Bibeka Shrestha

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Though the bell ringers have seen how hard the recession has hit the local community, they are surprised at the amount of giving they witness.

“It always amazes me,” said Fred Galloway, a Waynesville bell ringer. “The harder the times are, the more generous the people are.”

“No matter what the economy is, the people that wanna give will give anyway,” said Sammy Fowler, kettle coordinator for the Salvation Army’s WNC branch. “It’s the people who have the least that give most.”

One of Western North Carolina’s most successful bell ringers, Galloway has volunteered as a bell ringer for the past 11 years.

While most volunteers ring for two hours, Galloway signs up for five or six hours at a time.

“I was built for cold weather,” said Galloway.

Good long johns and a heavy coat usually do the trick, says Galloway, who admits that piling on all that winter wear makes him look like an Eskimo sometimes.

Galloway says he thoroughly enjoys bell ringing, partly because it provides ample time for people watching.

Once in a while, Galloway is approached by old soldiers who were helped by the Salvation Army after coming off the battlefield.

“They get very emotional,” said Galloway.

Galloway volunteers on behalf of his church in Waynesville, and he never forgets to say a warm-hearted “God bless you” to every person who donates.

“I like the opportunity to stand here and bless people,” said Galloway. “It doesn’t matter if they donate a penny or $20, everyone gets a blessing.”

Linda Arnold, a bell ringer at Belk, says she enjoys catching up with the many friends she encounters while on duty.

“It’s part of my season,” said Arnold, who volunteers as a bell ringer for the Altrusa organization in Waynesville.

Fowler admits that he was at first reluctant about becoming a bell ringer.

“First, I thought it was kind of corny,” said Fowler. “I didn’t want to ring a bell. I was ashamed, a little embarrassed to do it.”

But Fowler soon realized everybody from bankers to policemen volunteered as bell ringers for the Salvation Army.

“If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me,” said Fowler, who has served as kettle coordinator for the past seven years.

Bell ringers have a plethora of strategies when it comes to fundraising for the Salvation Army, according to Fowler.

They can simply say hello and smile at passersby.

They can call in the help of elementary school children, who sometimes dress up in reindeer costumes and sing holiday classics.

They can even play musical instruments like trumpets. The less musically-inclined have the option of bringing along a tape player to play Christmas music instead, Fowler said.


Small businesses struggling to pay bills after a rockslide shut down Interstate 40 now have the option of applying for federal low-interest loans.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering up to $2 million in assistance to each company that demonstrates a serious impact from the rockslide.

The road closure has led to emptier restaurants, truck stops and motels near I-40 in Haywood County.

Much of Western North Carolina is being affected since thru traffic, especially truck traffic, is being channeled away from the region.

Last week, a steady stream of small business owners, hoping to receive federal aid, headed to a temporary business recovery center set up by the SBA in Clyde.

“This is a great response,” said Gary Davisson, a loan officer with the SBA. “Word of mouth has been good.”

Over the course of three days, about 55 business owners from as far away as Cocke County, Tenn., consulted with SBA officials.

About 42 business owners decided to apply for a loan, with 36 representing Haywood alone. Four companies in Buncombe, one from Henderson, and one from Cocke County have also applied.

Most of these business owners represented motels, hotels, restaurants and convenience stores, but there were also electricians, construction contractors, towing companies, and heating and oil companies in the mix.

The disaster relief loans are open to small businesses in Haywood County and all contiguous counties. That includes Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain and Transylvania counties in North Carolina, and Cocke and Sevier counties in Tennessee.

But that doesn’t mean companies will be competing against each other over the loans, according to Davisson.

“There is no pool of money designated for this,” said Davisson, adding that each business that shows a need will receive financial assistance.

Still, only businesses that can demonstrate a direct impact from the rockslide will be granted a loan. Most businesses that apply will receive a response in three weeks, according to Davisson.

Business owners still have plenty of time to get their application together, as the deadline won’t roll around until Aug. 24, 2010.


While the addition of alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel will undoubtedly be lucrative for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, they won’t be alone in reaping a windfall.

Harrah’s will order all its liquor from the ABC stores in Sylva and Bryson City, which in turn will benefit the town’s coffers. The tribe does not have its own ABC store, and thus had to look to neighboring locales for its liquor.

Tension inevitably erupted between the ABC boards in Sylva and Bryson City at first, as each clamored at the chance to be Harrah’s supplier — and reap the profits and tax revenue off each bottle.

Typically, restaurants and bars buy liquor from the ABC store in their own town or county. In this case, however, the Cherokee Reservation straddles Jackson and Swain counties. Harrah’s itself lies on the Jackson County side, giving the Sylva ABC store de facto standing. But Bryson City is physically closer.

A compromise worked out between the Bryson City and Sylva ABC boards created a special joint board to exclusively handle alcohol sales to Harrah’s. They will share profits evenly.

N.C. Representative Phil Haire, D-Sylva, and Jackson County Commissioner Tom Massie encouraged the two ABC boards to work together.

“Half of something is better than 100 percent of nothing,” said Massie, adding that both counties would be affected by the addition of alcohol at the casino.

“We’re the ones that are going to have to deal with any problems coming from alcohol sales on the reservation, depending on whether they go east or west,” said Massie. “If we’re going to get the problems, we should get some of the revenues.”

Bryson City’s ABC board is admittedly doing most of the work, primarily since it has extra warehouse space to handle the added inventory, according to Laurie Lee, an auditor with the state’s ABC commission.

“The day-to-day work is handled by Bryson City,” said Lee.

Bryson City will order alcohol, provide warehouse space and take orders from the casino, according to Monty Clampitt, chairman of the Bryson City ABC board.

The Sylva ABC board’s only tasks are to “maintain the alcohol permit” for the joint operation and appoint members to Bryson City-Sylva ABC board.

However, both boards will advance $7,500 to cover initial start-up costs.

“The cost is almost nothing,” said Clampitt. “We have the warehouse space already. Labor would be provided by current employees.”

Alcohol for the casino will be stored in Bryson City’s old warehouse, while the new warehouse, built last year, will continue to be used for basic store operations.

The tribe plans to handle law enforcement, thus receiving the customary 5 percent of ABC profits designated for the local police station. The remaining profits will be split evenly between the Bryson City and Sylva ABC boards.

The two boards had been working on an agreement since September and finally signed a contract in mid-October. The state ABC commission formally approved the merger in mid-November, paving the way for Harrah’s to starting offering liquor drinks.

“I think this is a good compromise,” said Massie. “I think it benefits all involved.”

When asked about how much he expected his ABC board to profit from the expansion, Clampitt replied, “My crystal ball’s broken.”

For now, the takeover is going smoothly, according to all parties involved.

“It’s a new venture and we are proceeding as responsibly and carefully as we can,” said Charles Pringle, spokesman for Harrah’s Cherokee.


Ski instructor Kathy New can truly empathize with the nervous beginners she teaches at the Cataloochee Ski Area in Maggie Valley each winter.

More than 30 years ago, New took her first turns on the very same slopes as her students.

After years of watching skiing on television and hearing stories from her father and uncle of legendary ski trips to Colorado, New finally got the chance to try the sport out as a freshman at Western Carolina University.

New tagged along with some friends from the ski club, feeling a mix of excitement and nervousness as they neared the ski resort.

Soon after hitting the slopes, though, New realized she was a natural.

“I was one of those instant learners,” said New. “I wanted to keep going back.”

New progressed so quickly that just a couple of winters later, she began instructing at Cataloochee. She has given lessons to everyone from 4-year-olds to women in their 70s ever since.

Over the years, New has seen the Cataloochee resort evolve and grow, upgrading from the simple T-bars she’d once used to chairlifts.

New has also experienced some vast improvements in equipment since the 1970s. Skis back then were longer, narrower and heavier, and boots were even more uncomfortable.

“The equipment was not as learner-friendly as it is now,” said New.

According to New, it was only about a decade ago that “real women’s equipment” became available.

“Boots specifically designed for women, not just men’s boots with pink graphics,” New said.

At the same time, ski resorts across the country began offering women’s clinics. Cataloochee was no exception, beginning its own Women on Wednesdays program about 11 years ago.

The clinics have been successful because women tend to learn faster in groups, according to New. Women who learn together are usually supportive, encouraging and nurturing.

New has noticed that the women she teaches are more interested in mastering specific techniques, unlike her male students who’d rather race down to the bottom, she said.

For New, the best way to learn a sport well is to teach it.

“Because you have to learn the mechanics of how it works,” said New. “You have to be able to put it into words.”


Every year for more than a quarter century, the village of Dillsboro transforms itself into a quintessential Christmas scene, warm with the glow of luminaries and white lights.

This year, the festival, is slated for Dec. 4-5 and Dec. 11-12.

The four-night Dillsboro Festival of Lights & Luminaries begins each evening at dusk, when merchant “elves” illuminate the streets with 2,500 shining luminaries and delicate, white lights adorning centuries-old buildings.

Carolers and musicians fill the air with lively, Christmas tunes and shopkeepers stay open late, treating revelers to hot cider, cocoa and home-baked goods.

In years past, barbershop quartets, and youngsters decked out in Madrigal costumes, have wandered about town, singing traditional songs.

“If you’re having trouble getting into the holiday spirit, this festival will do wonders,” said Julie Spiro of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “We’re often told that visiting the luminaries festival is like stepping into a Christmas painting.”

“Dillsboro is a wonderful town for strolling, shopping and dining, especially during the holidays. With dozens of unique shops and craft studios, we offer something for everyone. Our warm-hearted shopkeepers are ready to welcome visitors, and our traditional luminary festival is a delightful return to Christmases past that will fill you with holiday cheer,” says Dawn Hummel, vice president of the merchants association.

Susan Leveille, owner of the Oaks Gallery in Dillsboro, says the festival was a little different 26 years ago when a handful of merchants initiated what would become an annual tradition.

There were no electric white lights then, just the flicker of luminaries “lighting the way for the Christ child,” Leveille said.

“People were asked to turn their headlights off and leave just parking lights on,” said Leveille. “It was just beautiful.”

One of the merchants suggested starting the festival in Dillsboro to express gratitude to the community and celebrate the holiday with neighbors and friends.

Leveille has created her own tradition of welcoming visitors to her gallery with some of her favorite Christmas smells, including fresh greenery and hot apple cider.

Janet Chinners, co-chair of the luminaries festival committee and owner of Country Traditions, said she has been preparing for this year’s festival for a month now.

The committee has ordered thousands of special candles that burn for at least four hours each.

Chinners said more than a thousand people show up every year to take a step back in time with the Dillsboro festival.

Dawn Hummel, vice president of Dillsboro’s Merchant’s Association, said other towns in Western North Carolina may have started similar traditions of their own, but Dillsboro’s festival is “extra special.”

“It’s magical, it’s traditional, it’s just what I envision Christmas should be,” said Hummel.

For more information about the 2009 Dillsboro Lights and Luminaries Festival contact David Gates 828.586.3891 or Janet Chinners 828.586.1600. Visit the town Web site at


As everyone else compiles wish lists for the holiday season, Canton’s four aldermen will put together a list of their own on behalf of the town.

Soon after they were sworn into office last Tuesday (Nov. 24), Mayor Pat Smathers asked the aldermen to come up with a list of goals for the town, involving them in a process he began before the election.

In mid-October, Smathers published his 17-item wish list for Canton in an op-ed piece in The Mountaineer. In the editorial, Smathers wrote that he hoped to begin implementing the plan along with the newly elected aldermen soon after the election.

Smathers was prepared for the reality that the new aldermen would produce their own lists for what the town needs to prioritize. After his list was published, those running for office made it clear they would come up with their own agenda rather than just following Smathers’.

It remains to be seen how the new board will work with each other. Three of the four aldermen are serving their first terms after winning election in November. Two of the former aldermen chose not to run, and a third was unseated.

This makes the second election in a row that voters in Canton have swept in a new slate of candidates, having voted in three new aldermen in 2007.

Canton’s town manager will collate the aldermen’s individual lists and present a master list to the board at an orientation meeting in mid-December.

Some of the items on Smathers’ long list of goals included installing lights on town sports fields, creating a craft and farmer’s market, hiring a town recreation coordinator, and extending the town’s greenway.

Furthermore, Smathers called for an upgrade of town water and sewer lines around Interstate 40, where the capacity has been maxed out preventing new businesses from hooking on. Smathers wrote he’d like to annex new territory into the town limits as well.

Alderman Eric Dills dubs Smathers’ 17-point vision an “ice cream list” with broad goals that everyone in town could agree on.

“Everybody likes ice cream,” said Dills. “It’s not a real controversial list. It’s just whether or not it can be done, and how and who’s going to pay for it.”

Alderman Ed Underwood, who was elected mayor pro-tem at the meeting, agreed. Underwood stated that many of the board members’ ideas would likely coincide with the items on Smathers’ list.

“The main issue is going to be in how you fund them,” said Underwood.

Dills said some of his own goals for the town may not be as “flashy” but are still worthy of implementation.

For example, Dills said he’d like to see the town repaint parking stripes downtown and start washing streets regularly.

“It’s not an expensive proposition,” said Dills. “It’s a very pleasing thing to see for what it costs, which is almost nothing.”

Dills said he views the list as important in building a consensus among the board members on the direction Canton needs to go.

For Dills, that means stepping away from a push toward tourism.

“We cannot bet our future on trying to draw visitors off I-40,” said Dills. “We can be a wonderful residential town, a place where people want to come and live and raise families and retire.”

Underwood said his main goal was to make Canton a vibrant place to live, shop and play, meaning his list will include a variety of directions.

“From economic development to recreation to fixing potholes,” said Underwood.

While Alderman Jimmy Flynn supports the goals on Smathers’ list, he said that it was “obvious” that the aldermen needed to write up lists of their own.

Flynn said he needed more time to compile his list but that he would work with a particular vision in mind.

“Slow, steady growth that does not overburden the taxpayer or the town employee,” said Flynn.

Though Dills will dream up a wish list for Canton along with the other aldermen, he expressed hesitation about signing up for a plethora of expensive projects, citing a strong concern about keeping taxes low.

“We need to be like every other business, and conserve and tighten our belts,” said Dills.


Editor’s Note: Since January is National Tea Month, The Smoky Mountain News talked to some of the tea connoisseurs in Western North Carolina about their love of tea and disdain for the traditional iced tea so popular in the South.

Despite being nestled in the land where sweet tea reigns, the sole tea house in Western North Carolina refuses to serve up the sugary drink.

The policy is clear at Soul Infusion Tea House & Bistro in Sylva: “We do not serve any pre-sweetened teas. You may sweeten any of our teas to your liking.”

Co-owner Jason Kimenker admittedly appreciates the appeal of homemade sweet tea on a hot summer day, but he hopes customers will give tea a chance in its purest form.

“We just request that you try it once without adding anything to it,” said Kimenker.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Batha, an Irish-English woman and co-owner of Herren House in Waynesville, had never even heard of iced tea before coming to the U.S.

According to Batha, the British are less liberal about plopping ice into their drinks.

“Iced tea, yeah, that would’ve been a joke,” said Batha.

Kimenker and Batha are just a few of the tea lovers in Western North Carolina who generally steer away from sweet tea at restaurants to avoid the heavy heaping of sugar or high fructose corn syrup that’s often mixed in.

Instead, Kimenker prefers herbal teas, while Batha sticks to the classic British option: black tea with milk and sugar, or black tea with lemon.

Coming from an English-Irish background, Batha said tea has always been a part of everyday life. And she’s not alone — tea is second only to water in worldwide consumption.

“If anything bothered you, you had a cup of tea. If you were excited about something, you’d sit down and have a cup of tea and talk about it,” said Batha.

For Batha, tea is a source of comfort and community.

Every visit to her grandmother involved tea in some way, whether it was a simple cup paired with bakery-fresh bread, or just one piece of an afternoon feast with sandwiches, cookies, chocolate cake and sausage rolls.

“Really, that was dinner,” said Batha. “There was so much food.”

Batha hopes to bring the same tradition to Waynesville someday. She recently held an afternoon tea during Haywood County’s Fire & Ice festival to test interest.

It’s not the first time she’s hosted an afternoon tea. Batha has brought the British tradition with her as she’s moved to various places abroad. During her time in Congo, Batha’s gatherings became an instant hit with expatriates and continued for years after she left.

Like her grandmother, Batha offered meringues, cheesecakes, scones and other desserts with endless pots of tea at the events.

“I’ve been cooking for this tea quite happily. It goes back to those days,” Batha said.


The world’s drink

Soul Infusion in Sylva offers an array of 66 different types of loose-leaf tea from places as far-flung as Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Fiji and France.

In the nine years Soul Infusion has been in business, co-owners Jason and Karin Kimenker have become experts on tea, well aware of its origins, benefits and varieties.

Pointing to four shelves stocked with tea blends, Jason says, “You could get a whole story on each one of those jars.”

For example, Jason explained that chai, tea mixed with aromatic Indian spices, came about because the lower castes in India were stuck with bitter tea from the bottom of the barrel. They added spices to the tea to make it more palatable.

“In the U.S., it’s become this fashionable gourmet drink when truly, it was the poor man’s drink,” said Jason.

One of the most popular teas at the Sylva tea house is one the Kimenkers concocted themselves. Ruby Slippers is an herbal blend of blood orange and pear with green tea. The same blend with black tea instead is called Paris Romance.

“The names are just as fun and romantic as the teas they inspire,” said Jason.

Karin, who also serves as the executive chef at Soul Infusion, utilizes tea in her cooking. She’s used smoky tea to add a ham flavoring in split pea soups and put green tea to work in sorbets and sauces.

While the Kimenkers obviously like how tea tastes, there are other reasons they are drawn to the drink.

“I like that tea has such a rich history that with each sip that we take, we can trace back a lineage to ancestors who have gone through hardships and celebrations together with cups of tea,” said Jason.

According to an old wive’s tale, a Chinese emperor discovered tea 5,000 years ago when the wind blew a few leaves from a tea plant into his cup of hot water.


The basics

A few years ago, the Kimenkers attended a world tea conference in Las Vegas, a trade show for the tea industry, and discovered Soul Infusion is one of the few urban tea houses in the U.S.

Coffee still seems to drive the American population.

“[It’s] a much faster, go-go-go beverage,” said Karin. “With teas, it’s all about slowing down, taking time out of your day, sit and relax a little bit. Kind of regroup, refocus, reground.”

While most people assume there are lots of different varieties, all real tea comes from a single plant that is processed in different ways. Like wine, distinct soil and growing conditions lead to diverse kinds of tea.

Tea is produced in only a very small scale in the United States. South Carolina and Alabama are the only states on the east coast to grow the tea plant.

Studies have shown that tea has plenty of benefits, helping to prevent cancer, boost cardiovascular health, inhibit bad cholesterol, reduce high blood pressure, and improve women’s fertility.

While adults can recognize the values of drinking tea, Jason said they’re not alone in appreciating the beverage.

“Believe it or not, kids like tea, especially when it’s fruity or pink,” said Jason “They’re very curious.”


If all goes according to plan, a new regional livestock market will open in Canton by late May to more than 3,000 happy cattle farmers from Western North Carolina.

The venue will again provide a stable market to help livestock from WNC find their way into the global marketplace.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity for our district,” said John Queen, a Haywood County cattleman who will operate the new market. “It’ll once again bring this great agricultural county back to life.”

Cattle farmers have struggled to cope after the primary auction house serving the region shut its doors six years ago in Asheville. Traveling to markets in Tennessee, northern Georgia and eastern North Carolina has taken a big bite out of producers’ profits.

Queen recalled the days when there were not one, but five cattle markets in Western North Carolina.

“We’ve lost all that,” said Queen. “All of our farmers have to travel out of state.”

Some small cattlemen, already stretching to make ends meet, decided to leave the business.

Western North Carolina Communities, which is leading the effort, has landed $2.1 million of its $3 million target.

The $2.1 million already secured is enough to build an operable market, but nonessential components, like a compost area for manure, landscaping and a portion of parking, will be delayed until more money can be raised.

WNC Communities hopes to break ground on the project some time in February.

According to L.T. Ward, vice-president of WNC Communities, the recession is actually working in the livestock market’s favor.

“We are on a low budget,” said Ward. “We’ve been asking for the contractors to provide more than they normally would for the dollars.”

As part of the project, cattle farmers will not only secure a local livestock market, but they will also receive training from the state Beef Quality Assurance program to create a higher-quality product — which will help them fetch better prices.

With the state quality assurance program and lower freight costs, WNC cattle farmers would score $25 to $45 more per head by fall, which is peak selling season.

The proposed auction house will be located near exit 33 off Interstate 40 near Canton. It will eventually accommodate 1,100 head. Initially, it will accommodate around 700.

