Scott McLeod

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Ron Robinson thinks a state senator should represent all of his constituents. 

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op frWe are now — officially — barreling into the holidays. Thanksgiving is already a fading, drowsy memory of turkey carcasses and piles of dirty dishes. As we march onward toward Christmas and the new year, my mind always goes into the same pattern, one I can’t shake: I think of blessings and shortcomings, wondering why the things that aren’t right can’t be righted. 

And so a couple of recent articles about opportunity in this country and how those who come from wealth are more likely than ever in recent history to remain in the upper income brackets hit home. In order to change this, we need to do more for children, especially those who haven’t reached what we have traditionally deemed “school age.”

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If the very thought of trying your hand at computer programming or writing software code is intimidating, Dr. Jonathan Wade has got an event for you.

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Franklin’s mayoral candidates are offering voters distinctly different visions of leadership as they square off for the town’s top political position.

Sissy Pattillo, who is completing her second term as a town alderman, used the word “collaboration” at least four times while answering questions during a recent forum sponsored by the Macon County League of Women Voters.

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op frMy people are rooted in the South. On both mom’s and dad’s sides of the family, very few have moved far from North and South Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. It’s not one town or a single homeplace we embrace, but nearby relatives and their pull, a blood kinship that runs deeper than my understanding of it.

 

Because of that — or, perhaps, in spite of it — I grew up with a bit of wanderlust. During high school and college, there were summer adventures with friends to the Carolina coast, out west and down to the Gulf of Mexico, trips where I took whatever work I could and used the money to move around a bit more. 

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op frFrom the very first few days I lived in the mountains — as an 18-year-old freshman at Appalachian State University — late-summer days have always gotten my blood pumping. The fresh, cool breezes that suggest the coming fall do battle with the lingering summer heat scream at you to get outside and do something, anything but stay inside and inactive. 

Saturday was one of those days. A few clouds punctuating a blue sky, warm in the sun but cool in the shade. By the time noon rolled around the chores were still stacked up like a winter’s worth of cordwood, a neat pile that one could have chosen to keep working on. Or not.

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op frI’ve always loved school. Consequently, I detest what the General Assembly is doing to education.

As a kid, I knew that looking forward to school each day put me in a minority. Maybe it was my parents’ influence. My dad was a high school graduate and the son of a textile mill foreman in Cheraw, S.C. He joined the Navy as soon as he could and got the hell out of Cheraw. My mom quit high school when she got married at 16 but earned her GED when she was in her 40s. I always felt that they both had high expectations for me — the youngest of three boys — from a very early age.

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op frThe photo ID requirements included in the new voting law passed by the General Assembly and recently signed by Gov. Pat McCrory are problematic. Still, if it was just a voter ID law there wouldn’t be so much hell being raised about the bill’s ramifications. It’s the other voter suppression measures in this over-reaching bill that have many scratching their heads and wondering just what’s going on.

As most anyone who follows public policy in this country knows, voter ID laws — a requirement that every person have a state-approved photo identification card before being allowed to cast a vote — are being passed in many states and are very controversial.

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op frIt’s difficult for me to believe that the new leadership in Raleigh would purposely sacrifice development in the state’s rural areas at the altar of political ideology. On purpose or not, however, that’s the way it looks to many of us who live in places not named Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro or Winston-Salem. 

Everyone braced for change when Gov. Pat McCrory and Republicans in both the House and Senate were duly elected to govern North Carolina. That’s the natural order of politics — to the winner goes the spoils. However, even many long-time observers were caught unawares by the speed, the ideological bent, and the reliance on unproven economic principals that infused the legislation passed during the first session in which the GOP had total control of the state.

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op frThe General Assembly’s renewal of the specialty license plates for North Carolina drivers surprised many only because it seemed such a no-brainer that it was curious there was even a debate. Thank goodness lawmakers saw the light.

