Bibeka Shrestha

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After much deliberation, Swain County commissioners voted 3-2 against an $8,800 pay raise for the Department of Social Services director in the face of a severe budget shortfall.

Director Tammy Cagle asked for the raise to be compensated for additional work she must now undertake to create a child support enforcement division for the county. The state shut down regional offices that formerly handled child support enforcement due to its own budget woes.

“It’s going to be a hardship,” said Cagle. “I have to learn the whole program myself because we have never had child support in our office.”

A plan for the program must be in place in 28 counties across the state, including in Swain, Macon, and Cherokee counties, by Jan. 1.

Cagle and County Manager Kevin King agreed that it would be cheaper to do the work in-house rather than contract it out.

The county would eventually have to hire two employees to handle the new division. Each one would have 66 percent of their salaries funded by the federal government, and incentive programs would make it possible to break even on the program, King said.

King also pointed out that it would cost Cherokee County at least $300,000 to hire three workers, and it would cost Swain a minimum of $100,000.

While Cagle argued she cut back about $51,000 from her own department, some commissioners remained unconvinced about approving a pay raise.

Commisssioner David Monteith, who voted against the motion, said tough times sometimes call for sacrifice by employees.

“I mean no disrespect,” said Monteith. “But sometimes you just gotta work harder to get the job done.”

Commisssioner Genevieve Lindsay voted for the pay raise, stating that this was not part of Cagle’s job. “This would be a new job,” sad Lindsay.

Chairman Glenn Jones made a motion to raise Cagle’s salary by $4,400 but no one seconded the motion.

“It’s hard times. This is something extra she’s got to do,” said Jones. “We’ve got to get some kind of compensation for her job.”

Commissioner Steve Moon supported the pay raise, stating Cagle went out of her way to save money for the county, “not like some other departments in the county.”

Whether they were for or against the pay hike, commissioners uniformly commended Cagle on doing a commendable job.

“This lady deserves this, but I cannot justify it when we’ve laid off people,” said Monteith.


Tensions are rife as Franklin Alderman Bob Scott and Mayor Joe Collins butt heads over the prize of a mayor spot up for election. Scott is seeking to trade his two remaining years as alderman for two years as mayor instead.

Collins joked at last week’s forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Macon County that voting for him would be a win-win situation for everyone involved .

“If you vote for me, you’ve still got Bob,” said Collins. “If you vote for Bob, you won’t have me.”’

Scott countered that claim, pointing out that if he were elected mayor, there’d then be a vacant seat on the town board. Scott said he’d love to see Collins take over.


Putting the citizenry first

At the heart of Scott’s campaign is a call for more open and participatory government. Scott would like to institute regular office hours to hear his constituents’ concerns as well as begin monthly New England-style town hall meetings and a newsletter to keep all citizens abreast of the town’s business.

Scott already has a head start in reaching out to voters, garnering 117 respondents to his survey about the town. The survey asked for opinions on a range of topics, including whether the town should adopt the National Flood Plan, build its own civic center, or prohibit new fast food chain restaurants, just to name a few.

“Six years ago, I had no thought of running for mayor,” said Scott. “However, I’ve seen a shift in town government — a lack of communication with all board members and input from public. I plan to keep everyone involved.”

Scott, who worked as a newspaper reporter for about 20 years, said he deeply supports open meeting and public records laws.

But in Collins’ view, he and the town board are already honoring open meeting laws.

Collins said public input in most, but not all, areas is welcome.

“I believe in public input, but there are some issues, such as second water source, which you don’t put out to public opinion. It is the job of the board to do its homework and address the situation.”

Scott said even as an alderman, he’s sometimes left out of the loop.

For example, Scott learned about a 3-year contract with CGI Communications to produce a series of streaming online videos about Franklin by stumbling across a letter from the mayor on the town’s Web site.

According to Collins, that contract was discussed with the town manager and did not require board approval. He said the town manager is very “hands-on” and takes care of matters that the board previously handled.

“It is very much in the town’s best interest for that to happen because we found ourselves dealing with minutiae,” Collins said. “We just cannot get to the point where we have to discuss each and every aspect of our day-to-day operations.”

Discussions about hiring an economic development consultant were “hush-hush,” according to Scott, even though the issue eventually came to a vote.

Collins said an overall lack of communication can’t all be pinned on one person. “It’s a two-way street,” said Collins. “Any member of the board can pick up the phone and call anybody else.”

Scott retorted that he’s been very forthcoming with all board members.

“Anything I do, I send an e-mail out to the rest of the board,” said Scott.

Collins said with six members on the town board and a mayor, town leaders will naturally relate more to some than to others, but when it comes to meetings, everything is out in the open.

Alderwoman Sissy Pattillo said at the forum that citizens are always welcome at town meetings since board members will listen with open ears.

“I don’t think we have hidden agendas,” said Pattillo. “We don’t hide in the closet.”

Angela Moore, candidate for alderwoman, said, however, she did not learn about how the town operated until she worked for Franklin as a GIS analyst.

Moore suggests featuring better explanations of items on meeting agendas and perhaps creating a webpage to publicize those agendas early on.

“So often we hear about everything in the newspaper the day after it’s been done,” said Moore. “We can’t do a whole lot about it then.”

Other issues brought up at the forum included the possibility of a flood ordinance, ideas for how to use the 13-acre Whitmire property the town owns in East Franklin, and town ownership of the Nikwasi mound.

Town leaders hope to buy two parcels adjacent to the mound to eventually create a park, but they have not yet acquired grants to buy the property. Collins said earlier that the town ownership could be given up to attract those grants but backtracked after being criticized by some for his standpoint.

Scott, Alderman Billy Mashburn, Alderwoman Sissy Pattillo, and Alderman candidate Ron Winecoff all agree that the Nikwasi mound should stay under town ownership.

Collins now says it is a “priority” to keep the Indian mound under the “trust and control” of the Town of Franklin.

“Never do I want the town not to have the final say on the use of the Indian mound property,” said Collins.

Scott said he is unequivocally against giving up the mound.

“I would not, under any circumstances, allow that mound to go under any ownership other than the town,” Scott said.

Pattillo was one of the children who helped raise money to buy the mound for the town.

“The mound is ours, and it’s not going anywhere,” Pattillo said.

Almost all candidates said they supported establishment of the park but hoped to see it financed by grants rather than the town. They said, however, the town could pay for the park’s maintenance.

Moore was strongly against any town money going toward the park.

“I just don’t think we should pay for it,” said Moore.


The Town of Maggie Valley is moving closer toward hiring a festival director to market its struggling festival grounds. Aldermen decided last Thursday to appoint a six-member selection committee to help sort through job applications and choose the most qualified candidate. The ultimate decision, however, will rest with the board.

Each alderman will recommend two or three people to the board at its next meeting on Oct. 15.

“We’ve certainly heard from more than six or seven people about their two cents,” said Alderman Mark DeMeola, who said he would like the community to become involved in a “positive fashion.”

Maggie Valley’s new hire will hopefully draw new festivals to the venue, which in turn will entice tourists to town, and consequently, support local businesses. But some aldermen said even a festival director might not be able to save the festival grounds from landing in the red.

More than $1 million has been invested into the festival grounds over seven years, with about half coming from grants and donations. But revenues from groups holding festivals there average only about $11,000 each year, forcing town taxpayers to subsidize the venture.

DeMeola said the festival grounds are more like an “amenity” provided by the town than a profit-making entity. Nevertheless, DeMeola said a feasibility study should be done to gauge exactly how profitable the festival grounds could be.

At Thursday’s meeting, Alderman Colin Edwards questioned the need to hire a festival director at this point.

“How many weekends have we got for this festival director to fill?” asked Edwards. “Is it worth the bang for the buck to do it?”

At the same time, Edwards said if they were going to fill the position, it “needs to be filled now.”

Meanwhile, Alderman Phil Aldridge is a firm believer that the festival grounds could be profitable if marketed well and is disappointed the town manager has stalled on getting someone hired.

“There’s been little or no activity as far as our town manager to get out here and find somebody. That’s his job. That’s a position that we need,” Aldridge said. “We keep bouncing around with ideas, not ever settling, what [can] people expect?”

The director’s position has been left empty since May when the town fired the last director after only a few months into the job for not producing results.

Town Manager Tim Barth said he had received five applications at the time of the meeting, but there shouldn’t be a rush to fill the position.

“If none of them look like they can do the job, we’ll re-advertise until we get somebody who can do it,” said Barth.

Mayor Roger McElroy said the public should keep in mind that until three or four years ago, the town had not been in the business of promoting tourism, allowing the Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce to handle it instead.

“This is a new ballgame for us,” said McElroy. “We’ve never had to do it before. We don’t necessarily want to do it now, but nobody else wants to do it.”


Local libraries report that more people are streaming through their doors as a direct result of the recession. Area residents are increasingly heading to the library rather than doling out dollars for books, CDs and DVDs, as well as newspapers, magazines and Internet subscriptions.

“They look for the free option,” said Jeff Delfield, librarian at the Marianna Black Library in Bryson City. “Why buy a brand new John Grisham book for $25 to $30 when they have it for free at the library?”

Libraries have also seen more attendance at workshops on topics that are especially relevant during a recession, such as tips on writing an effective resume or searching for jobs online.

The Marianna Black Library’s latest statistics show a 12 percent increase in door count and a 20 percent increase in total program attendance in July and August, compared to figures from the same period in 2008.

Employees at the Marianna Black Library were delighted to see a record 466 people walk in on a single day in July. A week later, the newly instituted record was broken again with 476 visitors in just one day.

Dan Sikorra, a Bryson city resident and realtor, is one frequent visitor to the Marianna Black library. Sikorra said he visits the library two or three times a week to catch up on latest news in The Wall Street Journal, as well as other periodicals and magazines.

Sikorra has always enjoyed making the walk over to the library from his office to get a much-needed break, but with the weak economy, Sikorra said he is finding himself at the library more than ever.

“Before, I used to not be able to leave the office,” said Sikorra.

Though some librarians might be happy to see more people like Sikorra coming in simply because of a passion for their calling, there is definitely a downside to libraries’ success.

“It’s a higher burden on the staff,” said Delfield.

While for-profit businesses can add on more employees with an increase in clientele, libraries just have to make do with the staff they already have.

Thankfully, Swain County commissioners did not cut the library’s budget this year, but they did not provide the library an increase to accommodate its growing number of patrons either.

Libraries across the Fontana Regional Library System — which represents Jackson, Macon and Swain counties — have seen their door counts and circulation increase in the past year.

The total number of people visiting those libraries is up about 6 percent from the previous year, while 12 percent more items were checked out this year.

“We’re glad that people are using the library. It’s a good value for taxpayers,” said Karen Wallace, director for the Fontana Regional Library system.

Robert Busko, library director for Haywood County Public Library, said libraries in that county have yet to monitor door counts; however, there are noticeable signs of a rise in clientele.

“Our computers are used virtually the entire time we’re open in all our branches,” said Busko. “Parking is a continued problem for us. We are much busier than we have been.”

Busko said Haywood libraries are doing their part to help ease the effects of the recession.

“We changed the circulation period from two weeks to three weeks,” said Busko. The change was made partly to allow patrons to save on gas and ironically, make fewer trips to the library.


Hazelwood seems to be getting the short end of the stick these days. Once an independent blue-collar town boasting a half-dozen factories, it has seen them close one by one over the past two decades.

Now, the community is in danger of losing another vestige of its identity: the post office that stood on its former main street for nearly 50 years.

This time around, Hazelwood residents are taking firm action. More than a thousand Hazelwood residents have banded together to rescue their neighborhood post office from permanent closure, signing petitions and sending letters to elected officials.

The Postal Service has not made a final decision but continues to study consolidating the Waynesville and Hazelwood postal operations. The Waynesville post office is less than two miles away from the one in Hazelwood, which primarily serves Hazelwood and West Waynesville residents.

The Hazelwood branch is certainly not alone in facing closure, as the Postal Service is considering other consolidations across the country to improve efficiency and save some badly needed money.

Six of the 80 post offices in Mid-Carolinas district have already been shut down this past year.

The government agency cites changes in “consumer preference” and the recession-related declines in mail volume for a revenue shortfall of nearly $4.6 billion so far this year, with that figure projected to push $7 billion.

Bill Burkhalter of North Augusta, S.C., who owns the Hazelwood building that is leased to the Postal Service, said the possible closure is definitely not due to increased rents. According to Burkhalter, the Postal Service is actually getting the better deal.

“They have a very good lease rate, believe me,” said Burkhalter.

Despite plummeting revenues, the Postal Service says it will not lay off employees at closed branches but will transfer them to new jobs, according to spokeswoman Monica Robbs.

P.O. boxes at Hazelwood would be installed in an open section of the Waynesville facility with no change in address. Ironically, that would mean the Hazelwood address and zip code would apply only to P.O. boxes outside of Hazelwood itself. Those who get mail delivered to their doorsteps in Hazelwood switched to the Waynesville address long ago.


Signing for support

After receiving more than 1,400 signatures from constituents railing against the proposed Hazelwood post office shutdown, U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler (D-Waynesville) enlisted in the battle to save the Hazelwood post office. That fight has multiple front lines in Shuler’s district, with the Postal Service’s threatened closings of two post offices in the Asheville area.

“I have seen and heard tremendous local support for keeping these facilities open,” said Shuler in a press release. “I am relaying that information directly to Postal Service officials.”

His relaying has helped persuade the Postal Service to keep doors open at the Biltmore post office, which indicates that the movement to save the Hazelwood facility isn’t all that farfetched.

“It’s not locked in stone that they’ll close it,” said Doug Abrahms, spokesman for Shuler. “If we present enough evidence, we have a chance of getting it off [the list], but there’s no guarantee.”

Shuler said there’s even more hope for success since Congress passed a bill last week that cuts its retiree health benefits fund by $4 billion.

“That should give the Postal Service some breathing room to pursue long-term options other than drastically slashing the number of postal facilities throughout the United States,” Shuler said.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown is not so optimistic. Though he has also sent on a letter to the Postal Service, stating it would be a convenience to have both offices open, Brown said the post office would “likely” be closed.

“I’m just another citizen in the community,” Brown said “I don’t think my voice has much weight.”

Mary Ann Enloe, long-time mayor of Hazelwood before it merged with Waynesville, said though the Biltmore facility was saved, Hazelwood has always been a middle-class community and residents there might not have the same clout as the customers in the upscale Biltmore area.

“My honest opinion is that we will probably lose this, not because of any ill will toward the community of Hazelwood but because the U.S. Postal Service sees it as a cost-saving measure,” Enloe said.


Fighting for survival

Whatever the outcome of the Postal Service’s review may be, no one can say Hazelwood residents didn’t put up a fight.

On the day Lynda Baltzell learned the Hazelwood post office might close, she became one of the leaders of a campaign to save it. She and others in the neighborhood took petitions to local businesses where they sat collecting signature after signature for three weeks.

“This is a small post office with a big heart,” said Baltzell.

Apparently, many Hazelwood residents feel the same way.

Those who walked into Within Reach Resale Shop were “very anxious” to sign, according to Linda Dirscherl, assistant manager at the store.

“They felt like it is needed in the neighborhood,” Dirscherl said.

The same went for customers at Smoky Mountain Roasters, where most who walked in also signed.

“All the people who come in and sign it say ‘Heck ya!’” said Lauren Lankford, an employee at the café.

Patty Atkinson, a sales clerk at Waynesville Pharmacy in the Hazelwood neighborhood, said so many people signed the petition there that she continually had to add additional pages.

Atkinson herself wrote to Shuler for the first time to try to save the post office. She sent a letter to the Postal Service’s district office in Charlotte as well. Atkinson stressed that many elderly residents use the Hazelwood post office, including veterans who should have the convenience of a nearby post office.

“I don’t think they realize just how much this post office is used,” said Atkinson.

Joe Moore of Hazelwood is one of the neighborhood veterans who will be saddened to see the post office go. Moore makes daily trips to check his post office box where he receives his prescription medicine. He’s worried about how he will get to his medicine if the post office closes.

“It’s a shame because I’m disabled,” said Moore. “I don’t go too much away.”

Moore said his primary concern is the prospect of waiting in long lines at the Waynesville post office.

“I’m worried about the time that it takes to get all this done, waiting in line if you’re not well,” said Moore. “I have to have my rest.”

But for others, the move would simply be a minor inconvenience.

Tammy Hutchison, who works at Hazelwood Family Medicine, runs to the post office three times a week and said she would miss getting her five minutes of fresh air walking there.

“Now I have to get in my car and go,” said Hutchison. “The parking at the new post office can be horrendous.”

Darlene Lowe, who regularly uses the main post office in Waynesville, said it is obviously busier than the one in Hazelwood.

“Parking can get a little crazy,” said Lowe. “I have been here when both parking lots are full. I must admit, I’ve gone to Hazelwood, and I’ve gotten right in.”

According to Moore, the Waynesville post office sees enough people as it is.

“There is no way that they can handle the traffic, they can’t now,” Moore said.

Kim Medford, manager of Carver’s Cloth Shop & Vertigo, deliberately avoids the Waynesville post office because going there is time-consuming, she said.

“This is a small town, but there are a lot of people here,” said Medford. “I think we need more than one post office.”


Disappearing Hazelwood

According to Enloe, the Postal Service had promised that the post office in Hazelwood would remain open when the towns of Hazelwood and Waynesville merged.

Enloe said she was told it would take an act of Congress to close it, since it was a stand-alone post office rather than a secondary branch.

Robbs with the Postal Service said the Hazelwood facility is now a branch of the Waynesville office, so the agency has full authority to close it.

While saving the Hazelwood post office is about convenience for some, other residents are also concerned about preserving a part of history. The post office was one obvious sign of Hazelwood’s former status as an independent town.

“The whole crux of it is we don’t want to give up that part of our identity,” said Enloe.

Atkinson wrote in her letters that that the post office has long been part of the Hazelwood community’s identity.

“I stressed that it was like losing our heritage because it has been here for so many years,” said Atkinson.

Even if the post office does close, thereby striking a blow to Hazelwood’s identity, few say the actual community will ever cease to be a community for its own residents.

“The people will still have the Hazelwood identity,” said Moore. “As for the rest of the world, they’re not going to know.”


Despite their conceptual support for a greenway along the Tuckasegee River, Jackson County commissioners expressed hesitation about purchasing land to establish it.

At a meeting Monday, the commissioners unanimously approved spending about $39,580 on a 1.4-acre plot but also unanimously tabled the $178,000 purchase of a 14.2-acre parcel.

Had both purchases been approved, the first mile of the proposed 4.5-mile greenway between Sylva and Cullowhee would have been established remarkably quickly.

Commissioner Tom Massie most strongly opposed the purchase, not on the property’s merits but because of the possibility of setting a precedent that could eventually cost the county dearly.

Massie said the county should try to buy conservation easements instead, where the property remains in private ownership but allows the greenway to pass through it. It’s less expensive than buying parcels outright.

“We do not have enough money to,” said Massie. “We need to be very careful about which tracts we’re going to buy and which tracts we’re going to buy a conservation easement on.”

Massie expressed disbelief that the landlocked 14-acre plot with no road access could carry a $178,000 price tag.

“I can’t believe that price,” said Massie. “I don’t think that’s a fair value.”

Massie suggested the county negotiate further with the property owners.

Commissioner William Shelton expressed the same worry of setting an undesirable precedent by approving purchases rather than pursuing easements.

While County Manager Ken Westmoreland agreed that outright purchases could set a precedent, future deals also depend on the “motivation and interest” of the parties involved.

“We do have one property owner adjacent to these two pieces that will make a complete donation to the county,” said Westmoreland.

According to Westmoreland, the 14-acre plot, owned by Carolyn Cabe, was identified in the greenway master plan as not only a location for the greenway itself but possibly other amenities like a resting area, a picnic area or a shelter.

“It’s relatively flat,” said Westmoreland. “It is a very usable piece.”

The 1.4-acre parcel, purchased from Anita Samuel, fronts the Tuckasegee River and includes a 16-foot existing right of way belonging to the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority.

The right of way would allow the county to secure Clean Water Management Trust Funds and other funds down the road, Westmoreland said.

The greenway master plan, adopted by the commissioners this year, recommends that the greenway between Sylva and Cullowhee, utilizing an existing sewer line easement as the primary trail corridor, as well as some additional footage for buffering and stream bank protection.

Emily Elders, recreation project manager for Jackson County, said the entire corridor is fairly undeveloped with homes.


Sweepstakes have never before been so controversial — or so complicated.

Far removed from the days of dropping an entry form in the mail or peering under the cap of a soda bottle, sweepstakes have now taken the form of electronic gaming machines.

Though these sweepstake terminals seem closely related to video poker to most observers, the gaming industry maintains that nothing could be farther from the truth.

A Superior Court judge in Guilford County supported that claim last December, ruling that a state ban on video poker did not apply to sweepstakes terminals.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction, prohibiting law enforcement officers from taking any action against the machines or even stating publicly that these machines were illegal.

Differentiating sweepstakes machines from video poker has been critical for the gaming industry.

The state ban targeted video poker after public figures, like former House Speaker Jim Black and Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford, were accused of accepting bribes for allowing illegal video poker operations.

The gaming industry’s new formula has so far been successful in bypassing every restriction that has originated in the state legislature.

While state legislators weigh the pros and cons of passing yet another ban, one that includes sweepstakes machines, local governments, like those in Canton and Maggie Valley, have taken up the task of reigning in these virtually untaxed, unregulated machines.

Canton and Maggie Valley have both instituted 90-day moratoriums on the installation of the machines to research and draft some guidelines.

After enacting its own moratorium, the city of Hendersonville decided to charge $2,600 per machine.