Producers will have a 44,500-square-foot covered area, where they can parade their cattle in an 8,000-square-foot heated sales arena, office and meeting room and queue them up in a 36,500-square-feet open space “barn” equipped with holding pens. While cattle will be the primary commodity, pigs, goats and sheep will be auctioned as well.

WNC Communities is fairly confident it’ll receive more grant money to complete the last phase. They hope to start construction in July and present a complete livestock market by this September.

Jerry Roberts, a cattle farmer leading the project, said the geographic location off I-40 in Haywood, yet close to the Buncombe county line, will have a positive regional impact.

Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.

“I appreciate the fact that we’ve got it here,” said Gavin Brown, chair of the Haywood Economic Development Commission and mayor of Waynesville.

The Southeast Livestock Exchange, which owns a large cattle lot in Waynesville, will operate the new market. After being in the cattle marketing business for 30 years, Queen has gained plenty of experience. He said there’s always been good demand for cattle from Western North Carolina.

“We hope to rebuild the demand that we had at one point in time,” said Queen. “And we know that can happen.”

Ed Johnson, who runs a small-scale livestock market in Canton, was invited to apply to become the new market’s operator. Johnson chose not to bid due to the proposed market’s large size.

“He felt the expectations were greater,” said Ward, adding that WNC Communities maintains an open dialogue with Johnson and considers his market “friendly competition.”

Johnson has criticized efforts to create a new market instead of building on his small-scale operation. Johnson started up his auction house in 2008 to fill the void faced by cattle farmers. But according to Ward, the feasibility study for the larger market was already underway when Johnson made his move.

WNC Communities is waiting on a re-use permit from N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for the site, a former landfill owned by International Paper.

The landfill will also be used by the Town of Canton for a youth athletic field.

While Ward maintains the entire project is farmer-driven, WNC Communities have had their work cut out for them, applying for funding from five different organizations, each with their own guidelines.


Paying for a new livestock market

The lawsuit against Big Tobacco in the 1990s resulted in a financial settlement with states. North Carolina dedicated 25 percent of its $4.6 billion piece of the pie to the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund to help former tobacco farmers find another economically viable way to make a living. Another 50 percent of the settlement money goes to the Golden Leaf Foundation, which funds economic development initiatives in tobacco-dependent regions.

Both entities supported a new regional livestock market for the mountains, with a $875,000 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund and $500,000 from the Golden LEAF Foundation. Other funding included a $400,000 grant from the North Carolina Rural Center and $75,000 from various county governments, local businesses and individual farmers.


After making the journey to Western North Carolina from China, Niu Jun discovered Bryson City was nothing like she imagined.

Driving through the town of about 1,300, a confused Niu Jun asked, “Bryson City? Where’s the city?”

Niu Jun, 33, hails from Harbin, a city in northeast China, where about 10 million people reside.

Niu Jun and Swain County found one another through an extremely selective program funded by the State Department.

The Teachers of Critical Languages program matches schools with teachers of Chinese and Arabic. Of 120 applicants, Niu Jun is one of only 15 Chinese teachers placed nationwide this school year.

Niu Jun has won five national awards for English, as well as several National Excellent Mentor Awards.

“She is definitely the best of the best,” said Terri Caron, Niu Jun’s mentor teacher.

Niu Jun currently teaches Chinese to 22 students at Swain County High School. Up until now, these students had two options: take Spanish at the school or learn another language online.

Caron said it was vital that students have opportunities to learn other languages, especially Chinese.

“More people speak Chinese in the world than English,” said Caron. “Our kids need this opportunity to be globally competitive.”

But Swain County high school students don’t need to venture far to use their newly attained language skills. Caron said speaking Chinese can be a benefit right here in WNC.

“The [Cherokee] casino would hire and pay a good deal of money to those who could speak fluent Mandarin,” Caron said.

About one in five North Carolina jobs rely on international trade, according to research done by the school.

While students find the language challenging, some are excited to continue learning with advanced classes.

So far, Niu Jun has taught students how to count from 1 to 100, write many Chinese characters, and learn colors, names of family members, and how to introduce themselves and other people.

She’s even taught them how to order food from a Chinese menu. Niu Jun recently took the students on a field trip to Yummi Yummi, a Chinese restaurant in Bryson City. She played waitress and took the students’ orders in Chinese. Students went so far as to use chopsticks to eat their food.

They’ve come a long way from their first class when they learned how to say their names in Chinese. Niu Jun made name plates for each student that displayed their Chinese name and zodiac sign.

While students are most interested in learning about Chinese culture, much of their time is devoted to picking up a complex language.

Niu Jun said there’s a lot of memorization and rules involved, especially when it comes to writing Chinese characters.

“You have to memorize the sequences ... not like a drawing,” Niu Jun said.

Pronunciation, or pinyin, is also challenging, as each word can be pronounced in at least four different ways. For example, “ma” can mean mother, linen, a horse, or a curse depending on how one says it.

With about 11 students in each class, Niu Jun has plenty of chances to correct pronunciation.

“We can do a lot of face-to-face practice,” Niu Jun said.

That is not the case at the school in China where Niu Jun has taught English for 11 years. With about 11,000 students attending, classes there have 60 to 70 students on average.

A disciplinarian would join the sole teacher in each class to keep students listening and in line.

But those students have been learning English ever since elementary school, while Swain County high schoolers have never before encountered Chinese.

Settling in and stepping out

Cultural exchange is a two-way street with Niu Jun. As her students, friends and host family find out more about life in China, Niu Jun is soaking up American culture.

She’s driving around town in a Cadillac SUV, donated for the year by Mountain Ford. The windy, rural roads are a far cry from the urban streets she’s accustomed to navigating in Harbin, which is known in China as the Ice City due to its famous ice sculptures.

If the tables were turned, Niu Jun’s mentor teacher Caron isn’t sure she would be hitting the roads in China, after visiting Beijing with three other Swain administrators a few months ago.

“There’s a lot of people there,” said Caron. “I would not want to drive on their streets.”

Niu Jun has not turned away from adventure since arriving in Swain County in August. She’s gone rafting, hiking, kayaking and most recently — belly dancing.

“She really is stepping out,” said Julie Thorner, who is hosting Niu Jun. “She’ll try pretty much everything.”

Thorner complimented Niu Jun for being so good-humored even when she’s out of her element.

“She handles it with perfect grace and poise,” said Thorner, who jumped at the chance to host Niu Jun as soon as she found out about the high school’s plans.

Thorner can not only speak Chinese, but she lived in China about 25 years ago through one of the first study abroad programs in China.

Thorner was hoping to score some home cooked Chinese meals after Niu Jun arrived, but there was one major obstacle. Niu Jun had never stepped into a kitchen. Living in an urban environment meant Niu Jun spent most of her time eating out. Thorner has changed that, though. She’s shown Niu Jun the ropes, and Niu Jun now cooks several times a week.

Niu Jun is so proud about cooking meals for herself that she’s posed for pictures in the kitchen to send to her family back home.

Niu Jun’s kept in constant contact with her husband and family, with video chats every single day. Sometimes, she leaves the webcam on even as she watches TV to create the effect of having her family with her in the same room.

Meanwhile, Thorner recalls talking to her parents only once or twice during her entire trip to China.

Niu Jun has triggered flashbacks for Thorner.

Every time Niu Jun comes across a new word or phrase, she takes out a notebook, writes down the meaning and pronounces it over and over.

“Just like I did,” said Thorner.

China was a different place then. Hardly anybody owned a car, there were no refrigerators or stoves, and everyone wore Mao suits and referred to each other as “comrade.”

A change in the word’s meaning show that times have certainly changed since then. Young people use “comrade” now as slang for a homosexual.

Still, Niu Jun is amazed that Thorner remembers Chinese at all. She often tells Thorner it’s time to see China in its more modern form.

Thorner hopes to do just that in 2012, along with her two sons, Tyler and Timmy. Thorner’s boys are already getting a head start with Chinese lessons from Niu Jun.

“I want my kids to be exposed to multiple languages and cultures,” said Thorner.

During a recent power outage brought on by a snowy weekend, the four lit up candles and lanterns, and sat around a big fire. They sang songs, in Chinese and English. Thorner sang the only Chinese song she knew: the national anthem.

Each new moment seems to bring another opportunity to learn for Niu Jun and those she interacts with.

Niu Jun’s American experience has already extended beyond Bryson City. She has taken advantage of holidays to travel to Miami, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and San Francisco. She hopes to visit New York, Toronto and Niagara Falls during spring break.

When she goes back home, she’ll bring a wealth of knowledge to her students in China about American life.

“I have a lot to share with my students and other colleagues,” said Niu Jun. “I can show a lot of pictures...[and] videotape some of the lessons.”

Niu Jun said it was hard to pinpoint what her favorite part about America is, but she finally settled on one.

“I like American people best,” said Niu Jun. “People here are very, very nice.”


Year after year, Haywood County commissioners recognized the social service and health department buildings were falling apart.

Yet they passed the buck, hoping the next set of fresh-faced commissioners would tackle the lingering issue.

Last week, county commissioners got over a bad case of procrastination and took action.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, commissioners voted unanimously to buy the old Wal-Mart near Lake Junaluska and renovate the space to house more than 200 employees who have been putting up with leaky roofs, frozen pipes and crammed office space.

County leaders have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility. The latest session lasted for nearly five hours, as presentations and comments from all sides were heard for the final time.

The county is not revealing how much it’ll pay Georgia-based RCG Ventures for the property, but its initial estimates place the total cost of the project somewhere between $12 and $12.5 million. The county will shell out about $6.6 million for the property alone.

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. While the state pays for the cost of social programs and a portion of social workers salaries, counties are responsible for providing a building for them to work in.

Facility inspections landed the Haywood County’s DSS building in the bottom 1 percent of more than 70 DSS facilities across the state.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which date to 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the abandoned Wal-Mart.

It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

Purchasing land and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million.

Two architectural firms independently ruled out renovation as a viable option — the cost of renovating would likely exceed the price of buying another facility.

County Manager David Cotton pointed out the crumbling structure lacked flexibility and had inherent design flaws due to its age.

Cotton said he wanted to make it “crystal clear” that all counties are mandated to provide adequate services, and that Haywood had to take action.

With the three options in front of them, commissioners felt strongly that the best solution was to occupy the abandoned Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious.”

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Jonnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run.

“It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and the health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health Director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.


What now?

Haywood will attempt to lock in a low-interest federal loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. The county is optimistic about the prospect, as the USDA is now flush with stimulus funds.

Citizen Randy Burress remained unconvinced and said placing all hopes on stimulus money was a “bad joke.”

“All this sunshine and lollipops, you’re still talking about our money,” said Burress. “We can’t stand any more taxes. We don’t need any more taxes, period.”

While commissioners hope they won’t have to raise taxes, they admit the loan could lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate in 2012.

If Haywood does score the 40-year loan for $12.5 million, it would result in initial loan payments of $260,000 each year. The county may need to borrow less depending on how much it will cost to retrofit the inside of Wal-Mart. Estimates are still pending.

If the county cannot obtain the USDA loan, it would take out a conventional loan and possibly sell county property to raise funds.

The loan process could take up to six months, according to Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey.

A few weeks ago, the county put out a request for bids from local architects. The USDA requires an architect’s project estimate to be included with the loan application.

Stamey said the commissioners will likely make a decision on an architectural firm no later than the second meeting in February.

Meanwhile, the county hopes to put “for sale” signs on some of its other properties. Selling the existing DSS building and health department would add to the county’s property tax base and possibly spur commercial development and sales tax.

Stamey said the county would have to take the long list of structural problems into account when setting the price for the DSS building and handing it off to the next owner.

A potential buyer interested in converting the facility into housing for the elderly has already approached the county.

But considering the recession, Stamey confessed it may be difficult to unload some of the other properties off the county’s hands.

“Some of the property, we may need to keep,” said Stamey.


Despite cutting corners across the board, Swain County still isn’t sure it has achieved a healthy level of savings.

Nevertheless, County Manager Kevin King is guessing the county will pull out of its financial crisis by early spring.

“That’s not saying we’re out of the woods yet,” said King.

In 2009, the Local Government Commission identified Swain as one of only a few counties in the state to have “serious financial and budgetary problems” and recommended that the county develop a financial plan of attack to submit to the commission.

There is no specific timeline for progress, as long as the county is consistently taking positive steps, according to the LGC.

For now, Swain is required to send monthly financial statements to the state commission. The state sees no need for a higher level of oversight at this point, according to a spokesperson for the Local Government Commission.

“They’re not even communicating with us,” said King. “If they foresee a problem, they’ll give us a call.”

The county is in the process of plugging a $1 million shortfall to meet the state’s mandate of an 8 percent fund balance, akin to the county’s savings account. At 8 percent, the county would have enough cash on hand to cover one month of operating expenses.

Since Swain falls below that benchmark, the N.C. Department of Revenue began overseeing the county’s budget and will continue to do so until the situation is corrected.

The LGC’s recommendations only become mandatory if the county repeatedly violates a statute or is in danger of defaulting on a loan.


Shifting the blame

King and Finance Officer Vida Cody said it is difficult to determine whether the county would meet the 8 percent benchmark until the end of the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

“We have a small finance department,” said King. “Most of our time is just making sure all the bills are paid, all the money is collected.”

Part of the uncertainty also results from a complication that has delayed counties from receiving revenues from sales tax, King said.

After sales tax increased by 1 percent in September, scores of merchants incorrectly filled out tax forms. The state Department of Revenue rejected 15 percent of the receipts.

While that is corrected, Swain and other counties will just have to wait for an inflow of sales tax revenues from September and October.

In mid-December, the state informed Swain County that it would not be reimbursing the county for taking on the child support enforcement program until after July.

That program was handed to the county as part of an unfunded mandate in 2009.

Also in 2010, counties will have to contribute 1.35 percent more to the North Carolina retirement system. This translates to an additional $75,000 coming out of Swain’s budget.

The county also faced more than the estimated $20,000 in expenses to repair a sinkhole that cropped up near its jail at the end of 2009. The hole is now stabilized, though more gravel was necessary than originally estimated.

“There should be no more expenses,” said King.

Swain County is working with the original contractor to determine the cause of the slide. The county will pursue reimbursement from the contractor if it is determined there was a problem with the initial work, according to King.


Details of a financial disaster

As of June 30, 2009, the county had a fund balance of 6.67 percent, compared the state’s recommended minimum of 8 percent.

According to the LGC, the average fund balance available for comparably sized counties was 20.16 percent.

In June 2008, Swain was close to that figure, with 18.62 percent of its budget in cash reserves.

While every county faced severe budget shortfalls during the recession, most began trimming costs in fall of 2008. Swain County waited until the summer of 2009 — more than a year into the recession. By the time Swain was tackling its problem, most other counties in the region had already improved their situation.

In 2008, only four counties in the state dipped below the 8 percent benchmark. The LGC was aware that these counties were struggling, whereas Swain did not notify the commission that they might not meet the benchmark last year.

Swain’s cost-cutting measures so far have included laying off 8 full-time positions and reducing all salaries by 2 percent. Swain continues to hire on an as-needed basis, leaving positions not related to public safety empty.

County employees have taken five days in furloughs so far, as part of the pay cut.

Swain also expects $157,000 from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which will begin payments this month, King said.

County employees have begun using purchase orders before buying supplies with county money. LGC and Swain County’s auditor both recommended improving control over purchases made by county departments.

“They’re doing better, much better,” Cody said. “By the end of the fiscal year, we should have met every one of the recommendations of the auditors.”


The Town of Canton has begun clamping down on video sweepstakes machines with a new ordinance last week, but some business owners seemed more relieved than disappointed.

That’s because the ordinance ends the 90-day moratorium passed in November and clears the path for even more sweepstakes machines in town.

Cyber sweepstakes use an obscure loophole in the video poker ban to subsist. The video gambling industry claims winnings are predetermined — even though customers appear to play games of chance, similar to those on video poker machines.

Canton’s new policy calls for a steep $2,500 annual tax on the first four machines, with $700 per machine thereafter.

It requires each business to pull in no more than 15 percent of its income from cyber sweepstakes and demands minors be prohibited from playing or even viewing the screens.

While no one spoke at Canton’s public hearing on the ordinance last Tuesday (Jan.12), a few video sweepstakes representatives were present. One was so eager to get the machines up and running, he wanted to pay the fee on the spot that night. Town Manager Al Matthews instructed him to be patient and come in the next morning.

So far, two businesses have signed up for the privilege license. Lankford’s Grocery registered 19 sweepstakes machines, while Crosby Wireless registered six.

Annually, these two businesses alone will hand over $16,900 to the town. For now, Canton is only charging half the annual fee to cover the remainder of the fiscal year through June. Come July, a full year’s worth will be due.

Canton Alderman Eric Dills was noticeably displeased even though he voted for the measure, which passed unanimously.

“I don’t really like this business,” said Dills. “It is gambling and everybody knows it’s gambling.”

Dills pointed out there’d be no concrete way to determine if a business was raking in more than 15 percent of its profits from sweepstakes.

Mayor Pat Smathers said the town would have to use a common sense approach.

“If you have 15 of those machines and a hot dog stand, chances are you don’t sell that many hot dogs,” said Smathers.

The towns of Hendersonville and Franklin have already set a $2,600 annual tax on sweepstakes machines. Franklin collected fees from eight businesses within days of passing its ordinance, a testament to the lucrative nature of the industry.


Canton aldermen are embarking on an ambitious quest to identify long-term goals and strategies that will shape the town in years to come.

“You’ve got to have a plan, and this is the plan for the future of Canton,” said Alderman Ed Underwood.

Each alderman came up with their own list of priorities for the town. They brought those lists to the table at a meeting on Tuesday (Jan.12).

At the outset, it seems all five town leaders meet eye-to-eye on most of their priorities. The top priority appears to be upgrading the sewer line to accommodate commercial development around the I-40 interchange at exit 31 and along Champion Drive. For now, the heavily used sewer line is hitting maximum capacity.

According to a 2008 estimate, the extensive sewer expansion project would cost about $1.2 million. The town has attempted landing grants but has yet to secure any.

Town leaders plan on meeting every Tuesday to discuss the nitty-gritty of each item now that they have a master list in tow. Other common threads between their lists include:

• Repairing the town swimming pool.

• Annexing West Canton and other areas if feasible.

• Eliminating potholes and pave streets/sidewalks.

• Economic development/promote downtown.

• Seeking grants where possible.

Mayor Pat Smathers already published his 17-point vision in a local newspaper prior to last year’s election, encouraging voters to choose candidates who would cooperate with him to implement his goals.

The unilateral move drew criticism from some candidates, who insisted that residents and other aldermen also have input in a long-term vision.

Shortly after the election, Smathers succumbed, asking aldermen to come up with their own wishlists.

A few of the aldermen came up with original ideas not found on any other list.

Flynn said he wanted the town to begin back tax collections and start tearing down condemned houses littered across town.

Currently, the Town of Canton partners with Haywood County to collect taxes. According to Flynn, those who have paid their county taxes, but fail to pay the town, fall off the radar.

Flynn suggests breaking off the county partnership to start collecting its own taxes.

“I know there are some that are perfectly capable of paying but don’t,” said Flynn. “Tax collections would take very little resources.”

Flynn also wants to develop a plan of attack for dealing with condemned houses, which downgrade the neighborhood’s property values.

“It’s just unsightly,” said Flynn. “It’s open to vermins [sic] and rats.”

Underwood came up with the idea of using prison crews for projects then discovered that the state program that loans inmates to municipalities has fallen by the wayside due to the statewide budget crunch.


Audience members knew from the start that this concert would be different.

Instead of beginning the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver show by bringing out the legendary bluegrass band, concertgoers were given an acting lesson of sorts.

They were instructed to give a thunderous round of applause with cheering and whistling, as if the band already had come out on stage.

After that, it was a more tepid round of applause, then a standing ovation, then a warm and fuzzy moment of looking up at the stage adoringly with a hint of a smile and head nods.

All the while, the stage sat empty in front of a church backdrop.

But the jam-packed audience at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts had no problem performing theatrics. They had not only signed up for a gospel bluegrass concert, but also a live DVD recording (audience reactions are typically recorded in advance).

As the crowd tapped their toes and sang along with Lawson and his band throughout the night, a camera swung over their heads and along the aisles.

The cameras weren’t much of a distraction, though, with all eyes glued to the impressive performance of six very talented men: Lawson (mandolin, guitar, vocals), Dale Perry (banjo, vocals), Jason Barie (fiddle), Josh Swift (Dobro, vocals), Jason Leek (bass, vocals), Corey Hensley (guitar, vocals),

Lawson, in a sparkling blue sequined jacket and bright green boots, joked endlessly with the audience and fellow bandmates.

“I apologize for the glare,” said Lawson, referring to his sparkly coat. “I hope I don’t blind you.”

