Scott McLeod

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“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”

— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks


The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.

According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.

The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.

Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.

The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.

The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.

Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.


Just tell the truth. That’s what we teach our children, it’s what we need from our loved ones, and it’s what we have to have from friends and co-workers. Without it, life’s a house of cards that won’t stand up.

During election season, though, truth gets twisted like a pretzel. What started as a fact becomes someone’s favorite sound bite, but the flavor has changed completely.

This is happening mightily right now in Jackson County. There are some folks who are working feverishly to oust incumbent county commissioners Brian McMahon, Tom Massie and William Shelton.

Anytime someone has been in office, opponents can certainly look at their record and come up with legitimate arguments for why they don’t want them to continue in that position. That is, they have a record of votes that opponents can stand against. That’s the democratic process, and it works.

But some of those writing letters to local papers and speaking up in public are twisting the facts. It’s not necessarily those running for office who are doing the damage. No, it’s mostly just average citizens who, in their zeal, may be just forgetful.

It’s tough enough to be an incumbent these days. According to the results of a Smoky Mountain News-WCU Public Policy Institute poll conducted in June, 46 percent of Jackson County voters have an unfavorable opinion of Jackson County government. The unfavorable ratings for the federal government among Jackson County voters is 62 percent.

First and foremost in the mistruths being bandied about in Jackson County is that the sitting commissioners have raised property taxes. They have not. The tax rate of 28 cents per $100 of valuation has not been raised, and in fact over the last decade as re-valuations have occurred, the actual tax rate has decreased.

Obviously, the amount of tax paid by individuals may have risen as their property values have gone up. No one is arguing that point. But counties are required by law to set property values at what is deemed a fair market value. There is a process for determining that value that is used throughout this state and pretty much the entire nation.

In other words, the value placed on someone’s property will be the same no matter who is in office. It’s not controlled by county commissioners, but by the market. Period. Anyone who can prove their home was valued otherwise will get a new valuation.

Another issue in which the facts are being twisted revolves around the temporary moratorium on subdivisions that was put in place for just over three months in 2007. Jackson County commissioners did not enact a building moratorium. Hundreds of subdivisions and thousands of lots already approved were not affected by this temporary measure. Private lots bought after the temporary moratorium were not affected.

The short-term moratorium on new subdivisions gave the county time to develop a subdivision ordinance that, as it turns out, is very reasonable.

And here is perhaps the accusation I find most ridiculous — that Jackson County commissioners are responsible for both the unemployment rate and the building slowdown in Jackson County. That is almost too crazy to even address.

The real estate and building industries are in a shambles in Jackson County, indeed. But it is the same in the entire state, the entire Southeast, the entire country, even most of the world. Banks are slowly crawling out of a credit crunch, and loans once easily available are simply gone. There is little building going on an anywhere. Hanging that on the Jackson commissioners just doesn’t stick.

The same with unemployment problem.

Editors like me are challenged to keep our facts straight. One of the most difficult arenas in which to do that is in our opinion pages. These pages are supposed to allow people to voice their own views, so editors take different approaches to editing submissions. I tend to lean toward letting people have their say.

But over the last few months, some of those writing have taken a few liberties with the truth. When that happens, sometimes it is just best to set the record straight. Call this an endorsement of truth. I always try to vote that way.


Haywood County’s 1930’s-era minimum-security prison was kept open for another year by our ever-diligent legislative delegation in Raleigh. They saved about 45 jobs and cheap labor for roadside cleaning by keeping the relic open. Meanwhile, Haywood County school supporters were forced to muscle a table through the parking lot in front of Wal-Mart — about a quarter mile as the crow flies from the old prison — because they needed to rattle the can for spare change to try to save teacher’s jobs.

The Haywood County effort to save school jobs is something being replicated, I’m sure, in other places throughout the state as school systems learned they were one of the big losers in this year’s state budget. In Haywood County, that loss was about 32 positions. In Macon County the total was about 14 and in Swain it was three jobs.

Business people have known for a long while that these are unprecedented times. Now local and state governments have finalized their first annual budgets since this recession wrapped its ugly arms around the country, and it’s a picture that is as confusing as it is frustrating. What is happening is this — taxes are being raised while at the same time costs (teaching jobs) are being cut.

So the conundrum is obvious. Should our legislators be fighting to keep open a little, inefficient prison at this time, when state studies have shown these little prisons to be more costly per inmate? It’s easy to juxtapose these two budget outcomes to argue that cutting wasteful government spending is very difficult, even in the face of what was a $4 billion state budget shortfall this year.

The point here is that it is almost impossible for lawmakers to vote for the greater good of the state in the face of pressure from constituents in their own district. The prison is a particular line item, and two similar prisons from the 1930s in Gates and Union counties are slated for closing after lawmakers finalized this year’s budget. Closing all three would have saved the state about $3.4 million a year, according to a state budget analyst quoted in several news stories.

School budgets for each county aren’t line-item expenditures. Lawmakers approve a huge dollar figure for public schools, and then it is doled out based on the number of students in each county.