For now, Maggie Valley charges a mere $5 per machine, while Canton’s ordinance allows for no more than three electronic games to be installed at each business. Those who violate that rule in Canton face a $50 per day fee.


Containing explosive growth

Maggie Planning Director Nathan Clark decided to investigate after receiving a phone call alerting him that several sweepstakes machines were being moved into a new store in town.

Steve Sullivan, a co-owner of This and That Home Décor and Gift Shop, said he felt targeted by the scrutiny.

“Everybody is trying to say it is video poker, but it is totally different,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan’s store, which sells seasonal merchandise, also offers phone card sweepstakes. A lit sign declaring, “Cyber Sweepstakes are here,” decorates the storefront.

According to Sullivan, Clark and Alcohol Law Enforcement officer Doyce Stevens grilled him about the terminals, told him to move them into the back room, and demanded an inventory list to ensure that he would sell other merchandise at the store.

Sullivan said he felt like he had to jump through hoops just to get a business license.

Meanwhile, Clark said that there was never any question that Sullivan would receive his business license since no policies on sweepstakes machines had been in place when Sullivan applied.

Clark maintains that he was simply trying to figure out the difference between cyber sweepstakes and video poker, which is illegal.

“We were trying to figure out exactly what this entails,” said Clark. “I understand the frustration in getting started, but the town has an obligation to see uses that are proper and allowed.”

While Sullivan said he was never notified of a special meeting called to address the sweepstakes issue, Clark said the meeting was advertised and did not deal specifically with Sullivan’s business license.

The town board called that meeting to discuss the broader question of regulating sweepstakes machines. The board decided to institute a 90-day moratorium on the machines, which started Nov. 6.

The moratorium had no impact on Sullivan’s store.

Clark said the moratorium would give the planning board time to research the issue and come back to the board with ideas, hopefully by January or February 2010.

What Sullivan wants is consistency in the town’s policy, citing that cyber sweepstakes terminals were installed in two gas stations in town without any scrutiny.

“I had to fight for my business license,” said Sullivan. “They didn’t want me to have them, but they have them in the convenience stores. It’s no different.”

Sullivan keeps a highlighted copy of a Superior Court judge’s decision by his side to immediately dispel any doubts about his sweepstakes terminals being legal.

Without commenting on the machines’ legality or morality, Clark said they should be regulated. The machines could be troublesome for a town like Maggie due to the abundance of vacant storefronts combined with an “extremely low lease rate,” Clark said.

“You could have a situation where your town is overrun by an industry,” said Clark.

The town board and staff had heard murmurs about cyber sweepstakes at statewide meetings in the past, but they were not aware that cyber sweepstakes had crept into their own town’s borders until recently.

Clark said he wants to make sure the zoning ordinance keeps up with the machines, noting that they have become a wide-ranging problem and taken over entire city blocks in the eastern part of the state.


No magic ordinance

Al Matthews, city manager for Canton, said the town had received applications for an “office and Internet business,” not realizing that the bulk of the business was actually tied to sweepstakes machines.

Matthews said such terminals could be found in convenience stores, gas stations, and even a clothing store in town.

Since the moratorium was put into place in October, the town has considered taxing either the game or the business, or restricting it to specific zones.

While many local governments are addressing the same sweepstakes issue, each town is searching out its own path.

“I don’t know that anyone has a magic ordinance yet,” said Matthews.

Matthews is not sure what the new town board will decide on the issue after it is sworn in, but it was clear to him that no one in the current town board was a strong advocate for the machines.

If Canton institutes high fees for installing the machines, Matthew said the motivation would stem from a desire to discourage the games rather than to generate revenue.

“The average citizen would say this is a form of gambling,” said Matthews. “But this, according to law, is not gambling. We have to address it as a non-gambling issue no matter what people want to call it.”

Matthews said while the town cannot control their citizen’s choices, the board is nonetheless concerned about a proliferation of the machines.

Meanwhile, Waynesville is waiting on a decision by the state, hoping that legislators will fix whatever was wrong with the statute to begin with.

“We’re not thinking about it right now,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway.


Playing whack-a-mole

Earlier this year, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled that the state’s ban on video poker was unconstitutional since it allowed the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to operate the same games it outlawed elsewhere in the state.

The N.C. Court of Appeals is still mulling whether the ban is constitutional, creating a major grey area for enforcement agents trying to uphold it.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he supports every effort to discourage sweepstakes machines across the state. He hopes to usher them into an improved electronic gaming ban that would not apply to the Eastern Band.

“It is a sovereign tribe,” said Rapp. “What I’m proposing on this ban does not affect in any way gaming on the reservation.”

When it comes to the video gaming machines, Rapp’s patience is wearing thin.

“It is a blight on this state,” said Rapp. “And the problem is that it’s like an infection that is rapidly spreading from one end of the state to the other...While courts are taking it under consideration, they’re just shipping in the machines.”

Rapp is frustrated that the laws passed in the state legislature have not stopped the spread of cyber sweepstakes, but he said that anyone who attempts to fight the games is picking on an industry with deep pockets that will stop at nothing to legalize their games.

Rapp likened the quest for banning video gambling to playing whack-a-mole.

“When you get one game taken care of, another one pops up. You get that one, they come up with another one,” said Rapp. “Any way they can circumvent the law, they will do it.”

While Rep. Earl Jones, D-Greensboro, has suggested legalizing sweepstakes machines and having the state take a cut of the profits, Rapp remains unconvinced.

“I think it’s truly exploitative and inappropriate,” said Rapp, who also opposed the state lottery being put into place.

“It is a shame what’s happening,” said Rapp. “You got a lot of people leaving their Friday afternoon paychecks at their stores and not being able to fed their families. The people who are most vulnerable economically are the ones that are playing these games.”


How they work

Customers buy a phone or Internet card, or enter a contest for the chance to play at the sweepstakes terminal for free. They have the option of swiping that card on the sweepstakes machine to play games of chance. Playing those games will allow them to see how much phone or Internet time they’ve won by buying the card. Customers have the option of cashing in the phone or Internet time they’ve won for money.


The cost of repairing Interstate 40 after a massive rockslide in late October will now be borne by the federal government instead of the state.

Last week, the Federal Highway Administration agreed to use emergency relief funds to fully reimburse the state for the cleanup efforts, which have closed a 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border that usually sees about 25,000 vehicles every day.

Latest estimates show the total repair bill would run between $7 and $9 million, according to North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesman Jerry Higgins.

Governor Beverly Perdue declared the I-40 rockslide a disaster shortly after the rockslide occurred, opening up doors to federal emergency funds, which help state and local governments pay for repairs due to floods, tornadoes, landslides and other natural disasters.

Next on Perdue’s wishlist are low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration for local businesses reeling from the impact of the road closure. Some Haywood County motels, restaurants, and gas stations that rely heavily on traffic from I-40 have seen a dramatic drop in business after the road closure at exit 20.

Haywood County tourism officials have said a false perception that the road closure has blocked off access to all of Western North Carolina has adversely affected the local economy.

The DOT has given contrasting reports on when it expects to reopen I-40. While Higgins reported that he expected the cleanup to take “at least three more months,” a press release issued by Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, stated DOT officials expect I-40 to remain closed for about another month.

So far, workers have blasted apart mammoth boulders and hauled away about 4,000 tons of debris to a nearby U.S. Forest Service site. Last week, a fleet of 15 trucks transported 200 loads of rock, which will be stockpiled for future road repairs.

As many as eight workers hand-carried between 1,000 and 1,500 pounds of explosives up the slope so they could be set in the holes for detonation, according to the DOT.


A disastrous situation

If the Small Business Administration decides to open up economic injury loans to the region, struggling businesses in WNC could apply for assistance in covering everyday expenses, from keeping people on payroll to just keeping the lights on.

Despite feeling the most immediate impact from the rockslide, businesses from Haywood County would not be the only ones eligible for the loans. Businesses from all contiguous counties, including Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, Madison, Swain and Transylvania counties, could claim SBA loans.

SBA has made it standard procedure to offer up loans to the affected county and all surrounding counties, according to Julia Jarema, spokeswoman for N.C. Emergency Management.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get the loans,” said Jarema. “They have to show a need.”

Some businesses in Haywood County have already demonstrated such a need for assistance.

Gina Shuler, who manages the Days Inn in Canton near I-40 , estimates that business there has dropped by more than 70 percent after the rockslide.

“It’s really taken a toll on everything,” said Shuler. “We’re probably going to have to start laying people off. It’s a really hard time.”

Shuler said the motel already faced a rough two years with the recession. Now, the motel is seeing nights when only two rooms out of forty are occupied.

“We’re just really going day by day,” said Shuler. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next week.”

The Midway Motel, near exit 20 where I-40 is blocked off, is another business that’s gravely suffering due to the rockslide.

Owner Brooke Gayne said last week that she did not have a single person in the motel.

Nevertheless, Gayne is reluctant to apply for the loans should they become available.

“That would be a last resort,” said Gayne. “Because you’d have to pay it back.”

Summer Smart, a waitress at nearby Haywood Cafe, said locals have kept the restaurant going, but she anticipated a big drop in the number of holiday travelers.

For now, most of the travelers who stop by are just looking for directions to places like Cherokee and Gatlinburg.

Smart has noticed the Pilot truck stop across the road is faring especially poorly.

“It’s really like a ghost town over there,” said Smart. “I feel sorry for them. All their business is truckers and travelers.”


Broadcasting the right message

Some members of the tourism and business community are working hard to publicize the fact that WNC is still accessible, hoping to stop travelers from steering away from the area after seeing I-40 closure signs.

Cece Hipps, executive director of Haywood County Chamber of Commerce, said DOT signs that inform travelers about the rockslide are correct but don’t do enough to dispel the perception that I-40 is closed to the mountains.

“You can’t really read the entire sign anyway,” said Hipps. “If you’re traveling 70 miles per hour, you see ‘I-40 closed’ only.”

But Hipps said the DOT understands the urgency of the matter and is probably doing its best.

“I don’t think we should point fingers at anyone,” said Hipps. “The problem is that our customers are not getting the message.”

Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is considering the possibility of pooling resources with tourism agencies to put out a billboard that makes it loud and clear to travelers that WNC is still open for business.

But Ferguson said paying for that billboard would difficult since her budget is already strapped due to the recession.


The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently got a big push forward in building its own jail after receiving an $18 million grant from the Department of Justice.

The grant may be excellent news for the tribe, but for Swain County, it’s a source of anxiety. Swain’s new oversized jail relies heavily on prisoners from Cherokee to fill its 109 beds and to subsidize the $10 million facility.

Recently, Swain Sheriff Curtis Cochran reported that out of 61 prisoners in the jail, 32 were from Cherokee and just 29 were from Swain.

Swain is already struggling to prop up the jail, which carries a $450,000 annual loan payment, because surrounding counties that once housed overflow inmates in Swain’s jail have recently built new jails of their own.

Consequently, Swain has seen the number of out-of-county inmates decline by half from 2005 to 2008, and along with it, a significant decline in jail fees, which average $50 per prisoner per night.

Cherokee has been a lifeline for Swain’s jail, with more than 90 percent of the overflow inmates Swain houses coming from the tribe.

Cherokee Police Chief Ben Reed said the tribe does send some inmates to jails in Haywood, Cherokee, Clay and Rutherford counties, but Swain gets the greatest share by far. Since Swain opened its new jail a year ago, the tribe has sent almost 90 percent of its prisoners there, Reed said.

Though the arrangement has worked out well for Swain, EBCI has been studying the possibility of building its own jail for several years. In fact, Swain leaders knew before embarking on its oversized jail that the tribe hoped to build its own eventually.

“With Cherokee’s growth and development, I think it’s time that we have our own jail,” said Reed. “We spend a lot of money and resources to transport our inmates into different county jails.”

EBCI hopes to eventually build a justice center that would bring its courthouse, police department and attorney general’s office under one roof, along with a jail and parking garage.

Cherokee’s grant, part of $236 million in stimulus and public safety funds allocated to tribes across the United States, can only be used toward building the jail.

But it may be a while before that prison is built, as the tribe is just now forming a committee to guide the construction process. Mickey Duvall, economic development director for the tribe, said they hope to elect a chairman in the coming weeks.

Learning from mistakes

After seeing counties like Swain struggle to fill an oversized prison, Reed acknowledged that the tribe must do its best to avoid overbuilding its own jail.

“We’re going to take a good hard look at where we are now and what our needs are going to be,” said Reed.

Swain County Manager Kevin King said the county’s jail was built big to accommodate population growth over the next 15 years, which he said would likely be accompanied by an increased crime rate. King planned to rely on prisoners from other counties in the short-term but thought the county would eventually fill up the jail with its own prisoners.

But Cochran said he doesn’t see that explosion in Swain’s population occurring fast enough to line the jail’s beds with Swain prisoners any time soon. Besides, much of the population growth in the mountains seems to involve retiring baby boomers or second-home owners, who are less likely to be committing crimes.

Meanwhile, Cochran is working with the U.S. Marshal Service to win back federal prisoners to the Swain jail. The marshals originally pulled out their prisoners due to the crumbling status of Swain’s old jail and its lack of fire sprinklers.

Cochran said all his paperwork is in with the marshals but admits it could take a while before they make a decision.

“It’s a slow process when you deal with the federal government,” said Cochran.

While County Commissioner David Monteith has brought up the idea of putting unused jail space to another use, Cochran just doesn’t find that feasible.

“A jail is a jail, that’s what it is,” said Cochran.

King pointed out the silver lining amongst dark clouds, stating that food costs would drop after Cherokee prisoners pull out. Swain County saw the cost of food at the jail climb 49 percent last year. But that doesn’t settle how the county will make up for the loss of revenue from the tribe when it builds a jail of its own.

King said Swain will have a few years to figure that out.

“As far as short-term, nothing’s going to change,” said King. “Long-term, hopefully the economy will gain what it lost.”

When it comes to Swain’s jail troubles, it’s easy to play the blame game, Cochran said, but no one could deny that Swain County needed a new jail.

“The one we had was completely dilapidated,” said Cochran, who was not in office at the time the decision was made. “Did we need a $10 million jail? I don’t know.”


It was late September, and Travis George, a 27-year-old Waynesville resident, was almost done mowing his grandmother’s yard. With just five minutes left, his foot accidentally slipped right under the mower, chopping off three of his toes and part of his foot.

George was rushed to Mission Hospital in Asheville, where doctors performed surgery and cleaned up the gaping wound. A month later, George had to undergo skin graft surgery.

George was able to get Medicaid to pay much of the $30,000 bill, and he received about $1,000 from his grandmother’s homeowner’s insurance, but $7,000 must come out of his own pockets.

Unfortunately, George has not been able to find a new job after being laid off from his job as land surveyor last Christmas.

Now he’s caught in the middle. George no longer qualifies for unemployment, since he is no longer able to work. Yet he cannot receive disability benefits because he will be able to return to work in less than a year.

“Ever since I got hurt, I have no income,” said George.

George said he almost didn’t qualify for Medicaid because of his wife’s income as a bank employee. While her health insurance covers their two children, George said adding him to the policy would result in outrageous costs.

“She would end up paying more for our family’s insurance than she would take home,” said George “It’s unreal.”

For George, the problem with the health care industry is tied to the greed of insurance companies. Despite taxpayers picking up the tab for part of his medical bill, George said the government should not be responsible for everyone’s health care.

George supports opening up competition among insurance companies across state lines to lower prices instead.

“I don’t think the government should make everybody pay,” said George. “I had a terrible accident, trying to get help as I can, but the rest of it I’m responsible for. That’s the way it should be.”

Two Waynesville companies recently decided to assist George by holding a chilly cook-off fundraiser to raise donations for his $7,000 payment.

“That’s helped out a little bit,” said George. “Other than that, I don’t know how I’m going to pay that balance.”


Bridget Nelson, 40, graduate student at Western North Carolina

Nelson was required to get health insurance after enrolling at WCU though she said not having insurance previously didn’t bother her.

“I view insurance companies as legalized organized crime.”

Nelson considers herself a healthy individual who would probably only use health insurance for medical emergencies.

While working for a nonprofit, she once faced the awkward situation of receiving good insurance coverage through her employer but being unable to extend that coverage to her two children. Nelson eventually acquired Medicaid benefits for her kids, which helped cover costs when her daughter broke her arm.

In Nelson’s view, health care reform should be a national priority. She said a single payer system would make more economic sense than the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’ve spent trillions on apparently useless wars, so if you’re willing to spend on that but not health care, there’s a priority problem.”


Amy Tucker, 24, server at Ryan’s Family Steak House in Sylva

Tucker is on her father’s company health insurance policy but has a $5,000 deductible, which means she usually pays for “pretty much everything.”

Tucker says she is against the health care bill. “I don’t think that it should be free for everyone,” said Tucker, “[But] everyone should have some kind of coverage.”

Tucker said she’s more in favor of an assistance program than universal health care.


Sunshine Cochran, 33, server at Ryan’s Family Steak House in Sylva

Cochran is considering buying health insurance through her job, but as of now, she has none. She said the health insurance rates through Ryan’s are pretty reasonable. “I just gotta make sure it fits my budget.”

Cochran has received Medicaid benefits when she was pregnant with her five kids, who are all on Medicaid now. But she is still paying off a $15,000 debt she incurred after breaking her arm in a car racing accident.

Cochran was able to pay the $900 upfront cost, but she hopes to avoid landing in the same situation in the future.

“I try to stay away from getting hurt.”


Kirk Childress, 22, manager of Black Rock Outdoor Company in Sylva

Childress will soon get a monthly allowance for health insurance after being promoted to manager at the store. Before that, however, Childress did not have health insurance of any kind. For Childress, the choice was between paying for health insurance or paying for a car. He chose the car.

“I’ve always been healthy. I’ve never had a problem.”

Childress says his approach to health care has been more reactive than pro-active. He once had a serious spider bite that needed to be treated. A friend’s father, who happened to be a doctor, was able to call in a prescription for antibiotics to take care of it.

Childress said those who cannot afford health care should be given the minimum for family doctor visits and emergencies, but he said most people should purchase health care for themselves.


Sheryl Rudd, 49, and Dieter Kuhn, 54, co-owners of Heinzelmannchen Brewery in Sylva

Rudd and Kuhn choose not to pay for health insurance, relying on natural medicine and wellness instead. They had been paying monthly premiums for a policy with a $5,000 deductible but decided to drop the insurance.

“Nothing was being covered,” said Rudd, adding that the insurance company would not help pay for her to see her preferred doctor.

Kuhn admits that not having health insurance places more responsibility on the individual to stay well and handle any resulting financial responsibilities.

When it comes to health care reform, Rudd said she is not in favor of placing more burdens on businesses through regulations.

“That’s not fair,” said Rudd. “That takes my choice away.”

Instead, Rudd would like to see everyone in the country get the same health insurance that Congress receives.

“But what they’re proposing, I’m against,” said Rudd.


Though Sylva resident Marsha Crites had no risk factors, she suffered a major cerebellum stroke at the age of 49.

“Not only could I not walk, I couldn’t sit,” said Crites. “I would even fall out of bed for a while.”

Her health insurance covered much of the expenses but not everything.

“They covered all but $10,000, but still, that was a lot that I had to cover myself,” said Crites, who ended up fighting the insurance company for more coverage and lower costs. “They would cover occupational therapy, but not speech therapy.”

Crites said she had to argue logistics with the insurance company while she was “out of it.”

“I have always felt that you had to beg, plead and beat on the door to get the health insurance coverage that you needed,” said Crites.

Crites suspected finding another health insurance policy would be nearly impossible even though she fully recovered from the stroke. She was right.

After Crites lost her insurance policy due to a divorce, she became “uninsurable.”

Crites was turned down by insurance companies left and right. She finally settled for temporary insurance, which only works for six months at a time. She pays about $250 a month, but her deductible is $3,500.

“I get no preventative care, none,” said Crites. “If you get really sick in those six months, they won’t renew it.”

As a self-employed landscape designer, Crites said there’s no way she could afford individual insurance even if she had been approved for it.

“Personally, I think it’s embarrassing for me as an American that we don’t have universal health care,” said Crites. “It is so much cheaper to cover everybody to provide preventative care.”

Crites asked if the people who complain about government control would want to take away benefits for veterans, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health insurance for Congress.

“Why do some people get government help and others not?” asked Crites, adding she is willing to pay more taxes to get everybody covered. “There’s no way my taxes would equal what I’m paying for premiums.”

Crites said there’s an urgent need to pass health care reform in the U.S. now.

“I just see so much tragedy,” said Crites. “This is not just about it’s inconvenient or it’s expensive. People are dying because we as the supposedly most progressive country on Earth can’t take care of our people.”


Nothing could have prepared Franklin sisters Suzanne Thomas and Karen Rice for the total financial ruin that followed their injuries.

Thomas, 63, and Rice, 70, are still coping with the impact of astronomical medical costs from nearly a decade ago, while another sister Shirley Ches, 74, is dealing with a health insurance bill that already scoops up about 33 percent of her household income and continues to climb significantly each year.

Thomas had to file for bankruptcy, while Rice had to move into a mobile home, giving up electricity and washing machines in the meantime. What astonished the sisters most about their plight was that they both had what they considered good health insurance when their injuries occurred.

Ches, Rice and Thomas have channeled the anger and frustration of their experience into an active fight for healthcare reform across the country, helping to organize vigils, sending petitions to Washington and sharing their story with crowds of strangers.

“We have all made a career out of writing letters to the editor,” said Ches.

Through their activism, the sisters have realized they are far from alone in their hardships.

“When you go to these things, you find people with phenomenal stories,” said Ches. “We’re shoulder to shoulder with so many people.”

Losing it all

Thomas had been perfectly happy with her health insurance before she suffered a major shoulder injury due to a fall in 2000.