Later, fiddler Jason Barie strutted on stage with a pink sequined jacket, directly challenging Lawson. After pointing to the “Hot Stuff” emblazoned across the back, Lawson kicked him off the stage, with the punch line, “Hot Stuff has left the building.”

With a plethora of jokes and stories in between, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver delivered a crowd-pleasing performance, with music ranging from lively bluegrass tunes to equally compelling a cappella harmonies.

While Lawson has weaved in and out of gospel recordings over the course of his bluegrass career, the night was solely devoted to songs with Christian themes.

And the audience approved. Concertgoers embraced the solemn and uplifting words, interjecting shouts of “Amen” into a few of the songs.

True to the movie recording process, the concert had to be interrupted a couple of times for multiple takes.

A booming voice from above instructed the band to start the song over, and Lawson quipped, “I’m just hoping he won’t hit us with a lightning bolt,” garnering one of many laughs from the audience that night.

All jokes aside, Lawson stressed that the aim of his music was to somehow, somewhere uplift listeners and bring them a little closer to God.

Lyrics from the night included this one, intended to provoke some thought, “This life has many choices, eternity has two.”


It may be illegal to throw away plastic bottles in North Carolina these days, but don’t expect a landfill patrol to start picking through your trash any time soon.

The state is still trying to divine how exactly to enforce the law, even though it’s been three months since the ban on plastic bottles in landfills went into effect.

“The was no way that I or my attendants were going to play trash police,” said Joel Ostroff, Macon County’s recycling coordinator. “Nobody in their right mind would sit there and say ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to have you go through every bag that comes in.’”

For now, the game plan for recycling directors involves more encouragement than punishment. They’ve been educating residents on the law rather than threatening them with fees for noncompliance.

“We believe we’ll get better cooperation if we’re not forcing people to do it, but are asking them to join us and cooperate with us,” said Ostroff.

That strategy has worked well so far, as recycling directors in WNC reported residents are increasingly recycling plastic.

“We’ve increased our amount of plastic by a ton a week,” said Stephen King, recycling director for Haywood County.

“People are recycling probably twice as much plastic as they were initially,” said Charles Bailey, supervisor of Swain County Waste Management.

Before the law went into effect, less than one out of every five plastic bottles were recycled in the state.

State lawmakers passed the plastic ban primarily to meet growing demand from companies that utilize recycled plastic in North Carolina and the Southeast. Rather than buying the plastic from elsewhere, these companies could use recycled plastic generated in state.

But there were other motives for passing the law, including environmental benefits and job creation.

“We support a lot of American jobs through it,” King said, adding that Haywood has five full-time positions devoted to recycling.

While landfills can be fined up to $15,000 for not complying with regulations, including the plastic bottle ban, incidental amounts of plastic are allowed.

“It’s extremely unlikely that anybody from the state will look inside anybody’s individual trash cans,” said Steve Mouw, the state’s recycling director. “[But we] may start looking at loads of garbage from commercial facilities.”

Initially, there was confusion over whether the law would apply in places like Swain and Jackson counties, which ship their trash out of state rather than operating a local landfill. But the ban does apply to transfer stations where trash is collected before being shipped out, Mouw said. No North Carolinian is exempt from the ban.

King said many have called him confused about the law, and others have even tried to hide plastic bottles in their trash bags, which puzzled King.

“It takes more effort to hide it than recycle,” King said.

For those who are regularly mystified about what can be recycled and what can’t, King has a general recommendation.

“When in doubt, put it in the recycling bin,” said King. “If it’s definitely something we can use, we’ll use it.”

Associated Packaging Technologies in Waynesville, which uses recycled soda and water bottles to make frozen food trays and bowls, is anxious to see how the law impacts business.

“We’re cautiously optimistic on how it pans out,” said Tony Gallo, director of sustainability for the company. The state is right to treat bottles as a resource, Gallo added.

“You can either reuse that resource or you can do what we’ve done historically and that’s bury it in the ground...that’s a waste,” said Gallo. “We’ve invested a lot of resources to make it the first time and to be able to reuse it is the right way to go.”


The never-ending battle

While many recycling coordinators regularly make presentations to schools and businesses, certain demographics still aren’t getting the message.

“There’s always those people you’re never going to reach no matter what you do,” said Joel Ostroff, Macon County’s recycling coordinator.

The worst recyclers, according to Ostroff, are between 18 and 40, since that age demographic is more likely to be focusing on careers and raising families than recycling.

The solution lies in educating students early on about the benefits of recycling, so that more adults retain the recycling habit throughout their lifetimes, Ostroff said. The earlier students are educated about recycling, the more likely they are to retain their recycling habit.


Haywood Regional Medical Center was in better financial shape than expected as it embarked on an affiliation with neighboring hospitals under WestCare and entered a management contract with Carolinas Healthcare System this month.

The latest financial report for Haywood Regional Medical Center shows the hospital is exceeding its budgeted targets, despite a tight economy and the continued uphill climb to rebuild its reputation after failing federal inspections in 2008. That year, the hospital lost millions after essentially shutting its doors for five months during a top-to-bottom internal overhaul.

The hospital reported a nearly 2 percent profit margin for October and November of 2009. It marks a four percent turnaround over the same months last year, which showed a nearly 2 percent loss.

The number of patients has increased over last year, although not to the level hospital officials hoped. Nonetheless, the hospital remained profitable by slashing expenses.

“We’re not making as much money, but we’re spending less money, and that’s a very good thing,” said Treasurer Cliff Stovall of HRMC at the hospital’s last meeting as a public entity.

The hospital has made meaningful changes across the board, according to Gene Winters, HRMC’s chief financial officer.

“We’re working a lot smarter and harder,” said Winter, who attributes the success to the hospital’s employees. “We went through a bad patch and wanted to come out and really hit the ground running, and that’s what they’ve done.”

HRMC is leaving certain positions open after people retire or move away and is utilizing in-house nurses, rather than more expensive contract nurses, to fill in when short-staffed.

The hospital is also getting a bigger bang for its buck by focusing capital investments on equipment that generates returns.

For example, the hospital spent roughly $50,000 on emergency department software, which paid for itself within the first 15 days.

HRMC also purchased a digital mammography machine, which fetches more revenue from health insurance companies since it detects breast cancer earlier.

Replacing the hospital’s film mammography machine also meant eliminating the expense of film, chemicals, and labor used to process the images.

Winters said that could mean cost savings of well over $100,000 if HRMC uses the mammography machine as much as it did last year.

Entering into a management contract with the Carolinas Health System, a conglomerate based in Charlotte with a network of 32 hospitals, means the hospital faces the potential of saving money on even basic purchases.

HRMC has already taken advantage of its improved buying power by saving 12 percent on new gastroscopes and 11 percent on orthopedic bone screws.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s several hundred thousand dollars over a course of a year,” said Winters. “It’s a very big chunk of change.”


Fellow ice carvers Jeff Pennypacker and Cary Shackelford are ever ready to etch out any sculpture that will satisfy their client’s whimsy.

The recently departed holiday season means Pennypacker has carved heaps of reindeers, snowflakes, New Year’s signs, champagne bottles and ice bars.

Meanwhile, Shackelford personalizes sculptures year-round to match each wedding. He has carved an ice castle with Cinderella slippers out front; a runner to recognize a marathon-running bride and groom pair; and even Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, for a Hindu wedding.

Most ice carvers must master flower vases, swans and eagles, as these are wildly popular with clients.

With 20 years of experience under his belt, Shackleford said he can chisel out a vase in a whopping 20 minutes or less.

But Shackelford is a little nervous about having a time limit looming overhead as he takes part in the first competition of his career next week.

Shackleford will be one of six carvers charged with creating the best ice sculpture in under two hours at the first annual Fire & Ice festival in Haywood County.

The competition asks carvers to whittle away the most impressive winter symbol from a huge block of ice.

Only one person can carve, but a helper can assist in moving the block, which can weigh 300 pounds or more.

Ice carving contests are a rarity in this region, which is one of the reasons Pennypacker was excited to get on board and help organize and sponsor the event.

“There’s not a whole lot of competition down this way,” said Pennypacker. “Most of them are up north.

Shackelford already has a sculpture in mind after Google searching “winter symbols” to help brainstorm. He usually gathers photographs and drawings to study before figuring out a plan of attack for each sculpture.

“Planning is the most important part of what we do,” Pennypacker said.


The lowdown on carving

Ice carvers utilize chainsaws and chisels, and now, some even use a computer mouse as part of the process.

Computer technology helps by doing basic cutting. But there’s still a lot of human input involved, since carvers do all the shaping and detail work.

On average, it takes Pennypacker two hours to create a sculpture, which itself lasts six to eight hours.

“Sculptures lasts longer than the party,” Shackelford said.

Luckily for the artists, not all is lost if an ice sculpture breaks in the making.

Shackelford can use the snow created when he cuts ice with a chainsaw, along with water, to help repair his work if necessary.

“Some people use liquid nitrogen, which is a little dangerous,” said Shackelford.

A common misconception about ice carving is the idea that one must shiver in a cold room while creating.

“You don’t have to be in the freezer to cut them,” said Shackelford.

In fact, colder temperatures make the job tougher since the ice becomes more brittle.

“You can crack it more easily when it’s cold,” said Shackelford.

Summertime is actually one of the best times to have an ice sculpture, Pennypacker said.

“The more the melt, the more spectacular the ice looks,” said Pennypacker.

For those itching to begin mastering the art, Shackelford has two words familiar to anyone who desires to learn a new trade: “patience” and “practice.”

“Don’t get discouraged if you break it because it will happen,” said Shackelford.

While you don’t have to be a chef to be an ice carver, most ice carvers also use their knife skills at restaurants. But leaving the kitchen to carve up a sculpture is nothing like a chore for Shackelford, an executive chef in Asheville.

“The best part of my job is to carve ice,” said Shackelford. “I don’t do it often enough.”

See Shackelford and five other ice carvers in action from 2 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 23, at The Waynesville Inn.


Haywood County Commissioners are expected to vote this week to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services.

Commissioners will convene a special meeting on the issue Wednesday (Jan. 13) where a vote is likely. They have been considering the old Wal-Mart site for more than a year.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said there are several reasons the old Wal-Mart is under serious consideration by the county — primarily because it is the cheapest option. Swanger called it a potential “bargain” for taxpayers.

Remodeling the current DSS office building, which dates back to the late 1920s and early ‘50s, could suck the county into a money pit, Swanger said.

“It would require millions in renovations, heating air, roof windows and you still have an inadequate space for doing business,” Swanger said.

Other sticky issues include lack of privacy for DSS workers handling sensitive cases and lack of handicapped accessibility.

“It is in the bottom one percent of DSS facilities in the state of North Carolina,” Swanger said.

Commissioner Bill Upton detailed the never-ending maintenance issues.

“It’s going to need a new roof, it’s going to need windows, it’s not wired for today’s technologies,” said Upton. “We could go on and on about what it would cost us, we would still have an old building.”

Meanwhile, building something new — including the cost of buying land and site work — would likely be twice as much as what the county hopes to spend on the old Wal-Mart site.

Upton, who supports buying the Wal-Mart property, estimates that a brand new DSS building would scoop $25 to $30 million out of Haywood’s budget.

Taking over the Wal-Mart property will require extensive remodeling to turn the gaping retail shell into offices, but it already has a roof and comes with a parking lot, for example.

Upton is confident that the new county offices would serve as a strong anchor for the shopping center and stimulate adjacent businesses.

Until now, county leaders have had a bad habit of putting off the looming problem for another year, according to Swanger.

“I think it has been recognized by many boards that this space is unsuitable and inadequate,” Swanger said.

As the DSS building continued to deteriorate, the county spent the past decade building a new justice center, a new jail and remodeling the historic courthouse, tying up much of its capital, along with things like a new elementary school in Bethel and new buildings at Haywood Community College.

“I suppose it has been just a matter of priorities,” Swanger said.

Though negotiations have been on and off for more than a year, the county is now in a better financial position to buy the property, Upton said.

“If we don’t do something now, it’s going to cost us much more in the future to buy property and start building,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

Upton also pointed out the geographic location in the middle of the county as being convenient to a greater number of residents.

If approved on Wednesday, Haywood’s DSS and health departments might share the old Wal-Mart with Tractor Supply Co., which is in the process of signing a lease for a portion of the store.


The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently upheld a state law that bans video gambling everywhere but the casino in Cherokee.

The video gambling industry challenged the ban, claiming it was unfair to outlaw the machines statewide while allowing them at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. The court, however, ruled that the exemption is a policy decision and does not violate federal law.

Meanwhile, video sweepstakes machines are quickly proliferating around the state as the industry capitalizes on an apparent loophole in the law. Video sweepstakes are largely a reincarnation of video gambling under a different name and are the subject of a separate lawsuit that is still pending.

Towns are enacting a steep business license fee for the machines as a stopgap measure. But it doesn’t appear to be a deterrent.

Since Franklin instituted a $2,600 annual fee in December, eight vendors have paid the fee to open their doors.

Franklin Town Manager Sam Greenwood said business owners probably realized the venture was lucrative enough to justify paying the hefty fee.

Greenwood suspects that the new policy could push cyber sweepstakes outside of Franklin and into county territory. No county policy has been put in place to regulate the machines.

The Town of Canton held a public hearing on Tuesday, Jan. 12, on its own ordinance on sweepstakes machines. The proposed amendment calls for a $2,500 privilege license fee for the first four machines, with $700 for each additional machine. It also includes a zoning ordinance limiting machines to four business districts. In addition, the measure calls for income from sweepstakes terminals to not exceed 15 percent of the total gross income of the business.

Canton Town Manager Al Matthews estimates that about eight establishments in Canton currently operate sweepstakes machines.


At a time when Waynesville’s appearance standards are under scrutiny for being too strict, three proposed developments cruised past the town’s Community Appearance Commission.

Last week, the advisory board approved the Noland Retail Center and Holland Car Wash, both on South Main Street near Wal-Mart, and a new Verizon Wireless store on Russ Avenue.

Such smooth sailing for these three projects seems incongruous with claims that the standards are potentially driving developers away.

But there are easy explanations for why these projects passed the community appearance board relatively quickly, said Daniel Hyatt, landscape architect and project manager for the Noland Retail Center and Holland Car Wash.

According to Hyatt, developers who hire local designers are generally familiar with the types of developments the town desires. They can draft a site plan that meets the standards without revisiting the drawing board multiple times. The retail center and the car wash proved that by passing the appearance board on their first try.

But that approval alone is insufficient to begin building, as the appearance board serves only in an advisory capacity.

“Make no mistake, we still have a sizeable amount of work to do on both of these projects to make the letter of the ordinance,” said Hyatt, who recused himself as chairman of the community appearance board to present the two projects.

Corporate developers usually come to the table with the same site plans they’ve used time and again. These are the developers who are less likely to bend to the will of the town.

“When they come into a community like Waynesville that has fairly restrictive design requirements, then they have a lot of difficulty,” said Hyatt. “It gives them a lot of heartburn.”

None of the three projects will have to come back to the board unless there’s a drastic change in the site plan, Hickox said.


Scrutinizing the standards

While the design standards promote pedestrian usage, they don’t take into account auto-centric businesses, like drive-thrus, car washes and pay-at-the-pump gas stations.

The town’s standards push parking lots to the side or rear of buildings rather than in front — a move aimed at creating a more appealing streetscape where attractive building facades, instead of asphalt, take center stage. But some businesses were left out.

“Nobody thought when they put the land development standards in, how are we going to make a gas station work under these,” said Hickox.

The steering committee that’s reviewing the land development standards has also placed the appearance commission under the microscope.

Since the standards went into effect in 2003, the appearance board has sometimes been stymied because it can only make recommendations to developers, not demands.

The other obstacle in the commission’s path is that it is the first stop in the permit chain, very early on in the process.

“At which time, a lot of the details aren’t really worked out,” said Hyatt.

Developers can only paint pictures with broad brushstrokes for the appearance board. For example, they can only point out where the large trees or small trees might go, not provide details like the genus and species of every plant.

As the steering committee works to improve the standards and take these concerns into account, the public is invited to take part.

Anyone can get involved in the process by crafting and presenting a well-thought amendment, Hickox said.

Hyatt himself appreciates the chance to work on the standards before they are vetted by the public, town board and town staff.

“It’s nice to be clued in on the front of this discussion,” said Hyatt.


After a marathon five hours of discussion on Wednesday (Jan. 13), Haywood County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services and health department. Commissioners have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which were built 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the renovated Wal-Mart. It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

However, County Manager David Cotton said the buildings “lack flexibility” for necessary renovations and upfits due to inherent design flaws.

Purchasing property and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million, according to research by the county and two architecture firms. Meanwhile, the county claims it could potentially save more than $12 million by taking over the old Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious."

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward, knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. For now, the DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of the state.

Haywood hopes to lock in a federal stimulus loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. That loan would result in $260,000 of annual debt service payments for 40 years and could possibly lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate.

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Johnnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run. “It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have routinely gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.


Threat of a federal lawsuit won’t be enough to stop some county commissioners in Western North Carolina from praying in the name of Jesus Christ before their meetings.

“I wouldn’t go out and deliberately break a law, but if there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phil Carson.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith said he doesn’t care what the court ruling says, and the county commissioners will continue to offer prayers in Christ’s name.

“I am going to do it anyway, it’s just that simple,” Monteith said. “I don’t want somebody to come to me and tell me I can’t do this. I guess they would just have to arrest me.”

In Macon County, Chairman Ronnie Beale says he won’t back down either, citing public support for Christian-based prayers.

“The constituents of Macon County that I represent would agree that a Christian prayer is appropriate,” said Beale, adding that the vast majority of Macon County residents are Christians.

Carson also said that commissioners are entitled to pray according to the faith held by the majority in the community.

“I think there are a lot of good Christian people in our county that put us in office, and they expect us to do our jobs with some kind of leadership other than ourselves,” Carson said.

Swain Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones agreed many constituents would be upset if they could no longer say Jesus Christ in their prayers. At the same time, Jones isn’t as eager as Monteith and Carson to defy a court ruling.

“I would say we are on a wait and see thing right now until the judge makes a ruling,” Jones said. “We would have to have a commissioner’s meeting and discuss it.”

Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on unfazed.

The current lawsuit, being waged in Winston-Salem, specifically challenges the practice of a revolving door of pastors from the community being invited to give the invocations. The same practice is used in Macon County. But Beale said unless a court case landed on his own doorstep, he has no intention of changing course.

“Until we see that in Macon County, we will continue having our prayer,” said Beale.

Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson doesn’t want to tell pastors who come to their meeting not to say the word “Jesus.” But if the choice came down to no prayer at all, he said he would compromise.

Simpson said he could see how those of other faiths might be offended, yet added that he would only change the practice if forced to.

“I’d rather not take the prayer out of the meeting,” said Simpson. “There may have to be a test case to make us stop it.”

While a federal court ruling — both the one on the books and the one still pending — can set precedent, they lack an enforcement mechanism. Counties could only be forced to comply if a lawsuit was waged against them directly.

“They can’t necessarily send an army out to enforce the rulings,” said Todd Collins, assistant professor of public law at Western Carolina University.

Many places in the South refused to comply with Supreme Court rulings to end segregation in the schools, requiring military enforcement in a few rare cases, he pointed out. But in most counties, legal cases were brought to bring the force of federal case precedent to bear.

“There, it did take groups challenging each individual school system,” Collins said.

It may take that kind of grassroots movement to change prayer before meetings in Western North Carolina, Collins said. In an area that is conservative and where religion plays a large role in many people’s lives, the process could take a long time, Collins added.

While an outside group like the American Civil Liberties Union could fund such lawsuits, the organization waits in the wings until it finds a county or city residents willing to affix their name to the complaint.

Jones said that is always a chance that could happen, thus his more cautionary stance despite his personal convictions.

“If they are wanting to, they will find a way to do it,” Jones said of ACLU. “There is nobody immune from it regardless of what county you are in.”


Haywood more tempered

While some elected leaders in Macon and Swain pledge to keep praying out loud in Jesus Christ’s name, commissioners in Haywood County say they will alter their language to comply.

“We will follow the ruling. I don’t feel like being defiant,” said Kirk Kirkpatrick, chairman of the Haywood County commissioners.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county can’t pick and choose which laws it will follow.

“Not just in this matter but in any matter that is finalized in the court, we have an obligation to follow the law,” Swanger said.

To do otherwise would open the county to a lawsuit, he said.

“No matter what the issue is, if you do something the courts say you should not do, you are creating liability for taxpayers,” Swanger said.

The litmus test, as Swanger understands it, is anything that has “the appearance of promoting one religion over another.” Praying simply to God seems to solve the conundrum, he said.

“If a Jewish person and a Christian said the same exact prayer to God, you couldn’t tell which one was Christian and which one was Jewish unless one said Jesus,” Swanger said.