Let’s take a look at what was almost undone by our state legislators: a program that produces — without any extra public spending — millions of dollars for some of North Carolina’s most prominent nonprofits, providing them with money to invest in some of the of the state’s treasures. That list includes coastal estuaries and sea turtles along with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail.

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It probably shouldn’t have gotten to me. But it did, in a big way.

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op frEver know you are in a good place at the right time? Every now and then that sentiment — about living Western North Carolina right now — overwhelms me.

I’ve been messing around with newspapers and journalism in some form or another since I was 13. It’s a vocation that puts one in contact with all kinds of people and takes one to all kinds of places. So I’m mostly beyond those “gee whiz” moments that are often part of the job.

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A small spot on the side of a valley overlooking the Tuckasegee River outside Dillsboro may not seem the obvious place for any kind of technological firsts, but that’s what alternative energy experts were proclaiming last Friday (Oct. 6) at the grand opening of the much-anticipated Jackson County Green Energy Park.

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Thirty-six year-old Ken McKim has lots of ideas about the issues he would tackle if he can wrest the 50th District state Senate seat from incumbent Democrat Sen. John Snow.

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When Sen. John Snow talks about being a senator for the far western counties that he calls home, he becomes animated and impassioned.

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I’m not sure when the characteristics of being frugal and not wasting became derisive traits, why it became wimpy to drive a small car, how it became popular to make fun of those who wanted the best of the technological advances but not its excesses.

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The ups and downs across a graph that tell of a business’ profits and losses may not be very interesting, but look beyond those peaks and valleys and a fascinating story might emerge.

Blue Ridge Paper’s last 15 years, viewed by a historian sometime in the future, will mirror the nation-changing events that have swept across the American manufacturing landscape. This snapshot, just a short segment of a 100-year-old company’s life, is inextricably tied to significant events in U.S. and regional history. During these years, Blue Ridge Paper and its predecessor Champion have gone from an environmental pariah in the 1980s to a champion of workers rights in the 1990s, from a survivor in the new millennium to a company that is poised and ready for a major expansion.

 

Mountain made Expansion?

Bob Williams, who acts a spokesman for Blue Ridge but has worked for years in the environmental end of business at the Canton paper mill, says Blue Ridge lost out on an expansion opportunity a few weeks ago that could have included a $750 million financing package. Details of the acquisition are hidden under a confidentiality agreement, but the Associated Press reported last week that International Paper sold a division of its company to a competitor that would have been attractive to Blue Ridge.

“It’s a small community. People are saying that we made an offer, but the seller went in the other direction,” said Williams, alluding to the deal that fell through.

What? Blue Ridge expanding, looking to grow, flexing a little industrial muscle? This is a mill that had been written off by most observers as on its last leg, just one breath and a gasp from the same mass grave already filled with hundreds of old-style American manufacturers. The company may not be a Wall Street darling, but according to Williams it’s doing well enough to have attracted the $750 million from investors. Williams acknowledges the surprise many may have associated with last week’s news, but he pointed to the company’s recent history.

‘We have the best workforce around, we’re a scrappy organization and we pay attention to our customers,” said Williams. “If you live through what we live through, you must be doing something right.”

One key to Blue Ridge’s success may be the very primal act of survival. Hang around, they say in business circles, and you’ll succeed. Don’t give up. Find your own way. In these mountains, that sounds like a pretty normal way of life for generations of families, and that spirit infuses the mill.

“Because of the contraction in our industry, we’ve benefited from supply and demand,” said Williams. More than 100 paper machines at various plants have shut down since 2000. To keep operating, Blue Ridge has continued to keep costs down.

“It’s clear that we are one of the leaner companies in the industry,” said Williams.