“I had wonderful insurance. I didn’t worry about a thing,” said Thomas, who never hesitated to visit the doctor, the dentist or optometrist.

Two years later, Thomas had not only lost that health insurance, but also her job, her home and her good credit. Thomas had to file for bankruptcy and move from her two-bedroom apartment in rural Michigan to Ches’s home in Franklin about seven years ago.

It was all the result of a ruptured spleen that doctors didn’t even discover until two days after her accident. Thomas had complained about stomach pain, but her doctors wrote it off as a side effect of her pain medication and sent her home to await shoulder surgery.

Thomas began throwing up frequently and continued to suffer excruciating pain. Her friends decided to rush her back to the hospital as she floated in and out of consciousness.

After making the 32-mile ambulance trip to the hospital, Thomas summoned up enough strength to sign off for the splenectomy surgeons said she needed to stop her internal bleeding.

Along with the splenectomy, Thomas had five surgeries on her arm, and physical and occupational therapy over the next year and a half. Her hospital stay alone rang up $35,000.

When the time to pay the medical bills rolled around, the insurance company refused to pay for the splenectomy — Thomas had never gotten pre-approval for it.

Thomas was appalled that the insurance company expected her to give them a ring during the emergency ambulance transport.

“I was half-dead,” said Thomas.

Thomas couldn’t work her full-time job as she recovered, so she ended up losing her health insurance along with her job.

“You can only do Cobra for so long and afford it,” said Thomas.

Though Thomas tried to take on spot jobs, including a stint harvesting grapes with her non-dominant hand during Michigan’s chilly fall, she could not make enough to keep up with her monthly bills.

At one point, Thomas had to run outside as a tow truck began to pull away with her repossessed car to salvage all her belongings from the vehicle.

At a time when just getting dressed proved to be a struggle, Thomas had to deal with a steady stream of hospital bills and an unsuccessful legal battle to appeal the charges. Thomas had no recourse but to file for bankruptcy and move into Ches’s basement apartment.

According to Thomas, most people in the U.S. are not immune from suffering the same ordeal.

“I paid my bills. I had good credit,“ sad Thomas. “Yes, you have a job right now. Yes, you have health insurance right now, but ... maybe you’re going to end up having to pay.”

Thomas currently works as a cashier at Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee, mostly because the job provides health insurance.

“I never thought I would be working at this age,” Thomas said.

Extreme sacrifices

Because of her own shoulder injury, Rice now finds herself living in a single-wide mobile home in Franklin.

After several months of physical therapy and doctor’s visits, Rice had to pay between $25,000 and $30,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.

Rice said she checked in with the insurance company each time she went to the doctor’s office to make sure she had enough coverage. It turned out her insurance company had not yet processed her bills, so they were not aware her coverage had already run out.

“I would have said ‘Look, I’m running out of money. I will settle for a certain level of disability, find an alternative source of treatment I can afford, or save up until I can afford to continue,’” said Rice.

Instead, Rice had to sell her 200,000-square-foot home and move to a single-wide trailer in Franklin to be closer to her two sisters and save up for the “next healthcare disaster,” Rice said.

Rice, who said she always paid her bills on time and never carried credit card balances, saw her credit ruined since she couldn’t keep up with medical payments.

But Rice decided to take a proactive approach after that financial catastrophe.

Rice slashed every expense that she could, using candles instead of electricity and washing all her clothes by hand. She stopped traveling to see her children and no longer sent them any gifts. Rice consolidated trips to the grocery store, going only every two or three weeks, to save on gas.

“If it wasn’t something I absolutely needed to survive, I didn’t spend the money,” said Rice, who didn’t meet her youngest grandson until he was three years old and came to the area to attend Rice’s husband’s funeral.

Now that Rice believes she’s saved up enough of a cushion, she has started using electricity again, though she continues to wash her clothes by hand.

Rice hopes the money she has saved will be sufficient to cover her future medical costs without relying on others.

“All seniors are afraid that we’re one disaster away from ruin,” said Rice. “I do not want to be a burden on my neighbors, friends, church and society.”

Rice said she had previously been ashamed about her financial turmoil, wondering what she could have possibly done wrong. But she decided to share her story because many others were experiencing similar predicaments.

“I’m not alone. I’m not unique,” said Rice. “That’s the sad part about it.”

Rice said she does not want health care reform for just her or her sisters.

“We want this for others, our children and grandchildren, for everyone,” said Rice.

A broken system

Ches said she and her husband are being punished unfairly for simply growing one year older. Her insurance costs have gone up by 15 percent this year.

“It has gone up for no reason,” said Ches. “We have not been sick. We haven’t even used the amount of money that we’ve paid into it.”

Ches wonders what will happen if she has a medical emergency like those her sisters experienced.

“We’ll join the mob in the emergency room,” said Ches. “Then, all the people currently have health insurance will be impacted negatively.”

After having such a terrible experience with the American health care system, the three sisters feel very strongly about passing health care reform.

“The people who have insurance don’t realize that they can lose it,” said Rice. “The people who have insurance are very happy with the status quo.”

The sisters say those who are sick should not be spending their time wondering about how they would pay for treatment.

“I think something is really broken here,” said Rice. “I have to be afraid to spend a penny because I’m afraid of a medical emergency.”

Ches said those who receive health insurance through their employer and believe they are safe from similar scenarios are living in a “fool’s paradise.”

“You have employer subsidized insurance until you are out of work,” said Ches.

According to Rice, the U.S. must ultimately come up with its own solution rather than following how other countries run their health care system.

Though all three sisters say they would like to see a single-payer system, Rice said she has had “wonderful conversations” and found common ground with those who oppose exactly what she supports.

“Fox, CNN, MSNBC – I watch all of them. I will listen to all sides, the truth is somewhere in between,” said Rice, who is disappointed that the health care debate has taken such an ugly turn.

“This should not have become a partisan issue, the people need to realize that,” Rice said.


As if dealing with the trauma of breast cancer wasn’t enough, Martha Yonce, 62, was also hit with a devastating $80,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for her surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Yonce, a Franklin resident, thought she had her bases covered with the equivalent of a state employee’s health insurance policy. She received the insurance through her husband, who was a science teacher at Macon Middle School at the time.

Yonce’s insurance company had agreed to pay 80 percent of the cost but left her to deal with the remaining 20 percent in whatever way she could.

Coming up with such a large sum of money proved to be a major struggle, as Yonce and her family neared the brink of bankruptcy and almost lost their home.

“We wiped out what savings we had,” Yonce said. “It just took everything we had. That was nine years ago, and we’ve never really recovered financially.”

To make matters even worse, Yonce and her husband were recently denied insurance coverage that would supplement Medicare due to pre-existing conditions, including her breast cancer, and his diabetes and heart problems.

Even though Yonce has been cancer-free for years, she said the worry about recurrence never goes away.

“Good days are days you don’t think about cancer,” said Yonce. “You know that if it recurs, you are going to have a tremendous financial burden. You’re going to do all you can to save your life and treatment costs money — even with insurance.”

Yonce said she recalled taking medication for nausea that cost $100 a pill, while other women went without because they simply could not afford it.

“The thought of somebody that’s kneeling at the toilet vomiting and there’s a medication out there that can help them and they can’t afford it, that’s sad, that really is,” said Yonce, who has actively been calling for health care reform in the past year.

Yonce has attended rallies and made frequent calls to representatives and fellow citizens in the past few months. She hopes that Congress will pass a health care bill that places a cap on out of pocket expenses.

Yonce said she was surprised by how many sad stories she came across while working at a phone bank. She once talked to a man who was asked to pay $900 cash for anti-rejection medication after receiving a kidney transplant and a woman who broke her hip but could not afford to go to the hospital.

Despite all the gloomy stories she’s heard, Yonce has managed to retain a sense of humor.

On a recent afternoon, Yonce prepared to go door-to-door to distribute flyers that featured a man named Vernon whose inadequate health insurance left him $28,000 in debt.

“This guy is not in as bad shape as me,” joked Yonce. “Vernon, you don’t know how good you’ve got it.”


The days of building as you like in Maggie Valley may be numbered, with design standards in the works to guide the town’s commercial district toward a mountain theme.

Maggie Valley’s planning board has released a draft version of standards that would shape the town’s look for generations to come.

If all goes according to plan, the standards will improve the community’s appearance and preserve the natural environment, all while boosting tourism and the local economy.

They would apply only to the commercial district, which includes practically every property that touches U.S. 19, the main drag through town, excluding single-family homes and duplexes.

If the standards are adopted, any new construction or major renovation to existing businesses would have to gain town approval before moving forward. Less major renovations, like a new roof or an exterior paint job, would have to comply only with the standards associated with that particular job.

As the guidelines stand, Maggie Valley would encourage steep pitched roofs, subdued, earthy colors and use of natural materials like wood and stone.

It would also strongly discourage buildings with blank walls, stucco or vinyl siding, and visibly flat roofs. Business owners who plan on slapping Day-Glow or fluorescent-colored paint on their building exteriors would have to rethink their plans.

In addition to guiding construction, the standards would require more greenery along public streets and in parking lots to soften up the big block of U.S. 19 that cuts through much of Maggie Valley. The guidelines even go so far as to recommend using regionally grown plants.

Maggie Valley’s new seven-person appearance commission would examine each project individually to accommodate for special circumstances, rather than dictate the same exact look for every building. The town board, however, would make the final decision on every proposed project.

Not a done deal

Planning Director Nathan Clark said now is the perfect time to shake up the status quo in Maggie Valley. Because construction is pretty much at a standstill, the guidelines would not interfere as much with works in progress. Once the economy rebounds, builders would already have an established template for their new projects.

Other than that, Clark sees the need to update the town’s appearance, eventually exchanging the 1950s-style look of some businesses for something more native to the mountains.

In coming up with the design standards, the planning board looked at trends around town. The mountain theme seemed to dominate most recent projects, including at the Smoky Falls Motel, the new police department, and the new ABC store.

Clark said the new theme might bring tourists crawling back to a town that seemed to never change, while planning board member Tom Benoit said visitors driving by for the first time might recognize it as the quintessential mountain town they’d like to check out.

“You’ve seen the same old Maggie Valley for so many years,” said Clark. “Some people appreciate that, but the numbers are showing people are getting tired of that as well.”

Clark said that the standards are by no means a done deal. The planning board is still focusing on getting public feedback and trying to produce the best standards possible. Ultimately, whether or not to enact the standards will rest with the town board of aldermen.

Business owners react

Some business owners are thrilled about the standards, while others see no need to implement them.

At the latest planning board meeting, Michael Seifert, owner of the Alamo Motel in Maggie Valley, said he’s worried about placing constraints on businesspeople who’ve just come in to town.

“There needs to be more flexibility,” said Seifert.

For Allen Alsbrooks, owner of the Hearth and Home Inn, the standards were like a “slap in the face.”

“This tells me that what we have is definitely not good enough,” said Alsbrooks, adding that installing the mountain-themed look on his business would not pay for itself.

Some motel owners argued it would be unfair to impose these guidelines on a business forced to renovate due to a fire, for example.

Clark’s reply was the town could address those issues as they arise since each project would be looked at individually, adding that the town would remain realistic in its expectations.

“The town would not expect every building to have rock since it is so expensive,” said Clark.

There would also be no date by which all buildings in the commercial district had to conform to the theme, Clark said.

Most members of the Haywood County Hotel and Motel Association, representing 48 tourism-related businesses, approve of the standards, according to Executive Director Marion Hamel.

“Anything that could make us more attractive to tourists is something we really need to do because that’s our only industry,” said Hamel. “I think we’ve got an awful lot to offer. We just need to have a little more eye appeal.”

Hamel acknowledges that these are tough economic times, but she pointed out that the changes wouldn’t be occurring overnight. And business owners would have to make changes to their building exteriors sooner or later anyway, Hamel said.

“I think it would only add to their business volume, rather than just be a drain,” said Hamel.

There is one thing Hamel would like to change about the design standards though.

“I would like to see the town be a little stronger in saying any new construction needs to conform to standards,” said Hamel.


Misuse of county credit cards by a Swain jailer has prompted tighter controls on charge card use across all departments.

Earlier this year, a jailer purchased a $500 or $600 big-screen TV with the county’s credit card at Sam’s Club, said County Manager Kevin King.

The officer came back from a shopping trip for prison supplies with the TV, saying that she would reimburse the county for the purchase. Even though the detention officer followed through on that promise, she was fired.

Finance Director Vida Cody said a supervisor should have informed all employees about the county’s policy on making purchases, but Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said it shouldn’t take training to realize that buying a TV with county money is wrong.

“Common sense would tell you that’s not allowed,” said Cochran.

The out-of-line purchase was flagged in the county’s annual audit but was not serious enough to launch a full-on fraud audit. Auditor Eric Bowman simply called for better internal controls so the misuse would not escalate into a bigger problem.

That misuse of the credit card was “one of many,” according to finance director Vida Cody. Employees in the Sheriff’s Department have also exceeded their meal allowance of $34 a day for three meals and made work-related purchases of more than $100 without getting prior approval by the finance department.

The finance officer is supposed to approve every purchase over $100 to ensure there’s enough money in the budget for it. An exception, however, could be made for emergency purchases, like repairs on a squad car that has broken down.

Now, all county employees can only buy supplies online on the Sam’s Club Web site, rather than at the physical store. Before hitting submit on that online order, though, Cody must check a printout of the purchase to ensure there’s enough money budgeted for the buy. After Cody approves the order and the employee makes the purchase, Cody must compare the printout of the receipt against the original printout.

To help decrease spending in the face of a budget crisis, Cochran said his department is also cutting down on travel expenses, only making trips when they are “absolutely” necessary.

Cody said no matter what, it is difficult to have complete control over the county’s credit cards, as employees may not always pay attention to how much they’re spending.

“It’s easy to want to use those cards when you have it on hand and go over your limits,” said Cody. “You could operate on trust, but people are human too ... The economy is bad. People might do things they might normally not do.”


Several western counties have been scrambling to create an in-house child support enforcement program after the state announced it would no longer handle the job of tracking down delinquent parents.

Swain, Macon, Cherokee and Graham counties, along with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, have all been affected by the unanticipated drop by the state and are creating programs to handle child support enforcement locally.

Swain County commissioners adopted a plan at their meeting this week after struggling with how best to handle the unfunded mandate, something the cash-strapped county can hardly afford.

The state will save about $4 million each year by cutting the program, which now serves 28 out of 100 counties in North Carolina. The rest of the counties, including Haywood and Jackson, already handle the program in-house.

For a successful takeover, the affected counties must learn how to set child support payments and how to punish deadbeat parents who don’t pay by withholding wages, revoking driver’s licenses, and even sending them to jail. Agents will also be responsible for establishing paternity in some cases.

Agents who work for the tribe will be able to deduct child support payments from the per capita checks all tribe members regularly receive.

Bob Cochran, the director of Jackson County’s Department of Social Services, said the program is a good investment for the community since it strengthens families, affects children’s development and brings some of them out of poverty.

The state DSS has a transition team acting as a liaison to help counties absorb the completely new service.

Plans for these counties’ pick-up of the program must be in place by Jan. 1, with an official takeover slated for July 2010.

A federal reimbursement would cover 66 percent of staff salaries, while performance incentives could help further offset the cost of the new program.

Child support enforcement programs in Haywood and Jackson counties, as well as the state office in Bryson City, have regularly ranked among the top five programs in the state.


Swain’s dilemma

Swain County faced three options for taking over the child support enforcement program: housing it under county DSS, costing about $28,000; creating a new department, costing about $57,000, or contracting everything out, costing more than $100,000, according to County Manager Kevin King.

In the face of a budget crisis, Swain naturally went with the cheapest option, which did include an estimated $8,000 raise for DSS Director Tammy Cagle.

About a month ago, the county commissioners denied Cagle the $8,800 raise she requested on a 3-2 vote. Cagle later told King that she was unwilling to take on the extra workload without being properly compensated. King claimed the county could not force Cagle to do the job without the raise since she answers to the DSS board and not the county.

At their meeting this week, commissioners reversed that decision and approved a raise after all. To help get the raise passed, King embedded the program in an overarching budget amendment that would save the county about $493,000.

County Commissioner David Monteith said he felt caught in the middle, since he wanted to vote for the rest of the items in the budget amendment but did not support the idea of giving Cagle a raise.

“You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” said Monteith, adding that the raise comes at a time when other employees have had to take mandatory furloughs.

County Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay pointed out that even with the raise, the DSS plan would cost a lot less than the other two options. Both Lindsay and Chairman Glenn Jones said something had to be done regardless, so it was best to go with the least expensive option. The motion for the budget amendment, including the child support enforcement program, passed unanimously.


Challenges ahead

According to Jane Kimsey, director of social services for Macon County, not much will change for the parents who use the child support enforcement program with the county’s takeover. They would continue to come to the same location for the service, since two state agents were already based at the DSS office.

Chief Justice Bill Boyum with the Eastern Band said that all tribal child support cases will come through tribal court as they had in the past. The tribe is planning for a child support program that will function like other counties’ programs. It will link up to the same computer system that is used statewide.

Some funding for the new program will come from a grant from the Modoc tribe of Oklahoma.

Shannon Cowan, supervisor for the Bryson City office, said there would be an undeniable impact on clientele with the state’s handover. Most of her new employees take two years to really grasp the program and figure out which parents regularly miss their payments.

“It’s not something where a new person could walk in the door and go to work,” said Cowan.

Counties that are likely to offer less money and cannot always accept state employees’ accrued benefits may have trouble luring agents who might move on to other state jobs.

According to Cowan, most of the employees at the Bryson City office have worked there for about 15 years. Cowan said as a state employee, she never expected to lose her job.

“Certainly, we’re all devastated and worried,” said Cowan. “We really don’t know what our future holds.”

Christi Hooper, child support lead agent for Jackson County said it would take “extensive training” just to become familiar with the computer software used across the state.

“The philosophy behind it, the legality, all that is quite complex and then you have to throw in a computer system with 450 screens. It’s big,” said Hooper.


A federal judge has dismissed a civil lawsuit by Maureen Lackey, a 45-year old Franklin resident who alleged discrimination by Macon County and the Sheriff’s Office.

Lackey, who suffers from epilepsy, claimed jailers denied her medicine after she was arrested for a DWI last January. Lackey had been carrying the unmarked pills in a Vitamin B bottle.

She claimed she underwent seizures at the jail and urinated on herself after not being allowed to use the bathroom. Lackey said she felt humiliated after jailers laughed at her as she experienced seizures. She claimed the experience worsened her condition and sought compensation for medical expenses.

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland called the allegations “frivolous” and said the dismissal of the suit confirms his faith in the legal system. Holland believes the allegations were an attempt by Lackey to stave off prosecution for the DWI charge.

“Ultimately her attempt to improperly influence a criminal prosecution, and also to avoid personal responsibility, failed,” Holland said.

Federal Judge Dennis Howell dismissed the case not so much on its merits, but because of several technicalities. Howell ruled the complaint should have targeted the sheriff rather than Macon County and the entire Sheriff’s Department. While Lackey later asked the clerk of court to amend the complaint to include the sheriff, the judge found no evidence that the clerk actually did so.

Lackey could not receive compensation for medical treatment anyway, because it is not likely that she will again suffer the same alleged harm in the future, the judge wrote. In order to obtain injunctive relief, a plaintiff must demonstrate a “sufficient likelihood” that the defendants will harm her again in the same manner unless restrained.

“The Sheriff cannot be compelled to provide her with medical care when she is no longer in custody,” wrote Judge Howell.

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said no disciplinary action had been taken against any of his employees.

Since Lackey’s first DWI arrest, she has been arrested for another DWI, writing bad checks, simple assault contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and misdemeanor child abuse.

“I demand professionalism from my staff and that is exactly what Ms. Lackey received in this incident, as well as her other subsequent arrests on other charges,” wrote Holland in an official statement.

Lackey could not be reached for a statement, because her cell phone had been disconnected.


Voters will have a choice between a fresh or familiar face in this year’s Haywood County sheriff’s race.

Democratic incumbent Bobby Suttles has worked law enforcement in Haywood for 35 years, including 18 years at the Haywood County Sheriff’s office.

“I know the people over here. I know this office,” said Suttles.

Suttles is relying on that tenure as the foundation for his campaign. Suttles inherited the post of top lawman 18 months ago when former Sheriff Tom Alexander retired. Now Suttles must run for the seat.

His opponent Bill Wilke, a sergeant with the Asheville Police Department, said he would bring a modern approach to the table if elected.

“I think my perspective is broader,” Wilke said. “I think I have a more contemporary outlook on how those problems need to be addressed.”

Wilke wants to provide a long-term vision for the sheriff’s office that looks 10 or 15 years from now. He will focus on modern law enforcement programs and ideas that are already working in neighboring counties.

For example, Wilke is in favor of connecting criminals with community members, such as pastors.

“They need to be given a microphone,” Wilke said.

According to Wilke, moral voices could help curb crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.

Wilke also wants to stress problem-oriented policing, which asks officers to take a long-term approach to problems rather than dashing onto a crime scene. A drug house could be thoroughly investigated to determine players before taking action, for example.

Suttles said he and his deputies already look before they leap.

“You’ve got to build your case,” Suttles said.

The sheriff’s office is already working hard to combat drugs, according to Suttles. In addition, Suttles deputized officers at the Waynesville Police Department, which has its own K-9 dog, to help battle drugs.

Suttles added that law-enforcement officers from Haywood’s municipal police departments also meet monthly to discuss problems and strategies.


Fighting for resources

Recently, Haywood commissioners expressed hesitation about accepting a $220,000 grant for equipment, vehicles and two officers who would focus on traffic enforcement. The county would have to pay an increasing portion of the two traffic officers’ salaries and take full responsibility for salaries by the fourth year.