In Haywood County, three of the five commissioners take turns giving the invocation. Two of those three already avoid direct references to Jesus Christ.

Both Kirkpatrick and Commissioner Bill Upton open their prayers with “Dear Heavenly Father.” They end with “in your name we pray.” It clearly refers to a very specific God, but they don’t expressly say “Jesus.”

“I believe in my faith, but I am not going to use my position in government to impose it on other people,” Kirkpatrick said. “I don’t know that we should impose one religion.”

While those who support prayer in public settings often point to the long-standing practice by U.S. Congress, Kirkpatrick said Congressional prayers avoid a reference to one particular faith.

“They keep that prayer fairly general and don’t refer to Jesus Christ. That’s where people get into trouble,” Kirkpatrick said. As a lawyer, Kirkpatrick has sat through enough Constitutional law classes to know where that thin grey line falls.

But for Haywood Commissioner Kevin Ensley, he can’t imagine praying without the closing words “in Jesus’ name.”

“My personal belief is if you don’t pray in Jesus’ name your prayer isn’t heard,” Ensley said. “I am not saying that if somebody is Jewish and they don’t pray to Jesus, God doesn’t hear it, but that’s just the way I was taught.”

It is so intrinsic to his prayers, he would rather not say a prayer out loud at all than be barred from offering the prayer in Jesus’ name.

When Ensley was elected to the board in 2002, the commissioners didn’t do an invocation. It was one of the first suggestions he made and within a couple of months of taking office, he had restarted the tradition of a prayer before Haywood County meetings.

One reason Haywood commissioners may be treading more cautiously than their neighbors is the still fresh memory of a lawsuit over the Ten Commandments posted in the county’s historic courtroom. A local atheist, Richard Suhre, sued the county over a tablet of the Ten Commandments that appear alongside Lady Justice in the courtroom. The case lasted several years, and several lower courts ruled in the county’s favor. The case was slated to be heard by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but Suhre died before the case was heard, effectively ending the challenge after the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Kirkpatrick said the choice will ultimately be up to a particular commissioner what words to use when it’s his turn to give the prayer. Commissioners said they had not discussed the issue with one another yet. But Kirkpatrick doubted that Ensley would insist on praying in a way that put the county at risk.

“I think Kevin will step aside and say ‘You guys do it,’” Kirkpatrick said.

Ensley indeed said he would bow out from the rotation if he couldn’t pray in Jesus’ name.

“If you don’t want me to say that, don’t call on me to pray,” Ensley said.

Jackson is one of the few Western North Carolina counties that does not begin commissioner meetings with prayers. Their reasons aren’t to avoid a legal quagmire, but due to a strong belief in the separation of church and state, said Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan, who himself is a Southern Baptist and attends church on a regular basis.

“When I go to the commissioner meetings, we are there to conduct county business,” said McMahan. “That doesn’t mean I don’t pray. I do that on my own.”


A federal magistrate’s recommendation that limits prayer before government meetings in Forsyth County has touched off a fiery debate across the state over the long-entrenched practice.

In early November, Magistrate Judge Trevor Sharp determined that Forsyth County commissioners failed to remain religiously neutral. Even though they invited outside clergy of different denominations to deliver invocations before meetings, their prayers overwhelmingly referred to Jesus Christ, Savior or the Trinity. Such invocations “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government,” Sharp wrote.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two longtime residents of Forsyth County who said they felt coerced to stand for the prayer, alienated as county residents, and less inclined to attend county meetings.

A formal judge’s ruling is still pending, but it is widely held the magistrate’s recommendation will prevail. Forsyth County has already filed an objection and it is unclear how far an appeal might go. A decision is still pending. Precedents barring references to Christ at government meetings in the state are already on the books, however, according to a ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 that originated in South Carolina. There, a citizen sued his town board for praying specifically to Jesus Chirst during the invocations and won.



After Sharp’s recommendation came to light, Buncombe County commissioners toyed with the idea of replacing their invocations with a moment of silence. Following a backlash from some county residents, the commissioners decided to keep their system of rotating clergy in place until the Forsyth case is decided.

While each county attorney has the responsibility of advising individual boards on prayer, Jim Blackburn, general counsel for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, advises commissioners to track down a court decision that defends their particular type of prayer.

Blackburn said it is far from unusual for county commissioners in North Carolina to conduct prayers at meetings, but the NCACC has not yet had much discussion on the practice. With the Forsyth case striking a chord for many commissioners, that’s likely to change.

“I expect we will [discuss prayer] at various meetings in the rest of winter and spring,” said Blackburn. “I do know there are people on boards of commissioners who feel strongly they ought to be able to do them.”


Interesting nuances

With a wealth of court battles waged over public prayers producing varied results, there’s bound to be some uncertainty each time the controversial topic resurfaces.

First Amendment and Constitutional scholars have debated the issue for a hundred years, and entire law school textbooks have been devoted to the subject, according to Blackburn.

“It’s an argument that’s been going on for a long, long time,” said Blackburn.

While the First Congress held a prayer before its sessions, the Constitution plainly states that the government can never establish an official religion.

“There’s just a logical disconnect,” said Janet Ford, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches a course on civil rights.

In 1983, Supreme Court upheld opening legislative sessions with generic prayers in Marsh v. Chambers. But more recently, Supreme Court justices have grown stringent about allowing prayers in public settings, especially in schools.

Justices seem to have drawn a distinction between prayer at schools and those at government meetings, according to Collins.

For example, even school prayers that are voluntary and nondenominational have been stricken down.

The Supreme Court rejected the state of Alabama’s institution of a moment of silence for personal reflection and prayer in all elementary schools.

According to Collins, the justices are strict about prayer in school because the setting is somewhat unique.

“Children are more impressionable. They can’t just get up and leave,” Collins said.

While prayers that children encounter in school every day receive high publicity, county meetings often have sparse attendance, allowing their prayers to land further off the radar.

Local government officials are usually unaware of the law or decide to break it anyway because they feel supported in their crusade by voters, Collins said.

Until they are legally challenged, local officials can continue flagrantly violating the law, thereby drawing attention to the limits of the judicial branch’s reach.

It would be difficult to change the status quo if most voters and commissioners accepted Christian prayers before government meetings, Collins added.

“For the elected officials, it may actually be a campaign point,” said Collins. “They may actually gain votes this way.”

Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said most county and city attorneys agree with the ACLU, but they are unable to force their commissioners or city council members to follow the law.

Parker advises commissioners to consider that their taxpayers would be likely to foot the bill should a lawsuit arise. In the Forsyth case, which Parker is prosecuting, ACLU has already spent in excess of $100,000.


What is allowed?

While courts throughout the country have differed wildly in their judgments on prayers, Collins said as a guideline, a generic reference to God will more likely be allowed than any words confessing a particular faith. Words like “Heavenly Father” and “Lord” tend to be acceptable at public meetings, but uttering “Jesus” is usually the ticket to a lost lawsuit.

Parker said it’s hardly ever a close call with the cases she handles.

“It’s Jesus, Jesus, Jesus all throughout the prayer,” said Parker.

The majority opinion in Marsh v. Chambers ruled that there was a historical precedence for prayer before legislative sessions. Prayers also serve to “solemnize” the occasion.

The opinion amusingly adds that legislators need all the help they can get, Parker said.

While prayers are held before sessions of the U.S. Congress, it would take a U.S. Senator or Congressman’s challenge to change policy at that level.

ACLU would not complain against a specific county unless a resident who attends meetings and is bothered by prayers contacts the organization.

“We need to hear from somebody in the community who feels harmed before we’re going to take our time and resources and get involved,” said Parker. “Whether the ACLU contacts them or not, they swore to uphold the Constitution, and they should do it.”


Other quandaries

Some religious symbols, such as a Christmas trees, have become so routine and ceremonial that they have shed their religious symbolism in the public’s eye.

“We see it so often, it’s not thought of as necessarily endorsing religion,” said Todd Collins, professor of public law at Western Carolina University.

Courts have also upheld engraving “In God We Trust” on all coins and currency, arguing that it does not endorse religion.

Collins said this particular usage of that phrase has become a part of tradition and seems to hold little meaning for many who regularly see it on currency.


There’s free wireless up for grabs to anyone ambling down Main Street in Waynesville, but it’s so obscure that even those who work downtown are oblivious to its existence.

When tourists file into stores and restaurants asking where they can find wireless internet access — a common occurrence — employees point them to the few businesses nearby that offer it rather than ask them to simply step back outside and flip their laptops open on the sidewalk.

On the other hand, those who are in the know about the amenity also know that it has worked poorly in the past.

“We actually did have quite a few phone calls that it wasn’t working over the last year,” said Buffy Messer, director of the Downtown Waynesville Association. “Some of the phone calls we received were from frustrated folks.”

Messer said she has seen visitors using the wireless over the summer, but she hesitates to actively publicize it because of its hit-or-miss status.

“My understanding is that it works, but that it does not work particularly well,” said Alison Melnikova, assistant town manager of Waynesville.

“It certainly never developed the way we anticipated,” said Town Manager Lee Galloway.

Meanwhile, the telecommunications company that runs it, Wynncom, said it was unaware of any problems until Smoky Mountain News contacted its headquarters in Lexington. N.C.

“We weren’t aware of that,” said owner Jimmy Wynn. “Nobody had complained about it.”

No one called up the company, because no entity in Waynesville is expressly responsible for ensuring the wireless works — or for that matter, advertising it to the public.

“It’s something that I think the private sector needs to promote rather than the Town of Waynesville,” said Galloway.

The free, public wireless access supposedly went live three years ago. Wynncom offered it as a free bonus to the Town of Waynesville, while bargaining with Haywood County to land a contract to install a fiberoptic line.

That endeavor hasn’t gone well, either. Haywood County filed a lawsuit against Wynncom after it failed to deliver adequate telephone services on the fiberoptic line.

The county recently dropped the suit and bought the fiberoptic line from the company, deciding to go with another telecommunications company for services instead.

Wireless plans originally called for an antennae on the roof of town hall and a repeater on the roof of the historic courthouse to provide coverage the length of Main Street. But the courthouse antennae was never installed, which Wynn blamed on renovations to the historic building over the years.

But David Cotton, Haywood county manager, said Wynncom has never requested access to install any equipment on the courthouse roof.

While Haywood County has expressed interest in independently setting up free wireless inside the courthouse on Main Street, the recession has blocked progress on that goal.

“We definitely want to get wireless Internet access inside the justice center and courthouse,” said Kristy Wood, director of information technology for the county. “That’s been a goal that we’ve had for over a year. Under such tight budget constraints, we haven’t been able to move forward.”

The wireless would be especially useful to journalists covering government meetings and lawyers during court proceedings, Wood said.

Wynncom says it has now fixed the wireless, which is supposed to be accessible along Main Street from the Town of Waynesville building to the Haywood County courthouse. But the signal decidedly loses its strength as users near the courthouse.

The router had been working, but services were still down, Wynn said.


On street only

There is, however, one lingering problem with the wireless: misunderstandings about what it’s for.

Internet junkies who want to hole up inside a building on Main Street perusing the Internet for hours for free are out of luck. The connection is only meant to be accessible outside.

“Nothing more,” said John Howell, a telecommunications consultant in Haywood County who negotiated the contract. “Anything else would have simply been extra.”

It’s aimed to serve visitors — not businesses or apartment dwellers downtown looking for a way around paying for internet service.

“It was not the intent to provide free access to people that can pay for it,” said Wynn. “It was not designed for a company to use for their benefit for nothing.”

Amanda Collier, manager of Ceviches on Main, said she had no idea that free wireless was available outside the restaurant, but she acknowledged the benefits of having the amenity.

For example, tourists could quickly look up directions to nearby attractions by simply jumping on their laptops.

“It’d be a lot easier, a lot more convenient,” said Collier.

But after learning about the wireless, Stuart Smith, an employee at Pheasant Hill, said the service doesn’t make much sense on Main Street. Few would find it convenient to take to the streets with their laptops in tow.

“Unless there’s more café seating, I don’t think it’s very useful,” said Stuart Smith.

Owen Thorp, an O’Malley’s employee, pointed out one other downside of offering wireless outside only: battery life.

“I’d never use battery only lasts a minute and a half,” said Thorp.


Despite Graham County pledging to end all emergency services to Deal’s Gap starting Jan. 1, its EMS director has already sent rescue squads to respond to tractor trailer wrecks in the Swain territory since the year began.

Graham’s emergency services director Larry Hembree says he’ll continue to send ambulances to Deal’s Gap, but only if Swain County asks for help.

“If there’s an ambulance call, and they request our assistance, we will go,” said Hembree.

Until this year, Graham habitually responded to wrecks in Swain’s Deal’s Gap — gateway to the world-famous Dragon, a mythic road in Tennessee that sports 318 curves in 11 miles. A curvy stretch of N.C. 28 known as Hellbender also winds through Deals Gap. Both attract hordes of motorcycles and sports cars.

Starting this year, Graham County commissioners officially handed over emergency services for the area to Swain after growing exasperated with the increasingly expensive service as the number of wrecks rose there. Graham asked Swain for a financial contribution to continue emergency coverage, but Swain refused.

Graham County Chairman Steve Odom said 911 calls have been transferred to Swain County, and that Graham should not respond without an agreement in writing — in contrast to Hembree’s stance that they would continue to pitch in if needed.

“Without a mutual aid agreement in place, it puts our county at a risk of liability,” said Odom. “You’re leaving your home jurisdiction, going into another’re putting your county at risk because you’re doing something at risk.”

While calls have been few and far between for now, the true test of Swain’s ability to respond will come when the weather warms up and droves of motorcycles and sports cars crowd up the dangerously curvy roads there.

“Around the first of April is when it’s going to heat up,” said Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom. “That’s not too far off. I guess we’ll see how good a job they do at that point.”

Kevin King, county manager for Swain, said the county is still exploring its options, including assigning a first responder to Deal’s Gap.

But for Swain, a new mutual aid agreement with Graham is still not off the table.

“If they’ve incurred costs down there, we want to ensure that they break even,” said King. “We would be more than happy to entertain a mutual agreement that we would pick up the difference.”

Previously, Graham responded to wrecks in Deal’s Gap in exchange for Swain transporting Graham residents from the hospital in Bryson City to other destinations and responding to mountain bike accidents in Graham County’s Tsali Recreation Area. But Graham claimed the arrangement was far from equal.

Since the debate began, Graham has suggested everything from annexing the territory to receiving $100,000 annually from Swain for its services.

The first option was out of the question for Swain, and the $100,000 seemed exorbitant. Graham lowered its sights to $80,000 per year, but that was still higher than Swain desired.

King said Swain does not want to shell out the $50,000 annual payment that Graham has requested most recently.

Swain wants to make sure it’s not handing over more than necessary since Graham will recoup some of the costs from the patients it transports.

Nevertheless, Swain Commissioner David Monteith said he’s optimistic about sitting down with Graham commissioners soon to work out a deal.

“I think we’ve found some ground everybody can work for,” said Monteith, though he would not elaborate. “I think what’s going to take place is going to be good.”


What’s Swain doing out there?

Deal’s Gap is an outlying area of Swain County that’s surrounded by Graham County. Deal’s Gap bordered the rest of Swain County in the past but became isolated after Lake Fontana was created.

The satellite territory is so far-flung that it takes an ambulance 45 minutes to reach it from Bryson City. Ambulances from neighboring Graham County can arrive on scene a full 20 minutes faster.


When it comes to landfills, rain isn’t just inconvenient — it’s dangerous.

In 2009, the White Oak landfill in Haywood County had to contend with more than 35 million gallons of rainwater seeping into disposed waste.

While 80 percent of that rainwater is absorbed by the trash, the remaining 20 percent transforms into a contaminated liquid called leachate, which poses significant environmental and health risks.

The region saw about 62 inches of rain last year, falling just three inches short of the 1973 record. And if the rain wasn’t bad enough, the county got 22 inches of snow in December.

“It’s just a constant battle out there,” said Stephen King, waste director for Haywood County.

The White Oak landfill collects its leachate into a pool then hauls it to a wastewater treatment plant, an endeavor that alone cost $56,000 during the previous year when the region was in an extreme drought.

According to King, each inch of rain produces about 27,000 gallons of water — per acre. The landfill presently takes up 21 acres and is about to heap on 8.8 acres more.

“We had to double the capacity of the leachate pond just to accommodate the new cell,” said King.

The county faces several alternatives that might help lower costs in the long run. They include housing an internal wastewater treatment or running a sewer line directly to the wastewater plant that already exists.

Denese Ballew, landfill manager for Haywood, said both options would be costly, but the county is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of the latter, less expensive option.

“You have to have the cost to justify doing something like that,” said Ballew, pointing out that not every year will be as wet as 2009.

Federal law mandates that landfills properly treat leachate, and state laws are even more stringent, according to Ballew.

Modern landfill designs include liners and leachate collection systems, but almost all landfills that opened in North Carolina prior to 1993 have neither. Groundwater contamination continues to emanate from these unlined facilities. Another volatile byproduct from landfills is the build-up of methane gas from decomposing trash.

Haywood County hopes to alleviate both problems by installing a methane collection system at the old, unlined Francis Farm landfill. Extracting methane might also help keep contaminated water in check.

“If we have a positive suction on the landfill, we can prevent the water from migrating away,” said King.


Business owners with cyber sweepstakes machines in Maggie Valley received both good and bad news last week.

Luckily for them, the town board passed a much lower business license fee than originally proposed and delayed the pay-up date till July, which marks the beginning of the next fiscal year.

However, the annual fees passed are still sky-high: $2,500 for the first four machines and $750 per machine thereafter. Though Maggie Valley’s town board already passed zoning restrictions on the machines, it had yet to settle on an annual fee.

The planning board was tasked with developing a fee, but was sent back to the drawing board twice by aldermen. The planning board first proposed a $2,400 fee per machine, then revised their suggestion to $2,000 per machine.

Both options were too high for the aldermen’s tastes, but the planning board saw things differently.

“We just strongly felt that we didn’t want it to proliferate through town,” said Billy Brede, chairman of the town planning board. “We presented the ordinance that we felt would protect the town.”

Cyber sweepstakes is a close relative of video poker that allows players the chance to win phone and Internet time that can be traded in for cash. Sweepstakes machines are able to subsist due to a loophole in the state’s video gaming ban.

Brede said limiting cyber sweepstakes machines is important to preserve Maggie’s family-friendly environment, something that Brede says is important to both locals and visitors.

“People who come here for tourism are looking for family values,” said Brede. “We have strong family values, and we don’t want to see gambling proliferate.”

Alderman Colin Edwards said while the planning board works hard to make its decisions, the aldermen thought the fees it proposed were excessive and might risk shutting down businesses.

“I don’t approve of gambling, but I don’t want to see anybody go out of business, either,” said Edwards. “The General Assembly will probably be addressing this issue anyway in this next coming session, so it might not even matter what we do.”

Aldermen Phil Aldridge and Saralyn Price were not present for the vote, but the three remaining members voted unanimously for the measure.

Since some businesses opted for the machines to stay afloat during the severe recession, both the planning board and the town board agreed that the fees shouldn’t be implemented until July.

“The board didn’t want to penalize those businesses who had taken up those ventures during these tough economic times,” said Nathan Clark, the town planner.

Businesses could save up for the fee in the meantime, and perhaps even rethink their decision to harbor sweepstakes machines, Clark said.

“We didn’t want to start billing people in the middle of the year,” said Tim Barth, town manager of Maggie Valley. “We didn’t think that was appropriate.”

The towns of Canton and Franklin passed comparable fees to what Maggie ultimately settled on, but didn’t hesitate to begin collecting immediately.

According to the town’s last count, there are 10 machines within three businesses in Maggie Valley. Barth said it’s unlikely that the town has identified all locations, however.

This and That Home Décor and Gift Shop, which housed four of these machines, seems to have closed its doors.

For now, each business must pay a nominal fee of $10 to register cyber sweepstakes. It’s the same fee the town collects for pinball machines or video game machines — clearly a whole different ball game.

“No matter how good you are at’s never going to shell out $500 or $5,000,” Clark said.


Forget Asheville. Forget cities altogether. Angela Faye Martin’s impressive first full-length album “Pictures from Home” could only have materialized deep in the mountains.

With no shortage of characters and inspiring natural beauty, the Smokies have served as an ever-giving muse for Martin

“I wouldn’t have written these songs in a city,” says Martin, a self-professed bird worshipper who raises chickens at her Macon County home.

“Pictures from Home” is an understated affair, clearly carrying the influence of its producer, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who achieved indie fame for his noise pop.

Martin caught up with Linkous through a mutual friend in Clay County who repeatedly insisted that the two meet. Linkous at first agreed to do only two demos, but later decided to produce the entire record.

References to moonshine, dirt mountain roads, and the woods are sprinkled throughout the haunting album with its mysterious tings and fuzzy distortions.