And so along come the investors willing to come up with the money for expansion. Williams says the community shouldn’t be surprised if Blue Ridge makes an announcement in the next year about an acquisition that will allow it to grow, but only time will tell if the right deal materializes. If it happens, things in Canton could change in several ways. It could lead to a re-capitalization of the entire company. In other words, all the money available from investors might not be spent on an acquisition, according to Williams. Some might be used to re-structure the company’s debt and change its relationship with KPR, the investment firm that came up with the cash for the buyout from Champion in 1999.

 

A long way to here

It remains to be seen if Blue Ridge will reach the potential Williams and other executives are eyeing. This company has seen its share of ups and downs, though, leading one to believe that almost anything is possible.

It wasn’t that long ago — in the late 1980s and early 1990s — when environmental regulations and lawsuits from residents in Tennessee over pollution in the Pigeon River threatened to shut down the old Champion mill. I remember attending a bizarre event in Waterville in the early 1990s, the community on the North Carolina-Tennessee border on the shores of the Pigeon River. Champion was heralding efforts to clean the Pigeon while at the same time CP&L (now Progress Energy) announced plans to begin regular water releases from Walters Lake that were expected to jump start the river’s whitewater industry.

As hundreds of visitors gathered to watch world-class kayakers maneuver the rapids, Tennessee protestors descended on the river’s opposite bank, down the steep incline from I-40, some holding signs and others shouting and waving fists at the whitewater spectators. Some were dressed as grim reapers, a reminder of charges that dioxins in the river were causing cancer and endangering lives.

Champion made it through this struggle, but it decided to sell the mill in 1999. Financial experts from throughout the region worked to put together a plan to keep the region’s largest private employer open, and it worked. Employees would become part-owners of the mill.

But the future looked bleak. Paper prices began to drop as foreign competition increased. Just when things looked back, they got worse. 9-11 knocked a hole in the U.S.’s economy. In particular, the airline industry tanked. One of Blue Ridge’s major products is juice and milk cartons used by the airline industry. Losses mounted.

Things got worse before they got better. The anthrax scare that killed five people started on Sept. 18, 2001, just a week after 9-11. The poison was being delivered through the mail. Direct mail advertisements became a worrisome proposition, and the market temporarily dried up. One of Blue Ridge’s major products is envelope paper used by many of the companies in this business. More losses, and things were looking grim.

Finally, the twin hurricanes of September 2004 made history at Blue Ridge Paper. For the first time since it’s opening in 1909, the mill shut down completely, its waste treatment facilities and paper machines inundated. Company estimates say that $40 million in sales were lost during the time the mill could not operate.


The here and now

But all that is history. Blue Ridge turned a profit this past quarter. It has survived while competitors tanked, become lean, sought out and won new customers, and is in the best shape since the buyout in 1999.

“Taken together, all of this has presented us with choices we haven’t had in quite some time,” said Williams. “We’re in a growth mode.”

The huge Canton mill and its packaging plants are just small guys in the international paper industry. And there is always the danger that a company looking to expand is also needing to expand in order to survive.

Who knows if this optimistic cycle will last, but at least for now, Blue Ridge, its workforce and its executives can look at what they have gone through and take a little pride in their efforts.

“In the 15 years I’ve been with the company, we’ve died a thousand deaths,” said Williams. “But we remain standing. It’s kind of a case study in U.S. industry.”

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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By the time we hit the streets with this edition and this column is read, the election that has been dominating the news will be behind us. Talking heads and columnists will be digesting and spinning the results, givingtheir take on what it all means. As of this writing, though, we don’t know who will win.

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Haywood County commissioners agreed on Monday (Nov. 20) to ask the General Assembly for an increase in the room tax and to distribute the extra money to tourism board subcommittees in each zip code.

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Some time this holiday weekend, my nephew Sterling will come for a visit at my mother’s house. He’s a high school senior, and he is still unsure of his college plans.

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op fr“Thank you sir, may I have another.”