“It’s hard to understand when they want to turn down grants,” said Suttles, who has often stressed the need for more officers and newer equipment at the sheriff’s office. “Sometimes, our hands are just tied here with the commissioners. They don’t have the money.”

Wilke said he would try to compromise with commissioners over budget items, but the sheriff’s office also should wisely allocate the resources it already has.

Wilke hopes to do an assessment of operations at the sheriff’s office to make sure resources are used efficiently.

But according to Suttles, the recession, not wasteful spending, is the problem.

“We’re not frivolously spending money, but you can only do so much,” Suttles said.

During his short term, Suttles has successfully pursued grants that have brought Tasers and mobile data terminals to the Haywood sheriff’s office. Video arraignments should be available by mid-October, cutting down on officer time spent shuttling criminals between jail and the courthouse.

Rather than focus on grants, however, Wilke said he would try to generate revenue from drug seizures. Law enforcement agencies can keep a portion of the money they seize from narcotics dealers.

“You hit the drug problem in this county, and you’re going to have a great effect on ancillary crimes,” Wilke said. “It’s a win-win all the way around. We’re just not doing it right.”

Wilke said the sheriff’s office could profit more from seizing drug dealers’ assets than going after grants. Moreover, there wouldn’t be any strings attached.


It’s nearing showtime for the most heated race in Swain County: the battle between Republican Sheriff Curtis Cochran and his challenger, Democrat John Ensley.

Controversial issues were neither few nor far between during Cochran’s first term as sheriff: a suspected murderer escaped from Swain County’s jail last year; a Swain detention officer purchased a big-screen TV using the county’s credit card; a newly built $10 million jail continues to sit half-empty; and Cochran went head to head with commissioners over deputy pay. Cochran even sued Swain’s Democratic commissioners for discriminating against him by essentially reducing his salary.

As a result, Cochran has been a polarizing figure in Swain politics. Bumper stickers saying “Elect anyone BUT Curtis Cochran” appeared as much as a year ago, but many Swain residents still stand by Cochran’s side. Cochran said the same scrutiny would hold true for anybody currently in office.

“You’re going to have a group of supporters. You’re going to have a group that wants you out,” said Cochran.

Cochran said if re-elected he will continue making progress at the sheriff’s office, including continuing a fight against drugs.

“I’m here for the people of Swain County,” Cochran said. “I don’t see myself on a pedestal and the people under me.”


Building rapport & budgets

In his campaign against Cochran, Ensley is emphasizing the importance of building good relationships.

Ensley says he will “rebuild” a rapport with county commissioners, with surrounding counties and Cherokee, with state and federal agencies, and with the community at large.

Despite the Cochran’s lawsuit against commissioners, Cochran said he and the county board have always had an open door policy and continue to have one now.

“I think that we work very well with the commissioners,” said Cochran. “The only big issue is with the budget and the lawsuit.”

Cochran would not comment on the lawsuit, adding that his focus is on carrying out his duties as sheriff, not the case filed against commissioners.  

As for the budget, Cochran had fought hard to keep overtime pay for his deputies, who sometimes work 18- to 20-hour days. “I’m a firm believer that if people work, they need to get paid,” Cochran said.

But the commissioners refused to grant overtime because of the recession and slashed his workforce by 22 percent with the 2009-10 budget.

“I’m not going to second-guess commissioners. I’m not going to say what they were thinking,” Cochran said. “That’s pretty well self-evident.”

Commissioners at the time said overtime was being abused as a recurring means of inflating deputies’ base salaries. Cochran said he will actively request more deputies and salary increases for his employees from the new county board if re-elected.

Ensley points to his business expertise, which he says would help him stretch every penny he gets from commissioners. Ensley plans to restructure the department and handle the budget “much better” than the way it has been handled in the past. Ensley would like to charge a fee to those who are convicted to fund a salary increase.

“Times are tough, and you have to make do with less,” Ensley said. “We’re going to get creative.”

Ensley said he has spoken with most of the current commissioners and those who are running for a spot on the county board.

“We are not going to have an issue,” Ensley said. “It’s a priority for me to have a good working relationship. There are ways [to find a] resolution without having a public fight.”


Experience or lack thereof

Experience has long been the centerpiece of the upcoming election. In May, eight Democrats packed the ballot for the chance to take on Cochran come fall. Ensley won by a comfortable margin.

Every challenger highlighted his law enforcement background, drawing a contrast with Cochran, who had no law enforcement training before going into office as sheriff.

Ensley said he is a certified law enforcement officer in North Carolina, has worked at the Swain County jail and a jail in Florida. He graduated as president of his basic law enforcement training class at Haywood Community College.

In addition to law-enforcement training completed after becoming sheriff, Cochran said unlike other candidates, only he can boast on-the-job experience.

“They talk about experience,” Cochran said. “I am the only candidate who has the experience of being sheriff of Swain County …I got four years at the helm. I know where the problems are.”


Filling up oversized jail

When Swain built an oversized jail several years ago — twice the size needed for its own prisoners — it was banking on filling it with prisoners from other counties and federal prisoners to subsidize the cost. But other counties had built their own jails and federal prisoners dried up, too. Cochran inherited the plight of the oversized jail when he took office.

Ensley characterizes the $10 million jail as an investment that needs to turn profitable. He plans to launch an all-out campaign to win over state and federal agencies, such as U.S. Marshals and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“I’m going to go out of my way to work with each one of these groups,” Ensley said. “I have salesmanship, and I think that’s part of what we need to do.”

Most of the prisoners housed in Swain County’s jail that come from outside the county hail from Cherokee. But the Eastern Band now plans to build its own jail — a final blow to Swain’s half-empty jail being heavily subsidized by county taxpayers.

Ensley is still holding out hope that a compromise can be reached. He said the tribe could possibly look at building a drug-abuse center instead and continue to send prisoners to Swain.

But Cochran said he’s done absolutely everything he could to bring more prisoners to Swain’s mammoth jail. The U.S. Marshals Service continues to send most of their inmates to Cherokee County — despite Bryson City’s advantage of housing a federal courthouse. For the time being, the Swain jail has only three Marshals Service inmates. The Marshals Service claims that the crime rate has decreased

Cochran says he’s traveled to Charlotte and Asheville and spoken with U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler and three state legislators, but to no avail.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the Marshal Service at this point — to be fair, and I can’t stress that word enough, to be fair,” Cochran said. “We should be getting our fair share. I’m very disgusted with this process.”


No more escapes

Cochran said he put policies in place to make the facility more secure after a jail escape involving inside help from a jailer. Cochran said he could not mention specifics on the new procedures for security reasons.

Cochran emphasized that no matter how secure the physical building is, inserting a human element will inevitably bring unpredictability.

“It wouldn’t matter if it was San Quentin, it was going to happen,” said Cochran, citing the inside job.

To ensure that everything is running as it should, Cochran visits the jail every day. “We don’t have those problems anymore,” Cochran said.

Ensley said ensuring the jail’s security is a top priority. He will bring his own work experience at the Swain County jail and a correctional facility in Florida. He plans to provide training and to place an instructional pamphlet at every station to keep jailers up to speed on policy.

Moreover, Ensley promises to keep serious watch over his employees and look out for red flags.

“Folks didn’t really realize how serious some of these warning signals were,” Ensley said.

If something goes wrong under his watch, Ensley said he will take full responsibility.

“If I’m the sheriff, right here is where the buck stops,” Ensley said. “If someone in my department hurts my county, it’s my responsibility. I won’t be standing behind him. I will be standing in front.”


Reaching out to community

Swain County Sheriff’s Office already has a great relationship with the community, according to Cochran.

“We have an open line,” said Cochran, adding that his department works with the community every day and makes sure to keep anonymous tips anonymous.

Cochran pointed to recent success busting a meth lab, which could not have happened without tips from residents.

Though some have complained that the sheriff’s office is inconsistent in how it handles calls, Cochran ensures the public that officers do follow through with every concern that is brought up.

Sometimes, the magistrate’s office doesn’t find probable cause or an investigation will dead-end. Moreover, Swain’s limited staff makes it difficult for deputies to jump on every new call right away.

“We’re stretched pretty thin as far as personnel,” Cochran said. “These calls don’t stop coming in just because we don’t have enough personnel, but we do get to them.”

Ensley says he will create an advisory board for the sheriff comprised of experts in law enforcement and business. The board would give level-headed advice to the sheriff and keep in touch with concerned citizens.

Ensley would also like to institute more volunteer programs to get the community involved, including a youth advisory council made up of high school kids. The board would help motivate young adults to take responsibility for their own schools, Ensley said.

Ensley is also in favor of creating a community watch in each of Swain’s communities.

“We don’t want them out there playing police officer, but we want eyes and ears,” Ensley said. “We all have a responsibility whether we’re a sworn officer or not.”

Cochran said he has already made an appointment next month to set up a community watch program.


Ron Rosendahl took the time to count every single sign greeting the main road that dissects the town of Maggie Valley. He found 400 signs squeezed into less than five miles of Soco Road.

According to Rosendahl, only 26 of the hundreds were real estate signs.

The unofficial count was inspired by town’s crackdown on oversized real estate signs earlier this summer.

Rosendahl, a real estate agent in Maggie, argues that real estate signs — which comprise about 6 percent of all signage on Soco Road — aren’t the real problem.

Signs advertising motels, shops and other businesses far outnumber real estate signs and do more to degrade the town’s appearance, according to Rosendahl.

“Some businesses had as much as nine signs out front.” Rosendahl.

“The signage throughout the limits of Maggie Valley is pretty much over the top,” said Ben Glover, another real estate agent in town.

Nathan Clark, Maggie’s planning director, calls it an apples and oranges comparison, arguing that real estate signs are differentiated from other types of signs in the town’s ordinance.

Clark has encountered massive real estate banners — sometimes as big as 72 square feet, about nine times the size of what’s allowed — along with two or more “for sale” signs on a single piece of property. Clark came across multiple “for sale” signs crowded onto the tiniest of properties to grab drivers’ attention.

Maggie Valley officials worry too many real estate signs will signify a dying town to passersby. Allowing bigger signs on abandoned buildings would likely set off a negative impression.

“Larger signs will make the town look like it is for sale,” said Alderman Phil Aldridge at a planning board meeting in early September.

Glover agreed he didn’t “want people driving through town to think Maggie Valley is dying.”

With excesses in real estate signs growing increasingly common, Clark sent out a friendly reminder to real estate agents earlier this summer about the sign ordinance.

Most complied, but Rosendahl and Glover at Prudential 1st Choice Realtors decided to seek change.

The current ordinance only allows 8-square-feet signs for properties that are fewer than 3 acres or have less than 500 feet of road frontage. Only larger properties are allowed to sport 16-square-foot real estate signs.

Rosendahl argues that the town should allow all commercial real estate signs to measure up to 16-square-feet, what he considers standard for that type of property.

At the very least, real estate signs need to be larger so that they can compete with the hundreds of other types of signs, Rosendahl argues.

“That’s why we need bigger signs, so at least we can get a fair shake,” said Rosendahl.


Debate heats up

Meanwhile, Bob Knoedler, a planning board member, questioned how effective real estate signs actually are at selling commercial property. Knoedler said most entrepreneurs set out on an intentional search for available commercial property, rather than driving along looking for empty buildings or lots on the side of the road.

Rosendahl said, however, the signs are effective, and they would be even more effective if they were larger.

Real estate signs are more visible in residential districts since people drive at slower speeds. But when drivers are racing past at 35 to 55 miles per hour on Soco Road, they are less likely to see an 8-square-foot sign, Rosendahl said.

“You only have one chance for people to see your sign,” said Rosendahl. “Why not get the sign out there? Why not get it sold?”

Meanwhile, Glover worries that the planning board doesn’t realize that real estate agents make an important contribution to the community. They recruit new businesses, bringing jobs and tax revenues into Maggie Valley.

“We’re not trying to add to the problem of having too many signs,” said Glover. “In fact, we’d love to have our signs disappear.”

While they might be up for a month or two years, Glover points out that real estate signs are temporary. As a member of the Haywood Tourism Development Authority board, Glover said he’s not in favor of anything that will drive people away or damage the town economically.

“I just want everyone to have a little bit of an open mind,” said Glover, adding he is perfectly willing to compromise with the board.

If 16-square-feet is excessive, Glover said 12- or 10-square-feet may not be. Either way, Glover said it’s time to objectively revisit the issue and hear something other than “Nope, nope, nope. We got too many signs.”

Rosendahl said he was amazed by some of the comments that planning board members made to him.

“They don’t want to make any change. They’d rather say ‘no’ to everything,” said Rosendahl. “It was a little discouraging to me.”

But Clark said the planning board has been open-minded and devoted two meetings to discussing the issue. The board is planning on making slight changes to the sign ordinance, such as allowing a second sign if it advertises an open house. But Clark doesn’t foresee a vote by the planning board to adopt Rosendahl’s suggestion taking place any time soon.

“They just thought at the end of the day what is currently on the books is the most equitable,” said Clark. “It’s not like they went in and completely stonewalled the situation. It’s not like we woke up one morning and said ‘You know what, real estate signs suck. Let’s get rid of all of them.’”


Western Carolina might never be the next Silicon Valley, but experts say improving Internet access could help kick-start the region’s economy.

David Hubbs, CEO of BalsamWest FiberNET, said with the manufacturing sector mostly on its way out in WNC, it’s time to look to a new kind of model for economic development.

“The days of hoping for a factory to come to town, that’s probably not going to happen in the foreseeable future,” said Hubbs. Nurturing a tech-friendly environment would level the competitive playing field and allow students to stay in the area after they graduate, however.

“We’re helping to create an opportunity for people who grow up here,” Hubbs said.

Robin Kevlin, co-owner of Metrostat Communications, a Sylva-based telecom company, provides services to certain companies that would not have stuck around WNC without access to quality Internet service. The Internet can be an important tool in recruiting new businesses and promoting economic development, Kevlin said.

“Because of the way the land is around here, you’re not going to bring in a Dell Computer,” said Kevlin. “But you can bring in the smaller companies.”

For many companies, the Internet is not a luxury but a real need.

“Internet connectivity is as basic as water, sewage and infrastructure,” said Pam Lewis, senior vice president of entrepreneurial development at AdvantageWest, a regional economic development arm.


Preparing for 2013

Earlier this year, the Nantahala Gorge was named as the site for the 2013 Freestyle World Championships in kayaking.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center is equipped with high-speed Internet from BalsamWest FiberNET, but only at its headquarters. Fiber is not an option at branch offices, where Internet is both expensive and unreliable, according to Kevin Sisson, Chief Information Officer at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

“If it rains, it’ll go down, or if it’s foggy, it’ll go down,” said Sisson. “It really hampers the ability of these branch offices to connect to our reservation system.”

Sisson and others in the rafting community are worried about the Gorge’s preparedness for the kayaking championships. Lack of widespread Internet access might make it difficult or impossible to upload event photos or videos.

“We’re going to have an international community arrive here,” said Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures. “Journalists, competitors, families that get here and have no high-speed wireless.”

The Internet is a necessity even during the regular tourist season. Kastorff says that about 10 percent of tourists anticipate working during their vacation. They sometimes rule out a travel destination if Internet connections are spotty.


Varied uses

The web is not just useful for browsing endlessly on YouTube or Googling for directions.

With the Internet increasingly being used to educate, children in WNC will need better Internet access at home as well as school.

John Howell, owner of Telecommunications Consulting Associates in Waynesville, said students in other regions are receiving laptops as early as the ninth grade. They complete assignments requiring Internet connections and interact with teachers via email.

“If a kid’s got dial-up, he or she can’t compete with kids from more populous areas of the state,” said Howell.

Data-intensive entities, like hospitals and Internet-based companies, also need the Internet to simply operate. The hospital group, MedWest, processes millions of transactions every month. On top of billing and registration data, hospitals need high-speed capacity for sending X-rays, MRIs and detailed medical records to doctors.

Since the creation of MedWest in January, administrators have also discovered a need for video conferencing to avoid excessive travel.

Kevlin said that the Internet is immensely useful for cutting down on pollution.

“If we’re going to be a greener society, more people are going to be working from home,” said Kevlin. “They need the tools necessary to do that, and broadband Internet is part of that.”


A few years ago, Michael Wade was ready to hang up tin cans and have tenants at his Rabbit Ridge Apartments in Cullowhee yell messages at each other — all to avoid the daily aggravation caused by two telecom corporations.

The 170 students who lived at Rabbit Ridge also lived on the Internet, and poor service forced Wade to reset modems at least three or four times a day. No matter how often Wade called each company’s customer service line, there was no end in sight to the infuriating Internet outages.

“They simply did not have the amount of bandwidth needed in the area,” said Wade. “It was a nightmare. Both companies were just a nightmare to work with.”

Then in November 2008, Wade decided to splurge. It cost him $25,000 to buy a high-speed connection to BalsamWest FiberNET, a Sylva-based telecommunications carrier.

Wade footed the entire construction bill for physically hooking up to BalsamWest’s 300-mile fiberoptic network.

“It was the best 25 grand I’ve ever spent,” said Wade, adding that now, there are no more outages at Rabbit Ridge.

But not everyone in Western North Carolina is lucky enough to be within spitting distance from BalsamWest’s fiber network — or rich enough to afford the thousands it would usually take to connect initially.

“If I was just a homeowner, it wouldn’t make sense,” said Wade. “But because I was a business and I had 170 kids, it made total sense.”

See also: Internet could be key to economic development in WNC 

Over in the Nantahala Gorge, Juliet Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures, is still struggling with her own Internet woes. The outfitter is still using a snail-paced service via satellite. It’s the company’s one and only option.

“It’s so unreliable and so slow,” said Kastorff. “Considering three years ago, there wasn’t even cell phone reception in the gorge, I’m not entirely surprised.”

Kastorff said she’s encountered high-speed wireless in some of the world’s remote places.

“In South America, wireless and cell phone service is easily 100 percent better,” Kastorff said. “So we’re talking about developing countries that have more progressive infrastructure than we have in WNC.”

In a rural and mountainous area like Western North Carolina, telecommunications service is bound to be a challenge. But solutions, like BalsamWest, are slowly creeping up.

Million-dollar federal grants and millions more matching funds from nonprofits like the Golden LEAF Foundation will slowly bring high-speed Internet to rural counties like Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain in the next three years.

WNC can be said to fall into the middle-mile phase on the path to quick and reliable Internet. Most people talk about middle-mile to last-mile connectivity by using road analogies.

“Middle-mile is more like the highway instead of the off-ramp that goes to your home,” said Hunter Goosmann, general manager of the nonprofit ERC Broadband. “The off-ramp is the last mile.”

“You can’t go down the dirt road until you get off the paved road,” said John Howell, owner of Telecommunications Consulting Associates in Waynesville. “And right now, the paved road is being built.”


The high cost of last-mile

Middle-mile solutions, like BalsamWest, usually target anchor institutions in a community, like schools, hospitals, libraries, government offices and only major companies. BalsamWest, which is jointly owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County-based Drake Enterprises, focuses on providing Internet service to businesses found within its fiber footprint in the six counties west of the Balsam Mountains (Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties).

“We’re not in the business of building out to everybody’s homes,” said BalsamWest CEO David Hubbs.

The reasons that BalsamWest and other telecoms have not tackled the last-mile part are primarily financial. Most companies would have to put up millions of dollars to build infrastructure, only to have a relatively sparse number of customers.

Government help is on the way, however.

Soon, nonprofit MCNC will begin work on a $111 million broadband fiber project that will install 1,448 miles of new fiber through 69 of the most rural counties in North Carolina. BalsamWest and ERC are both major partners in the initiative. Particularly important to WNC will be the fiber link constructed in Haywood County.

Mark Clasby, economic development director for Haywood, said it’s been his priority to get Haywood connected to the fiber networks found east in Asheville and west of the Balsams.

“It’s essential we get this done,” said Clasby. “We’re kind of like the hole in the donut. It’s critical for our future that we have some type of system.”

Gene Winters, CFO of MedWest, a collective of hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties, said the connection would save his company at least half a million dollars.

Presently, MedWest is forced to use multiple telecom companies since there is no fiber running from Haywood County to west of the Balsams. If such a connection existed, MedWest would not have to duplicate services.

Winters said MedWest, too, has spent thousands on Internet infrastructure. Recently, the hospital group dropped $18,000 on bringing Internet service from one building to another just 75 yards away.

“You got to look at it as a four- to five-year investment to recoup your cost,” said Winters. “Most small companies don’t have a longer view, and they can’t because cash is tight.”


Gaining momentum

All eyes in the telecommunications community are on the MCNC project, which will expand broadband capability exponentially on the middle-mile scale.

“I think the future is being written right now,” said Howell. “We should see deeper penetration of broadband into at least the business community and anchor institutions.”

“This is truly a game changer,” said Goosmann, whose company is tackling fiber in Buncombe, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell and Avery counties.

Meanwhile, BalsamWest will bring middle-mile broadband to 480 miles in 37 counties. It is also working on a major project connecting its fiber network west to Knoxville and Oak Ridge, Tenn. The link will bring instant access to universities, and scientific and high-tech industries.

In addition, Frontier Communications Company has taken over Verizon’s landline footprint in North Carolina. Unlike Verizon, Frontier markets itself as a telecom company for rural areas of the country. The company promises to bring high-speed Internet to 85 percent of all areas they serve in the next three years.

“We’ve been doing this a long time,” said Brigid Smith, assistant vice president of corporate communications at Frontier. Smith says that her company has brought broadband to the mountains of Moab, Utah, the deserts of Arizona and isolated areas of the Midwest where it takes six hours to reach the next house on the road.