Martin aptly classifies her music as “surreal folk rock pop.” Songs range from eerie to rockin’, always with an emphasis on Martin’s literary songwriting, which reveals the solitude of her surroundings.

“This area is one of the loneliest places of any place I’ve ever seen anywhere,” said Martin. “I think that’s conducive to being able to write, the mountains separating everybody so much.”

Martin thoroughly appreciates that quiet — when she can get it. She once yelled at a cardinal chirping noisily outside her window while she was trying to write.

“Even this is a little bit much,” said Martin, looking out on Sylva’s Main Street during a joint interview with her newly-formed band.

The Scarlet Oak Sway features Chris Cooper on lead guitar; Jeremy Rose on bass; Jeff Southerland on keyboard; and Adam Woleslagle on drums.

The band’s name comes from a phrase in “Wicked Girl,” a song on Martin’s EP, “One Dark Vine.”

Since the band was not involved in the recording process, live performances have been like a work in translation.

Linkous played most of the instruments in the studio, utilizing such whimsical-sounding instruments as the farfisa, the pling-plong, and the optigan.

Lead guitarist Cooper has worked earnestly to imitate those quirky sounds.

“Chris put a lot into figuring out how to make subtle sounds that are in the album, rather than just playing guitar,” said Rose. “He does a fantastic job using the sounds off the album.”

Martin scoured the mountains in July and August looking for musicians to back her up at a CD release party in late September.

She tracked down Southerland at his Riverblaze Bakery in Franklin, which now serves as the band’s rehearsal spot. While Southerland grew up playing music, he hadn’t touched a keyboard in 10 years. Luckily, Southerland was able to pick up right where he left off.

Finding a talented drummer was another challenge for Martin, as there seems to be scarcity of percussionists in the area. But Woleslagle signed up with Martin just in time, despite being in three other bands already.

“Every time there’s a band, he’s invited,” said Rose, who is a songwriter himself and plays with Woleslagle in another band, Shiner Minors.

What started out as a one-gig deal lasted much longer. The band currently cooperates with Martin in arranging new songs, though Martin continues to take the lead in songwriting.

“It’s terrifying bringing a new song to four guys that know what they’re doing,” said Martin.

Band members’ impact has gone so far as to turn Martin’s country song into a dance track.

When she’s not pulling the band together for a rehearsal, Martin is busy lining up shows and publicizing her album.

“I’m trying to be my own record label right now,” said Martin.

So far, Martin and The Scarlet Oak Sway have performed in Asheville and Chapel Hill, and have planned shows in Cherokee, Knoxville and Atlanta.

Despite the regional tour, Martin said she hopes to achieve success at home first.

“I hope that people don’t have to wait for Asheville to tell them it’s quality,” said Martin.


The threat of another landslide isn’t stopping volunteers from facing the mudslide head-on and helping wherever they can. Local volunteers are working in the absence of state and federal aid for residents who find themselves banished from their homes indefinitely.

A community effort was launched last week to clean up debris on Landing Drive, allowing five families who live along the private road to get back and forth to their homes again. Contractors Colin Edwards and Johnny Lowe donated equipment, materials and time to clear debris. They’ve also installed a new culvert.

“I wanted to help these people that couldn’t get home,” said Edwards.

Volunteers worked two days last week to successfully clear the road.

“It’s been a pretty big job,” said Edwards. “It’s a lot bigger job than what I thought it was going to be.”

Edwards credited Maggie Valley Fire Chief Tim Carver for organizing volunteers and Marc Pruett, Haywood County erosion control officer, for writing permits to allow the work.

The Town of Maggie Valley donated gravel to replace the road bed. Others who have donated time or supplies to the cleanup effort on Landing Drive include the Maggie Valley and Jonathan Creek Fire Departments, and Pioneer Feed & Seed.

Two Methodist groups, Step by Step and United Methodist Committee on Relief, have dedicated time to helping residents affected by the slide nearly every day since it occurred.

They helped resident Kurt Biedler move all his belongings — including furniture — from his badly damaged home. The groups have also donated firewood to those families whose stockpiles were swept away by the slide.

Step by Step is based in Clyde and was formed after the floods of 2004. The group has remained active to assist in disaster relief since then.

The Haywood County chapter of the American Red Cross has received applications from 22 families for assistance.

Churches in Maggie Valley have a disaster relief fund set up at the Maggie Valley branch of BB&T bank that will be used to help residents.

Donations must be marked Greater Maggie Valley Natural Disaster Fund, Maggie Valley UMC and can be mailed to 4192 Soco Road, Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751.


In rare good news for Swain County’s jail, a new agreement will soon usher federal prisoners into the often half-empty facility.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has worked for months to secure an official deal with the U.S. Marshals Service, which will pave the way for the return of federal prisoners and score the county $55 per prisoner per day.

“We’re thrilled to have this agreement with the Marshal Service and look forward to working with them,” said Curtis.

For now, it’s hard to say how many federal prisoners will be filing into Swain’s jail. The new deal falls short of a contract, so the marshals aren’t obligated to send any prisoners, and the jail is not required to set aside a certain number of beds for them. Such contracts only go to jails with federal money invested.

Swain’s new $10 million jail, which opened in December 2008, is more than four times larger than what the county needs to house its own inmates. County leaders hoped to house overflow inmates from other counties, but those counties were simultaneously building new jails of their own.

The county recently learned its last and best customer, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is moving forward with plans for a jail of its own as well.

This flurry of jail building in the region has posed yet another problem for Swain — other new jails are stealing away a share of the federal prisoners up for grabs.

“Lucky for us, we had a lot of jails that were newly constructed,” said Lee Banks, supervisor of the U.S. Marshals office in Asheville. “When they came on line, we were quick to provide them with prisoners that we’ve had, Cherokee County in particular.”

Fortunately for Swain, though, a federal courthouse is located in Bryson City near the jail.

“It’s what, a mile away from where we’re at,” said Cochran. “If they’re going to utilize this courthouse, it would be more feasible for them to house their inmates here.”

Swain routinely housed federal prisoners until four years ago, when the Marshals Service pulled out due to safety concerns. The old jail was plagued by temperamental locks and lacked a fire sprinkler system. Back then, the daily rate for federal prisoners was only $30 per person.

Although the new jail opened 14 months ago, it has taken time to reconnect with the federal marshal service.

Banks said he hasn’t sent federal prisoners Swain’s way since the new jail opened more than a year ago simply because there have been less prisoners.

Swain’s jail is currently housing a lone federal prisoner, who’s been there since October.

“Now we’ve got plenty of jails on line, I have fewer prisoners,” said Banks. “I’m not complaining — it’s just that our prisoner population has been low recently.”

At this point, it’s difficult for Banks to pinpoint how many federal prisoners will soon be occupying Swain’s jail.

“We’re using multiple jails in multiple areas of the state,” said Banks. “So it’s hard for me to predict how many prisoners we’ll have in the future.”

Cochran estimates that he would have 21 beds available for federal prisoners, 16 male and five female, but that number is flexible, he said.

As of last week, Swain County had 40 inmates in its 109-bed jail, including 18 from Cherokee and one federal prisoner.


While residents wait for answers and 16,000 tons of debris hangs precariously over the Rich Cove community, an army of people are assessing the aftermath of the latest landslide in Maggie Valley.

Representatives from the North Carolina Geological Survey, the Division of Water Quality and the Division of Land Quality have all made trips up the steep mountain to survey the slide site.

Haywood County’s contingent includes its erosion and sediment control team and the county engineer, while geologists from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and an engineer from Ghost Town in the Sky have also studied the impact firsthand.

Yet, not one of these experts has officially determined the clause of the mudslide, which traveled more than a half-mile down the slope, seriously damaging several homes and leading to the evacuation of 45 residents.

They won’t say if the slide is a natural disaster or caused by failed retaining walls on the slope, a terraced system that dates to various time periods. The answer could make all the difference for homeowners, whose insurance policies won’t cover a natural landslide.

For Kurt Biedler, the lingering question is not simply when he’ll return home, but if he’ll be able to go back at all. The foundation of Biedler’s house has been compromised and cracks riddle its walls.

Though Biedler plans to move south of Asheville for now, he is closely watching the response to the slide.

“When one gets displaced from their home, there’s a million questions we have,” said Biedler. “But we know it takes time to get the answers.”


Can’t get there from here

The place to go looking for answers undoubtedly rests at the top of the mountain, where Ghost Town’s retaining walls clearly gave way. Whether they caused the slide or the slide caused their failure is still being debated.

But getting up the mountain to fix what’s left has now become an ordeal. The landslide has thrown major debris across at least two parts of Rich Cove Road, blocking the only direct path to Ghost Town by vehicle.

Early Thursday afternoon, a team of geologists from N.C. Geological Survey made their third trip to the slide, along with Marc Pruett, Haywood County’s erosion control officer; and Mark Shumpert, Haywood County engineer.

Fie Top Road provides one detour to the top, climbing up west of the slide on Rich Cove.

Halfway up the road, the team must make a pit stop at a staging area set up on the side of Fie Top. The two trucks are armored with snow chains to tackle the narrow, icy road ahead that snakes across the mountain toward Ghost Town.

But the road only leads so far, and they eventually park the trucks and hike down a steep, snow-covered path.

Rick Wooten, senior geologist with the N.C. Geologic Survey, said the main goal that day was to familiarize themselves with the site, collect information, take photographs and define hazardous areas that are prone to landslides in the future.

“Public safety is the important thing at this point. That’s really our focus,” said Wooten. “We’re really not in the position or have the expertise to assess the wall. We’re geologists and not engineers.”

Still, Wooten has said that heavy snowmelt and more than two inches of rain both contributed to the slide. He has put in a request with the National Weather Service to compile a weather synopsis of the weeks and months leading up to the event.

Back on Ghost Town’s property, geologists measured cracks in the ground, just yards away from children’s rides stopped in mid-air. Some of these cracks were so deep that geologists needed the aid of a meter-long hiking pole to discover where the crevice ended.

A major source of worry for Wooten and his team continues to be moving land near the slide that has been vertically displaced by almost four feet. At first, the drop had measured only three feet.

“That’s why this is an area of concern,” said Wooten.

Meanwhile, Shumpert hopped over the fence to take a closer look at the retaining wall. Since this was the first time Shumpert was getting a close look at the structure, he said he was not prepared to make any official statements.


Haywood County recently dropped a lawsuit against Wynncom, after the telecommunications company agreed to hand over its fiberoptic network to the county for $6,500.

Wynncom, based in Lexington, N.C., was hired to build a fiberoptic line for Haywood and be the county’s telecommunications service provider, but the county grew dissatisfied with the company after problems arose with the telephone system it provided.

“They never did perform up to what was expected,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

The fiberoptic line is an important backbone for communications across county offices, as well as Town of Waynesville buildings. Wynncom was supposed to deliver a phone system with extras like 4-digit extension dialing and voiceover Internet protocol. The county had to go with another telecommunications company to receive those services.

Kristy Wood, director of information technology for Haywood, described fiber as a pipe that high-speed Internet goes through. It allows the county to share data across departments, connect with state and national databases and reduce phone and Internet expenses.

As it stands, the fiberoptic network runs from the regional High Tech Center at Haywood Community College through Waynesville to West Waynesville. The county hopes to someday link up with nearby lines, ending the “doughnut hole” in fiber that’s developed in the county.

“We have fiber all around us,” said Wood. “We just need to be sort of the net in the middle that connects us all together.”

Mark Clasby, director of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, supports extending the fiber line to connect with two nearby networks: one that runs west and goes down to Atlanta, and another in Asheville that connects to Atlanta, Greenville, S.C. and Washington, D.C.

Having both options would be useful. If there’s a break in one line, Haywood could easily utilize the other.

Clasby said it would be especially beneficial for hospitals and school systems to connect to a long-distance fiber network.

For example, a doctor at a hospital in Haywood County could instantly receive large files chock full of vital medical information and give a well-informed opinion much more quickly to an ailing patient.

In the next few years, school systems here will see the benefit of a $28.2 million federal stimulus grant recently awarded to expand broadband to schools in underserved areas, including 37 counties in Southeastern and Western North Carolina.

For now, the county is close to realizing the potential for video conferences between various departments and even video arraignments before a judge so prisoners do not have to be transported to the courthouse.


Waynesville is attempting to preserve the neighborhood bounded by Walnut and North Main streets by seeking official recognition from the National Register of Historic Places.

The town recently received a grant through the Certified Local Government Program to prepare a National Register nomination for the district.

If town officials succeed, the “Spread Out Historic District” would join the Main Street and Frog Level historic districts, which already enjoy National Register status.

“We’d hate some of these older homes be torn down,” said Bette Sprecher, a member of the Waynesville Historic Preservation Commission. “We just wanted to preserve the whole area. All the things that have been torn down through the years, you gotta preserve something.”

Sprecher has been interested in historic preservation ever since her own home on Haywood Street was supplanted by the post office in the 1960s.

“It was a beautiful house. My grandfather picked out every piece of lumber in there,” said Sprecher. “We want to avoid things like that.”

Before the Spread Out Historic District can receive official recognition, however, a study must be conducted to see whether National Register status would be justified. Property owners must also decide where they stand.

Until now, there’s been a mixed reaction, according to Sprecher. Some property owners are “all for it,” while others want their homes to be left alone.

According to the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office, however, being on the National Register doesn’t mean private property owners need permission from the federal government to make changes. Homeowners in the district can freely make alterations to the property as long as they use their own money.  

The National Register status does make certain tax credits and grants available to property owners who undertake maintenance projects — whenever federal funding is available.

“The last caveat is obviously an issue right now,” said Paul Loether, National Register chief.

Homeowners must follow federal standards only if they receive this federal assistance.

Being listed on the National Register also helps local, state and federal governments in their planning processes. For example, government will make their best efforts to avoid highway construction in historic districts.

Moreover, conferring National Register status to a district is a way of honoring its past.

“It’s honorific,” said Loether. “It’s a legal recognition that a property is historic …. It’s not so much to control it, but to prevent something being destroyed that the folks in the town and neighborhood have worked so hard to preserve.”


What do you think?

A public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 15, at Waynesville town hall. Town officials will provide an overview of the Spread Out Historic District nomination and explain the National Register program to residents.


Haywood County officials foresee the historic hospital in Waynesville one day being transformed into affordable or senior housing.

“That would be my vision,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Something might show up that we haven’t thought of, but affordable housing is definitely needed.”

The mammoth brick building occupies an entire block, with 125 rooms and 50,000 square feet of outside space. The Department of Social Services is moving out next fall, and the county is seeking proposals on what to do with the building once vacated.

Developers have until late October to propose a new use for the hospital, but housing of some sort appears to be the commissioners’ preference.

“I felt that would be the highest and best use for that structure,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. According to Ensley, at least one developer has already looked at converting the building into affordable housing.

“I wouldn’t have any objection,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “We always need some housing.”

The Department of Social Services will relocate in fall 2011 to the site of the former Wal-Mart store in Clyde. Commissioners decided it’d be more cost-effective to buy and renovate the deserted superstore rather than fix up the crumbling hospital.

The old hospital was originally built in 1927 and expanded in the 1950s. County officials have said it would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate it.

Commissioners have complained that the building will need a host of major renovations including a new roof, new windows and rewiring to accommodate the latest technology.

As the first county-owned hospital in North Carolina, however, the building may be eligible to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places, which comes with tax credits for renovations.

“I think the historic tax credits are what really makes it attractive for developers,” said Ensley.


A time of great need

Mountain Projects, a community action agency in Haywood and Jackson counties, may be on the ground assisting any developer that steps in.

“If they choose to do affordable housing, at that point, we’ll get involved,” said Patsy Dowling, director of Mountain Projects.

The agency can guide developers through the highly competitive process of receiving low-income housing tax credits from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency.

Earlier this year, Mountain Projects helped launch Smokey Meadows, an affordable apartment complex in Canton. It filled up in record time.

Dowling is well-aware of the struggles that the working class faces in tracking down affordable housing, especially in recent times. She has seen the waiting list for affordable housing assistance backlogged for as long as three years.

“Our waiting list got so long we had to close it and stop taking applications,” said Dowling. “It’s back open, but the wait is tremendous …hundreds and hundreds of people in Haywood County are on the waiting list.”

Mountain Projects is helpless to help even those who walk in with their suitcases with nowhere to go.

While neighbors may be wary about living near low-income housing, Dowling said a comprehensive background check is done and clients must sign a strict 17-page lease.

“In these apartments, it’s not just anybody,” said Dowling.

Ensley agreed that bringing affordable housing to the area would only bring benefits.

“I don’t think that low-income or moderate-income housing is a negative at all,” said Ensley.

Another bonus is that the building would be put back on the tax rolls, Ensley and Dowling said. Affordable housing complexes not only pay taxes, but also create jobs.

If a developer takes on the task of renovating the old hospital, the central office for Haywood County Schools, which occupies one small section of the building, would likely be uprooted.

As commissioners await proposals, Curtis said the last thing he wants to see is the hospital destroyed.

“It’d be nice if we could save what we could of it,” Curtis said.

“A lot of our people were born there,” said Upton, who worked in the 1927 building while serving as school superintendent.


When Swain County faced an onslaught of snow and ice last winter, local radio station WBHN wasn’t broadcasting road information or school closings.

Die-hard fans of Swain County High’s sports teams haven’t been able to tune into any of the school’s games since last fall.

Financial hardship had forced WBHN to temporarily suspend operations on Sept. 16, 2009. If the station doesn’t find its footing by Sept. 16, the Federal Communications Commission will promptly cancel its license and the station will stay “dark” permanently.

Two independent movements have sprouted in the last year to rescue the Bryson City station from oblivion.

Lloyd Brown is leading an effort to convert WBHN into a listener-powered station, similar to National Public Radio. Brown said the newly-formed nonprofit, The Lighthouse Broadcasting Corporation, will primarily play gospel music, but also broadcast bluegrass, country, Western and easy listening. Church programming, youth sports and local bands such as the Rye Holler Boys will be featured.

“We’re not going to have any of this hard rock or any of this off the wall music,” said Brown.

Gary Ayers, who was a radio personality on WBHN from 1974 to 1984, is leading a separate attempt to revive the commercial station.

Many Swain County residents have expressed concerns about the station going off the air to Ayers.

“It’s just a lack of information, a voice for the community,” he said. Many elderly residents in Swain County rely on the radio for information.

“I have not run across one person who didn’t want this station back on,” said Ayers, who has made the rounds to local businesses to gauge interest in advertising with the radio station.

“People have been very willing to spend ad dollars,” Ayers said. “In some cases, it’s not a lot of dollars, but every business has been very open.”

Ayers is still looking for donations to help him become the next owner of WBHN.

But Brown said he has already offered $85,000 for a six-month lease, with $10,000 as a down payment and $75,000 to come in the next six months. As of last week, Brown said he had $8,000 in hand from private contributions. Victory Baptist Church has said it will make up the remainder, according to Brown.

Before he passed away, Pastor Tom Harris of Victory Baptist Church ran a program on WBHN every day for at least 35 years.

“He was a daily source of information,” Ayers said. “He would come on and say who was sick, who was in the hospital…Tom was like the county’s pastor.”

Brown says he plans on playing tapes of Harris’ past shows at least every Sunday.

“We’re going to keep his ministry alive,” said Brown.


Down to the wire

Ayers and Brown have mutually agreed that Tuesday, Sept. 7, would be the deadline for either group to buy the station from its owner.

“If a sale agreement is not reached, it’s very unlikely we’re going to have time to get it back on,” said Ayers.

When a financial hardship case is filed with the FCC, the station has up to 12 months to either sell the station or find funding to get it back on the air.

If the station isn’t broadcasting by Sept. 16, it would disappear from the dial for good, according to Ayers.

Finding a new frequency would be much more expensive than taking the station over before the deadline, Ayers said.

Brown was confident that the nonprofit model would be the key to success despite financial difficulties in the past.

“People won’t donate to an individual, but they will donate to a nonprofit,” said Brown.

If Brown’s nonprofit becomes a reality, it will be run by a community board and an advisory board with seven members each.

Ayers said he’s a friend of Brown’s and has no hard feelings against his group, whatever happens next.

“One of us needs to succeed,” said Ayers. “We’re just really hoping to get the station back on.”

Brown hopes Ayers will help with youth sports programming and advertising since “everybody knows him.”

Brown’s ultimate goal remains for the station to be cooperatively owned by Swain’s citizens.

“We want to keep this on for our grandchildren and maybe even our great-grandchildren,” said Brown. “We’re doing this for Swain County.”


Pitch in to save WBHN (1590 AM)

Contact Gary Ayers at 828.506.9362 or

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contact Lloyd Brown at 828.488.2833 or 828.736.0280.


This year, Mountain Research Station in Waynesville is investigating organic farming on the Western North Carolina landscape on a greater scale than ever before.