Last week we editorialized that cutting funding for an after-school program for middle schools students — another of this year’s budget decisions — was a poor decision.

My friend John Sanderson, a former principal and teacher in Haywood County, makes the same arguments for cutting teaching assistants and increasing class sizes in the lower grades.

“I can say without a doubt when you increase class size, particularly at the elementary school level, it does have a negative impact on the classroom,” he told a reporter for this paper last week.

As citizens and as a society we have responsibilities that include paying for prisons and schools. And it is not as simple as an either-or equation, because lawmakers weren’t in Raleigh weighing whether it was better to keep school classroom sizes down or whether to keep a prison open. Unfortunately for all of us — and the lawmakers — it is not that simple.

But our choices are telling. As constituents, there has never been a more important time to get involved and let lawmakers know how you feel. At the local, state and federal level, changes are under way. When there is no money, then the spending choices become ever-more important.

And there seems to be more discussion about politics and spending, priorities and values, and those things important to our country. Liberal and conservative groups are getting together to discuss issues and get their opinions out. That’s all good.

On this one, though, the choice is easy for me. I’d take schools over prisons any day. Priorities, priorities.

(Scott McLeod is editor of The Smoky Mountain News and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Duke Energy’s rate hike request met strong opposition at a public hearing before members of the N.C. Utilities Commission in Franklin last week.

Duke claims the 12.6 percent hike is needed to pay for upgrades to power plants and infrastructure across its system, including construction of a controversial new coal plant near Marion. If approved, the request would bring the utility more than $496 million per year in additional revenues. Duke says the rate hike will help maintain its credit rating.

Speakers representing environmental groups, local businesses, and local governments — along with plenty of private citizens — were nearly unanimous in denouncing the proposal. The giant utility was criticized for continuing construction of unnecessary coal plants, for its failure to invest more in renewable energy, for the timing of its request during a recession and for its decision to sell power made in North Carolina out-of-state.

“It is unconscionable to force a rate hike in for an unnecessary power plant,” said David Bates, the executive director of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, referring to Duke’s new coal plant. “There’s no such thing as clean coal, just less dirty.”

Bates spoke during the hearing and at a rally held prior to it in front of the Macon County Courthouse. About 20 protestors listened in at the rally, which was organized by the Sylva-based clean air advocacy group the Canary Coalition.

Duke Nantahala District Manager Fred Alexander told the utilities commission, however, that continued construction of the new coal plant, known as Cliffside, is a “great environmental story.”

“Once we turn the new unit on, we can begin retiring 1,000 megawatts of old coal plants,” he said. The old plants are dirtier than the new coal plant, achieving a net gain to air quality.

The hearing was a formal affair, with speakers swearing on the Bible before offering their testimony. In addition to the hearing officer running the meeting, there were two opposing tables at the front of the room: one for a Duke Energy representative and one for the Public Staff of the N.C. Utilities Commission. The Public Staff acts as a guardian of the public’s interest against the regulated monopoly enjoyed by utilities.

The independent oversight body is against the rate hike, according to Dianna Downey, spokesperson of the Public Staff.

“We have a team of accountants and engineers to study the rate hike request. At this point we believe the rate hike request by Duke is not justified,” said Downing, adding that the findings are still preliminary.

The strongest support for Duke came from John Burton of Bryson City, who is the treasurer for the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which relies on Duke for whitewater releases to accommodate rafting. He urged regulators to keep an open mind when considering Duke’s request.

“Electricity and utility costs have gone up less than everything else. Also, the quality of transmission has dramatically improved,” Burton said. “Duke has succeeded in keeping rates down and in improving reliability.”

Others from the business community, however, criticized the timing of Duke’s rate hike request.

Dan Roland of Franklin is the operations manager for Jackson Paper in Sylva, one of Duke largest commercial customers in the region. He said the company recently decided to expand in Jackson County, and while it expected a rate hike, it was surprised at the size and the timing.

“We are opposed to the rate hike request. While we understand the request, we question the short notice and the size of the increase ... it is a tremendous shock,” said Roland.


What’s it paying for?

Part of the debate at the hearing was exactly what Duke’s proposed rate hike will pay for. Many of those speaking against the proposal said the new coal plant, known as Cliffside, is not necessary since the state’s energy usage is declining. Duke, however, says only 20 percent of the rate hike is to fund Cliffside, and it argues it has already spent about $1 billion. State law allows utilities to collect money for new power plants while they are under construction. So even if the construction was abandoned, Duke could still try to recover the money already spent.

In addition to Cliffside, Alexander said the request was to pay for “billions of dollars of investments we’ve already made to build a cleaner and more reliable system.”

But critics said Duke has done little to invest in cleaner energy production or more efficient use of the energy it already produces. Julie Mayfield, the executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance, urged the utilities commission to deny Duke’s rate hike.

“While there continues to be debate about the percentage of this requested increase that covers infrastructure improvements, previously installed environmental controls and Cliffside, what is clear is this: part of the rate increase is for Cliffside; Duke recently received a 4.5 percent rate increase to cover the increasing costs of coal; and none of the requested increase will cover renewable energy projects or energy efficiency programs,” said Mayfield, reading from a prepared statement.