The line by Kevin Bacon from the now-classic film “Animal House” kept popping into my head as I went down the list of what this year’s GOP-led General Assembly is doing to North Carolina. In the movie, Bacon is being hazed as part of a fraternity initiation, and every time he is hit with a paddle he asks for another painful blow. Here in the Tar Heel state, you think legislative leaders are done pushing the state toward the likes of Mississippi or South Carolina, and then something else almost ridiculous hits the news that they have passed or seriously considered passing.

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op frI’m not sure it represents a new philosophy or perhaps is just an acknowledgement of reality, but the decision by the state Department of Transportation to hold off on any further planning for the massive Southern Loop project in Jackson County was certainly welcome news.

It was September 2001 when the controversy over this proposed bypass erupted in Jackson County and made its first appearance in the pages of The Smoky Mountain News. Malcom MacNeil, the former owner of the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, was circulating a petition from the very outset that garnered more than 500 signatures to get the state to back off the project.

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op frThe Lake Junaluska Assembly is marking its 100th anniversary this year, and a plethora of activities will take place at the Methodist conference center during the July 4 week. I’m not Methodist, but because of my job as a journalist in this region, I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact the Lake has had on Haywood County and the surrounding area. And I’m not talking about economics and tourism and dollars, though it has a positive impact in that area as well.

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op frThere’s just not much exciting about turning 14, but that’s what The Smoky Mountain News turned a couple of weeks ago. I can keep up with our age because of the volume number on the front of this edition and because I track it by my son’s birthday. He was just shy of a year old when we started, and this summer he’ll turn 15 and take driver’s ed. 

It’s a middling anniversary, not like 10 or 15, and it seems a long way yet to 20. Still, I sometimes pinch myself or throw cold water on my face and wonder if I’m dreaming. When we hatched the idea for this newspaper more than 14 years ago, and when the first edition of  The Smoky Mountain News rolled off the presses on June 5, 1999, I had no idea whether we would survive. Way back then, it was more a dream than a well-planned business venture.

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In the years I’ve been going to Swain County, David Monteith has emerged as a barometer of sorts. One may disagree with Monteith on a particular issue, but the independent-thinking county commissioner can almost always be counted on to vote with a conscience, a commitment to what he feels is right.

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Haywood Regional Medical Center, the entire medical community and its volunteer board of directors have some work to do. That is, they do if they want to protect the hospital’s competitive position in this region. Repairing the damage done by the controversy surrounding the firing of the emergency room physician group is vitally important.

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When my nephew came walking in with a letter from one of our state’s universities, he handled it like something valuable, a precious jewel, perhaps, or a map that would lead him to a world he suspected was out there but had not yet visited.

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There’s been a lot of discussion about the attack on the student in the cafeteria of Tuscola High School a few weeks ago where one student beat up another and inflicted some relatively serious injuries. Apparently it wasn’t the guilty party’s first incident. I never have understood those for whom fighting is just something that happens on a semi-regular basis, but then again, there are a lot of personality traits I see in others that I can’t comprehend.

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Call me a little superstitious, but I defend my right to harbor a few fears. That’s why, after breaking my ankle and wearing a cast for nine weeks, I waited almost eight weeks after the darn thing was off before writing about the experience. The doctor says I’m healed, but the last thing I wanted to do was slip up — literally or figuratively — and find myself back on crutches.

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Dark clouds were rolling in on Saturday as I sat in our Sylva office while Western North Carolina’s original environmental festival — Greening Up the Mountains — was in full swing on the streets below. With me were two idealists, people who want to change the way we think about transportation.

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Money and politics. Right now in the mountains, we can add real estate to that equation.

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op frAlice Aumen, one of the owners of Cataloochee Ranch and a longtime tourism booster in Haywood County and Western North Carolina, hit the nail on the head: “It’s a vision problem.”

She was referring to the decision by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, not to support the proposed room tax hike for Haywood County because a small, vocal contingent of lodging owners and two town aldermen in Maggie Valley came out against it. Because everyone in Haywood would not support the hike, Davis allowed it to die in committee. That means hundreds of thousands of dollars for tourism-related capital projects will not find its way to Haywood County.