“Terrain issues are not new to us,” said Smith, adding that Frontier is also “very financially healthy.”

Smaller telecom companies like Sylva-based Metrostat Communications are also devoted to bringing Internet to the most unlikely places. The company says its goal is to bring Internet service to everybody, not just the big companies.

“My goal is to serve Annie’s Bakery and all the little guys on Back Street … I’ll use any means I can to do it,” said co-owner John Kevlin. “Sometimes we use radios, sometimes a fiber network. It depends on what’s cheapest and easiest.”

The company receives calls daily from bewildered new residents of WNC who expected Internet service to be just a phone call away.

“They are not understanding that not every place in the world has broadband Internet,” said Metrostat co-owner Robin Kevlin.

“I know people who can’t even get telephone access, and this is 2010,” said John Kevlin.

At times, Metrostat has to use admittedly quirky methods that aren’t always available to bigger corporations. For example, the company will ask someone if it’s OK to install a radio in their house to help a neighbor down the street.

“We have to look for creative ways to spend a smaller amount of money to get to the most people,” said Kevlin.

Hubbs says that extraordinary progress has undoubtedly been made in WNC in the last decade.

“You can get the same kind of connectivity in Franklin, N.C., that you can get in Atlanta, New York or Washington, D.C.,” said Hubbs. “In economic development terms, that is part of the most critical infrastructure that large 21st century knowledge-based companies have to have.”

Clasby calls the quest for reliable Internet complicated but also one of the most exciting issues he is working on.

“I see light at the end of the tunnel,” said Clasby. “It’s still probably two, three years away, but we’re getting there inch by inch.”

According to Goosmann, it will take time for the average citizen to benefit from the progress being made. But that progress is coming.

“It’s going to be years before we really see the full scope of what this is going to do for the mountains,” Goosmann said. “But the ball is starting to roll downhill, and it’s going to gain momentum.


Retired horticulturist Clayton Davis envisions a new Maggie Valley.

Instead of a tiring five-mile stretch of asphalt along Soco Road, it features a beautiful line of islands brimming with colorful flowers, trees, shrubs and decorative rocks.

Like the tulips at the Biltmore Estate and cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., Davis imagines that Maggie Valley, too, will be renowned for its stunning blooms.

“They’d look just as good here as they do over there,” said Davis. “People drive thousands of miles to see the cherry trees in Washington. Well, they’ll go here, too.”

The only difference is that Davis hopes the flower show in Maggie will last all year long.

Davis has grown 300 species of plants in Western North Carolina year-round and is convinced that Maggie Valley could feature a new bloom every month. An array of eye-catching flowering plants could be featured in islands found in the middle or alongside Soco Road, breaking up the sea of asphalt in Maggie.

“If we work together, we could make it the prettiest town in the United States,” Davis said.

Davis was originally struck with inspiration after visiting a charming small town in South Carolina a few years ago. “Every house had 20 to 30 azaleas planted,” he said. “It just knocked your eyes out.”

Davis touted his idea as a relatively inexpensive avenue to beautifying Maggie Valley, and town leaders were won over. They voted at a special meeting last week to donate $3,000 to get the project started.

Alderman Phil Aldridge said he found Davis’s vision refreshing. Instead of speeding past Maggie Valley, drivers might literally stop and smell the roses.

“It’s not inventing the wheel,” said Aldridge. “It’s simple and easy. There’s so much to gain from it.”


The vision

Davis has already worked out a three-year plan with a list of potential plants, from daffodils to knockout roses to crepe myrtles and dogwood trees. At a meeting with the town last week, Davis said at the heart of his plan would be “rocks, roses and rhododendrons.”

He suggests planting the knockout rose, an old-fashioned shrub with the bloodline of native roses. Though they don’t look as attractive up close as other types, the knockout rose is self-cleaning and requires little work. All of the 20-plus plants Davis has chosen are low-maintenance and strongly resistant to disease and insects.

Depending on how extensive Maggie’s rhododendron display gets, the town could one day advertise itself as the rhododendron capital of the country.

In his five-page proposal, Davis writes that decorative rocks are a safe investment in landscaping and retain their magnificence throughout the seasons.

Islands will range in size, but those that serve as a centerpiece may be up to 100 feet long.

Davis has been in contact with Richard Queen at the N.C. Department of Transportation, which is well-experienced with its own highway beautification project. According to Davis, Queen says he is receptive to helping move the project forward in Maggie.


Next steps

Davis knows of no nearby municipalities undertaking similar projects. He said Maggie Valley could publicize its unique initiative on its website and on letterheads.

“It’s an ace that you can have that no other town has got, that continual splash of color through the whole year,” said Davis.

Though the project will be entirely voluntary, the town will need widespread cooperation of business owners and residents to realize its horticultural vision.

Davis’s report suggests that business owners be asked to contribute financially to the project, give permission to plant on their property and take care of the islands if they are given maintenance training.

Business owners who decide to take part may convince their neighbors to do the same once the flowers start blooming.

“Beauty makes ugly uglier,” Davis said.

Maggie would first focus on “showy” plants and some annuals in its first year; add more expensive trees and shrubs and shift to perennials in the second year; and fine-tune the project and create a long-term vision during the third.

Davis, who has offered to donate his services, and the Parks, Recreation and Festival Board or another town committee will likely head the project.

Grants may be available, and residents and business owners might be asked to chip in by purchasing a rock or specific tree in memory of a loved one.

Davis hopes to use as many volunteers as possible and assemble a crew for the initial planting in November. Preliminary estimates show expenses would stack up to $21,000 by September 2011. Included are 5,000 bulbs of tulips and 5,000 bulbs of daffodils to be planted in late fall.

Rocks — which would weigh between 500 and 2,000 pounds — would cost a total of $4,275, according to Davis.

Town leaders hope to hold a public meeting in the late fall or early winter to get stakeholders educated and involved in the initiative.  

At last week’s meeting, Alderman Scott Pauley was especially impressed with Davis’s extensive research and enthusiastic presentation. He said it wasn’t often that he came across someone with such notable passion.

“Hopefully, we can go forward with this,” said Pauley.


Spiral Creek stands as a contrast to the everyday.

Away from jarring news reports and routine responsibilities, the Bryson City artists’ sanctuary allows guests to work with only art in mind.

During the day, students take arts and crafts classes from seasoned artists in an intimate studio bathed in light. All meals are taken care of and going to bed only requires a walk upstairs to one of three cozy bedrooms.

“It’s peaceful, but it’s kind of exciting when you’re in a group of people being creative,” said co-owner Dee Dee Triplett. “It seems like the air is different.”

A certain camaraderie tends to spring up around the dinner table each night among a newfound community of like-minded friends, says Triplett, who founded the new studio along with her husband Robert.

Part of the appeal of staying where you create is there’s no long drive back home from class at faraway schools. Guests also enjoy total freedom from chores.

“You don’t have to cook, you don’t have to make your bed,” said Triplett. “It’s just a total separation.”

Dee Dee Triplett has taught craft classes, including doll making and embroidery, at the John C. Campbell Folk School for 22 years already. Meanwhile, Robert taught coppersmithing and metal work also at the Folk School.

In 2004, The Tripletts decided to build their own small-scale retreat for artists from scratch. Spiral Creek would allow a small group of artists to be wholly immersed in art for days on end.

“The news that bombards us every day is scary if you listen to too much of it,” said Triplett. “When you can get away and do something that feeds your soul, it helps you cope with all of what’s going on. You’re doing something positive.”

Bringing the studio to fruition involved a long journey through actual construction and countless inspections. Dee Dee painted the entire interior of the two-story building and had to pick out all new furniture before Spiral Creek could open its doors.

“It seemed like a mountain to climb at first,” said Triplett. “Everything you did added three more things to your to-do list.”

Now, each room is fully outfitted with two twin beds, down comforters, ceiling fans, individual heating and air conditioning units, and a private bathroom.

“We tried to make it really comfortable,” said Triplett.

Spiral Creek will host about ten classes each year, mostly in the spring and fall. Future workshops will include quilting, papermaking, felt making, light metal and painting.

The studio celebrated its debut this summer with a doll making class taught by two prestigious Dutch artists, Marlaine Verhelst and Ankie Daanen. Students learned to hand-sculpt dolls from air-drying stone clay, paint details with watercolor and even clothe the dolls in handmade outfits.

The Tripletts were expecting six people to show up but were met with 13 eager students. Publicity through the National Institute of American Doll Artists brought artists from as far away as Mississippi, Florida and Virginia.

All 13 hopefuls were accepted into the class, though some had to find accommodations elsewhere.

Triplett said that classes at the remote Spiral Creek will welcome beginners and professionals alike.

“A lot of people don’t think they are creative and they are,” said Triplett. “They just have to be allowed to create. You can show people how to begin and then their natural creativity can come out.”

For more information, 828.488.3883, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or


Love it or hate it, mountain vernacular architecture has stubbornly planted its roots in Western North Carolina and shows no signs of abandoning the area.

The style that favors steep pitched roofs, native stonework, timber frame gables and earth-tone colors has manifested itself in homes, schools, police and fire departments, and even chains like Wal-Mart and Wendy’s.

Part of the popularity is fueled simply by aesthetic preference, but in some cases, developers were goaded into adopting the style by towns striving for architectural unity.

Local governments are certainly not exempting themselves from the trend. Testaments to their penchant for the style include Waynesville’s new fire station and town hall, the Lake Junaluska Welcome Center, Jackson County’s new senior center and Cherokee’s new $140 million school.

Like chalets dominate our notion of Switzerland, and sand-colored stucco defines the Southwest, mountain vernacular architecture has grown to become a quintessential look for Western North Carolina.

Though architects agree the style hearkens back to WNC’s early days, they clash on what exactly led to its extensive revival.


Where’d it come from?

Plain old common sense gave shape to the mountain-style architecture that cropped up here more than a century ago.

Pitched roofs channeled off rain and snow, while timber beams were hewed from the woods around them and stones were churned up and tossed aside when plowing fields.

“Native stone is what people from past generations would go out and pick up,” said Randy Cunningham, an architect with Waynesville-based Mountain Design.

“They had it. It was at hand. It was free,” said Mib Medford, who sits on the Waynesville community appearance commission. “Availability is what brought it on.”

Mountain-style architecture is probably an original colonial invention, according to Sylva-based architect O’Dell Thompson. It’s neither inspired by Native American techniques nor European architectural traditions, which uses stone a lot more heavily, Thompson said.

Whatever the reason for its initial adoption by WNC settlers, the style has won over a crowd of architects, business owners and residents over the last 20 years.

Now, it’s become nearly impossible to go anywhere without running into stacked stones inspired by the foundations of old farmhouses or timber frames that recall exposed rafters in barns.

“It’s running rampant, that kind of look. It’s everywhere,” said Scott Donald, an architect with Padgett & Freeman Architects who has designed many mountain-style buildings in Cherokee.

Local architects have multiple theories for why that is.

Luis Quevedo at Waynesville-based LQ Design Options, stressed that there was no sudden explosion of mountain-style architecture here. It evolved over time.

Quevedo said it could have been influenced by architecture in the Rocky Mountain region.

“There’s a lot of influence that comes from out West,” said Quevedo, adding that the contemporary version of the style has been popular in the West for a lot longer.

The main difference between the two regions, he said, is that the Southern Appalachian region often incorporates a native barn look.

Thompson agreed, stating that WNC’s mountain architecture isn’t fundamentally different from the kind found in states like Colorado, Idaho, and Montana, which took their cue from the Alps. But the Smoky Mountain brand of mountain architecture is simpler and more understated than all of the above, said Thompson.

According to Donald, the credit for the mountain look historically lies with the East, not the other way around.

“We’d already set the standards here in the East before it went West,” said Donald.

Donald said it’s possible that people who flocked to national parks during vacations caught inspiration from the lodges there. They returned, wanting to craft a similar look for their own homes.

In Thompson’s view, outsiders moving into the area about 20 years ago were primarily responsible for reviving the rustic look.

“When people started discovering the mountains as a place to retire to, they started wanting homes that felt like they belonged,” said Thompson.

Though many architects are fans of mountain-style architecture, not all agree with its proliferation. For example, Donald doesn’t find the style appropriate for the Haywood County jail or Wal-Mart.

“If you just slap a gable onto the front of a Wal-Mart, I don’t think that’s appropriate,” said Donald. “If you’re going to do it, do it. Don’t just do a piece of it. It suggests something it’s not.”

Architects say there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to create the look.

Quevedo is not exactly a fan of what he calls the “cookie-cutter log homes” he sees in Maggie Valley. He said he prefers a more authentic rustic style.


The green connection

Part of the driving force behind that rustic style is the green movement, which encourages using local, sustainable products wherever possible. Many are drawn to the idea of harvesting natural materials to create a mountain look.

Quevedo said he has often used native stone, heavy timber, and even logs as columns or handrails.

Architects can create a very basic mountain look or take it to the extreme, by using tree bark for siding, for example.

“You think of tree bark, that’s what protects the tree for hundreds of years, why not put it on the side of the house?” said Donald.

Natural materials, or at least the natural look, are inseparable from mountain-style architecture, which Donald calls the complete opposite of the “smooth high-tech commercial look.”

Some who opt for the style hunt down and recycle parts from old buildings, for example, to lend a more authentic, traditional appearance for their new construction. Architects have been especially inspired by barn wood.

Local companies have sprung up to cater to their tastes, specializing in buying old barns and extracting materials to use as flooring, siding, railings and columns in new homes, Quevedo said.

Ironically, a lot of stone used to recreate an indigenous look comes from outside the region, according to Cunningham.

No matter the appeal, there are undeniable downsides to using recycled material. Maintenance and cost are two major sticking points.

“Recycled wood and recycled materials are not cheap,” said Quevedo. “You end up spending top dollar sometimes.”

Those who choose to use recycled wood must make sure it is treated properly, and even after everything has been installed, the time to do routine maintenance will come around a lot quicker than if new materials had been used.

Developers must take great care to make sure the building is waterproof, while dwellers must replace mortar between the rocks every 30 to 40 years, Donald said.

Though the actual buildings obviously won’t last forever, most architects seem to shoot for a look that never grows old. Again and again, they said they were concerned with creating something that wasn’t solely “trendy.”

“In my opinion, when you lock into a style, then you’ve locked into something that will go out of style,” said Thompson. “It’s more important for it to be timeless.”


The main message that local and state authorities are frenetically broadcasting to the world is that Western North Carolina is still open for business even though a major rockslide will likely shut down a portion of Interstate 40 near the Tennessee border for at least four months.

Governor Beverly Perdue echoed that message last Wednesday after declaring the rockslide an emergency, thereby qualifying the state to receive federal money for the cleanup.

“We are open and very, very safe,” said Perdue, who rushed to the rockslide site after returning from a two-week cultural and trade mission to China and Japan. “If you want to see beauty and glory, you come right now.”

Perdue anticipates that the federal government will cover 100 percent of the cleanup cost, as it typically does after a natural disaster. In addition, Perdue hopes to launch a short-term co-op marketing campaign, funded by federal, state and local money, to publicize alternate routes into WNC.

Perdue toured the rockslide site on Wednesday (Oct. 28), along with Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti and Deputy Commerce Secretary Dale Carroll, and N.C. Reps. Phil Haire and Ray Rapp.

Perdue remarked that the 150-foot tall and 200- to 300-foot wide rockslide looked much bigger in person.

“Those boulders are enormous,” said Perdue.

The N.C. Department of Transportation estimates that it will take about four months to open the 20-mile section of I-40 now closed to thru-traffic.

The department has hired Phillips & Jordan of Knoxville, and rock stabilization specialist Jonad Contractors of Champion, N.Y., to perform the work.

So far, contractors have installed a pulley system and moved two drills into place on the face of the mountain slope. They have drilled holes in the rock to set explosives and planned to begin blasting on Tuesday afternoon.

While the biggest challenge lies in stabilizing the precarious rock precipice still looming over the highway, crews will also continue to break up the largest boulders lying in the road for a couple of weeks. At that point, they will have a much better estimate of when I-40 will be able to reopen.

The N.C. DOT has set up a Web site dedicated to updates on the cleanup efforts with a map of alternate routes, all directly accessible off the home page. The agency will also post daily updates to its Twitter account.

Ted Phillips, owner of Phillips & Jordan, emphasized the need to work safely and steadily using a top-down approach to clear the rocks.

“You can’t work down below and undermine yourself,” said Phillips. “You can’t remove it until you get it in the condition to remove it.”

While Phillips said it would take a small crew a “real long time” to clean up the rockslide, Phillips said his company has previously handled a lot worse.

“In my scope, it’s not a big job,” Phillips said.


Measuring perceptions

Local and state officials have begun working on a marketing campaign that will publicize the fact that much of WNC is still accessible.

Starting this week, the state Department of Commerce will survey 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro to determine awareness of the rockslide, ask about impact on travel plans and test marketing strategies.

Smoky Mountain Host, a tourism organization the represents seven counties west of Asheville, will utilize its hefty database, with 40,000 e-mail addresses of past visitors to the area, to do similar target research.

David Huskins, managing director of Smoky Mountain Host, said N.C. DOT needs to make sure to market alternate routes and let the public know they can still reach points west of Asheville.

Ron Leatherwood, a board member of the Haywood County Chamber of Commerce and former DOT board member, encourages locals to patronize the businesses that are most likely to be affected by the I-40 closure, especially the gas stations, motels and restaurants clustered at exits 20 and 24.

Local and state authorities who were around for the last major rockslide on I-40 in 1997 said they were better trained to handle the crisis this time around. Lynn Minges with the State Department of Commerce said as soon as the agency found out about the rockslide, it got on the phone to rally its troops.

The completion of I-26 also helped route trucks away from the two-lane roads they had to resort to during the last rockslide. In addition, the advent of the Internet, with its perpetually updated social media sites, has made connecting with prospective travelers much easier.

Minges estimates that about $150,000 was spent on advertising alternate routes and promoting travel to Western North Carolina last time around.


After a feel-good race lacking much controversy, Maggie Valley voters have re-elected Saralyn Price to her second term on the town board, sending with her a fresh face, motel owner Scott Pauley.

Both Price and Pauley ran on campaigns that promised to bring a balance between business and residential interests. With about 140 votes each, the duo solidly beat out candidates Ron DeSimone and Phillip Wight.

After results were called on election night, Pauley said he’d already printed out business cards with his home and cell phone numbers and was ready to hear what constituents have to say.

“I’m going to be all ears and eyes and feet moving as fast as I can,” said Pauley, who added that he was humbled by his win.

Price and Pauley said they are ready to get moving on promoting the festival grounds to attract tourism to the town. They also said they had reservations about the proposed design standards that would regulate the look of new construction and major renovations.

“Maybe this concept would be better received when we get out of this difficult time,” said Pauley.

“I don’t think anything can be done overnight,” said Price. “Even with new construction, it costs a whole lot more to change appearances.”

On Tuesday, all four candidates lined the front lawn of Maggie Valley’s town hall, greeting voters before they went inside to cast their ballots. Some, like Wight and Pauley, arrived in the early dawn. Wight and Price offered constituents doughnuts and coffee, while Price even threw in some Maggie Valley keychains.

Maggie Valley resident Jeremy Case, 30, said he voted for Price because she provided a “good voice” for Maggie Valley. The message Case wanted to send to the town board is to put tourism second on their priority list.

“Help the local people first,” said Case.

Meanwhile, Deb and John Schaefer came out specifically to cast a vote against Price, who voted to annex their subdivision, Campbell Woods, into the town limits.

“The good thing about annexation is that you can vote,” said Deb.

John, 60, said he voted for DeSimone and Pauley because of their professional backgrounds.

“One is a motel owner, and one is a realtor,” said John. “That’s what needs to be represented here because that’s what the town is.”


Maggie Valley
Town board

Seats up for election:    2

Total seats on board:    4

Saralyn Price (I)    141

Scott Pauley    140

Phillip Wight    82

Ron DeSimone    45

Registered voters:    1,027

Voter turnout:    224 (22%)


Not one face is changing in Franklin’s local government despite close contests for mayor and aldermen.

In a neck-and-neck race, Franklin Mayor Joe Collins beat out Alderman Bob Scott by only 14 votes to reclaim the office for another two years.

All three incumbents, Jerry Evans, Billy Mashburn, and Sissy Pattillo, held on to their seats for the next four years, edging out challengers Ron Winecoff and Angela Moore. Scott retains his board seat.

Collins and Pattillo interpreted the election results as a vote of confidence by Franklin residents.

“We have a board that in the last two years has done more toward the future of Franklin than any board has in any two-year period I can remember,” said Collins. “The town can expect we’ll move further ahead.”

“It was the quietest election I’ve even seen,” Pattillo said. “Usually when an election is quiet we’ve done something right.”

Meanwhile, Scott, whose campaign sounded the call for a more open and participatory government, said he would make the most of his two years left on the board.

“The mayor certainly didn’t get a landslide,” said Scott. “The voters have spoken, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to quiet down. I’ve got two more years and I’m going to give it my all.”

Collins acknowledged that Scott spent a lot of time and energy in his campaign, effectively using the Internet to reach voters.

“It was a close race, closer than a lot of people thought it would be,” said Collins. “Bob worked very hard.”

With an alderman and a mayor in stiff competition, tensions might carry over into Collins’ next term. During his campaign, Scott accused Collins of not always being forthcoming as mayor specifically by leaving him out of the loop on decisions like a three-year contract with CGI Communications to produce a series of streaming online videos about Franklin.

Collins retorted that communication is a two-way street and not every decision requires board approval now that the position of town manager has been created.

Moving forward, the board will have to decide what to do with the 13-acre Whitmire property on the east side of town and plans for a public park commemorating the historic Nikwasi mound.