Avram Friedman, the executive director of the Canary Coalition, said Duke was being duplicitous on several fronts. He said Duke Energy claims the Cliffside plant is to meet growing energy demand in North Carolina, but actual usage in the state is down 2 percent, he said. He also criticized Duke’s recent decision to sell electricity to an energy cooperative in South Carolina and another attempt denied by the utilities commission to sell electricity to Orangeburg, S.C.

“There’s no reason to place this extra burden on electric ratepayers,” said Friedman. “More than 100 new coal plants have been cancelled around the country in the past three years and Cliffside isn’t needed either. It makes much more sense to implement energy policies that will save ratepayers money, by offering economic incentives to invest in energy efficiency in homes, businesses and industry.”

At least two local governments in WNC — Swain County and the Cherokee Tribal Council — have passed resolutions opposing the rate hike request.

The last in the series of public hearings on Duke’s request is scheduled for Oct. 19 in Raleigh.


This country must pass health care reform that accomplishes two major objectives: providing coverage for everyone and controlling skyrocketing costs. I believe that the bill must include a public option for those who are now uninsured. And just like automobile insurance, anyone who enters the workplace must be required to have health insurance, either from their employer, their own private plan, or from the public option.

Conservatives and liberals alike agree that our health care system is not sustainable in its present form. Employee-sponsored health care premiums doubled in the past nine years, rising three times faster than wages. American families spend more on health care than we do on food or housing. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if costs keep increasing at the current rate, 25 percent of the nation’s economy will be tied up in the health care industry by 2025.

The fundamental questions for those advocating reform is how can we cover those who now don’t have access to care while controlling costs in an industry where price has become irrelevant? When is the last time you asked your doctor how much a test, an operation or a drug was going to cost?

According to The Wall Street Journal, the current system of employer-provided benefits “has divorced the consumer — the patient — from the real cost of services. It encourages excess spending, runaway lawsuits, defensive medicine (doctors ordering unnecessary tests and procedures out of fear of being sued), and huge malpractice premiums.”


This is a complex issue, and understanding it has become even more difficult amid the tidal wave of misinformation that is circulating. It’s unfortunate for those of us who believe health care reform is critical that this debate is occurring during an economic crisis that has forced unprecedented government intervention into private industry. Both the outgoing Republican administration and current Democratic administrations supported government taking new and expanded roles to stave off a long-term economic disaster. Intervention to rescue the banking and automobile industries, along with Obama’s stimulus package, have further fueled the long-running fear of too much government intrusion.

The health care problems, however, can’t be solved without government intervention. Government is already the major player in the industry through Medicaid and Medicare. But here’s the truth — Obama does not support a government takeover of our health care. That’s not even being discussed and is a complete distortion of reality.

What he does want is a public option for insuring the 45 million people who currently don’t have health insurance. That option is the best chance for controlling insurance premiums, which in turn will prompt the insurance industry to work with health care providers to keep costs down.

There are other major problems on the other end of the healthcare spectrum that must be resolved as part of reform. Many who have insurance are denied coverage or reach their caps when they face serious problems like cancer or heart problems. Also, changing jobs with a pre-existing condition can be devastating, often leading to a denial of coverage or skyrocketing premiums. A plan for affordable portability of coverage must be included in any reform measure that is passed, along with measures that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage just when it is needed most.

Although I think the public option is necessary, compromises can be found. Some are suggesting allowing the insurance companies to develop low-cost plans for those who currently can’t afford care. This plan includes a trigger for a government option to come into play only if the private companies can’t get the job done. The public option is better, but a compromise that earned some Republican support might be the best possible solution — and the only way to get a bill passed.


One issue that hasn’t been discussed much as part of this health care overhaul is personal responsibility. We can’t cut our health care costs substantially if Americans continue to suffer from chronic conditions that are preventable.

Our children are suffering from an obesity epidemic. Many of us eat too much and exercise too little. Go to any middle school in the country and observe the children. It is a sad thing to see so many who are obviously on their way to a lifetime of battling obesity.

I don’t have a problem paying taxes to provide health care for a working mom who has a full-time job that pays just above minimum wage and doesn’t offer healthcare benefits. I do, however, have a problem paying for those who cause their own health problems by eating badly, not exercising, and perhaps smoking. I’m not sure how it can be done, but we must encourage lifestyle changes that could substantially reduce total healthcare costs.


Healthcare reform has discussed by nearly every administration since World War II, and we have yet to make meaningful headway. Congress has made more progress in the last six months on this issue than ever before, and citizens need to encourage their lawmakers to finish the job.


It’s always a little embarrassing to look on another’s misfortune and discover that you may be the beneficiary of their problems, but it does happen.

And so I read a story about Florida’s economic woes and couldn’t help but see a bit of a silver lining for us in North Carolina and in the mountains.

Here are a few lines from that article:

“Already, (Florida’s) hold on retirees is weakening, with thousands of disenchanted ‘halfbacks’ moving to Georgia and the Carolinas in recent years ....