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op frHaywood County commissioners drew a line in the sand. The Haywood County School Board decided not to cross it. In a nutshell, that’s what happened. 

But what was interesting was the spoken and unspoken back and forth between the two elected bodies about taxes and spending in this era of tight budgets and tax-hike phobia.

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op frWhen I sat down to write a piece for this week’s paper my topic was already chosen. I was going to criticize the current legislative leadership in Raleigh and what that group is doing to our state. I’ve been following the bills that have been introduced and are moving toward passage, have read about the shenanigans going on concerning committee votes, had made notes and was ready with plenty of fodder. 

I also had my ending already in my head, which is a great start for writing anything: that the GOP leadership was doing absolutely nothing to encourage any shared sense of responsibility among those of us willing to admit that they inherited a mess. Instead of working together to find common ground, however, the super majority is ignoring democratic principles and even its own ideology as it stumbles along like a bull in a china shop. Legislative leaders are pushing unfunded mandates down to counties, usurping powers of local governments, and pushing ahead with measures that will hurt small businesses. 

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op frThe “fractured public square” refers to the loss of the place where a community discusses ideas, politics and values. The ideal public square can be both a bonding agent and a place where one draws a line in the sand. It’s not necessarily a physical place, but it might be.

What happens when there is no public square, when it keeps fracturing and breaking into smaller places and smaller forums? I’m afraid we are on the way to finding out.

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op frThe defeat of gun control legislation in the Senate wasn’t as much surprising as it was disappointing. This is one of those issues — like gay rights or even limits on tobacco advertising and use — that will eventually gain overwhelming support. Public opinion and a changing electorate will eventually win out. I’d bet the farm on it. Unfortunately, many more tragedies — some preventable — and a few more years will have to pass.

 Sandy Hook is still fresh in our minds. In truth, the Senate legislation would likely not have stopped a mentally unstable son from murdering his mother and taking her guns into an elementary school. But even the utter senselessness of that massacre was not enough to convince politicians who feared voter amnesia and an election backlash. 

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op frThe room tax hike being sought by Haywood leaders needs to pass and deserves the support of the legislative delegation in Raleigh, and we hope that Sen. Jim Davis in particular will get on board and shepherd this bill through the Senate.

The hike, an additional 2 cents on each dollar spent on overnight lodging, would bring the room tax up to 6 cents. It would net about $450,000 each year in additional revenue that could be spent on attracting tourists.

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op frCigar smoke swirled around my face as the eardrum splitting street preacher invaded the festive mood of the thousands meandering around the entrance to the old market in downtown Charleston. A few minutes earlier, we had finished off a meal with an old friend, and afterward, my wife had departed for a spring break trip with her father. That left me, one of my daughters and my son to enjoy a couple of days in this great Southern city. 

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op frWhen the city of Asheville decided that this year’s Bele Chere street festival would be the last it funded, little more than a whisper of protest was reported in the local media. The monstrous festival had become a victim of its own success. The largest street party in the Southeast cost nearly half a million dollars of taxpayer money each year, took just as much time to plan, and then during the summer buildup needed weeks of preparation. Many long ago decided it had become too big to enjoy.

Bele Chere may survive under the auspices of some other entity other than the city government, a move that would be helpful to the nonprofits that depend on it for a significant portion of their fundraising. The downtown association is a likely candidate, while the city could still help with security and garbage, writes Jason Sandford, the creator and writer of the blog Ashvegas.

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op fr“The pen is mightier than the sword.”

For years I had ascribed those words to Thomas Paine, the fiery British-American writer who fanned the flames of America’s revolutionary spirit with his pamphlet “Common Sense.” A quick search, though, reveals it was penned by a little-known (to me) British playwright in 1839, though several writers of greater fame danced around that particular wording of the phrase before Edward Bulwer-Lytton found the syntax that helped it gain a level of immortality.