While Collins said he favors a mixed-use development that will rush the Whitmire property back into the town’s tax base, Scott said he’d rather see the town hold on to the property to develop a museum, civic center, or a park.

Collins acknowledged that the pieces haven’t fallem into place on the Nikwasi park development but added that the project still had broad support.

“I think everybody in the end would love to see a park,” said Collins.

Meanwhile, Scott said the town should take a step back, do a feasibility study, and make sure the committee spearheading the project is inclusive and transparent throughout the planning process.

After Scott’s two years are up, he says he’ll officially retire his political career and return to his roots as a newspaper writer.

“I’ll be 71 years old,” said Scott. “I’ve learned a lot. I just don’t think politics are for me. I’ll go back to writing some commentary ... probably something scathing.”



Joe Collins (I)    255

Bob Scott    241


Town board

Seats up for election:    3

Total seats on board:    6

Billy Mashburn (I)    350

Sissy Pattillo (I)    313

Jerry Evans (I)    241

Ron Winecoff    234

Angela Moore    225

Registered voters:    2,651


An overwhelming majority of citizens who showed up at a public hearing in Robbinsville spoke out against the Corridor K road project last Thursday (Oct. 29).

The proposed four-lane highway would supplant the winding, two-lane roads that are currently the only means of access to Graham County. In the process, it would bore a half-mile long tunnel — the longest in the state — through a mountain. It would also tower over the rural Stecoah Valley area.

Corridor K, a 127-mile route through the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, has been in the works for more than three decades. The DOT wants to start construction by 2014 on a 10-mile section of the 17-mile missing link in Graham County.

The road’s three goals are to bring economic development, end a geographic isolation N.C. DOT sees as dangerous, and improve steep and curvy roads that currently feature inadequate shoulders.

The highway would take the thousands of tractor-trailers out of the Nantahala Gorge, which is currently the main artery to reach Murphy but is clogged with buses loaded with rafters and kayakers.

David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner, said the new highway would increase tourism in Swain County, bringing more people in to raft the Nantahala and ride the train.

“It would bring in more people to Western North Carolina, period,” said Monteith.

But only two of the 22 speakers at the N.C. Department of Transportation hearing piped up in favor of the road. The rest enumerated every conceivable reason for why the road has no place in Graham County.

Bob Grove said the proposed roadway would not help Graham County’s economy. It would more likely provide easy access to a big-box chain stores like Wal-Mart than to downtown stores. For Grove, the highway provides an open invitation to local residents to head out of town to do their shopping.

Grove and many others suggested that it would be far less expensive and less destructive to improve the existing roads, rather than build a highway that would destroy the town’s main draw for tourists: scenic, winding two-lane roads.

Tom Hoffman of Virginia said he might stop coming to Graham County if the highway is built and that he would not return to “ooh and aah at a freeway interchange.”

Many voiced concerns about Robbinsville losing its rural character and transforming into yet another American “Clonesville,” with strip malls, billboards and fast-food chains lining the streets.

Others who objected said second home owners, who would surely come with the highway, would jack up tax values and drive out today’s local residents.

“It’s a euphemistic thing to be calling it economic development,” said Brian Rau of Stecoah. “To me, it’s just plain development.”

The issue hit close to home for Guy Roberts, who would lose the property that’s been in his family for five generations and more than a hundred years.

“We would like to preserve what is there for future generations,” said Roberts’ son-in-law Jeff Phillips. “I want to be able to fish with my grandchildren and have horses and cows they can play with. I want to be there for the rest of my life.”

A telling example of Graham County’s position came at two points in the night. Nearly everybody raised their hands when asked if they were against the road. When Melbe Millsaps asked who actually worked in Graham County, only a handful went up.

Millsaps said even though Corridor K would cut through her property, it would also provide more jobs and better access to education and healthcare for Graham County. Millsaps said she knows how dangerous the roads there can be after being forced to commute two hours each way to get to her nursing school.

“I think it’s time for Graham County to move into the 21st century and build the road,” Millsaps said.

Denny Mobbs, who lives in Ocoee, Tenn., agreed and said it’s time to bring some development into Graham County.

“We don’t want a pristine impoverishment,” said Mobbs.

Others worried about the road’s environmental impact, including air, noise and water pollution. The tunnel, which would be a major expense of the project, avoids the Appalachian Trail by going under it.

Melanie Mayes, a Knoxville geologist, said the N.C. DOT had not released any information about the possibility of landslides and acid leaching out of rocks.

Mayes pointed out that there was not even a single geologic map on the environmental impact study that was released. When Lewis said the N.C. DOT would give her all that information, Mayes retorted that it should have been released long ago.

Graham County Commissioner Steve Odom reminded citizens that even though Corridor K is controversial, they should realize that the county’s roads do need to be fixed in some way.

“It’s dangerous, I tell you,” said Odom. “You folks have a lot to debate, but we have some immediate needs, too.”


Weigh in on Corridor K

Let the N.C. DOT know what you think about the Corridor K Project by Dec. 4.

Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or write to Ed Lewis, NCDOT - Human Environment Unit; 1598 Mail Service Center; Raleigh, NC 27699-1598.


A bill is moving through Congress that could help boost the local economy and create jobs by drawing international tourists to Western North Carolina.

The legislation would charge overseas visitors a $10 fee. The revenue would be used to market the United States as a travel destination internationally. The promotion would be carried out by a nonprofit created for the purpose.

The bill comes as welcome news to Karen Wilmot, executive director of Swain County’s Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s very cost-prohibitive for us to focus a great deal of attention abroad,” said Wilmot. “I look forward to the initiative. It’s an untapped market, and that’s what we’re all looking for.”

Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, cosponsored the Tourism Promotion Act. It passed the House overwhelmingly. A similar bill passed in the Senate, and the two versions are currently being reconciled.

“International travelers will provide a much-needed economic jolt to the U.S. economy,” said Shuler.

The fee would only apply to visitors who do not need a visa to enter the U.S., including those from Australia, New Zealand, and most of Europe.

Most local entities concerned with tourism rely on the N.C. Division of Tourism to go after international tourists. The state agency recruited two groups of travel writers from the U.K. and Germany in the past year to visit Western North Carolina.

According to Wilmot, the German group thoroughly enjoyed visiting Cherokee and riding motorcycles through area roads.

In Wilmot’s experience, many international visitors who come to WNC hail from the U.K., Germany and Japan, all countries that would be affected by the new legislation.

Wilmot said these travelers are drawn to the Southern Appalachian culture, Cherokee heritage and the scenery.

“The natural beauty would speak to anyone no matter what nationality,” said Wilmot.

In addition, Western North Carolina has many small towns with a “lost Americana feel,” said Wilmot.

Ashley Rice, who handles marketing for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said there’s no money in their advertising budget going overseas right now. But the market clearly holds potential, she said.

Rice said the touring group from the U.K. enjoyed golf, fly-fishing, and hiking in the area.

“The feel of the mountains does remind them of home,” said Rice.

Visiting the Appalachians is less expensive than many U.S. destinations, Rice said.

According to Rice, there is a “fair amount” of overseas travelers headed to local visitor’s centers. For example, a few from South Africa and Italy recently visited one in Canton.

While the United States has no shortage of travel destinations, Shuler said the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the country and is sure to benefit from the bill.

Shuler said even if a few thousand more visitors come to the area annually for the next four years, word of mouth and repeat business would help generate an increase in revenues.

The act is designed to attract up to 1.6 million new international visitors to the United States, creating nearly 40,000 jobs in the first year.

While many other foreign governments promote their countries abroad, this would be the U.S. government’s first foray into this type of marketing venture.

It is not clear yet how the nonprofit would market specific areas of the U.S., like Western North Carolina.

For now, North Carolina lags far behind other states in attracting international tourists, with 355,000 visitors from abroad in 2008. It is the 17th most visited state in the country, while New York, California, Florida, Nevada, and Hawaii comprise the top five.


Western North Carolina has so embraced mountain vernacular architecture that local planning boards across the area are prodding developers into adopting the style.

While officials stop short of handing over a checklist to architects that includes stacked stone, steep pitched roofs and exposed timbers, they strongly encourage using natural materials and earthy colors. The result seems to be an overall rise in mountain-style architecture in areas that promote them.

So far, such appearance standards have been adopted in Waynesville, Cashiers, Cherokee, and a section of U.S. 441 in Jackson County that leads to Cherokee.

Maggie Valley hopes to jump on the bandwagon, with a planning board now ruminating on a draft of land development standards.

The planning boards that adopt these policies don’t see them as dictatorial. They say the policies promote a cohesive look that is both attractive and good for tourism. Moreover, mountain-style architecture is representative of Western North Carolina and connotes a sense of place.

“It’s who we are,” said Linda Cable, planning director for Jackson County. “It blends in with the nature, the geography and the scenery.”


The quest for harmony

Places that have adopted design standards all seem to echo the mountain theme. Some encourage, others mandate principles like these:

• warm, natural colors like beige, dark green and brown, rather than flamboyant colors like hot pink or neon green.

• articulated frontages with windows, porticos or varying color tones, rather than flat, monotonous building fronts.

• natural siding like wood, log, native stone, or brick, rather than vinyl or stucco.

Brandon Stephens, building construction manager for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said Cherokee’s building standards mainly discourage architecture that is discordant with the mountain environs.

“What we’re trying to go for is those colors that complement the mountains,” said Stephens. “Anything from dirt to the leaves on trees.”

According to Cable, these kinds of standards are appropriate for communities that would like to maintain a mountain character as they grow.

Cable denied that the design standards scare off developers from the region.

“I don’t think that’s an issue,” said Cable. “Once a company understands that a community has guidelines, then they are willing to modify their plans.”

One example of a corporate giant’s compliance is the Wendy’s that was developed in Cashiers under the standards. It features heavy rock work and a sign with more subdued colors than the company’s usual vivid red logo.

The new Wal-Mart in Waynesville also bowed down to the town’s community appearance commission’s demands a few years ago.

After the company’s architects offered the same-old big-box design for its new location, the commission sternly pointed them back to the drawing board.

That’s when Patrick Bradshaw, an engineer in Waynesville, took the Wal-Mart architects on a 30-minute whirlwind driving tour of the town to give them a flavor of what the commission members desired.

Wal-Mart’s architects came back with a better understanding of the town’s vision, bringing with them a design that incorporated ornamental exposed timber beams, stacked stone entryways, and more neutral, natural colors, successfully winning commission members’ hearts.


No “hard and fast”

Though many businesses have opted for mountain-style architecture under the appearance standards, towns have been flexible enough to allow wholly different looks.

Mib Medford, a member of the Waynesville Community Appearance Commission, stressed there is no “hard and fast” with the standards since they are simply guidelines.

Though design standards give businesses various options for complying, some styles will fit in better than others.

Bradshaw pointed out that both Wal-Mart and the much more contemporary McDonald’s in Waynesville were developed under the same standards. But it’s obvious to him that Wal-Mart’s design fits in better with the town’s character.

“Which one makes you feel like you’re in the mountains?” asked Bradshaw.

Maggie Valley, which is following the lead of towns like Waynesville and Cashiers, is still working on drafting the best possible design standards for future construction and major renovations.

Maggie Valley’s planning director Nathan Clark said the town’s mantra would be “ballpark, not bulls-eye,” allowing for accommodations in design rather than requiring every building to feature mountain-style.

“It’s not cut and dry, where everything has to be a Swiss chalet,” said Clark. “We still want to have some of that Maggie Valley individual style and flair.”

Clark says Maggie Valley’s proposed design standards would give the town a “new spark” that would jumpstart its tourism-dependent economy.


The hunt for a festival director for Maggie Valley is officially over.

Beating out 22 other applicants, Audrey Hager took over the position in mid-December.

With Hager at the helm of the town’s struggling festival grounds, Maggie Valley is hoping to break its cycle of fleeting festival directors, who failed to bring lasting success to the venue.

Taxpayers subsidized roughly half of the festival grounds’ $1 million cost, aiming to reap a windfall from tourism business brought in by events held there.

When the last festival director, who lasted a mere three months, was fired in May, the town decided to hold off on filling the position to see if events still materialized.

The laissez-faire attitude garnered criticism from many business owners who rely on special events to bring tourists and customers to their doors.

Town Manager Tim Barth said the process wasn’t unnecessarily delayed since the town wanted to be careful with its next pick.

“We wanted to get somebody on as quickly as we could,” said Barth, who hopes Hager will line up events for those weekends that are still freed up for next summer.

Hager said while she’s heard a lot of negativity about the festival grounds, she wants to play a positive role in Maggie Valley. Hager had nothing critical to say about her predecessor.

“I’m not here to sling mud,” said Hager. “All I can say is he’s he, and I’m me ... maybe it wasn’t the right fit, but now they have the right fit.”

Hager hopes to not only line up events for some of the gaps in next summer’s festival season but to also pursue a long-term strategy.

“Trying to fill in holes for the calendar for this year [and] trying to plant seeds and develop events for 2010, 2011, 2012,” said Hager.

Hager’s extensive experience in lining up entertainment will certainly assist the endeavor.

She has helped promote nearly every kind of event, including celebrity golf, 6,000-seat concerts, fishing tournaments, hunting events, car giveaways, sock hops, old car shows, billiard tournaments, live boxing, tough man contests, mixed martial arts, and downhill skiing events in Tahoe.

“I’ve probably done 300 events a year,” said Hager, who has collaborated with musicians like the Doobie Brothers, Rick Springfield and Alice Cooper.

Her most recent position was entertainment manager at Harrah’s in southern Indiana.

Hager said she plans to use the connections she already has to line up events in Maggie Valley

Last week, Hager made contact with a friend who organizes such mega events as Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits festival, who got her in touch with the organizer for MerleFest in Wilkesboro.

Hager said it’s relationships like that that will give her an in with the promoter crowd in the Southeast.

In the near future, Hager would like to organize a fam, or familiarity tour, to bring corporate meeting planners and other promoters to Maggie to see the venue.

Hager will also help the town get its promotional DVD together, making sure it’s properly geared to a promoter audience.

Changing focus

Hager said her priority is to bring business to the town through the festival grounds but to do that, she must first lay a foundation by getting the word out to promoters.

She would like to get Maggie Valley featured in trade magazines dedicated to promoting festivals and special events, as well as on the Web.

In the future, Hager would like to pursue a signature event for Maggie Valley, similar to Folkmoot in Waynesville, Bel Chere in Asheville, and Merlefest in Wilkesboro.

“We could work with Asheville so we’re not competing directly with Asheville, work with Waynesville so it’s not the same time as Folkmoot,” said Hager. “We don’t want to compete with those. We want to support their events, and we want them to support ours as well.”

But unlike previous festival directors, Hager’s priority is not to spend all day brainstorming ideas for events.

“The sky’s the limit on the type of events,” said Hager. “We can have all the ideas for events in the world, but if we don’t have somebody to pay to bring the event to Maggie Valley, then we don’t have an event.”

Instead, Hager said her chief strategy is getting the word out to promoters about Maggie Valley, which she considers Western North Carolina’s best-kept secret.

When Hager’s husband transferred to Harrah’s in Cherokee three years ago, Hager made frequent trips to the area. At that point, she didn’t even realize Maggie Valley was separate from Waynesville.

Hager said she would like to do a better job of letting people know about Maggie Valley, which she said is central, beautiful, and has a lot to offer.

“When I think of this area, I don’t think Maggie Valley. I think Asheville, I think Blue Ridge Parkway,” said Hager. “I think where we missed the boat is letting people know about this location.”

According to Hager, Maggie Valley’s target tourist is an active babyboomer, who enjoys the outdoors and riding motorcycles on the area’s curvy roads.

Part of the process in attracting such a clientele is working closely with business owners. At first, Hagar hoped to go door to door to meet local entrepreneurs, but the town is planning to organize a meet-and-greet with the business community in January.

“I think we can all work together,” said Hager, who would also like to cooperate with venues at Eaglenest, Harrah’s, and the Biltmore Estate.

“I don’t know if they’ll partner with us, but I can certainly try,” said Hager.

Hager was born in New Hampshire, spent 20 years in Lake Tahoe, Calif. and most recently came from southern Illinois, near Louisville.


It has been a difficult year for environmental nonprofits. State budget cuts have meant fewer grants and philanthropic endowments have suffered with the stock market. Meanwhile, the focus of giving has shifted towards social issues, like providing food, housing and services for the working poor or jobless.

How do you convince someone of the necessity of protecting the environment when people are suffering? That’s a question that Kate Parkerson, development director for the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, has to answer.

“Finding ways to help communities get through these times is very important but preserving natural resources in rural counties is a way to ensure that they continue to support themselves,” Parkerson said.

Parkerson said environmental causes always represent the smallest slice of the philanthropic pie, but the current economic climate has squeezed their resources from two directions.

“Foundations and state funding have been cut, so the Catch2222 is that you rely more on private donors at a time when they are stretched,” Parkerson said.

Parkerson said LTLT has been fortunate with its private donations this year, but even after cutting its budget by 20 percent, the organization is looking at starting next year in the red.

LTLT received over $1 million from a scenic byway grant to protect the Wood Family Farm in Andrews, but the money hinges on their ability to match it at 30 percent.

Parkerson said in today’s fundraising environment, it pays to have a clear message.

“Clean water, healthy forests, productive farmlands are the basic things that support rural economies. If these things are healthy, the people have a way of supporting themselves,” Parkerson said.

Another hit to environmental initiatives is waning support from state and local government, according to George Ivey, a grant writer and project manager for nonprofits.

Haywood County ceased even nominal contributions to nonprofits, including local environmental groups. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped state froze and even robbed trust funds designated for land conservation. That impacted Ivey’s work with Haywood County tobacco farmers looking for new crops that would make farming viable again, which in turn would preserve the agricultural landscape.

“There simply wasn’t as much grant money to go around to help farmers trying to transition away from tobacco. That money definitely seemed to dry up,” said Ivey, who lives in Haywood County.

Corporate donations were down as well, given the troubled economic times.

“When they are laying off staff, it is difficult for them to make a sizeable donation. There was a definitive drop-off there,” said Ivey, who often courts large corporations and corporate foundations to support environmental initiatives.

Ivey said some funders recognized the hard times environmental groups were facing and increased their giving. But environmental groups had to write better proposals and be more judicious about which projects to pursue, judging the effectiveness of each and weighing how well they fit their mission. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The best projects would still rise to the top and get funded over the ones that weren’t as well thought out or seemed redundant,” Ivey said.

An easy area to scale back was special events that gained public awareness for a group’s mission and built support for their work, but didn’t net a return, like fundraising dinners.

Another side effect is that environmental groups collaborated more. Sometimes groups with overlapping missions ended up working together at the request of donors themselves.

“They said maybe y’all need to talk together or work together better,” Ivey said.

Some environmental groups simply couldn’t maintain the staff they once had. The National Parks Conservation Association shut down a field office in Asheville and laid off a staff person who worked to protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway.

But the news isn’t all bad. Houk Medford, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, said his organization is doing better than it did last year.

The foundation serves as a fundraising entity for the National Park Service’s work to maintain and improve the land bordering the parkway.

“I think the support is a reflection of the strong interest people have in the Blue Ridge Parkway because for a lot of people it’s the national park in their backyard,” Medford said.

Medford said they key to fundraising for environmental causes is to realize that the preserving natural resources is work that looks to the future.

“The message has to be future-based with a present moment sense of urgency,” Medford said.


The Town of Maggie Valley decided Monday to lay off its building inspector after already trimming 10 hours off his weekly schedule earlier this year.

Town Manager Tim Barth said there was a strong economic case to discontinue the town’s building inspections department since the county provides the same service.

Smaller towns often opt to go through a county building inspector rather than employing their own. Waynesville and Canton have their own inspections departments, but Sylva and Bryson City do not.

After the recession hit and building activity plummeted, the town has had to increasingly subsidize the department.

Barth estimates that the town will spend $50,000 to prop up the department in the 2009-2010 fiscal year — a number that has been on the rise as fees from building permits have dropped. In the 2007-2008 fiscal year, the town spent $37,000 more than it brought in through fees, and $40,000 in 2008-2009.

“It’s just too expensive to continue to have,” said Barth. “Building activity has dropped off significantly in the last couple of years. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify having a position where the person doesn’t have as much work to do.”

Barth said the building activity may pick up, but the town may never do building inspections again if the new arrangement works out well.

Alderman Colin Edwards said the option of hiring another building inspector is not off the table in the long-term.

“If we see the need to hire another building inspector, we can do that, but right now, times are tough and we need to save the taxpayers all we can,” said Edwards.

Maggie building inspector Ron Mercier said the county could not provide the same level of service.

“I’m here all the time,” said Mercier. “I provide a much better service than the county ever could because I’m local. I care more about Maggie Valley than the county does.”

According to Mercier, the board is doing a disservice to the town by eliminating his position.

“They’re not lowering the taxes but are taking away services,” Mercier said.


Conflict of interest?

Mercier’s supporters suspect personal motives are a factor in the town’s move, but Edwards disagrees.

The town’s motives are strictly economic, he said.

According to Edwards, the decision had nothing to do with a complaint against the building inspector brought to the town in October. The decision to cut Mercier’s hours came in July.

“We’ve been thinking about this, probably four or five months,” said Edwards.

The October complaint was brought forward by Jim Redmond, who owns Leatherwood Cottages, where Edwards has a cottage.

Redmond demanded the town reimburse him for $300 after Mercier mistakenly told him to remove and reinstall wiring for a pavilion at Leatherwood Cottages.

According to town minutes, Redmond said he’d also heard several complaints against Mercier and asked the town to let Mercier go.

Alderwoman Saralyn Price said at the meeting that Barth should take over the matter since it was a personnel issue, which is usually handled by the town manager.