“Choked by a record level of foreclosures and unemployment, along with a helping of disillusionment, the state’s population declined by 58,000 people from April 2008 to April 2009, according to the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Except for the years around World Wars I and II, it was the state’s first population loss since at least 1900.”

Now most of us who live in the mountains don’t want a huge influx of new retirees or even young families. In fact there are many who say there is nothing positive about our region becoming the “New Florida.”

The point is we don’t want to become the new Florida. This recent economic slowdown has provided time to re-assess the dangers of unchecked growth. Many of us, this newspaper included, are committed to fighting for progressive planning measures so that when growth comes we can protect the landscapes, mountain ridges, streams and small towns from losing those qualities that make this area so special. We don’t want the crime and sprawl that make it so easy for Floridians to run from.

That said, there is certainly the reality that our economy here in Western North Carolina has gone stagnant. Too many of our residents are worried about their jobs and their families.

So if Florida’s allure as “the” retirement and relocation spot in the East is fading, there’s little doubt the coastal areas of Georgia, South and North Carolina, along with the mountains of WNC, stand to take its place. There really is no other place in the eastern part of the country that has the amenities to fill that role. It won’t happen overnight, but I suspect the next 10 to 20 years will see change in this region that many of us could never have imagined. On the one hand, it is exciting to live in what promises to be a vibrant region for the next couple of decades, while on the other hand this prospect should put us on guard.

Those of us in the media have an obligation to our communities to keep the growth issues out in the public arena. Striking a balance between inevitable growth while nurturing and improving the wonderful lifestyle we now enjoy won’t be easy, but it can be done.


I’ve been reading some essays by William F. Buckley Jr. — who died in 2008 and is generally regarded as the godfather of the modern American conservative movement — and was left bemoaning how political discourse has withered to such a state of pathetic, inane screeching and labeling.

It also left me pondering another more important question: is it possible to combine some of the tenets of conservatism and progressivism into one coherent political philosophy? That’s something I want to explore in some columns in a few upcoming issues.

Many of my liberal friends and many of my Republican friends are likely foaming at the mouth at such a proposition. But Buckley was a master of big ideas, not small labels, and therefore his conservatism has about as much in common with today’s Republican ideals as night has to day.

Many of the ideas I would associate with the progressive movement — which acknowledges the need to take steps to re-form government (and, therefore, society) in order to deal with today’s realities — can find a home in a school of thought that also cherishes the eternal verities of faith, truth and family, along with a love of country. Such a philosophy must exist without succumbing to the Fox News method of brandishing these verities as weapons against political opponents (especially those who hold dearly to the separation of church and state).

So I’m going to research some of the real-world outcomes that such a school of thought would lead to, and see where it comes out.

Most of those over 40 are probably very familiar with Buckley, though anyone who enjoys political philosophy would do well to read him. My mother-in-law, Lee Sullivan, passed along a memoir written by Buckley’s son about losing his mother and father. That led me to one of Buckley’s books of essays, Let Us Talk of Many Things. Years ago I read a couple of his books about sailing, another area in which he was quite accomplished.

Upon his death in 2008, The New York Times said this: “Mr. Buckley’s greatest achievement was making conservatism — not just electoral Republicanism but conservatism as a system of ideas — respectable in liberal post-World War II America.”

Aside from starting the influential conservative magazine the National Review and hosting “Firing Line,” an early talk TV show known for its great debate of ideas, he was a prolific writer. As someone who has personally answered the late-night phone calls from irate, sometimes inebriated, readers at the many newspapers I have worked at over the years, I can’t help but have an affinity for a guy who penned a 2007 book called Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.


Haywood County elected officials may sometimes get fed up dealing with the incessant public record requests and the three-hour meetings that a new wave of public scrutiny is forcing upon them, but there’s no good alternative except to take the medicine no matter how distasteful. Even at the county commission level, elected officials have as a first obligation the task of remaining answerable to the public — even when the public becomes immensely irritating.

Over the last several months a group that is loosely associated with — or at least resembles — the 9-12 national movement has begun going public with comments on local issues. They’ve been attending nearly every commission meeting, taking extended turns at the microphone during the public comment session. The constituents are spending public money by extending the meetings taxpayers pay to videotape.

There has been obvious tension between elected officials and those who have come to dominate the public portion of the meetings. Those showing up have been making requests for documents, digital files and other information. On occasion, the requests have been made to several different departments for the same information, a frustrating example of how the county must do the public’s business but at a cost that is often wasteful and unnecessary. Some have even continued to complain, disagree and otherwise make demands long after explanations have been provided.

Perhaps most frustrating for elected officials and county workers, is this — some of these folks have been provided information or facts but then act as if they don’t know the why, what or how much. One county official said it was as bad as lying, to act as if something isn’t known when indeed it is.

So what now? Nothing.

There’s simply no way to muzzle public comment in a democracy, no way to stifle the voices of those who demand an audience with their elected officials. Despite the cumbersome, capricious nature of what’s going on in Haywood, commissioners are stuck with it.