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op frRepublican Gov. Pat McCrory is trying to temper disparaging remarks he made early last week about the value of a liberal arts education. He certainly needs to, and while he’s at it he should assure this state’s citizens that he understands the value of our university system.

In an interview with Bill Bennett — the education secretary under Ronald Reagan who has become a conservative pundit on political and social issues (and who has a degree in philosophy, by the way) — McCrory said the university system should be funded “not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” He also said we only need so many philosophy majors, and that the state should not continue to subsidize arcane courses that don’t lead to employment: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told Bennett during the interview. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

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This is about war, but only from a distance. When I read about deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan, it mostly seems a world away. On the rare occasion it gets personal, I can’t help but be reminded that war, particularly this war, seems a waste of young lives.

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Some have charged that the true, underlying sentiment among those who support stringent development regulations in Jackson County — and elsewhere in Western North Carolina — is a desire to stop all growth and keep newcomers away. Build a wall, so to speak.

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op frThe swearing in of new Gov. Pat McCrory this past weekend brought to mind a conversation at a recent holiday party. I was sequestered with a few political types and several issues came up that had been covered in The Smoky Mountain News and other media outlets. Several of these discussion points are going to fall into the lap of the new governor and the General Assembly.

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op frIt may seem a relatively unimportant issue, but in truth it is very symbolic because it recognizes a reality that is upon us.

I’m talking about a request that will come before the Waynesville Town Board this month concerning public transit benches and shelters at large retail centers. Mountain Projects transit director Susan Anderson hopes the town will pass an ordinance requiring stores to install waiting areas for public transit patrons.

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op frWe have many vibrant, attractive commercial districts in the mountains, some very small and some large and sprawling. I’m talking everything from downtown Waynesville to Bryson City to Asheville.

Wouldn’t it be cool to add Cullowhee to this list?

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op frMy father is retired Navy, and I lived on military bases until I was 10. My stepfather is retired Army Special Forces with several tours of Vietnam under his belt. My wife’s dad served in the Army and did duty in Vietnam and elsewhere. My brother served and has spent his career working as a civilian on a military base. I have a nephew in the Navy and my own son, 14 years old, right now says he wants to go into one of the military academies.

The U.S. military has been a part of my life since I can remember. Every Veteran’s Day and every Memorial Day that passes drags up some strong emotions, especially since my father passed away a few years ago.

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op frI’m a late-blooming entrepreneur from a lower middle-class upbringing. My parents came from farming and mill-town childhoods, and they bought wholesale into the part of the American dream that told them their children, through education and hard work, will do better. But their faith in my ability to move up in the world stands in stark contrast to what many Americans can expect for their own children today. In fact, since the 1970s real income for the bottom 80 percent of American families has declined. Eighty percent. That sounds preposterous, but it’s the sad truth.

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art frI’ve always believed in the adage that success builds success. It’s one of life’s truisms that anyone with eyes wide open sees very plainly, and it holds true in business, education, politics and the arts. That’s why Haywood Arts Regional Theater’s State II project will succeed, and I can’t wait until it’s up and running.

The plan for HART — which has called its Performing Arts Center on Pigeon Street home since 1997 — is to construct another building that will house a second full theater, a full kitchen, apartments for visiting performers, dressing rooms and storage areas. The theater will be smaller than the 250-seat main stage venue but larger than the intimate Feichter Studio Theater that houses up to 75 spectators. HART supporters have embarked on a $1 million fund-raising campaign.

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op frCould you imagine how different it might feel to be an American today if the ideas of individual freedom and secularism that took root in Enlightenment Europe and the American colonies beginning in the 1700s had flowered in the Middle East at the same time?

The recent demonstrations against America and the killing of our ambassador and consulate employees — though admittedly these acts were carried out by a small minority — got me thinking about this. But then two relatively mundane stories I read in our own newspaper brought the issue full circle.

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