Edwards claims the wiring issue played no role whatsoever in the town’s move toward shutting down the inspections department. The cost, which was split up among 17 cottage owners, was not significant.

“That ain’t never cost nobody nothing,” said Edwards.

Edwards repeated that only the recession was driving the decision.

“We’re losing so much money having a building inspector, and we’re trying to trim the fat,” Edwards said.


Defending the inspector

While contractors in other towns usually complain about building inspectors who help enforce codes, those in Maggie Valley actually came to Mercier’s defense.

Several spoke up at last week’s town meeting to ask the town to keep the building inspections department.

“Once the economy starts picking up, we’re going to get slammed here,” said Torry Pinter, a general contractor who spoke at the meeting.

“Just because the economy’s down and the building is down...using personal vendettas or personal problems as a reason to get rid of Ron is not right,” said Burton Edwards, a planning board member and Colin Edwards’ cousin.

Burton added Maggie Valley had no right to annex territory if it did not make an effort to support code enforcement.

“If we’re going to annex and we’re going to grow, we’re going to need a building inspector,” said Burton.

According to Burton, getting rid of the building inspector while there’s no building activity is akin to getting rid of a fire truck because there were no fires last year.

“If it’s a money issue, find a way to keep him please,” said Burton.

Meanwhile Kyle Edwards, owner of the Stompin’ Ground and Colin Edwards’ uncle, said the town could come up with the money to support the department if it wanted to.

Kyle added that the building inspector helps homebuyers, home builders, the town board, the mayor, and everyone else in town.

Sometimes, people get upset when the building inspector does his job and goes by the books, Kyle said.

According to Colin Edwards, the primary responsibility for enforcing codes rests with Nathan Clark, the town planner.

“We put that on Ron to help Nathan,” said Colin.

The town board held a meeting on Monday and went into closed session to discuss personnel issues.

After coming out of closed session, board members engaged in a “brief discussion” and passed a motion to move forward with eliminating the building inspection department, Barth said.

The town board was careful to not discuss the topic in closed session, according to Barth.

According to N.C. Open Meetings Law, an elected board can discuss an employee’s performance in closed session, but they can’t talk about general issues of town operations. Barth said the town did not discuss eliminating the building inspections department in closed session.


After a slight increase in overnight visitors this fall following a dismal summer, Haywood County tourism officials are dreading November reports.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Lynn Collins, executive director of Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, at a town meeting in Maggie Valley last week.

Tourism businesses were dealt a double whammy in November, Collins said, with the Oct. 25 rockslide shutting down part of a major interstate near Tennessee and warmer weather preventing Cataloochee Ski Area from opening until the very end of November.

“Last year, Cataloochee opened Oct. 28,” said Collins. “A full month of skiers helped November last year.”

So far this fiscal year, Haywood has seen an overall 6 percent decline in overnight visitors.

Compared to last year, the county saw tourism revenues drop by 14 percent in July and 9 percent in August. But the TDA took in 4 percent more revenue in September and saw a 1 percent increase in October.

“The economy is easing a little bit,” said Ken Stahl, finance chairman of the TDA. “[But] it’s not where we’d like to see it.”

Stahl said the TDA has had several discussions with N.C. DOT on the rockslide cleanup process, which will take at least until March and possibly May to complete.

“We’re hoping that they’re going to be able to beat their estimates because of the economic impact,” said Stahl, adding that all sectors of the economy, not just tourism, have been impacted by the rockslide.


Business owners in Western North Carolina are wrapping up an absurdly challenging year.

On top of dealing with a lingering recession and a rockslide that has shut down a major section of Interstate 40 for months, they faced a major snowstorm Friday, before one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year.

The few shoppers who ventured out to Waynesville’s Main Street on Saturday were greeted mostly with closed signs, though a handful of stores were open.

One of them was the Christian Bible Book Shop, whose owner could easily open shop on Saturday since he’d spent Friday night sleeping at the bookstore.

Another was Twigs & Leaves, whose employee Kathy Baumler spent Friday night in the owner’s apartment above the store to ensure doors would be open on Saturday.

The streets were deserted that day, but the few shoppers who braved the roads were grateful that the store was open for business.

Baumler said she even had customers who traveled from Georgia specifically to see the snow.

October, July and December are the three biggest months for Twigs & Leaves and many other stores in Waynesville.

Unfortunately, the snowstorm interrupted the usual crescendo of sales right up till Christmas Eve, Baumler said.

“You feel somewhat disappointed looking forward to the adrenaline flow of all that activity, and it isn’t there,” said Baumler.

Baumler likened being a retailer in 2009 to being a farmer coping with a year of bad weather, acknowledging that some things are just out of business owners’ control.

“You adjust to that,” Baumler said. “There’s not a thing you can do about it.”

Over in Sylva, less snow on the ground meant more stores were open for business over the weekend.

Hollifield Jewelry was one Sylva store that remained open.

“We still had customers on Saturday,” said owner Steve Dennis. “Just nothing like we would have on a Saturday this close to Christmas.”

For Dennis, the six-week holiday shopping season accounts for 60 percent of his annual revenue. But Dennis anticipated a slower holiday season by slashing prices at his store.

Dennis said the downfall in business started last year and has snowballed since then.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the writing on the wall all year long,” said Dennis, who lowered prices by 20 to 40 percent.

Though Dennis had been able to move higher-end items in the past, he knew that people would continue being cautious with their pocketbooks this year.

“People still want to buy a gift, but they simply don’t have as much income,” said Dennis.

Like many other stores, Dennis will extend store hours in the last days leading up to Christmas to accommodate full-time workers who missed out on the final shopping weekend before Christmas.

While many shopkeepers say they are doing business that is comparable to last year, Dennis pointed out that nobody was exactly setting any records. And the snow certainly didn’t help.

“It most definitely was a perfect storm,” said Dennis.

Some employees reported that their stores actually benefitted from the snowstorm, including Blackrock Outdoor Company and Jackson’s General Store in Sylva, and Mast General Store in Waynesville.

Alex Hunt, an employee at Blackrock, said the store closed three hours early on Friday but was open through the weekend.

While Friday had been “dead,” business picked up on Saturday afternoon.

“Saturday I know a lot of people were coming in asking for propane, gas, lanterns,” said Hunt.

“The cold weather may have helped our sales,” said store manager Kirk Childress. “We sold a lot of gloves and hats on Saturday.”

Childress said while October sales were up, November was a different story.

“The week of Thanksgiving was good,” said Childress. “All the rest of November was bad news.”

So far, December has been decent for Blackrock, according to Childress.

However, cold and rainy weather has contributed to a less than average holiday season at Earthworks Frame Gallery in Waynesville.

Due to the recession, some have tightened their spending circles and stopped buying gifts for as many people as they had in years past, said store manager Elisa Holder.

“We definitely do rely on that end of year rush,” said Holder. “Three or four years ago, we would have people lined up out the door to get in and a wrapping station with girls, that’s all they did all day, was wrap.”

While Earthworks planned to stay open late Thursday through Sunday, the snowstorm shut down operations on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“The three biggest days,” said Holder. “We’re working seven days a week, having it all lead up to this weekend, and it falls flat.”

Holder and several other Waynesville shopkeepers reported that they saw poor attendance at the annual Night Before Christmas events, when stores are open late on the first two Saturdays in December to encourage shopping. But weather wasn’t kind again, with freezing temperatures, rain and even a light snow to blame for the lower than usual turnout.

However, Deanna Schleifer, owner of Christmas is Everyday in Waynesville, said she had “great” attendance during the event. But the snowstorm swung things around.

“If this hadn’t happened, I could have met last year,” said Schleifer. “That’s how good it’s been.”

Annie Ritota, owner of Annie’s Naturally Bakery in Sylva, said while business is definitely down compared to last year, there was some hope to be found on Monday.

“I did see an awful lot of people shopping today,” said Ritota. “I was surprised. A lot of people who were unable to shop over the weekend came.”

Ritota decided to open the bakery that day even though it is customarily closed on the first workday of the week.


State officials have not turned a blind eye to the economic pain caused by the rockslide in Western North Carolina, but Haywood Tourism Development Authority officials say their strategy is off the mark.

First off, the state’s tourism division is devoting $110,000 to a radio campaign in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas informing potential travelers they can still visit WNC despite the Interstate 40 closure.

The campaign was driven by a survey conducted by the state commerce department in the wake of the rockslide.

After polling 1,000 prospective travelers in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Knoxville, Raleigh, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, state officials concluded that misconceptions about the road closure reigned in Raleigh and Charlotte.

“Unfortunately, that’s not our markets for this time of year,” Collins said. “I know innkeepers are concerned about the Florida market. They would like to see additional advertising [there].”

During the holiday season, Collins said most travelers to Haywood County hail from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.

According to the research, however, people in Raleigh and Charlotte seemed most likely to change their travel plans to avoid WNC, said Wit Tuttell, spokesman for the state Division of Tourism.

Tuttell said the state had to look at the entire region, not just Haywood County, even though the rockslide occured there.

“We have to represent everybody,” said Tuttell, adding that the state does help promote skiing in WNC, including at Cataloochee, with an annual $75,000 marketing campaign that targets the Southeast.

In partnership with the North Carolina Ski Association, the state funds television advertising in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

From Thanksgiving until Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the radio campaign will direct listeners to the state Division of Tourism’s Web site for further information.

That Web site has already gotten 12,000 hits on its rockslide advisory page, which includes ample maps and directions.

“We know we’ve got people’s attention with that,” said Tuttell.

Meanwhile, Haywood’s TDA has dedicated $15,000 toward its own marketing campaign.

Part of that money helped the TDA buy Google Adwords for “Western North Carolina” and “rockslide” to direct Internet searchers to its Web site, which prominently displays multiple detours to the region.


Wrangling over signs

Haywood tourism officials are also miffed with the North Carolina Department of Transportation for not putting up more signs indicating that WNC is still open for business.

Collins said the TDA worked with N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, to coax the DOT to change its wording on electronic road signs. Signs initially warned drivers upon reaching Asheville that Interstate 40 was closed ahead and lured drivers to take a detour around WNC. New language was incorporated to list which exits were still open beyond Asheville

But since then, Collins has heard reports that that language isn’t consistently visible.

Reuben Moore, division operations engineer for DOT’s Division 14, which includes Haywood County, said the signs cycle through the messages, so drivers can miss part of it.

“If you miss the message the first time, you might get part of it the second time around,” said Moore. The letters are two feet tall, which allows people to begin reading the signs six seconds away.

Joel Setzer, division engineer for 10 western counties, said the DOT had to be careful not to direct truck traffic across the Great Smokies with the new signage.

“The DOT is trying to get out accurate information out that does not promote commercial and high volumes of traffic to U.S. 441 because that would be unsafe,” Setzer said.

Collins said even if the signs haven’t changed, she hopes the DOT will put up more signs that state WNC is open for business, ideally capturing the attention of drivers upon first entering the region as far out as Hendersonville on I-26 and Hickory on I-40.


The North Carolina Department of Transportation has found a silver lining in the Interstate 40 closure following a massive rockslide in late October near the Tennessee line.

It is taking advantage of the months-long shut down by fast-tracking maintenance work already in the pipeline.

The N.C. DOT expects to spend a total of $4.5 million on routine maintenance along the corridor while contractors continue hauling away debris from the massive rockslide.

Transportation Secretary Gene Conti recently awarded a $2 million contract for a new concrete surface on the I-40 bridge over White Oak Road in Jonathan Creek.

The work is less costly now that contractors don’t have to work around a constant flow of traffic, according to Joel Setzer, DOT division engineer for 10 western counties.

“When the rockslide occurred, we immediately saw an opportunity,” said Setzer.

In all, DOT workers are tackling four bridge deck repairs, repaving three tunnels, and replacing all arrows and reflectors on the median walls.

They’re trimming trees, removing brush, mowing slopes and performing drainage maintenance.

N.C. DOT’s Geotech Unit is also inspecting other areas along the corridor that previously have had rockslides to check for potential problems. Setzer said the Geotech Unit has so far done only visual inspections, but it plans to further explore riskier areas by foot.

While the DOT had already commissioned workers to trim trees on all roads in Haywood County, they were all redirected to the I-40 corridor immediately after the rockslide.


Swain County commissioners have settled a ten-month long lawsuit with Buckeye Construction for $30,000, far less than the $127,000 originally demanded.

“I think the county came out a winner on this, even though it cost us,” said Commissioner Glenn Jones.

McGill Associates, an Asheville-based engineering firm that designed the construction project in question, will pick up $15,000 of the cost, while the county will cover the remaining $15,000.

The lawsuit centered around a sewer project in the Franklin Grove community. When Buckeye encountered more water underground than expected, the company decided to widen the ditches and add more stone and gravel to better support the pipes.

While the change added significant cost to the project, Buckeye did not first get a change order to formalize the cost overruns. Buckeye sued the county in February, after Swain refused to pay the additional costs.

Swain County filed a motion to dismiss the case based on jurisdiction but that motion was dismissed. The county immediately appealed the decision in June. Recently, Swain recently received a settlement offer from Buckeye. During a closed session at a county meeting Monday, Swain commissioners agreed to settle the case.

Buckeye began work on the Franklin Grove sewer project in August 2007. Plans for the project called for a minimum amount of stone to be used around the pipes.

“That part was done to specification,” said Danny Bridges, principal for McGill’s Asheville office.

But McGill never came to an agreement with Buckeye over the actual quantity of stone that was used in the project, according to Bridges. Bridges said the contractor had multiple options for dealing with the situation and chose to put stone in the trench prior to giving a price.


When store owners pack up their holiday decorations next month, there’s one thing Karen Wilmot hopes they will leave up — a sign that reminds residents to shop local.

As director of Swain County’s Chamber of Commerce, Wilmot handed out 100 free signs to local businesses a week before Thanksgiving. In large red print, the signs say “Shop Local,” with “Make a difference in your community” underneath. Wilmot said it was the perfect time to encourage local shopping.

“With the holiday time upon us, everyone always thinks, ‘Let’s shop out of town, let’s go to the mall, let’s go somewhere and wait for that early bird 5 a.m. special,’” said Wilmot. “I thought ‘Why not roll it out when people are in the mood to shop?’”

But that doesn’t mean the local shops stop needing local customers after the holiday season ends.

“This isn’t just something that we want to stress during the holidays, but every day,” said Wilmot.

According to Wilmot, many business owners were pleased with the initiative, and some have reported that it has helped sales increase incrementally.

Wilmot said though there hasn’t been explosive growth in sales, the shop local campaign, like many other grassroots efforts, will slowly catch on.

The chamber has also launched the 3/50 project, which encourages all citizens to spend a total of $50 a month at three local businesses they couldn’t live without.

In Wilmot’s view, anyone who values the community should support its businesses. The difference between supporting a chain or a local business could come down to a mother or father losing a job, Wilmot added.

“One person shopping at one store could make that difference,” said Wilmot.


Local governments have begun the process of regulating cyber sweepstakes machines, which are multiplying rapidly across Western North Carolina.

The responsibility for regulating cyber sweepstakes has largely been left in local governments’ hands until a consensus is reached at a state level on whether these machines akin to video gambling should be legal.

The Town of Franklin passed a measure last week that would require businesses with sweepstakes machines to fork over $2,600 each year for a business license.

Franklin Town Manager Sam Greenwood said one of the town’s main goals is to locate all businesses that operate cyber sweepstakes machines. For now, each business can have up to 4 cyber sweepstakes machines.

Greenwood said cyber sweepstakes are so profitable that a $2,600 annual fee is not excessive.

“Looking at the profit ratio return, it doesn’t seem to be that much after all,” said Greenwood.

Greenwood said the town wanted to stay away from regulating the machines and treat the issue from a licensing standpoint. But the fees do serve another purpose.

“It’s an expression of the town’s displeasure with having them,” said Greenwood.

Meanwhile, Maggie Valley’s planning board unanimously recommended restrictions on cyber sweepstakes be inserted into the town’s zoning ordinance. The town board of aldermen must approve the amendment before it can be put in place.

As the planning board’s amendment stands, the machines must be at least 500 feet away from dwellings, 1,000 feet away from any other business with cyber sweepstakes, and 1,000 feet away from schools, religious institutions, libraries, daycare centers and public parks.

The ordinance also states that there must be at least 1,000 square feet of indoor space per machine. The requirement prevents a small storefront from housing nothing but a series of video gaming machines, since each machine would require floor space equivalent to a typical one-bedroom apartment.

A 90-day moratorium on new cyber sweepstakes machines is still in effect in Maggie until the board passes the new regulations.

Maggie Planning Director Nathan Clark said he’s not ruling out the possibility of charging a fee in the future, but amending the zoning ordinance is the bigger priority for now.

“It’s more to the heart of what the moratorium was about,” said Clark.

If passed by the town board, the amendment would not apply to businesses that already operated cyber sweepstakes machines before the moratorium was passed.

However, these businesses would be affected if they expand operations.

The Town of Canton also has a 90-day moratorium on sweepstakes machines in place, but it has yet to approve any regulations.


How we got here

A loophole in the video poker ban has allowed cyber sweepstakes to proliferate across the state. The gaming industry’s new formula has so far been successful in bypassing every restriction that has originated in the state legislature.

A Superior Court judge in Guilford County issued a preliminary injunction, prohibiting law enforcement officers from taking any action against the machines until state law is clarified.

The judge even banned law enforcement officers from stating publicly that the machines are illegal.

Earlier this year, a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled that prohibiting electronic gaming statewide while allowing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to operate the games was unconstitutional. That ruling has been stayed pending appeal.

While cyber sweepstakes are similar to video poker, they do not directly involve cash. Customers buy a phone or Internet card, or enter a contest for the chance to play at the sweepstakes terminal for free.

They have the option of swiping that card on the sweepstakes machine to play games of chance. Playing those games will allow them to see how much phone or Internet time they’ve won by buying the card. Customers have the option of then cashing in the phone or Internet time they’ve won for money.


Promptly after ringing in the new year, North Carolina will usher in a smoking ban in restaurant and bars on Jan. 2.

While most restaurants are moseying on with the status quo for now, Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant in Waynesville is taking the smoking ban quite seriously.

The restaurant will not only shut down its smoking section but also its doors — from Dec. 21 to Jan 13 anyway.

Deb Matthews, owner of Pasquale’s, said she’s temporarily closing shop to change carpets, repaint the interior and do whatever else is necessary to rid the restaurant of the cigarette smell that’s embedded itself inside over the years.

“We thought it wouldn’t be nice for the customer to walk in and have it still smell like smoke,” said Matthews.

Instead of hurting business, Matthews said the ban might actually bring more in. Some non-smokers prefer to frequent restaurants that do not allow any smoking at all.

Matthews said the smoking ban would be a healthier policy for both employees and customers.

While Matthews’ patrons who smoke can’t argue with that fact, they diverge on whether the ban is a good thing.

“We’re a tobacco state,” said Trish Lavender, a regular at Pasquale’s. “We grow it, we should be able to smoke it.”

“I think it’s great,” said Kathy McCracken, another Pasquale’s customer who smokes. “I don’t smoke in my house or truck... I can’t stand the smell.”

In fact, the smell of smoke seems to be more offensive to customers and restaurant workers than the health risks involved with secondhand smoke.

“It’s not even people’s health, it’s the smell,” said Lisa Bessent, who owns O’Malleys on Main in Waynesville. “It’s all over your hair and your clothes. If you don’t smoke, it’s not a very pleasant smell.”

O’Malleys allows smoking upstairs only after 9 p.m. so that lunch crowds aren’t driven away by the smoke.

Though smoking is allowed at all times in the basement, Bessent said her customers are accustomed to going outside to smoke.

“Nobody’s going to want to smoke and go outside when it’s midnight and cold, but they will,” said Bessent.

Customers can’t have their coffee with cigarettes at Panacea Coffeehouse, Café & Roastery in Waynesville, but they are allowed to take a drag on the café’s deck outside.

Like Bessent, the café’s owner Brian Pierce acknowledges the health risks associated with smoking. But he decided to prohibit smoking inside Panacea when it opened seven years ago to create a “nicer environment.”

“It’s just the smell and the feel,” said Pierce. “That’s all it is to me.”

Yet Pierce said the new smoking ban might not be appropriate.

“I think it’s borderline infringing on the rights of business owners,” said Pierce. “I feel as a patron of a business, it’s your decision.”

As it turns out, Panacea’s formula is perfectly in line with the new law, which prohibits smoking inside of bars and restaurants but allows it outside.

Hotels, motels and inns cannot designate more than 20 percent of their guest rooms as smoking rooms, according to the law.

The only exceptions to the smoking bans are nonprofit private clubs, country clubs, and of course, cigar bars.

Heading the campaign to educate restaurant and bar owners in Haywood County is Traci Clark, a program coordinator of the Hi-Top ASSIST Consortium, which supports tobacco use education.

Clark is distributing coasters that promote the smoke-free law on one side and on the other, a quit line to help smokers give up their cigarettes for good.

Along with a group called Healthy Haywood, Clark said she has been working on promoting smoke-free dining for years. Certain businesses in Haywood County have participated in smoke-free dining days, while those that already prohibit smoking received free publicity in newspaper ads, courtesy of Healthy Haywood.

According to Clark, most North Carolinians will obey and respect the new law, which would charge individuals up to $50 for violating the law. Restaurants and bars would be charged $200 if they repeatedly allow smoking inside their businesses.

“It’s just a matter of getting used to a new way of thinking,” said Clark. “This is another way to be considerate to another person’s health, especially for the wait staff who are exposed for long periods of time.”

Clark said most of the restaurant owners she has spoken with are happy with the new law.

According to Marty Lowe, owner of Bogart’s Restaurant in Waynesville, the ban will eliminate some long-standing issues in restaurants that allow smoking.