The launch of the test farm’s new organic unit has already turned heads and sparked mixed reactions from area farmers.

“So many people are excited, saying, ‘We’ve been waiting for this,’” said project coordinator Emily Bernstein.

Others are more hesitant about the addition of organic research to the test farm’s portfolio. Staff members are quick to point out that organic is by no means replacing conventional farming research at the station.

“We hope by using that word, we’re not excluding people,” said Bernstein.

“We’re not here to promote an opinion,” said Kaleb Rathbone, superintendent of the Mountain Research Station. “We’re not here to compare conventional versus organic.”

The test farm’s 410 acres studies everything from tobacco to Christmas trees and livestock. It has delved into organic research on and off for the past seven years, but the new unit marks the first serious commitment to organic.

For now, the unit is exploring how 20 different kinds of heirloom and heirloom-type hybrid tomatoes fare when produced organically.

It is also studying ways to combat one of the top obstacles to profitable organic farming — weeds — in the most economical and least labor-intensive way possible.

Researchers are exploring the feasibility of producing organic broccoli during autumn, along with assorted methods to prevent soilborne disease using grafted tomatoes.

Organic heirloom tomatoes are commonly more susceptible to disease, but growers now have the option of grafting their favorite tomato cultivars to disease-resistant rootstock to have the best of both worlds.


Why now?

It’s tough to get an official count, but Bernstein estimates that at least 300 farmers in WNC are already employing organic methods.

The majority of them skip the arduous process of getting certified officially, but farmers here do have an interest in joining the growing all-natural movement.

WNC consumers, too, support organic food — whenever it is an affordable option. Rathbone learned that Ingles customers overwhelmingly choose organic over conventionally grown carrots whenever they are sold for the same price.

“As times change and consumer demand changes, it’s important for farmers to keep up,” said Rathbone. “The best way to make sure farms are profitable is to diversify.”

The only problem is finding a cost-efficient way to supply the flourishing niche market. At this point, organic farming is more labor-intensive, and demand often outweighs supply.

That’s where the research comes in.

So far, staff members have surveyed 250 farmers to determine the prime issues associated with organic farming in WNC. Farmers have listed disease, weed and insect management; fertility; and marketing as their top concerns.

The research station is already testing out a variety of weed barriers and mulches on organic vegetables.

Rathbone said the station is trying to provide as much practical information as possible to all interested WNC farmers.

The organic unit is being funded by a $45,000 specialty crop grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mountain Research Station hopes to continue receiving funding so that it can form a long-range plan with the help of local farmers’ input.

Challenges specific to the area include farming on rocky slopes and helping small-scale farmers learn how to stay viable growing organic produce.

For a start, learning how to produce organic broccoli in the fall — when few other growers can — will allow farmers to fetch higher prices.

“We’re looking to produce something nobody can and get a premium price for it,” said Rathbone.


Clearing the air

Misconceptions reign about what is and isn’t organic despite the growing popularity of all-natural food. Bernstein and her co-workers plan to do community outreach by working with local schools, gardeners and farmer’s markets.

“It’s complicated for consumers. They’re not sure what [organic] really means,” Bernstein said.

For example, many believe that growing organically means leaving crops entirely untouched. Rathbone said that’s not the case.

Consumers also incorrectly assume that organic produce is always healthier, according to Bernstein.

Rathbone said the problem is that organic growers don’t all use a standard method of production. A variety of producers use wildly different production methods, but all call the end result “organic.” These farmers’ environmental impact is sometimes minimal and other times not.

While navigating somewhat uncharted territory in WNC, Mountain Research Station will stick to some basics.

“Being able to help farmers improve their viability, that’s our main goal,” Bernstein said.

According to Bernstein, agriculture is shaped by consumer demand, economics and tradition. The organic unit will take all three into account as it decides how to move forward.


The days of driving hours away from Western North Carolina to see your favorite acts may well be over.

In the past five years, three major performance venues have debuted in the region: Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center; the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin; and now, the brand new Events Center at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Along with these venues come nationally  recognized performers ranging from comedian Jay Leno to country group Lady Antebellum to rock legends Crosby, Stills & Nash - not to mention top-notch bluegrass, the Atlanta Ballet, acrobatic shows, and Broadway quality musicals.

This week, Smoky Mountain News offers an overview of these   city-size concert venues found in the middle of the mountains.


Harrah’s Events Center - Cherokee

The basics: Last weekend, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino celebrated the opening of its 3,000-seat Events Center, which cost about $30 million to build. The venue includes four VIP suites, box seating and more than 1,100 balcony seats. Its stage is 60 by 40 feet and framed by large HD resolution 32-foot screens.

What to expect: The Events Center’s opening weekend included performances by Hank Williams Jr. and Lady Antebellum. “I think country music will really define Harrah’s Cherokee,” said Leanne Bridges, vice-president of marketing.

But the venue will also feature top-tier talent across all genres including rock, pop, R&B and oldies. There’ll be mixed martial arts and a Chinese acrobatic show.

Who’s coming?: Harrah’s is targeting everyone within a 300-mile radius, including major metropolitan areas like Charlotte and Atlanta. The casino expects a sizeable influx of clientele from a 75-mile radius. “Not everyone can afford to go to Atlanta for a weekend,” said Bridges. “If you’re local, you can just drive in.” Currently, the average casino client is 55 years old. The Events Center might shift that demographic down to 30 to 35 years old, according to Bridges.

The final word: “[The Events Center] is an image booster to show the scope of the facility. Harrah’s Cherokee is not just a little gambling house, it is a true destination,” said Bridges.

Info: 828.497.7777 or


Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts - Franklin

The basics: The 1,500-seater Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts had its grand opening in July 2009. Including 500 balcony seats, the venue also boasts a 130 by 140 feet stage. Phil and Sharon Drake, who own the venue, have not released its building cost.

What to expect: The Center has focused mostly on bluegrass, country and gospel acts. Past performers include Randy Travis, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Blind Boys of Alabama, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. Other shows have included The Nutcracker, Lord of the Dance, the Golden Dragon Acrobats and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Who’s coming?: Other than local clientele, the Center attracts concertgoers from northeast Georgia, Greenville, S.C., Asheville, Black Mountain and Charlotte.

The final word: “We hear comments all the time, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this show in Franklin, North Carolina. I’m driving home, and I’m home by 10:30,” said Bo Bryant with the Center’s marketing company.

Info: 828.524.1598 or


Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center - Cullowhee

The basics: More than 100,000 visitors have passed through the doors of FAPAC since its opening in 2005. The $30 million facility houses a 1,000-seat performance venue, classrooms and WCU’s Fine Art Museum. Unlike the other venues, FAPAC is a nonprofit. The venue will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a gala featuring red carpets, bright lights, gallery openings and a Gershwin musical on Oct. 22.

What to expect: Of the 42 shows it has put on, about half have sold out. FAPAC usually highlights theatre, music and dance. Its past performers include Jay Leno, Atlanta Ballet, The Von Trap Children and Mickey Rooney. In the near future, look out for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Second City Comedy Show, world-class Irish dancers, a high-spirited Russian Folk Festival, and Broadway musicals like Rent and Kiss Me, Kate.  

Who’s coming?: About 70 percent of the patrons are 50 or more years old, according to Paul Lormand, director of FAPAC. The bulk of them come from Jackson County, followed by Macon and Haywood counties.

The final word: “We want to, of course, touch their hearts, maybe move them in a spiritual way, but really the whole thing is, we want it to be an intellectual experience,” said Lormand.

Info: 828.227.2479 or


Chris Carver found himself in the unusual position of being both rescuer and evacuee when a massive mudslide struck Rich Cove Road in Maggie Valley on Friday night.

“I live there, right where it stopped,” said Carver, assistant chief of the Maggie Valley Fire Department and one of the first responders on the scene.

Carver was headed to the shower when he heard his pager go off, notifying him of the emergency.

At that point, Carver and his family were unaware that a slide 3,000 feet long and up to 175 feet wide had just sped 30 miles per hour down the mountainside, seriously damaging four houses in its path, and stopping just short of his own. The mountain of mud that slammed the slope at times measured as high as 30 feet.

Carver immediately headed out into the foggy night to make his way up to the slope to begin evacuating his neighbors. Crews from the Maggie Valley police and fire departments joined Carver in the rescue effort just five minutes after a call went out for help at 6:33 p.m.

Rescue workers went door to door, trying to find residents and evacuate them, while police officers secured the roads and set up a blockade. Limited visibility plagued the rescue effort.

“You couldn’t see five inches in front of your face,” said Scott Sutton, chief of Maggie Valley police.

Most residents were unaware of the immense scale of the mudslide at that point, but rescue workers understood that the slide was still potentially active. The threat of a second landslide wave loomed.

“Everybody was uneasy about it,” said Sutton. “You didn’t know what it was, you didn’t know its origin, you didn’t know how far it was.”

But the 50 or so responders from all over Haywood County who worked Friday night were able to maintain their cool during the emergency.

“Everybody stayed calm,” said Carver. “You have to, you got a job to do.”

Some residents walked quite a distance down the hill, abandoning their houses upslope to escape the slide.

“They were shook up a little bit,” said Carver. “Who wouldn’t be?”

A few were able to drive away in their cars, but debris from the mudslide blocked off many other driveways.

Firefighters had to dig mud out to evacuate one woman who was stuck inside her house after the landslide tore off her deck. They were able to rescue her after sending a ladder up to her front door.

Carver said no one appeared to have any major injuries from the slide.

Emergency crews transported residents to a command center at town hall. They were later transferred to a shelter set up by the Red Cross at Maggie Valley United Methodist Church. Some opted to stay with relatives, friends or at a motel instead.

In the next few days, crews gave some residents a lift in all-terrain vehicles back to their homes to help them recover their vehicles and belongings. It was impossible to clear driveways in a few cases.

Most on site now must either walk or utilize ATVs, according to Carver.

“It’s the only way you can maneuver up there,” Carver said.

Kim Czaja, executive director of the Haywood chapter of the Red Cross, commended rescue workers for arriving on scene so quickly.

“I’m quite amazed that no one got hurt,” said Czaja, who still had mud on her shoes Monday after visiting the mudslide zone and assessing damage to individual homes the day before.

“I don’t think there are words to describe the amount of debris,” said Czaja. “It blew me away.”

Assessing the damage

While rescue workers focused on evacuating residents, Greg Shuping, director of Emergency Management for Haywood, was busy preparing for the days ahead.

He called in representation from state emergency management division, the North Carolina Geological Survey and the North Carolina Department of Transportation immediately after the mudslide struck on Friday.

Despite snowfall, Shuping and his crew worked all day Saturday to transport engineers and geologists up the mountain to assess the mudslide and take pictures.

Shuping also coordinated a helicopter ride for town and county officials.

“The value of being able to look down at the entire site and see that footprint...I believe, was very important,” said Shuping.

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy and Alderman Scott Pauley were two officials who got a bird’s eye view of the mudslide during a helicopter ride.

“It’s a mess,” said Pauley.

McElroy was shocked at how far down the mountain the slide traveled, but said the impressive trajectory was likely due to the sheer drop of the slope.

In McElroy’s view, even the best engineering and technology may not be enough to save houses on such steep slopes in emergencies.

“Under certain circumstances, they just won’t stand up,” said McElroy.

“Bad coincidence”

Haywood County and the Town of Maggie Valley quickly signed off on a disaster declaration over the weekend, making them eligible for state and federal aid.

Local officials have stated representatives from both the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will visit the mudslide site this week.

Officials were already slated to visit the region for another reason, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Division of Emergency Management.

They are visiting counties in Western North Carolina to assess damage from December snowstorms to possibly provide funds to local governments to help recoup the cost of removing debris or getting power back up.

That’s not to say the officials can’t have a look at the latest mudslide while they’re here, but Jarema said local governments would have to send in yet another application to request assistance for this slide.

“It’s a different disaster,” said Jarema. “The fact that it’s occurring around the same location is really just bad coincidence.”

Regardless, Shuping said his primary focus now is to coordinate with town, county and state officials, as well as Ghost Town, to bring a safe resolution to the mudslide as quickly as possible.

“We’re asking for any and all assistance on behalf of the town and county,” said Shuping.


On Friday night, a mudslide thundered across Rich Cove Road in Maggie Valley, taking out a section of a guardrail and bending a drainage pipe in its path, causing water to flow alongside the road and collect at the bottom.

The landslide deposited a significant amount of mud at two spots on the road and downed several trees across other parts.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s chief priority will be to restore a “primitive road condition” to allow temporary access for residents and repair efforts, according to Joel Setzer, who heads the regional DOT division. But the DOT isn’t prepared to begin work right away.

“We’ll have to wait for some drier weather before we make an effort,” said Setzer. “Full restoration of the road will have to be done later on.”

According to Setzer, the DOT faces a Catch-22 when it comes to the water that’s been diverted by the mudslide. If left alone, the water will continue flowing out of its established path and damage the road and some houses, but if it’s redirected to its usual flow pattern, it will “add water to an already saturated, muddy mess,” said Setzer.

While the DOT normally reflows the water to its established path, it faces a quandary with the latest mudslide.

“We’re looking for direction on what is the best thing to do and the overall public good,” said Setzer. “It’s a tough situation, but it’s going to require some aggressive emergency management.”


Skateboard enthusiasts in Waynesville will be happy to hear the town has been busily preparing for a long-awaited skate park on Vance Street near the recreation center.

The town board recently dropped $28,500 on a California firm called Spohn Ranch Skateparks to design the park, marking notable progress in a process that’s crawled for more than a decade.

The board unanimously agreed it was time to move forward.

“We beat this horse about as much as we can beat it,” said Mayor Gavin Brown.

“I think this is a giant step forward in reaching our goal,” said Rhett Langston, Waynesville’s recreation director.

The town is also applying for a $60,000 state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant to help fund construction.

While the town failed to lock in the same state grant last year, having a concrete design plan in hand might improve their chances this go-around.

“To have this plan in place to show them you really are enthused about doing it, I think it will be help us with the grant,” said Alderman Gary Caldwell, the most ardent supporter of the skate park on the town board.

Even if the town lands the grant, it still faces the challenge of scraping up an equal amount in matching funds and paying for the remainder of the cost.

The town will learn in early May if it has won the coveted grant.

Langston said it is difficult right now to even speculate on the total cost of the skate park. After hiring the design firm, the town has $41,500 remaining of the original $70,000 set aside for the park. It also holds a generous $20,000 grant from the Waynesville Kiwanis Club.

To supplement that sum, the recreation department continues to fundraise by selling bricks with personalized messages for a walkway leading up to the park. So far, they’ve raised $2,900.

Having a conceptual design plan in hand could also aid fundraising efforts, according to town officials.

“If you just tell someone, ‘We want to build a skate park. Will you donate?’ they might. But if you show them, ‘This is what we want to build,’ your chances of getting participation may be a lot better,” said Lee Galloway, Waynesville town manager.

“Local skaters will have something in their hands to show this is what we’re looking for, this is the cause,” said Langston.

The town considers it absolutely essential that skaters throw their two cents in, since it doesn’t want to invest in a skate park that they didn’t like.

“If we’re going to do it, let’s just do it right from the beginning,” said Langston.


More on the park

The Waynesville Kiwanis and Parks and Recreation Skate Park will be located in a fenced-in, outdoor facility on the site of the former horse ring on Vance Street. It will join the sprawling town recreation complex along Richland Creek, where playgrounds, tennis courts, picnic shelters, ball fields, a greenway, a dog park, a track, and the Waynesville Recreation Center are clustered.

The park would be free to use, but skaters would be required to pay a small registration fee so the Parks and Recreation Department can keep track of who is using the facility.

For now, skaters still have to deal with a town ban on skateboards on sidewalks and most town streets. Violators face a $50 fine and the possibility of having their boards confiscated.

Those interested in purchasing a brick, making a donation, or volunteering for the fundraising committee are asked to contact Langston at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.456.2030.


County commissioners in Western North Carolina face a fork in the road after a federal judge in Forsyth County made it clear last week that prayers mentioning “Jesus” at county meetings are unconstitutional.

They can submit to the law, or continue violating it.

Haywood County commissioners have decided to opt for the first, less litigious route, while Macon County commissioners insist they will carry on with their overtly Christian prayers — despite the potential threat of a lawsuit similar to the one in Forsyth.

In the middle is Swain County, where commissioners may be split over whether to alter their prayers. Jackson County does not have a prayer to open its county meetings.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty ruled that Forsyth County commissioners violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by endorsing Christianity at their government meetings. The ruling will likely carry weight across the state and cause county commissioners to reevaluate their prayer policies.

Although Forsyth commissioners invited pastors from all faiths to give the invocation at the beginning of each meeting, nearly all the ones who showed up led Christian prayers.

This revolving door policy of sorts closely mirrors that of Macon County. Haywood and Swain commissioners lead the opening prayers themselves.

Haywood County Attorney Chip Killian said he’d notified the commissioners of the Forsyth case and advised them to no longer use sectarian prayers. Of the three Haywood commissioners who took turns giving the prayer, two already avoided specific references to Jesus. But Commissioner Kevin Ensley closed every prayer with “In Jesus’ name.”

It happened to be Ensley’s turn to lead the prayer Monday, mere days after the federal ruling was handed down. Before the meeting started, Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked Ensley if he’d be comfortable praying without invoking a specific religion.

Ensley decided to step aside, however if he couldn’t pray according to his faith. Ensley said he took himself out of the rotation for prayer to avoid trouble with the courts.

Ensley and Kirkpatrick agreed they would rather have a generic invocation before meetings than not pray at all.

“If that’s the way the court’s ruling right now, I guess we should abide by the law,” said Ensley. “To me, it’s a freedom of speech issue...It’s a shame that there’s a minority of people out there that’s offended by something they don’t even believe.”

While Kirkpatrick said he also feels strongly about his Christian faith, he only uses generic words like “God” and “Lord,” which are allowed under established law.

“When I give the invocation, I am wary that I’m giving it for the county and not for myself,” said Kirkpatrick. “I think that’s the difference.”

Haywood Commissioner Skeeter Curtis agreed the board should respect the law.

“Whatever the law requires us to have to do, we’re going to have to do it,” said Curtis. “There’s no way that we can go against that.”


Civil disobedience in Macon

Macon County commissioners are adamantly continuing their prayer policy, which endorses Christianity.

Macon Commissioner Jim Davis said while he took an oath to uphold the law when elected, he disagrees with this one and believes it needs to be changed.

Davis admits the prayer policy might alienate some, but said he delineates between prayer at school, which is mandatory, and prayer at commissioners meeting, which residents can skip.

As a Christian, Davis said he is not offended by the mention of “Jesus” in prayers before the commissioners meetings.

“I’m just not a very politically correct guy,” said Davis. “We can’t guarantee that people aren’t going to be offended. You have a right to be offended, and I have a right to not be bothered by that.”

Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said he would suggest continuing a practice that’s “worked for decades” in Macon County.

The federal ruling from across the state will not impact Macon County’s policy, Beale said.

“That’s in Forsyth County, not Macon County,” said Beale, adding that the board does not plan to discuss the prayer policy unless it is brought up.

Beale said he could not comment on the potential for a lawsuit over the county’s violation of constitutional law, claiming the possibilities for someone suing the county are endless.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” said Beale.

Alex Cury, chair of the Western North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is unfortunate some government leaders are brazenly breaking the law.

“I think that it’s completely unethical for elected officials to ignore the long established law of the land,” said Cury. “I would like to see elected officials follow the law. If they don’t like the law, they can seek a constitutional measure to correct the law. Many of us disagree with the law, but to violate the law is to violate the position of trust.”

There are measures available to any citizen who opposes Christian prayers at government meetings, Cury said.

“But that’s up to the citizens of the community, whether they are offended and want the law enforced,” said Cury. These residents can start by expressing their thoughts and feelings with county commissioners, with legal recourse as another option.

Cury’s recommendation to commissioners is to avoid hot water by opting for a few minutes of silence.

“People who think it’s important to pray can pray silently,” said Cury. “People who are not people of faith can think over what they’re going to say.”


Undecided in Swain

Swain County commissioners aren’t eager to discontinue Christian prayers at their meeting but are mulling the possibility.

Kim Lay, who serves as the attorney to the Swain County board, said she is obligated to recommend that commissioners follow the law, whatever that may be.

“I will advise the board when asked what the status of the law is at this time and advise them to follow it,” Lay said.

In Swain County, Commissioners Phil Carson and Steve Moon take turns saying a prayer to open the commissioners meetings, and both routinely offer the prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Both feel strongly about praying in Jesus’ name as an integral part of their prayer.

“If I am called upon to pray, I will pray in Jesus’ name,” Moon said.

But Moon acknowledged that he doesn’t want the county to bear unintended consequences, like a lawsuit that would cost taxpayer money to defend.