In almost every case I’ve witnessed over the years of groups or individuals deciding to become involved in local government by showing up at meetings, the result has been positive. Whether it’s builders and pro land-use advocates clashing in Jackson County, North Shore road proponents speaking their mind in Bryson City, or this group now showing up in Haywood County, one can only believe that the public interest is better served when people are involved in local government.

We suspect most of those now appearing before elected officials in Haywood have honorable motives and honest problems. It is the bad apple that ends up spoiling the whole bunch. One or two people grandstanding or going overboard disrupts what, in my mind, is a time-honored process that makes local government the most accountable form of government we have.

The concept of the informed electorate is an important part of this issue. People who get involved and make their opinions known on important subjects are the bedrock of good decision-making by elected officials. But what if there are those who refuse to digest, who ask but don’t listen, whose real mission is not to gather information? How can our democracy function, for all its shortcomings, when some take advantage of the system?

And that’s really the problem. There’s a difference among those who have legitimate concerns and those who use county commission meetings as a platform to air their own views, whether partisan or not. But our system lets everyone have their say, without regard to their motives. As they say in sports, it is what it is.


A lot of ink has been spilled over the new $10.3 million crafts education building at Haywood Community College, and for good reason. The building’s cost and its environmentally friendly energy-saving features were both somewhat controversial.

I’m among those who are guilty of contributing to the ink spill. We’ve run several stories, and three weeks ago I wrote a column supporting the building’s construction. My contention then was that the building’s features and costs had been adequately debated, questioned and some features fine-tuned, so it was time to move on. And that is exactly what commissioners did when they approved the building’s construction last week.

While the main thrust of all the arguments about the building have been very tangible, there are a couple of intangibles that are very relevant. In fact, these intangibles might, in the long run, be what is most important about this debate.

I’m a huge sports fan. I can watch 8-year-old girls playing AYSO soccer and totally get into the game, gauging each participant’s athleticism, the coach’s work in preparing the teams, and the demeanor of the parents. On the other hand, I can also stay engrossed in an NFL game where the participants are overpaid and often way too full of themselves. Once the game starts, that stuff mostly goes away and it’s all about the physical contest.

I bring this point up only because I’m among those who moan when we — society, government, whomever you want to put into this category — skimp on monuments to learning while we build extravagant sports stadiums and pay athletes crazy salaries. I know this is an overworked argument and that it’s always been this way. One has only to see the ruins of the Coliseum in Rome to know that this infatuation with games is very much a part of our history.

But guess what? Those ancients also lavished attention and resources on the arts and learning. So while the Coliseum is grand, you can visit Roman and Greek ruins wherever they exist and see vestiges of grand libraries and theaters. I clearly remember walking the marble road in Ephesus (Turkey) and seeing the great library (or its ruins) to which it led.

Our society is neglecting education and the arts. We have politicized education, the most damning of fates for something so valuable. The crafts building at HCC is certainly not any kind of extravagant monument, but I’m glad we’ve decided to make this building the number one building priority for Haywood Community College.

Another important point is that Western North Carolina is a place that values small businesses and self-sufficiency. The crafts program at HCC is unique in that it mixes arts and entrepreneurship. I personally know a half dozen or so graduates of the program, and they have built some of the most well-known arts and craft businesses in this region. They are important parts of the civic and social fabric of WNC and investing in this program is simply a reflection of what is best about our mountain region.

This whole debate, at one level, is about how we value arts and education. By my estimation, neither is given its proper place in mainstream American society these days. That’s a situation we need to correct.

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


More and more these days, it seems those who follow the news have strong opinions on the tone of public debate, a topic that elicits as much discussion — perhaps more — than the actual news items we want to hear about.

Last week I wrote a column about a group of vocal citizens in Haywood County who have become regulars at the county commissioner meetings. Some have accused the group — or at least some of them — of being more interested in criticizing at all costs and giving their opinions rather than seeking information in hopes of bringing about positive change.

Agree or disagree with anything we’ve written about this particular group, but there’s little doubt that the tone of public discourse is a hot topic these days. Whether it’s TV’s talking heads or video footage of public meetings held in communities around the U.S., it seems traditional media, bloggers and everyone else is talking about the civility — or lack thereof — in our public discourse.

Remember Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during his nationally televised health care speech? That was in early September, and it capped off a summer of debate on health care that turned increasingly mean-spirited. Those public meetings made for good television. Watching the vitriol from some of these town hall meetings probably led to a windfall for all the television stations that broadcast them, but it would be hard to describe those events as reasonable public discourse.

Perhaps it’s our tame, ever-so-busy lives that make many appreciate the over-the-top political antics that are becoming so common. Or maybe it’s our ever-shrinking attention spans that lead many to appreciate feigned emotion and blustering rhetoric in the place of real intellectual debate or knowledge. Whatever the case, it’s a new era we are in.

Who knows where it will end. I suspect that if the traditional media that so many people love to hate — like newspapers, for example — become less and less as relevant sources for news, then the tone of debate will get increasingly negative and less knowledgeable. Say what you want, but most newspapers — and a few television broadcasters — work hard to maintain truth and integrity in their news reporting. We put opinions on the opinion page, and not in news stories. And we make our money by convincing readers that our stories correctly represent the issues we cover.