Lowe pointed out that sometimes non-smokers have to walk through a smoking section to grab a drink at the bar or visit the restroom.

“Certain nights, smoking is very heavy, and it can drift into the non-smoking section,” said Lowe.

For Lowe, complaining about the new ban is akin to complaining about taxes. Now that the ban is a done deal, Lowe is not interested in debating all the merits and downfalls.

“There are points to be made on either side,” said Lowe. “Let’s get on with it.”


Last week, Waynesville’s town board linked up with a growing grassroots movement that is calling for increased rail capacity.

The town board unanimously passed a resolution to support a move to rail service in North Carolina.

“To me, it’s just an obvious thing,” said Alderman LeRoy Roberson. “A railroad system is going to be the way for freight to be moved. It far outstrips the economy that you’re going to find with trucking.”

While the resolution doesn’t lead to any immediate action, Waynesville has joined 120 entities across the state that have urged expansion of freight train service in North Carolina.

For Roberson and many others, the benefits of rail include better fuel efficiency and more independence from foreign oil.

“I can’t imagine any group right now that’s going to oppose that,” said Roberson, adding that rapid train service would also be far more efficient than building new roads.

The town board supported the increasing use of both freight and passenger trains. But Roberson acknowledges that passenger trains won’t be crisscrossing Western North Carolina any time soon.

“That’s not going to happen in the near future, but you’ve got to move in that direction,” Roberson said.

For now, the state has plans to bring passenger rail to Asheville — but not further west.

Currently, there are plans for five major intercity passenger service additions in the state, including the Western North Carolina Passenger Rail Service from Asheville to Salisbury. From there, passengers could continue on to Raleigh and beyond.

Budget constraints have held back the expensive multimillion-dollar projects, but progress is ongoing.

“Slow moving, but ongoing,” said N.C. Representative Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who chairs the House committee dedicated to a comprehensive rail service plan for the state and is a member of the state Transportation Committee.

Rapp said the state’s first priority is to fund high-speed rail through North Carolina that will connect Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. The Salisbury-Asheville line would be a secondary branch off that main line.

According to the WNC Rail Corridor Committee, Asheville is the most frequently requested stop in the country for a new stop on Amtrak, the nation’s largest commuter rail company.

The committee represents the nine locations that are designated as future stops on the rail service from Salisbury to Asheville: Salisbury, Statesville, Hickory, Morganton, Valdese, Marion, Old Fort, Black Mountain and Asheville.

Upgrading a freight line between Salisbury and Asheville might run from $150 to $170 million, Rapp said.

While some of the nine towns have already spent millions on station upgrades, Rapp said Amtrak does not seem to have much interest in the Asheville-Salisbury line.

According to a study done by Wake Forest University, within the third year of operation, the proposed train service would carry only 70,000 passengers annually, below the desired critical mass.

“It really depends on how much we’re willing to subsidize that operation,” said Rapp. “Upgrading track, installing signals, straightening tracks — that’s why that cost figure has continued to rise.”

But local governments are still holding out hope for the ambitious railroad plan.

Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway said he would especially support a passenger rail line linking Asheville to Raleigh.

“The trip from Raleigh, it gets a little old,” said Galloway. “I’d much rather get on a train.”

Roberson pointed that having rail as a transportation option could have cut down the economic impact from the Interstate 40 rockslide.

“You’ve got a road closed until March, losing $1 million a day,” said Roberson.


After successfully enlisting the help of local government, Haywood Regional Medical Center and Maggie Valley Health Investors are chasing state grants to fund two new medical facilities in Haywood County.

Haywood County commissioners agreed to apply on HRMC’s behalf to help pay for a new hospice center.

Meanwhile, the Town of Maggie Valley partnered with Maggie Valley Health Investors to apply for a grant to fund a nursing home planned in Maggie.

Both companies had to recruit government support since grants from the North Carolina Rural Center are only open to local governments and governmental agencies. The grants reward companies that are planning expansions or new construction with $12,000 for each new job created.

The Rural Center received just finished up a round of grant applications for its Rural Health Initiative this week. A total of 15 grant applicants will be competing for a pool of $2 million.


Plans for Maggie Valley nursing home

The Town of Maggie Valley agreed to sponsor Maggie Valley Health Investors’ application for a $480,000 grant to build a 114-bed single-story nursing home in town.

Though the skilled nursing facility will create approximately 80 new full-time jobs, the Rural Center grants reach a maximum of $480,000 for 40 new jobs.

Board members voted unanimously to lend their support to the 40,000-square-foot project, which is estimated to cost $12.5 million. The facility will bring rehabilitation services, Alzheimer’s management and respite care to the area.

While the Town of Maggie Valley will not directly funnel any money into the project, town staff will spend time administering the grant.

Maggie Valley Health Investors already operates the Canton Christian Convalescent Center. Its Virginia-based parent company, Smith/Packett Med Com, is building another assisted living facility in Jackson County.


Hospice in Haywood

HRMC hopes to score a $132,000 grant for the 11 new jobs it will initially create by building a six-bed in-patient hospice center, The Homestead of HRMC.

HRMC is also planning an End-of-Life Outreach Center.

It will also include space for counseling services and bereavement therapy, a reference library and a community education center.

So far, the hospital foundation has raised $2.4 million of its $5 million goal.

HRMC plans to complete construction by July 2011.

Haywood County will be required to provide about $4,000 in matching funds if the grant is approved. County commissioners unanimously agreed to sponsor the grant application.


Haywood County commissioners decided Monday to move forward with the design phase for a proposed public park and sports field in Jonathan Creek.

The county’s Recreation and Parks Department is accepting conceptual proposals from local consultants until Dec. 30.

Though the public park is a recreational priority, the recession has pushed the project to the backburner.

“This has always been one of our front projects,” said Claire Carleton, recreation director for Haywood. “But [we realize] that this is not the time to ask for additional county funding.”

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick is looking forward to making progress on the park.

“We really need to proceed with a plan if we’re going to do anything with this in the future,” said Kirkpatrick. “The property is just sitting there.”

The 2007 comprehensive master plan calls for lighted baseball/softball fields, picnic facilities, creek access, a multipurpose field and sustainable design concepts at the new park.

The planning and design stage, which will include public input, is expected to take four to six months.

As of now, about $15,250 has been set aside for the planning process. Most will be funded with tourism revenue, with about $10,000 coming from lodging taxes collected in Maggie Valley and Waynesville.

Much public money has already been invested in the proposed park since 2007.

The county dropped $1 million on the 22-acre parcel in the midst of a heated bidding war that year. Soon after the county successfully bought the property, it became entangled in a lawsuit with a farmer who argued the property owner, Lucius Jones, had promised the land would be signed over to him upon Jones’ death.

The county did not settle the case until November 2008, and since then it has been leasing the property to the very same farmer.


The Interstate 40 rockslide cleanup could now take until May, according to Joel Setzer, head of the N.C. Department of Transportation for the region.

At a Haywood County commissioners meeting on Monday, Setzer stated the cleanup could take between three to five more months.

Each month tacked on to the estimate translates to a tougher economic battle for businesses that rely heavily on thru traffic on I-40. The road closure also deters tourists accustomed to easy access to the region via the interstate.

While the rockslide is currently impacting ski season in Maggie Valley, critical spring season tourism across the region would also be affected if the cleanup takes as long as May.

N.C. DOT officials had hoped to reopen the 20-mile section of road near the Tennessee border by the end of January, according to initial estimates made when the rockslide occurred in late October.

Soon after, the estimate was revised to February.

It has been difficult for the DOT to pin down exactly how long the cleanup will take, since there is still so much uncertainty about the slope’s overall stability.

The DOT is monitoring the slope every three hours to ensure the safety of contractors, who are drilling and blasting apart boulders into smaller pieces to be hauled away.

Depending on the slope’s stability, or instability, DOT might have to remove up to 6 million tons in material, thereby lengthening the cleanup process.

“After any blast, if that mass up there moves, we can’t stop because we made that unstable,” said Setzer. “You can’t put a fence at the bottom to hold this kind of weight.”

For now, the rock mass has been more stable than expected, allowing the DOT to pursue a plan that includes rock bolts.

Once installed, the rock bolts will help secure the slope by holding together independent rock masses.

Although motels, restaurants and gas stations near the closed section of I-40 are suffering a drop in business, the rockslide has managed to bring work to a few local businesses.

According to Setzer, the DOT recently hired about 14 Haywood County trucks to haul away tons of debris to a local U.S. Forest Service site. The material will be used in future road repairs.

On Sunday, the biggest blast since work started in late October brought down 5,000 cubic yards of material — weighing the equivalent of more than 1,000 full-grown elephants, according to the DOT.


North Carolina’s community colleges may have flung open their doors to illegal immigrants once again, but only a handful of undocumented students are likely to trickle into area colleges next fall.

Most undocumented students face a practical dead-end after graduating from high school.

The State Board of Community Colleges’ requirement that undocumented students pay out-of-state tuition, along with the state’s refusal to grant them professional certification, have deterred many from moving on to college.

Only one or two undocumented students have applied to Haywood Community College for its fall 2010 semester, said Jennifer Herrera, director of enrollment management at the college.

According to Herrera, charging out-of-state tuition has kept the number of undocumented students to a minimum.

“The fact that they have to pay out-of-state tuition regardless is a hardship,” said Herrera.

Currently, HCC charges $7,700 for out-of-state tuition, while in-state students pay only $1,600.

Similarly, Southwestern Community College enrolls only one or two undocumented students each year, according to Phil Weast, dean of student services at SCC.

At SCC, an in-state student now pays $52 per credit, whereas out-of-state students hand over $243 per credit.

Other than the markup in price, both colleges said that undocumented students go through the same admissions process as any other in-state applicant.

Randall Holcomb, spokesman for Western Carolina University, said he was not aware of any undocumented students at the school.

Out-of-state tuition at WCU stands at about $7,300 this year.

In general, more undocumented students show up to adult and continuing education classes at local colleges.

Laura Leatherwood, executive director of continuing and adult education at HCC, said the college does not keep track of how many undocumented students take those courses.

Undocumented students pay the same fees as everyone else and are allowed to take most classes, excluding those on law enforcement.

While state policy prohibits professional licensing of illegal immigrants, students can still enter a number of fields with a college degree.

Attending college could still help undocumented students learn how to repair computers, manage hotels, become a professional cook, or begin a business, Weast said.


Constantly changing policy

In the past nine years, the state board has flip-flopped four times on this particular issue. The most recent reversal came in September when the board overturned a May 2008 ban on undocumented immigrants from community colleges.

Gov. Beverly Perdue has said it is ultimately up to the federal government to decide how to handle illegal immigrants, but for now, she does not support allowing them to enter U.S. colleges.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that we would educate students in public universities who are not legally allowed to work here,” Perdue said to Raleigh TV station WRAL.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said the board’s decision must be reviewed.

“We need to revisit that policy change,” said Rapp. “I think we need to look at it and take into account all the factors that go into undocumented students in the school system.”

Rapp would not provide further comment.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the decision is obviously up to the state board, but he hopes the board will consider that allowing illegal immigrants to attend college and join the work force legitimately would mean they could begin to pay taxes in exchange for the benefits they already receive.

Haire said the board should also take into account that many undocumented workers work long hours and have a good work ethic.

“They do some of the dirtiest work that you can’t get other people to do,” said Haire.


Harrah’s Cherokee Casino may soon serve alcohol on the gaming floor, after receiving an unofficial go-ahead from a state attorney.

The casino has already been offering customers beer, wine and mixed drinks at restaurants and lounges in its adjacent hotel. Bringing alcohol to the floor, though, will be the bigger moneymaker for the casino.

Harrah’s had prohibited players from downing alcoholic drinks on the gaming floor due to uncertainty about a state law that bans gambling at businesses that serve alcohol.

“We had to be clear on the law,” said Bob Blankenship, chairman of the tribe’s Alcoholic Beverage Control commission.

But according to John Aldridge, special deputy attorney general, Harrah’s would not violate any law by serving alcohol on the casino floor.

In a letter to the state ABC commission, Aldridge wrote that the state law only impacts businesses that allow illegal gambling.

Since an agreement with both the state and federal government allows gambling at Harrah’s in Cherokee, the law would not be applicable.

According to Blankenship, all that’s left in the process is the tribal council’s formal approval. Tribe members approved the sale of alcohol on casino premises, but nowhere else in Cherokee, over the summer.

It will take about a week for alcohol to hit the casino floor after the tribal council passes the measure, Blankenship said.


Around Thanksgiving, they begin showing up outside stores with a red kettle, a jingling bell and a smile. In many people’s eyes, Salvation Army bell ringers are as integral to the holiday season as Christmas trees, carols and Santa Claus.

So when Ingles dared to ban the bell ringers last month, the Western North Carolina-based grocery chain faced a powerful backlash from many of its customers.

Pulling the plug on what has become a kind of Christmas tradition did not pan out for Ingles, which decided last week to allow the bell ringers once more in some stores in Western North Carolina.

While the Salvation Army struggles to recoup lost time and meet its fundraising goals this year, it is also experimenting with new techniques, like debit card machines and online kettles.

It remains to be seen if the organization can successfully raise funds to meet a demand that has skyrocketed amidst a recession.

But for the rest of this holiday season, consumers can expect bell ringers to continue their tradition of braving the cold to benefit those in need.


To have or have not

In a move designed to ease solicitation of its customers during the holiday season, Ingles decided last month to prohibit the Salvation Army from stationing its bell ringers outside grocery stores.

The grocery chain also hoped to form a more consistent policy. Since the recession hit, an increasing number of organizations have asked that they, too, be allowed to solicit outside Ingles stores.

What appeared to be a simple business decision to help customers quickly fueled public outrage.

Far from being grateful about the measure, customers e-mailed and called the company, and wrote to their local newspapers, demanding that Ingles permit bell ringers to front its stores.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army publicly maintained its cool.

“We understand that it was a business decision that needed to be made by Ingles,” said Capt. Craig Gontner, area coordinator for the Western North Carolina branch of the Salvation Army. “For us, it was unfortunate, but it was understandable.”

Luckily for the Salvation Army, Ingles was soon swayed by public opinion. It decided to allow bell ringers to chime during the week of Christmas.

That compromise, however, was still unacceptable to many customers.

Lynda Pierce, an Ingles customer in Waynesville, said she just doesn’t understand why Ingles would want to ban bell ringers.

“It’s not hurting them,” said Pierce.

Ingles’ decision was widely unpopular, partly because bell ringing has become synonymous with the holidays for Pierce and many others across the country.

“The kettles have established themselves as a Christmas tradition, especially in small towns like ours,” said Gontner.

Last week, Gontner received word that Ingles had a change of heart and decided to allow bell ringers at a few stores after all.

“There are additional stores in our service area, but the exception was granted for Waynesville and Canton only,” said Gontner.

Ron Freeman, Chief Financial Officer for Ingles, said his company fully supports the Salvation Army’s mission and hopes the organization reaches its fundraising goal this holiday season.

“We’ve spoken with Salvation Army representatives in a number of our market areas and have come up with solutions that everyone can work with,” Freeman said, adding that each year Ingles donates cash and food worth millions of dollars.

Fred Galloway, a Waynesville resident who has been a bell ringer for 11 years, said he was “very worried” about Ingles’ initial decision, but is grateful the company had a change of heart.

“It’s a prime spot,” said Galloway.

Wal-Mart, another prime spot for Salvation Army, also altered its policy on bell ringers this year, allowing bell ringers at its storefronts only until Dec. 24, instead of the usual Dec. 31.

Though Wal-Mart’s decision will undoubtedly hurt the Salvation Army’s fundraising goal, there has been little outcry over that policy change. Meanwhile, Bi-Lo only allows bell ringers on Fridays and Saturdays, and Food Lion allows all charitable organizations to solicit its customers for two Saturdays each year. Belk is one of the few companies that don’t have any such restrictions in place for bell ringers.


Far behind

While the Salvation Army is relieved that it has won back a place in front of Ingles stores, the organization has not escaped this holiday season unscathed.

“We’re halfway through the season,” said Tim Pullin, a Waynesville resident who was frustrated by Ingles’ initial ban. “It’s impossible, making up all that lost ground and time.”

The WNC branch of the Salvation Army is, indeed, behind on its fundraising goal. It has managed to raise $18,600 this year, down by $22,000 from the same period last year.

In 2008, the branch raised a total of $116,000 from its 11 kettle sites and 40 counter kettles in seven western counties.

A number of factors could be blamed for the major dip in donations.

The Salvation Army started fundraising a week later than usual. The poor economy is another potential culprit.

But donations have been on the rise the last six years, and the WNC branch raised a record amount of money in 2008, when the country was still bogged down by the recession.

The weak economy has meant, inevitably, a greater need for charitable services.

According to Gontner, demand for the Salvation Army’s services has skyrocketed by 40 percent.

“This was not the year for us to see a decline,” said Gontner.

“Because they’re struggling, a lot of other people are going to be a struggling, too,” said Pullin. “It’s going to be a long, cold winter, and a lot of people are going to be hurting.”

It’s difficult to discount the Ingles factor in the Salvation Army’s fundraising troubles this year. After Wal-Mart, the Ingles stores in Canton and Waynesville rake in the most money for the WNC Salvation Army.

While customers flooded Ingles stores to buy turkeys the day before Thanksgiving, no bell ringers were around for one of the biggest fundraising days of the year.

They will be back at Ingles in time for another pivotal fundraising period, the week before Christmas.

“It is going to allow for us to hopefully come close to what we did last year,” said Gontner. “With us being behind by $22,000 this early in the game, it was very difficult for us to even be optimistic.”


The age of plastic

On a sunny winter day, bell ringers Linda Arnold and Lynda Self are standing outside the Belk in Waynesville next to a sign that signals a new day in bell ringing — debit card “kettles.”

This is the first year bell ringers in Western North Carolina are accepting plastic. Since fewer customers are carrying cold hard cash, the organization has decided to adapt to the card-carrying culture.

But so far, it’s the customers who are having trouble adapting.

The three card machines, which are available at high-traffic Wal-Mart and Belk sites, receive only a few swipes a day.

“It doesn’t appear the public at large has adapted to a debit card kettle,” said Gontner.

According to Sammy Fowler, kettle coordinator for WNC’s Salvation Army, 99 percent of donations are still cash.

There is hope, since the machines have been well received in other parts of the country, Gontner said.

“Here, we haven’t accepted it just quite as readily,” said Gontner, who predicts that more people will be more comfortable with using the machines next year.

Multiple theories exist for why customers in WNC are breezing past the debit card kettles.

Self, who was ringing outside of Belk in Waynesville last week, said most people drop spare change into the red kettles. Self postulates that that’s not enough money to warrant pulling out a VISA card.

Arnold added that most people are in a hurry and uneager to linger outside in the cold to punch numbers on a credit card machine.

But that doesn’t mean the machines aren’t handy.

“It’s a good option to have,” said Arnold.

Added security is another benefit of the machines. While stealing traditional kettles that carry large chunks of change could be relatively easy, a thief could be clueless about what to do with a stolen credit card machine.

Other than the debit card kettles, the Salvation Army has added two new ways of donating in recent years.

Consumers can donate gift cards with leftover balances, or to an online red kettle.


Haywood County was more economically distressed this year, according to state rankings that essentially classify the counties from wealthiest to poorest.

But Mark Clasby, executive director for the economic development commission, is far from disappointed about the news.

“I’m very pleased,” said Clasby.

That’s because the lower ranking allows Haywood much greater access to tax incentives that could attract new businesses – and jobs – to the area.

The ranking reflects only a minor move down the line, with the state bumping Haywood down four spots, from 81st to 77th.

“This is all relative to the other 99 counties,” said Deborah Barnes, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Commerce, which creates the rankings. “It doesn’t mean your county is in dire shape all of a sudden.”

In fact, median income, property tax base per capita and household income all increased in Haywood County this year, according to Barnes.

“Unfortunately, your unemployment rate went up, too,” said Barnes. Latest statistics show the unemployment rate in Haywood was at 9 percent in October.

Every year, the state Department of Commerce categorizes all counties into one of three tiers. The most prosperous counties in the state (ranked 81-100) are classified as Tier 1, the next bunch (ranked 41-80) are placed in Tier 2, while the most economically distressed counties (1-40) are classified as Tier 1.

Last year, Haywood just barely squeaked into the Tier 3 classification, occupying the last place in a tier containing the state’s wealthiest counties.

Falling a few spots in 2009 means Haywood is now a Tier 2 county again. But Clasby thinks that’s a more accurate assessment anyway.

“I never felt that we were Tier 3 because we’re a rural county,” said Clasby, who referred to Tier 3 counties, like Buncombe, Wake and Mecklenburg, as “major league.”

The rankings make a significant difference when it comes to applying for tax incentives, according to Clasby.

For example, establishing 10 new jobs in a Tier 3 county could mean a potential $7,500 in tax credits for a business.

Companies might be drawn toward developing in a Tier 2 county instead, scoring a potential $50,000 tax credit for the same 10 jobs.

Meanwhile, establishing those ten jobs in a Tier 1 County could mean $125,000 in tax credits.

Clasby said Haywood being in Tier 2 means he has more tools to work with when attracting businesses, but that doesn’t mean he would want Haywood to drop to Tier 1.

“Being near the top of Tier 2, I’m happy,” said Clasby.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said he had mixed feelings about the ranking change.

“The good news is we have more incentives available. The bad news is that we’re poorer,” said Brown. “It’s like a doctor saying your blood pressure is higher, but you have better medicine to take care of it.”

In Brown’s view, the rankings aren’t likely to have much of an impact since the recession has deterred growth.

“We’re in the middle of an economic tsunami,” said Brown. “Ain’t nobody doing anything anyway.”


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