“If I was only speaking for myself, I would continue to pray, but since I am a county commissioner and represent the county of Swain, I don’t want the county of Swain to get sued,” Moon said.

Moon said the commissioners will need to discuss the issue and decide what to do in light of the federal court ruling.

Swain County Commissioner David Monteith isn’t in the prayer rotation for Swain meetings, but if he was ever given the opportunity to lead the prayer, he says he would do so in Jesus’ name.

“I don’t pray without saying ‘In Jesus’ name,’” Monteith said. “There best be a federal judge there to arrest me because I will not compromise on that.”


Crystal clear law

Technically, federal case precedent dating to 2004 already bans references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioners meetings in North Carolina. But many counties have carried on unfazed.

In the latest case, Judge Beaty ruled that striking down Christian prayer at government meetings does not infringe on the private rights of citizens to free speech or free exercise of religion.

The sole question, Beaty wrote, is whether the government has endorsed a particular faith.

The Supreme Court has recognized that legislative prayers that open or solemnize government meetings are part of a “rich history and tradition in this country” and are constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has also emphasized that such legislative prayers should not affiliate government with a particular faith or belief.

The Forsyth ruling quotes a previous case, which states, “Repeated invocation of the tenets of a single faith undermines our commitment to participation by persons of all faiths in public life. For ours is a diverse nation not only in matters of secular viewpoint but also in matters of religious adherence.”

Forsyth County Commissioners now face their own choice on prayer: no longer opening meetings with a prayer or open with a generic invocation.

Becky Johnson contributed to this report.


Two contrasting images of the Pigeon River emerged at a public hearing on a controversial new water pollution permit for Evergreen Packaging, a paper mill in Canton.

The mill needs to renew its state permit to continue drawing roughly 29 million gallons a day from the river, using it in the papermaking process, then dumping it back into the river.

On one side of the divide were mostly raft guides, environmentalists, and Cocke County, Tenn., residents, who insisted the river was filthy and dangerously in need of stricter pollution requirements. They characterized the draft state permit as too weak and demanded a revision.

Meanwhile, the opposing party praised the Pigeon as a success story of past decades, a complete turnaround from its — literally — darker days. This pro-water permit faction, however, focused less on the river than the vast economic impact of the mill in the region and the efforts it has already made to clean up it’s operation.

They stressed that imposing rigid pollution requirements on the mill would be too expensive and could lead to job cuts.

“Everyone knows the advantages and strides that this mill has made over the years and the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested in environmental issues,” said Haywood County Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “I ask you, issue the permit. Don’t have restrictions that are not economically affordable to the mill.”

With about 1,400 employees, the mill is a major taxpayer, and supports related business and community organizations.

Mike Clayton, president of Champion Credit Union in Canton, referred to the mill as the “heart and soul” of Canton.

“The ripple effect of the Canton mill pays our mortgages and sends our kids to college,” said Clayton.

Luke Goddard, who serves as a town board member in Newport, Tenn., suspected an economic motive was driving most North Carolinians’ support for the water permit as written.

“What they have done is they’ve sold out the community, and they’ve sold out the river downstream, and they have bought your admiration,” said Goddard. “Sure you think, they’re great people. They’re paying you...What you’ve given us downstream is death, dioxin, chemicals, and you haven’t cleaned any of it up until somebody made you clean it up.”

“It looks a lot to me like money really talking around here,” said Frances Miller of the Cocke County Health Council. “I don’t think money is going to help us all that much once we don’t have any clean water or any clean air. I’d hate to leave that as a legacy to my grandchildren.”

Since 1990, the mill reportedly spent $526 million on an overall environmental overhaul, including about $300 million on the Pigeon River alone. While the river downstream is vastly cleaner now, progress has plateaued in recent years.

“We know the mill has made progress, but we haven’t seen progress in the last ten years,” said Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina. “North Carolina, I have very little faith in you. I’d like you to prove us wrong.”

Most Tennessee speakers said they did not come to the hearing to take jobs away, but to find a common solution that would benefit all who rely on the Pigeon River.

“We’re not here to demand food from your table,” said Raven Carswell. “Only a seat at the table you’ve been feasting at for years. We’re tired of scraps.”

Others pointed to health dangers posed by the Pigeon River because of the mill.

Michelle Cueller said she has contracted a skin irritation known as chemically-induced eczema for life after serving as a raft guide on the Pigeon River for 10 years.

“I can only hope that this is the only health infliction I will face,” said Cueller. “The stinging in your face, eyes burning from the water when you’re getting splashed [are] our facts.”

Joseph Hanks, vice-president of Evergreen Packaging, emphasized that the current owners and leaders of the mill had nothing to do with the “pain of the past.”

“There’s no mill in the world that is more compliant than this mill, so how much is enough?” asked Hanks. “The money is there when the technology is available to reduce the color...At some point, it’s just not fair to keep us from operating just because of the past.”


Stacking the deck

Both sides called in reinforcements while espousing their perspective on the pollution permit. Canton Mayor Pat Smathers called four aldermen from the town to stand behind him as he called for the permit to be granted as written.

“We’re all united in the Town of Canton behind Champion International,” said Smathers, despite the fact that Champion International abandoned the mill in 1997, and the mill is now on its second name change since then.

Smathers asked the other aldermen to speak after him — even though the moderator had not called out their names — then returned to the podium with more remarks, garnering criticism later that night for using up more than his share of time and for going out of turn.

Soon after, a raft guide called up about 20 fellow raft guides to demonstrate how the local economy in eastern Tennessee relies heavily on a healthy Pigeon River.

To that, Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick had a quick retort.

“I suppose I could ask everyone impacted by the mill to step in here and they would fill this room,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that the families impacted could fill up the entire gymnasium across the hall.

N.C. Representative Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, pointed out that there has been a vast increase in rafters — from 21,000 in 1995 to 150,000 in 2007 — because of the mill’s expansive cleanup project.

“You’ve got a job because something was done about that river,” said Rapp, raising his voice. “I think you need to pay attention to that.”

Rapp said he agreed there must still be more progress but that the state should also recognize and support the mill’s willingness to use the latest technology to lessen pollution.

Audience members from both sides piped up later as Tennessee resident Peter Morrison blasted Smathers for coming up with his “panoply of alderman.”

“That is not fair,” said Peter Morrison. “They should have come up one at a time, not marching up here like the gangbusters.”

While Morrison spoke, a few attendants yelled out that the many more rafters than aldermen had walked up to the podium, prompting shouts from the other side that Smathers had spoken twice without signing up for two slots.

Morrison sat back down after the moderator told him he was out of order, but not before sneaking in another complaint about having to wait for speakers to walk down the aisle to get to the microphone.

The strangest moment in the night was undoubtedly when Clark Bauer went up to speak. Bauer took off his rafting T-shirt as he announced he was done with the rafting industry and would no longer take anyone to the Pigeon River.

Bauer said the millions spent by the mill on cleaning up the river could never make up for it causing cancer in his family.

“$525 million, where’s my family? I could’ve had more family,” said Bauer, adding that he and many others have received infections from the Pigeon River. Bauer even threatened to pull down his pants to show everyone “the sore on [his] butt.”

The moderator’s only response was, “We don’t want you to do that.”



The Haywood County board has five commissioner seats. Three seats are up for election this year. A party primary in May will narrow down the field to three Democrats and three Republicans for the three vacant seats.

Haywood Commissioner Skeeter Curtis will not be running for re-election this year, meaning at least one new face will join the board come fall.

Curtis said he will not run for a second term in order to focus on family issues. Curtis, a former deputy commissioner of insurance, has been working as a consultant in the past few years, but will return to a full-time position.

“I just really feel right now I need to put all my efforts on that side, on the family,” said Curtis. “I just wouldn’t have enough time to devote to the job [of commissioner].”

Curtis said he’d like to see a lot of people run, especially those from the younger generation.

“I think it’d be good for them to get involved in their county government,” said Curtis.

Fellow commissioners Bill Upton and Kirk Kirkpatrick said they will both seek another four years on the board.

“I would like to help assist the county in continuing to get through this difficult economic time,” said Kirkpatrick, who has been on the board eight years and serves as chairman.

Kirkpatrick initially thought he would step down after this year, but in recent months committed to running for another term.

Upton said he’s had a positive experience serving on the board during his first term.

“I see some good things going on, and I want to see that continue,” said Upton, who commended the board for moving forward on the Wal-Mart purchase and for operating openly.

“There are very few things we don’t televise,” Upton said. “And our chairman has allowed people to speak at work sessions. I feel like we as a group are good listeners.”

Challengers prepare

Mary Ann Enloe, a former commissioner, is undecided whether she attempt to regain the seat she lost two years ago.

“I still have to give it some more thought,” said Enloe, who was a commissioner for eight years and mayor of Hazelwood for 12. Enloe said many in the community are encouraging her to run

Michael Sorrells, a 53-year-old native of Haywood County and Democrat, said he plans to run for the board, a decision spurred by Curtis stepping down.

Rhonda Schandevel, a 45-year-old dental hygienist and Haywood County native, hopes to land a spot on the Democratic ticket as well.

Three Republican candidates who are considering a run include David Bradley, Tom Freeman and Elizabeth Norris.

“I think there are a lot of changes that need to be made,” said Norris. “We need to become fiscally responsible.”

Freeman and Bradley, who serves as the treasurer and executive officer of the Haywood County GOP, could not be reached for comment.

Sorrells owns and operates a service station, convenience store and café in Jonathan Creek, a family business that’s served the rural community since 1968. Sorrells has served on the Haywood County school board for about six years.

Schandevel, who resides in Canton, is an advocate for those with special needs. She has had leadership roles in several boards, including The Arc of Haywood County, The Waynesville Recreation Board, the Tuscola High School PTO, and the United Methodist Women group.

Schandevel said it was important to have a balance on the board, which currently has only males.

“Women and men see things differently,” said Schandevel. “I think that’s very important.”

All eyes on the budget

With the economy still in a recession, the county’s budget will sit at center stage in the upcoming election.

“One of the major issues will be the budget,” said Curtis. “There’s no question about it.”

The current board came under fire last year for raising property taxes by 1.7 cents during a recession. Commissioners said it was necessary to make ends meet and avoid painful cuts to core county services.

“To me, the big issue is still the budget and making the best of not having the monies we had in the past,” said Upton.

Kirkpatrick said this would be another year of slashing every non-necessity from the budget, all the while keeping property taxes as low as possible.

“It will be difficult as it was last year in cutting down some of the needs to determine what has to be spent to continue to keep the county going,” said Kirkpatrick.

Sorrells said he would try to lighten to load on the taxpayers “if at all possible” by reevaluating every department to see where cuts could be made.

Kirkpatrick agreed but said candidates should detail exactly how they plan to lower taxes during hard times.

“Everybody wants to cut the tax rate, but nobody can ever point to what it is that they’re going to cut,” said Kirkpatrick.


There is, perhaps, no sheriff’s race as hotly contested as the one currently taking place in Swain County.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran’s volatile first term as sheriff has brought no shortage of issues — or candidates — to the Swain sheriff’s race this year.

Challengers were lining up and campaigning more than a year ago. The moment they’ve long awaited is now here.

Eight Democrats will battle it out during a primary this May, while Cochran will compete head-to-head with newcomer Wayne Dover for a spot on the Republican ticket.

Candidates spoke with the Smoky Mountain News on the myriad issues facing Swain’s sheriff office and on their vision for the next four years.

Among those topics: a suspected murderer’s escape from Swain County’s jail last year; Cochran’s ongoing lawsuit against Swain’s Democratic county commissioners for reducing his salary; a Swain detention officer purchasing a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; and a newly built $10 million jail sitting half-empty.

All or nearly all candidates say they want to bring more professionalism and training to the Sheriff’s Office, combat a growing drug problem in the county, and rebuild a relationship with the community, the commissioners, and surrounding counties.



Cochran sued the county commissioners after they took away a long-established “meal deal” shortly after he was elected. For decades, Swain County commissioners paid the sheriff a flat rate to feed jail inmates and allowed him to pocket any surplus. The off-the-books subsidy bolstered the sheriff’s salary, which was otherwise the lowest of any sheriff in the state.

Other jurisdictions had already gotten rid of the corruption-prone policy, and Swain commissioners voted to follow in their footsteps two weeks after the 2006 election. Cochran filed a lawsuit claiming the county reduced his salary because he was a Republican, while commissioners and most of his predecessors were Democrats.

Cochran asked commissioners to increase his salary from $39,000 to $80,000. The lawsuit is ongoing, while Cochran continues to receive much lower than average pay. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office is struggling to cope with a reduction in its budget and layoffs after the recession hit.

Meanwhile, the sheriff and the commissioners have been at constant odds over the sheriff’s operating budget, staffing levels and salaries for deputies.

John Ensley (D) would like to see a salary increase for deputies as well as the sheriff funded by a fee charged to criminals. As the owner of small business that’s still prospering amid a recession, Ensley said he’d do more with less at the Sheriff’s Office.

Steve Ford (D) said he’d work hard to justify every item in his budget to commissioners, backing them up with statistics if he had to. “You’ve got to justify your existence... [Cochran’s] lack of ability to prove to the commissioners the need for his budget is what created his cuts.”

Ford said the meal deal was borderline illegal. He’s in favor of having an increased salary for the sheriff, with a starting and ending income point, based on experience.

David Thomas (D) said since the county is often paying to train officers, it should also offer them enough pay to keep them working in Swain. “That’ll save the county money in the long run.” Thomas also supports a salary increase for the sheriff. He suggests using the money from the Road to Nowhere settlement to pay for raises.

Julius Taylor (D) said he has experience securing grant money for the Cherokee police. In a 15-minute presentation to the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security he was able to score $180,000.

Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s taken a look at the sheriff’s budget and could not target any areas to cut. He said he’d have to see a further breakdown of actual spending to make a decision. Buchanan said the budget is a joint effort and that he’d work with the commissioners to come up with the best solution for all.

Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d like to see salaries brought up to where they should be. Clifton has heard of deputies whose families are eligible for food stamps. He says he will support the county in actively pursuing a commercial tax base for the county. “Without a tax base, we’re not going to be able to increase anything.”

Mitchell Jenkins (D) said the commissioners’ decision to cut the meal deal just had bad timing, and that they should not have jerked the rug out after Cochran took office. “They made it look political to the public.”

Considering all the duties that the sheriff carries out, Jenkins agrees that the sheriff should get paid more.

Jenkins said he’d work within the budget that is made available by commissioners.

Wayne Dover (R) said the commissioners’ timing was off, but Curtis knew what his salary would be before running. Dover said deputies need a raise before the sheriff because Swain is unable to compete with the salaries offered in Jackson County and Cherokee.

Dover said he’d apply for every grant that’s available, and would hire a full-time grant writer in-house to support the effort.

Curtis Cochran (R) would not comment on the ongoing lawsuit or the meal deal. Cochran said his department is always on the lookout for grants. He added that he disagreed with the commissioners cutting three deputies and a secretary from his department in last year’s budget.

“I feel that was very unfair for the people of Swain County, that their safety could be jeopardized by not having enough people on patrol.”

Curtis said he’s asked for the positions to be filled again in this year’s budget. Cochran pointed out that he’s had experience working on Swain County budgets since 1994.



No matter how well they get along with Sheriff Cochran, candidates claim that Cochran lacks the law enforcement experience to serve as Swain County’s sheriff. When Cochran was elected in 2006, he had no previous law enforcement experience.

During Cochran’s first term in office, a female jailer helped a man charged with murder in a double homicide escape from the Swain County jail. Cochran was allegedly warned by employees of a cozy relationship developing between the jailer and inmate. In another incident, an inmate escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse. The search ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74, during which Cochran shot at the tires of a getaway van the inmate had stolen.

Also during his term, a detention officer used the county’s Sam’s Club card to purchase a big-screen TV. The officer was later fired.

John Ensley (D) says he’s been trained to work in a correctional facility and has experience on the job. “I know what red flags to watch for, and how to manage issues.”

To prevent more escapes, Steve Ford (D) plans to review hiring practices, look at his employees’ job performance, and make sure there’s standard operating procedures in place. In the case of the big screen TV, Ford said he would have charged the employee with theft. “Did they use a credit card that wasn’t theirs? Why weren’t they charged? Fired is far from being charged.” Ford said Cochran has done the best he can do for a man with no prior law enforcement experience.

David Thomas (D) said he would not have female jailers working with male inmates and vice versa. “I don’t think that’s right.” Thomas said he never saw mishandling of county credit cards when he worked at the jail. “Curtis didn’t have no experience when he went in, I think that hurt him.”

Julius Taylor (D) said the escapes and credit card use show that Cochran did not have the right people in certain positions. Taylor said he would be a better supervisor if elected and make sure there is an official policy and procedure for the jail.

Taylor pointed out that Cochran had to learn from scratch, and even though he now has three years of experience in law enforcement, it doesn’t compare to Taylor’s 16 years. “Not saying he’s a bad person, he’s had three years of rough luck with it.”

Steve Buchanan (D) said the county should hire an experienced sheriff to stop crime in its tracks.

Buchanan claims he knows exactly what needs to be changed at the jail since he worked as a jailer there for seven months. He would not elaborate, however, because he had promised Cochran, his former boss, to not reveal problems in the jail during his campaign.

Buchanan believes he was unfairly fired from his night shift at the jail after he decided to run for sheriff. According to Buchanan, the county cited the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity, as justification for the firing. However, Buchanan was not a federal employee.

Chuck Clifton (D) said escape was caused by lack of education and mismanagement. “Sheriff Cochran has minimal law enforcement experience, none when he was elected, and that shows.” Clifton said he would use his education and experience to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Mitchell Jenkins’ (D) only comment on the issue was that in his view, Cochran has not established a good working relationship with his employees and with the community. “I don’t feel like people confide in him the way I’d want them to me.”

Wayne Dover (R) said the escapes resulted from a failure to listen to employees who warned Cochran about the jailer’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate she helped escape. “It’s not really, per say, his fault. It is still his responsibility.”

Curtis Cochran (R) said the jail escapes had nothing to do with him being sheriff. “If you got a person on the inside that’s going to help somebody escape, they’re going to do it.” Curtis said the jailer who helped the prisoner escape went through a background check and received state certification as a detention officer. “You’d have to have a crystal ball, I guess, to see what people are going to do, and I just don’t have one. And neither do the other candidates.”



Swain County opened its 109-bed jail aiming to receive overflow prisoners from other counties, raking in revenues that would help pay for the $10 million facility. Instead, surrounding counties built their own new jails, leaving Swain’s jail half-empty on most nights.

Cherokee prisoners make up the vast majority of out-of-county inmates helping to fill the jail and offset costs, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians now plan on building its own jail as well. Swain’s jail is 75 percent larger than what it currently needs for its own inmates.

Cochran recently signed a deal that will bring back federal prisoners from the U.S. Marshal Service, which pulled out from Swain’s crumbling old jail because it lacked a fire sprinkler system. Still, that agreement has failed to bring in a significant flow of inmates, while the jail continues to cost taxpayers $610,000 every year.

John Ensley (D) denies that the jail was overbuilt since it will accommodate future growth in the region. Ensley said he’ll take part in an aggressive outreach effort to state, federal and local agencies. A good rapport will help lure prisoners to Swain’s jail in the future. “These other counties, they may have not built their jail as big as ours. Eventually, they’re going to reach capacity...I think we’ve got it, we’ve got to be positive about it.”

Steve Ford (D) says the brand new jail should pay for itself instead of costing taxpayers money. He supports charging those who are arrested a book fee and a $5 fee per day to offset the cost of their housing.

David Thomas (D) said he’d work with everyone in the community and county government to figure out a solution for the jail. “I think you’ll get more prisoners if you’re in the good grace of your surrounding counties that don’t have their own jail.”

Julius Taylor (D) said having a customer service attitude will greatly help the jail. Taylor said instead of reserving bed space for state or federal prisoners, he’d have a first-come, first-served approach.

Taylor, who has worked with the Cherokee police department for almost 16 years, said he’d also work aggressively to change Cherokee’s mind about building its own jail. “We run the jail, let us do what we’ve done for hundreds of years.”

Steve Buchanan (D) said he’s talked to Graham County’s sheriff, who has expressed interest in shutting down the antiquated jail there. According to Buchanan’s research, if two counties work together to operate one jail, it is considered a regional jail and may receive more federal funding. Buchanan insists that Swain’s commissioners would retain control over the jail if the arrangement comes to fruition. Graham currently sends its prisoners to the new jail in Cherokee County.

Chuck Clifton (D) said he’d try to work with federal agencies to entice prisoners to Swain’s jail. “We have a state of the art jail...There is no reason why we cannot entice or encourage outside agencies to house their prisoners in our jail.”