As more opinion and spin are passed off as news, our country and our society are headed for difficult times. Truth will get lost in the fog, and the number of people seeking the truth will diminish because they won’t know it when they see it.

Last week’s column did elicit many responses, including one in the Letters to the Editor section from the man who is challenging Sen. Joe Sam Queen. My favorite, though, came with these quotes, which address the issue at hand. Good stuff:

• “Democracy means government by the uneducated, while aristocracy means government by the badly educated,” from Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), British journalist, novelist and poet.

• “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time,” from Winston Churchill.

• And my favorite — “The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously,” from Hubert Humphrey.


For more than 30 years, since I graduated from high school and left the Fayetteville area, I’ve been following from afar the efforts by the Lumbee Indians to win federal recognition. Recently that effort got a big boost when a bill recognizing the Lumbee and six other tribes in Virginia passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee aren’t happy about it.

The Lumbee live in the area along Interstate 95 in Lumberton in Robeson County, which is in southeastern North Carolina. All around the small towns of Pembroke, Red Springs, St. Pauls, and Fairmont are communities of Native Americans who have fought for recognition for more than a hundred years. Their efforts have been stymied by several key factors, including that they don’t have a language and they don’t have anything resembling a rich cultural history (as the Cherokee do) that is tied to the region in which they live.

Many say the Lumbee are a mix of different ethnic groups and not actual Native Americans. One theory says they are the related to the English settlers who disappeared as part of the Lost Colony on the state’s coast.

Back in March, EBCI Chief Michell Hicks told a House committee that, “The House of Representatives should not pass a bill that allows persons of questionable at best Indian ancestry to be acknowledged as an Indian tribe.”

Now that the Lumbee have gotten this far, we can expect to see the intra-tribal squabbling to heat up.


In the news business, the interplay between the Internet, mobile devices, television and print is at a precipitous crossroads where everything is changing so fast no one truly knows what the future will hold. It’s both exciting and scary for those of us who make our living amidst all this back and forth, and I’m asked at least once daily where it’s all going and what it means for our business. All the lines are blurring, and what’s old school and what’s new and exciting are bumping into each other.

Take for instance a move by our regional daily newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times. This Sunday, the newspaper started a three-part series on Evergreen Packaging, formerly known as Blue Ridge Paper and prior to that Champion International. The story about the Canton mill is interesting enough, but no new ground is being plowed with the reporting.

What is most interesting is that the story ran as a “print exclusive.” That means the local daily and its owner, Gannett — the world’s largest newspaper company — decided to offer the story only to readers of the paper’s print edition.

Wow. That is news, especially if it represents a broader move by Gannett and, perhaps, other papers to take back their content. The Asheville paper, as with most newspapers in this country, has been giving away all its content on the Web for many years.

In the print newspaper business, there is an emerging consensus that we all committed a potentially fatal mistake around 10 years back. It seems longer ago now, but that was when there was an industry-wide move to put everything on the Internet and figure out later how to make money from it. Now, it’s a decade later and most newspapers still have not figured out how to turn a profit from Web sites, where the fruit of all of their news gathering is mostly given away, and the only money comes from a few banner ads and pop-ups.

A week ago, newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch — who owns The Wall Street Journal and the Fox networks, among dozens of other media outlets worldwide — wrote an op-ed piece in the WSJ that was excerpted from comments he made to the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 1 about journalism and the Internet. Murdoch is often viewed among print journalists as a kind of Darth Vader, a man responsible for taking quality newspapers and sucking them dry because he demands huge profits while meddling in the newsroom.

But on one issue I am in complete lockstep with this aging media mogul — content providers like The Smoky Mountain News, the Asheville newspaper and the major national papers must, in some way, be compensated by those who read our stories online. Murdoch is searching frantically to figure out how to enact a pay system for those who read stories via the Internet. There are several models out there right now. Many newspaper Web sites have some content that must be purchased and some that can be accessed for free, while others sites are not available at all unless readers pay a subscription fee.

Murdoch’s enemies right now are those who lift — i.e., steal — stories from newspapers and put them on their own Web sites, thereby gaining valuable, credible news stories with very little investment. Here’s what he told the FCC about these so-called “aggregators:”

“Right now content creators bear all the costs, while aggregators enjoy many of the benefits. In the long term, this is untenable. We are open to different pay models. But the principle is clear: To paraphrase a famous economist, there’s no such thing as a free news story, and we are going to ensure that we get a fair but modest price for the value we provide.”

The jury is out on whether Murdoch is an aging entrepreneur with a nostalgic dream or a formidable businessman who will find a way to make money for those who invest in reporting and editing. But I’d like to think our economic system will reward those businesses that produce a product that people find useful.

Here’s Murdoch on that point, from the same column: “My second point follows from my first: Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.”

