribe. Though that may be years away, the children are already making steady progress.
They are not only able to say “Hey, how are you?” or sing a song, said Gilliam Jackson, administrator for the academy. They can sit in a sandbox, chatting with each other in Cherokee, describing the sky or the clouds. Some 2-year olds are even teaching the Cherokee language to mom and dad.
“We’re very hopeful that these children are going to grow into true Cherokee people who have a sense of what it means to be Cherokee,” said Walker.
Walker added that many Cherokee kids relate more to pop culture than to their original roots.
The building itself
The 32,000-square-foot academy has 15 classrooms, four outdoor play areas, 10 offices, and a workroom where children’s books will be translated into Cherokee.
Kituwah Language Academy will also be used for speakers, gatherings, online classes, a training center for language teachers, parent language classes, cultural events, and summer language camps for youth. Construction on the building began in October 2008 and concluded last month.
The preschool portion of the Academy is licensed with the state, through the North Carolina Department of Child Development, while the elementary portion of the academy is regulated in partnership with Cherokee Central Schools.
Though Cherokee will be the predominant language of instruction, students will also be required to take an English class similar to those taught at traditional schools.
An auditor for Swain County had a clear-cut message to pass on to commissioners this week: make drastic cutbacks in expenditures or hike property taxes.
“There’s nothing left,” Auditor Eric Bowman told commissioners at their meeting Monday (Oct. 5). “We can’t have another year like this year. I realize that’s not good news, but that’s just the reality of the situation.”
Bowman’s official summary states that the county should “strongly consider” a property tax increase. Swain has one of the lowest property tax rates in the region. The findings are a result of Bowman’s audit of Swain County’s budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
County Manager Kevin King would not comment on the budget crisis following the meeting. However, in an article last month, King said there would be no problem in turning the situation around.
“It is not as dire as everybody is painting,” King said then.
Bowman singled out the sheriff’s department and the health department in his report to the commissioners, recommending more oversight for both.
The health department is two months behind in billing Medicaid for nursing care provided to home-bound seniors, delaying reimbursements the county is due for the services being provided under the program.
Meanwhile, food costs at the jail escalated dramatically by 49 percent for no apparent reason. Bowman said he was unable to determine why there was such a jump in the cost of food, especially at a time when jail revenues fell sharply.
In fact, the jail faced some of the biggest drops in revenue, as did sales tax and construction-related inspection fees.
Bowman also alerted the commissioners that there was a misuse of the county credit card in the sheriff’s department for “several personal type items.”
Cut costs, don’t raise taxes
Despite Bowman’s recommendation, Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith said they would not support an increase in property taxes.
“We cannot continue to overspend,” said Moon. “We can take care of it by cutting expenses. Nobody wants to raise taxes.”
Moon agreed with the auditor that there must be better oversight and said pointing out the sheriff’s department’s role in increasing county expenses was “very, very relevant.” Moon added that elected officials are “not always qualified” and sometimes “spend way too much.” The position of sheriff is elected and carries no specific qualifications or resume other than approval by voters.
“Vote for him again, see what happens,” said Moon.
Sheriff Curtis Cochran could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, Monteith said there was no need to increase taxes to make up for the budget shortfall.
“I think we need to tighten our belt real tight,” said Monteith. “I will, under no circumstance, increase taxes. We don’t have to.”
Monteith said the loss in jail revenues was inextricably tied to neighboring counties that once paid Swain to house their overflow inmates — building jails of their own. In addition, Swain had made money housing federal inmates but those are now being sent to Buncombe County rather than Swain.
Monteith showed sympathy to the sheriff, stating that he “inherited” a jail that was bigger than necessary. Commissioners made the decision to overbuild the jail in hopes of housing inmates for neighboring counties prior to Cochran taking office. According to Monteith, the county should now explore what else could be done with that space to bring in some extra dollars.
The county has already cut half a million from its budget this year over last year. The county froze overtime and cut eight jobs: five in the sheriff’s office and jail and three from other departments. The cost saving measures went into effect with passage of the new budget July 1.
Realizing that wouldn’t be enough, however, commissioners last month announced a five-day furlough without pay for the county’s nearly 200 employees, netting $100,000 in savings. Another $100,000 came out of a capital reserve account used for school maintenance and construction.
Where the money went
Even though county revenues fell by $479,000, Swain spent $1.3 million more in 2008-2009 than the prior year, with the biggest increases racked up in the Sheriff’s department, the jail, and debt payments primarily related to the jail.
Some of the jail expenses dealt with a rise in food costs, but there was also additional staff approved by commissioners to operate the large jail.
The County’s total general fund balance decreased from $4.3 million to $2.8 million, while its unreserved general fund balance dropped drastically from 17.3 percent in 2008 to 6.6 percent last year.
The Local Government Commission recommends counties maintain a cushion of 8 percent of their annual budget — enough to cover one month’s operating expenses. Since Swain falls below that benchmark, the N.C. Department of Revenue will oversee the county’s budget until the situation is corrected.
King had said the county had to make up $1 million to get over the LGC fund balance mandate.
In working toward that goal, Bowman recommends reviewing food menus at the jail, handing over control of certain funds from the sheriff to the county finance director, and requiring two people, rather than just the jailer, to handle inmates’ money.
He also emphasized the need for all department heads to be educated on cutting costs.
Vida Cody, Swain County’s finance officer, said she was already working with Sheriff Curtis Cochran to cut expenses. According to Cody, Cochran has someone else handle meal purchases for the jail. Some of the other expenses in that department dealt with vehicle maintenance, an expense Cody said couldn’t be helped.
Cody said she also plans to meet with the health department’s finance personnel in the near future.
Despite no one directly raising any suspicion of a possible mishandling of county funds, Cody emphasized repeatedly that she follows county money closely, inviting the public to look at finance records to see for themselves.
“We watch every invoice that comes through,” Cody said.
Meanwhile, Mike Clampitt, chairman of the Swain County Republican party, criticized the county for imposing mandatory furloughs on county employees.
Rather than revolving furloughs, the county plans to shut down on certain days, one of them being Dec. 31. Clampitt challenged that choice since many people pay taxes and file property information with the register of deeds that day before year’s end.
“December is the worst month in hell to take somebody’s pay whether you’re rich or poor,” said Clampitt. “Most people celebrate Christmas with family and friends. They like to have a meal. It’s the only time of the year they get together.”
Clampitt said he could count on one hand the number of commissioner’s meetings he’s missed and could see clearly where the problem with the budget lay.
“You spent money hand over first for the last three years,” said Clampitt. “There’s no two ways about it.”
This year’s elections in Bryson City will be a cinch for Alderwoman Stephanie Treadway and Alderman Tom Reidmiller. Both are running unopposed to retain their seats on the board.
Treadway, a 40-year old insurance agent with Allman Insurance, has been an alderwoman for almost 12 years. She said she’d like to continue working on improving the town’s water and sewer facilities. She also would like to see more streetscape work done, especially on Main Street.
Reidmiller, 68, is a retired Ford dealership owner who has served as alderman for more than four years. Reidmiller was appointed to the board in 2005 to fill a vacancy.
Reidmiller said his number one priority was to set up a “more efficient” water system. He said he decided to run again because he believed his business experience could contribute to the town’s success.