Mitchell Jenkins (D) said he needs to further study the jail to come up with the solution. Jenkins plans to sit down with commissioners to work on the problem. He said the county government should have surveyed surrounding counties about their plans to build jails. “If they had been aware of the situation, I feel like they went overboard with the size of the jail that was established. I feel like they got a bigger facility than they’re gonna need.”

Wayne Dover (R) said he’d rather have a jail too big than not big enough. He says if there are stiffer penalties, with more jail time, for those who are charged with crimes, the jail will pay for itself. Dover said he’s worried about Cherokee’s plans for a jail. “Steps need to be taken now.”

Curtis Cochran (R) said all surrounding counties except for Graham County now have their own jails. If the tribe builds its own jail, Cochran said the county will soon be at the mercy of the U.S. Marshal Service for inmates. Cochran pointed out that he inherited the jail problem when he took office.


Democrat candidates

Steve Buchanan, 50, Bryson City resident, owner of a construction company

“Most of the thefts relate back to drug use, people stealing to pay for their drug habit, and I feel that it’s at a point now where it has to be stopped in its tracks.”

Buchanan has more than 16 years of law enforcement experience, including six years as an undercover narcotics agent and five years in supervisory positions. Buchanan has also served as a Swain County jailer for about seven months.

Buchanan is running because he believes he has the law enforcement experience, especially in narcotics, to help reduce crime in Swain County.

“I think we’re at a crossroads now in our county...If we don’t elect somebody with experience in law enforcement, then our quality of life in Swain County is going to be affected.”

For more information:


Chuck Clifton, 60, Bryson City resident, security officer at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

“There is no substitute for education, and experience brings education. When you have experienced leadership, that education can funnel all the way down to the lowest man.”

Clifton retired from more than 27 years of law enforcement experience in 2003. Clifton served as interim chief of police in Florida, and he has supervised as many as 48 officers. Clifton has worked in everything from narcotics to investigations to agricultural crimes to patrolling.

Clifton has also taught at a police academy in Florida and would like to bring more education to deputies. “I would like to see the residents of Swain County be able to say I’m proud of our Sheriff’s Office. They are well-educated, they know how to handle things.”

John Ensley, 42, Bryson City resident, owner of Yellow Rose Realty

“Not only am I going to ask the people to be involved in our community, I’m going to expect it.”

Ensley has 17 years of experience as a business owner in Swain County, has been a Sunday school teacher and coached youth sports.

Ensley is also certified with the Florida Department of Corrections, a North Carolina certified law enforcement officer and president of his B law enforcement training class. He worked as a jailer in Florida and for Swain’s Sheriff’s Office for nearly two years.

He would like to bring a businessman’s approach to the Sheriff’s Office, especially when it comes to the $10 million jail that’s now sitting half-empty. “We need some entrepreneurship in there to grow that.”

Ensley’s first priority is to eliminate the drug flow into Swain County and into the school system. His second priority is to rebuild a relationship between law enforcement and the community and restart a community watch program.

For more information:


Steve Ford, 51, Bryson City resident, retired law enforcement officer

“If you’re going to put a badge on them, which in reality is a target for a criminal, you’ve got to pay them.”

Ford has 24 years of experience as a law enforcement officer in Florida, including as a deputy, investigator, sergeant and lieutenant.

Ford said he’s running because he sees a lack of trust between the citizens and the current sheriff’s office.

“I want to make sure that citizens know when they call in a complaint, no matter whether it’s a barking dog or a burglary, we’re going to respond.”

Ford would also like to set up a volunteer community watch team, and has already assembled a team of retired law enforcement officers in Swain County with more than 100 years of combined experience. With their expertise, Ford will pursue grants to work on the drug problem.

“You gotta know where to tap into the assets. Unfortunately, our taxpaying dollars in Swain County is not the right place for all of it.”

For more information:


Mitchell Jenkins, 52, Whittier resident, self-employed logger

“I’d like to make Swain County be appreciative and proud of their Sheriff’s Department. I don’t feel like it is right now.”

Jenkins has nine years of law enforcement experience, including eight years as chief deputy in Swain County and one year in the Bryson City Police Department. Jenkins is running because he’d like to establish a better working relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the public.

“The politeness of your officers when they’re addressing people goes a long way in getting people to confide and trust the department.”

Jenkins said he’d also respect the confidentiality of those who phone in tips to the Sheriff’s Office.

“You gotta earn that confidence...or you won’t get no information to operate on.”


Julius Taylor, 37, resident of Big Cove community, Cherokee Police officer

“To make sure occupants are in there, always have the vacancy sign out and not take reservations.”

— On Swain County’s oversized jail.

Taylor has worked for the Cherokee Police Department for almost 16 years and has also worked for the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. His experience includes being a supervisor for 12 years and an administrator for three years. Taylor has had training from the U.S. Interior Department, the FBI, the SBI, and the North Carolina Justice Academy, where he has trained officers.

Taylor’s goal is to work together with surrounding communities to jointly combat the drug problem.

“When you enforce so hard in one jurisdiction, you push it from your yard into somebody else’s...It’s such a deep-seated problem, but all you hear are surface solutions...I’m not the surface solution type of person.”


David Thomas, 56, Bryson City resident, general contractor

“If somebody sued me, I’m not going to sit down and have lunch with them.”

— On the commissioners’ testy relationship with Sheriff Cochran after he filed a lawsuit against them.

Thomas has worked in law enforcement in Swain County under three different sheriffs for almost two decades.

“My priorities are to see if I can’t do something with the drug problem with our kids around here.”

Thomas would also like to work closely with local people as well as those from surrounding counties.

“You gotta get along with everybody...You gotta go out and talk to the people, talk to our other counties, get along with their sheriffs...You can only do what the people let you.”

*Democratic candidate David Franklin was unable to participate in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News for this article.


Republican candidates

Curtis Cochran, 57, Bryson City resident, current sheriff

“We hear criticism every day. When it comes down to the final vote, we’ll see how the voters of Swain County act, if they think I’ve done a good job or a bad job.”

Cochran has worked in heavy construction for 22 years then served as the county facilities manager for 12 years until he was elected sheriff in 2006, narrowly ousting the sitting sheriff at the time. Since being elected, Cochran has attended a sheriff leadership institute, is a member of the North Carolina Jail Administrators’ Association, and has received certificates from a North Carolina Justice Academy identity theft seminar.

“My number one priority is to continue the fight on drugs that we’ve been very aggressive with.” Cochran said his office has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and has made 728 drug arrests since December 2006.

Cochran emphasizes that he’s the only candidate who has experience as Swain County Sheriff.

“I’m local, I know the people, they know me. They know they can come see me.”


Wayne Dover, 36, graphics designer, Bryson City resident

“The sheriff is a political figurehead. If he surrounds himself with good officers, then his job is simple.”

Dover served as a Swain County deputy for four years, and has experience being a detention officer, a patrol officer, a dispatcher and part of courtroom security with the U.S. Marshal Service.

Dover would like to see stiffer penalties for drugs, including more jail time rather than probation periods. “If they’re found guilty of a drug offense, then we need to take their money, their cars, their homes — give them a reason to leave. If you take enough of their toys, enough of their money, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

Dover says he’d also like to set up an explorer program for young adults to ride with officers and learn about a career in law enforcement.


Readers will be in for a surprise when thumbing through the pages of the all-Cherokee issue of Appalachian Heritage literary journal, which will be celebrated at Western Carolina University next week.

The issue turns on its head every generalization about Cherokee literature that’s been made before. Though it pays due homage to traditional Cherokee myths — in Cherokee syllabary as well as English — the journal also unveils the diversity of literary genres that underlies contemporary Cherokee works.

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, a contributing author and English teacher at Swain County High School, said the compilation of Cherokee articles, fiction, poetry and memoirs is all too rare.

“It’s a collection that I really haven’t seen, at least in recent years, in terms of diversity,” said Clapsaddle, who has also been involved in efforts to revive Cherokee children’s literature. “I think that Cherokee literature is more diverse than most people realize. Most people around here are familiar with traditional origin myths, but there’s a vibrant Cherokee writing community here and elsewhere that includes a lot of different genres of literature.”

The story she contributed to the Berea, Ky.,-based journal is a short fictional piece called “It All Comes Out in the Wash.” The story is based on a true tale Clapsaddle heard firsthand from a woman who experienced the horrors of life in a Cherokee boarding school.

“Students had been taught that all clean things are white,” said Clapsaddle. “Her skin was dark, so she thought her skin wasn’t clean. She got her skin bleached.”

Though Clapsaddle sometimes tackles grave topics, she doesn’t believe they comprise the heart of Cherokee literature.

“There’s a lot of humor in our community,” said Clapsaddle. “I like to include that in my writing.”

Clapsaddle became surprised herself when she opened the pages of the literary journal after it was released last fall. Contributing authors not only included distinguished writers like Robert J. Conley and D.L. Birchfield, but also a freshman at Cherokee High School, a chef at Harrah’s Cherokee casino and a former Principal Chief of the Eastern Band, among others.

“It’s fun to discover the talent that the people you live around have that maybe you didn’t know about,” said Clapsaddle. “Some I didn’t even know wrote.”

To get a copy of the magazine, attend Western Carolina University’s event on April 8 (see “Meet the Authors”) or visit


Voters in the Democratic Primary in Haywood County must choose which of the two candidates profiled here will advance to the November election. Republican candidate Bill Wilke is running unopposed in the primary and will automatically advance.


Bobby Suttles, 65, Haywood County Sheriff

Suttles was appointed sheriff by the Democratic party in early 2009 after former Sheriff Tom Alexander retired mid-term. Before that, Suttles served as chief deputy — second in command of the 100-person Sheriff’s office — since 2003. Suttles has more than 35 years of experience as a law enforcement officer, including with the state highway patrol, Waynesville police department, and 15 years with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office.

Suttles emphasizes his ability to work under a tight budget.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished probably the same amount of service, with less...I know my opponents, they may say they’re going to do this and do that, but ultimately you have to deal with the budget.”

Suttles said he’s also accomplished better cooperation among different departments within the Sheriff’s Office.

“New equipment is always on my mind,” said Suttles, who would like to see computers in deputy’s cars as well as tasers. He would also like to have more officers and new cars. Suttles is working to bring video arraignment to the county to save time spent on transporting prisoners to the courthouse.

He would also like to deputize police officers from town departments to increase cooperation on drug cases and pool together resources, like drug dogs. Another goal is to have an annex in the Canton area. Suttles is also in the process of securing more inmate labor.

For more information:


Dean Henline, 52, part-time police officer with town of Clyde

Henline served at the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office for 30 years before retiring in 2008. Henline has worked as a jailer, sergeant, and lieutenant over patrol, as well as a part-time policeman in Hazelwood.

Henline emphasizes that he’s had more experience in Haywood County’s Sheriff’s Office than the other two candidates running. Henline said if elected, the transition would be comfortable since he’s worked with deputies at the office his entire career. Henline added that he is very active during his shifts. “Neither candidate has the arrest record that I have,” Henline said.

Henline would like to increase the number of deputies working on the drug problem in Haywood County. “Haywood County needs this because we’re not the old Haywood County anymore that we grew up in. We’ve got some of the same problems they got in the big city.” Henline plans to apply for drug interdiction grants that can help purchase cars, equipment and pay salaries.

Henline would also like to fully equip deputy cars with computers so officers can file reports on the road and stay out on the field longer. Computers can also help deputies pull up files of those who have been arrested before on the spot.

When the budget situation improves, Henline would like to raise deputies’ salaries to stay competitive with surrounding counties. Henline would also like to see more officers working night shifts.

For more information:

There is only one Republican candidate running for Haywood County Sheriff in the primary, which means he will automatically advance to the November election.


Bill Wilke, 40, Sgt. with Asheville City Police Department

Wilke has worked in law enforcement for 14 years, serves as major in the Army Reserves, is being promtoed to lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and was a full-time training officer with the Army National Guard from 1997 to 2000. He currently is night sergeant for the Asheville police department and supervises nine to 12 officers.

Wilke recently returned from Iraq, where he served as a Major with the US Army in civil affairs.

Wilke said he came back from Iraq with a greater appreciation for the American way of life and resolved to contribute as much as he could to his home of Haywood County. He says the management and leadership skills he has developed over the years will benefit the Sheriff’s Office, especially in a budget-restrained environment.

Wilke’s first priority is to establish a joint drug task force in the county, which will help stop ancillary crimes. Since agencies can take 75 percent of the tax value of whatever drugs are seized, Wilke said clamping down on drugs will reduce crime as well as produce revenue.

Wilke sees a clear need to modernize, and says bringing computers and software will help use deputies more efficiently.

“I work with those cutting edge tools right now,” said Wilke. “I have a plan to implement then if I’m elected.”

Wilke says there is a need for additional deputies, but the Sheriff’s Office should first look at being more efficient with the dollars it does get from the county. As part of that effort, Wilke would like to see more usage of inmate labor.

For more information:


Everything has fallen into place for a government-sponsored cleanup of the Rich Cove mudslide in Maggie Valley, an undertaking pegged at roughly $1.47 million.

The federal Natural Resources Conservation Service agreed last week to foot 75 percent of the bill to stabilize the slide through the Emergency Watershed Protection program, which helps repair watersheds damaged by natural disasters.

The N.C. Department of Transportation has agreed to fund much of the remaining 25 percent local match since the slide affects a state-maintained road.

Maggie Valley’s town government has agreed to chip in $25,000 toward the local match, while Ghost Town in the Sky, a bankrupt amusement park where the slide originated, has volunteered $25,000 as well, but possibly in in-kind services rather than cash.

Town officials were driven by a sense of urgency to lock down funding for the cleanup since a large part of the mountainside remains unstable and threatens an even worse slide.

“I don’t think we have a choice but to do it,” said Maggie Valley Alderwoman Saralyn Price. “Because I feel like it’s a safety issue.”

At first, the town was at a loss for how it’d come up with the local match, which under current estimates comes to $334,000. Maggie Valley could hardly afford the whole amount by itself.

The town asked county leaders for help, but they balked at the idea of committing tax dollars to fix a slide that originated on private property — even though the property owner is in bankruptcy with a long trail of debt and was unable to pay up, either.

In the end, N.C. Rep. Phil Haire and N.C. Sen. Joe Sam Queen stepped in, teaming up to secure emergency funding from the N.C. DOT.

“We realize the dire circumstances those people who use Rich Cove Road were in,” said Haire. “I’m certainly glad Sen. Queen and I could do all we could to help out.”

Alderman Scott Pauley said Friday he was disappointed in the county board for not pitching in.

“We’ve got county residents and town residents that are losing sleep every night and haven’t slept since the slide,” said Pauley.

Pauley called the town’s contribution of $25,000 “a small, small cost to get this done.”

Town Manager Tim Barth said the town had to take action because it was unrealistic to expect Ghost Town to foot the bill.

“The reality is Ghost Town is in bankruptcy,” said Barth. “I know that they don’t have $334,500, so there’s no point in forcing them to pay because they won’t.”

However, Barth and Pauley have not ruled out the possibility of suing Ghost Town to be reimbursed. For now, Pauley said the focus is on getting the cleanup going.

“Anything after that is going to have to be for a later date,” said Pauley.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver said he hopes to pay the company’s share of the cleanup cost by contributing work from Ghost Town’s engineer.

“We want to make sure that he’s involved completely,” Shiver said.

Shiver also pointed out that Ghost Town has already cooperated with NCDOT, and state and local agencies to help study the slide and facilitate cleanup.

According to Shiver, the economic importance of Ghost Town to Maggie Valley “far outweighs” the government’s investment to repair the slide.

“There are issues that we all must be a part of the solution,” said Shiver. “This is one of them.”


For many low-income women, pregnancy can lead to more stress than excitement. Most of the expecting mothers who visit local health departments are facing unplanned pregnancies.

Maternal care coordinators across the state have experienced firsthand all possible emotions along with the patients they support.

“I have a box of Kleenex in my office that I just leave here,” said Courtney McLaughlin, maternal care coordinator for Jackson County.

As part of the Baby Love program, maternal care coordinators contact patients once a month to check in throughout the pregnancy and up to two months after the mom delivers.

“Nine times out of 10, you’re their support system,” said Vicki James, maternal care coordinator for Haywood County. “You talk to them just like you do your own kid.”

Often times the father of the baby isn’t involved or the parents have turned their back on their pregnant daughter. So James picks up the slack and provides advice like a mother would.

She advises women on where to buy cribs, tells them how often they should see their doctor, and answers questions about what is or isn’t normal during a pregnancy.

James has made a lot of friends through her work, but the job comes with many ups and downs.

“It’s very rewarding, it’s very frustrating,” said James.

Jackson County, one of the few counties in the area to have a high-risk prenatal clinic, routinely sees extreme social work cases. Some expecting mothers are dealing with weighty issues, like sexual and physical abuse.

“You don’t know until you make a home visit what this pregnant girl is going through,” said Charlene Carswell, prenatal clinic coordinator for Haywood County.

Adrienne Maurin, a licensed therapist at Jackson’s health department, said she’s recently treated a pregnant woman who was just recovering from a substance abuse problem while simultaneously battling a mental illness.

Others have no psychological issues but come to Maurin just to vent their frustrations.

“They say, ‘I’m pregnant, and I don’t have a job, and I can’t get a job because I’m pregnant,’” said Maurin. “That causes a lot of stress for most of the ladies.

Of course, not all women who visit the health department have unhappy endings to their stories.

Carswell recalled a teenager who was petrified about her mother discovering that she was pregnant.

“Several of us cried with her,” said Carswell. “She was in a state.”

But when her mother found out, she was supportive, and to top it off, the baby’s father re-entered the picture.

James remembered one Hispanic woman who prepared a generous meal for her when she paid a visit, even though the woman had little to feed her own family.

“We had already ate, but we ate again,” said James, who was touched by the kind gesture.

James has seen women from all backgrounds, education and income levels and says there’s no stereotype for the kind of woman who takes advantage of the health department’s services, especially since the economic downturn.

Many who come in are finding it difficult to purchase basic baby supplies, like diapers, carseats and cribs — none of which is covered by Medicaid for Pregnant Women. Maternal care coordinators help provide some of those supplies, though their resources are quickly drying up.

“I’ve seen moms who have slept a baby in a laundry basket or a drawer,” said McLaughlin. Others share a bed with their baby, sometimes leading to cases of suffocation.

Maurin said she worries about her patients quite a bit, especially about the risks of post-partem depression.

“They are more prone to it because of the level of poverty,” said Maurin.


A trail alongside the Pigeon River may materialize between Canton and Clyde, but recreation will not be its primary purpose.

The goal is to create a buffer zone clear of any development 100 feet from the riverbank as a safeguard in the event of future floods. The buffer strip could additionally be used as a walking trail or biking trail beside the river.

“It’s much more than a recreational use — it’s mitigating a flood hazard,” said Canton Town Manager Al Matthews.

Haywood County, along with the towns of Canton and Clyde, undertook the project shortly after massive flooding on the Pigeon left a devastating wake in 2004.

All three worked together to lock down $1 million from the state Clean Water Management Trust Fund. Though that is far less than the $10 million they originally applied for, the trio still has a chance of receiving additional funding from Clean Water.

Most of the work on the trail now involves acquiring conservation easements for nearly 100 properties in the flood plain next to the river, a process that could take years.

Property owners will be reimbursed for participating with a share of the $1 million that’s been set aside.

Though the program would be mutually beneficial to both landowners and the river, it will be strictly voluntary, according to Tony Sexton, project specialist for Haywood County.

For those who participate, farming alongside the Pigeon could continue, though building new structures would be forbidden.

For now, Sexton is not positive a full-fledged greenway will be achievable. He anticipates a checkerboard effect of conservation easements along the river.

“It’s unusual to get three or four property owners in a row that ever agree on anything,” said Sexton. “The odds of having a continuous swath of property owners is fairly remote.”

Asheville-based Martin-McGill Associates is coordinating the project and will be responsible for acquiring properties or negotiating conservation easements with property owners.

While everyone hopes that the 2004 disaster won’t repeat itself, a buffer would be helpful in case another major flood strikes, said Ellen McKinnon, grant administrator with Martin-McGill.

“This is a proactive thing to do before the next flood,” said Sexton.

McKinnon has begun talking to property owners about the easements, but still spends most of her time with paperwork at this stage.

Sexton agreed that securing the $1 million grant has been a drawn-out process.

“There’s lots of hoops to be jumped through and committees that only meet once every three months,” said Sexton.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the project hasn’t faded over the years.

“What we’re trying to do is make the Pigeon River as healthy as possible, so that it can handle the influx of water,” said McKinnon. “These buffers are incredibly helpful to keep the banks stable and keep that sedimentation out of the water.”

“We are excited,” said Joy Garland, town administrator for Clyde. “It’s a great opportunity for the towns, as well as the county.”


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