The Asheville Citizen-Times decided to make its print product more valuable — some stories will only be available to those who buy their printed newspaper. On the paper’s Web site, you can read an outline of the Evergreen story but not the details. If Gannett can make this work — and I hope it can — it adds value to its print product. I suspect that a lot of people in Haywood County who otherwise don’t purchase a Sunday and Monday newspaper did so this week.

I’d wager neither the ACT’s model to bolster its print product or that dream of Murdoch’s to get everyone who uses online content to pay are where the future lies, but it may be somewhere in between. Again, here’s Murdoch on the changes the news delivery business is facing, and why he thinks smart news companies will survive.

“To make informed decisions, free men and women require honest and reliable news about events affecting their countries and their lives. Whether the newspaper of the future is delivered with electrons or dead trees is ultimately not that important. What is most important is that the news industry remains free, independent — and competitive.”

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


Let’s just say it’s about time.

A state special deputy attorney general said in a Nov. 25 letter that alcohol sales could indeed take place on the gaming floor at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, clearing away the last barrier blocking patrons from legally mixing alcohol and gambling. According to officials, the casino could be selling alcohol on the casino floor within a few weeks.

That’s good news for the casino, for the Cherokee and for the region. It’s no secret that patrons have been sneaking alcohol into the casino, keeping it in their cars or drinking prior to arriving at the state’s most popular tourist destination. Now, that money will go to the Cherokee to help it fund the many programs the tribe has instituted to help members since the casino opened over a decade ago.

This news comes just about exactly six months after tribal members voted overwhelmingly to allow alcohol sales at casino restaurants.

This issue is not about whether one endorses alcohol or not, or how one feels about gambling. Those issues have already been decided. All this ruling does is allow the casino to be as successful as possible, and as long as the tribe continues to spend the profits wisely and the entire region benefits, we support that concept.

With alcohol now available to patrons, the only remaining barrier preventing Harrah’s Cherokee Casino from becoming a full-blown gambling center is the ban on live dealers. Negotiations with the state have been on again and off again over the last few years, but it seems that this domino will likely follow those that have preceded it. It’s a bad time for anyone to try to slow down Western North Carolina’s most successful economic juggernaut.


Canton’s future plans

As new town board members settle in to their jobs, this east Haywood County municipality is at a critical juncture as it seeks to re-define itself.

Mayor Pat Smathers and Alderman Eric Dills are joined by three first-term aldermen, making this the second time in two years that voters have voted in almost an entirely new board. That seems, if nothing else, like a mandate for change.

Canton’s potential is huge, as are its challenges. The town needs to take advantage of traffic off Interstate 40 and make sure its infrastructure can handle growth out there while also focusing on its unique neighborhoods and its downtown. Those neighborhoods and the downtown area, along with recreation amenities, are keys to attracting new families and attracting quality businesses.

Anyone who has followed the town’s politics knows Smathers and Dills are more often than not on opposite sides of many issues, but the dynamic can work well for Canton’s taxpayers. That differing philosophy should keep the communication lines open and give the local media plenty to write about. Lots of media attention and a few controversies usually help get citizens engaged in the political process.

We look forward to covering Canton’s progress over the next few years and watching the town finds its identity.

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


The Smoky Mountain News cover story last week about the troubles faced by returning National Guard soldiers after deployments in Irag and Afghanistan will hopefully open many people’s eyes to this issue.

Reporter Giles Morris wrote about the post-traumatic stress issues faced by Staff Sgt. Shane Trantham, but that story is likely shared by thousands of returning soldiers.

The meat of the issue is this: the National Guard soldiers don’t return home as full-time soldiers like their combat-duty comrades in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. They are citizen-soldiers, and when they come home they return to old jobs and try to resume their lives in small towns and communities.

The problem is that they don’t have the support system found at military bases. Full-time soldiers have military hospitals and counselors they can see for free, their spouses and families live next door to each other and share the war experience daily, and those soldiers don’t have to worry about what they’ll do for a job because most of them remain in the armed forces.

And here’s another reality: today’s soldiers — whether full-time or citizen-soldiers — face multiple deployments. In past wars when soldiers survived a stint on the front lines to return home, it was very unlikely they would be re-deployed to combat zones. That’s not the case with today’s leaner military force.

The Department of Defense is working to improve the services available to these returning vets — especially counseling services — but it still has a long way to go. As this country transforms its military to fewer full-time soldiers and more high-tech equipment, the National Guard has become a regular part of our combat force. The treatment of these part-time soldiers by the government, however, has not kept pace with the new role we’ve thrust them into. Spending more money to help transition these soldiers back into civilian life is a moral responsibility the U.S. government — and taxpayers — must embrace.


A good deal at Wal-Mart

Speaking of spending money ...

It’s not a very sexy story, that’s for sure, but Haywood County commissioners made a wise move last week by deciding to purchase the old Wal-Mart near Tuscola High School.

The current Department of Social Services and Haywood County Health Department buildings are, in a word, dumps. They date from the 1920s and the 1950s, and trying to renovate buildings that old to meet today’s standards is simply a losing proposition.

The DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of social service facilities in the state. Maybe there’s another county with a DSS building this in need of repair, but I’d have to see it to believe it.

No, there’s little argument about the need for new facilities, so then comes the argument about whether the county can afford the old building. If it gets the federal stimulus loan it is applying for, the interest rate will be as good a deal as possible. So now is a good time. Despite the recession, Haywood and every other county has a responsibility to provide certain services to its residents. Some people don’t want any money spent on health care for the low income or social services for the poor and elderly, but that’s an argument for another forum. The county must provide these services and do so in an adequate facility or face the loss of state funding.

Finally, the hulking, empty retail space was a blight. By renovating the building, putting several hundred workers into it and then the accompanying client base, this move will effectively re-energize that area of the county. If the designers do a good job on the exterior and all the green building attributes make their way into the final architectural plan, this facility could become a showcase of sorts.

Haywood’s commissioners deserve praise for this move, not the heat they’re taking from some.

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


Religion and its place in local government have once again arisen as issues in North Carolina. This means that many Christians — especially those holding elected office — are having to search for a balance between their personal prayer practices and their public duty to uphold the state and federal constitutions.

The current controversy arose in Winston-Salem when two Forsyth County residents objected to the prayer used to start county board meetings. Past rulings have supported the right to pray but held that those prayers must be general in nature, that they couldn’t use words like “Christ” or “Jesus” but could reference “God” or the “Almighty.”

This is a complicated issue, but one that does need to be dealt with. Personally, I’ve always been more bemused than fired up about this controversy.

First, the case law on this is quite clear, as noted above. If you want to follow the letter of the law, prayer guidelines for public meetings are pretty clear. End of discussion.

On the other hand, I also wonder why people care about how others pray, whether in public or elsewhere. If some elected official somewhere wants to say a prayer that satisfies his own religious yearnings, my libertarian instincts say let that person have at it — as long as they aren’t using their elected position as a pulpit. I don’t care about other people’s religious beliefs, and I certainly don’t want to inhibit or influence those beliefs. Doesn’t interest me.

The problem gets more complicated when those who feel compelled to offer prayers that clearly violate court rulings begin talking about their belief that this is a Christian nation and that we are taking religion too far out of public life. These two issues — whether society is less moral than in the past and whether we allow Christianity to permeate public life — are not related.

Unfortunately, many don’t believe that. One county commissioner we interviewed for last week’s cover story on this issue said as much: “It’s just the way I was raised. We’re talking religion out of everything. It’s made a difference in the world as we see it today ... since they took it out of schools, our morals started going downhill,” said Macon County Commissioner Bob Simpson.

Here’s a true story from a few years ago, an example that many in Haywood County may remember.

A local citizen who was very active in civic affairs was Jewish. He was a member of a civic club that started each meeting with a prayer. Just like the Forsyth County case, that prayer almost always ended with something like “in Jesus’ name we pray,” or another reference to Christ.

This gentleman asked discretely that the prayer exclude references to Jesus. He wanted to remain active in the club and was uncomfortable with the prayer. In the end, he left the group because some members would not alter their prayer habits.

This was a civic group and not an official government body, but it’s that kind of intransigence that leads to many of the problems that arise over this issue. The lone Jewish member of the group wanted his beliefs respected, and he thought the club could do so and still respect their own religious beliefs. Some of the Christians in the group felt otherwise, and so a split occurred.

These heartfelt beliefs are why this issue is so controversial and why, more than 220 years after our Constitution was ratified, individuals in this country are still grappling with religion and its place in government and public life.

In other parts of the world, the difference of opinion that divided that community club could have led to bloodshed. That doesn’t happen very often here, and that speaks to the very American trait of taking a long time to let issues work themselves out through government, the courts and society. This allows some important issues to hang around too long (like legal racism), but it also gives people time to adjust to change as we accept new norms.

I suspect the Forsyth County case is going to put new pressures on elected officials to abide by the letter of the law, and that’s a good thing. As one county commissioner pointed out in last week’s story, the Constitution is clear. It was written so that minority viewpoints are protected. That is what has made this country the bastion of freedom it has become, and I for one am proud of that tradition.

This crux of the debate comes down to this: where is the proper place for religion? Is it necessary — or legal — to make religious declarations in the public arena, or is religion’s proper sphere in the home, in the church and in the heart?

Several county commissioners in our region, I think, hit it right on the mark. Two of those are Haywood County Commissioners Kevin Ensley and Kirk Kirkpatrick.

Ensley’s prayers to open board meetings, according to most court rulings, would not meet constitutional muster. Although he feels he should be able to pray, here’s his answer to any mandate about what he can and can’t say: “If you don’t want me to say that, don’t call on me to pray.” In other words, his religion is much more important to him than publicly uttering a prayer he doesn’t believe, so he’ll just keep his faith to himself and abide by the law.

Kirkpatrick had this to say: “I believe in my faith, but I am not going to use my position in government to impose it on other people.” That’s a very important part of this discussion, because government leaders should not be in the business of endorsing one religion over another. That’s not what the founders had in mind.

And finally, Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan summed up this issue very nicely, at least according to my ideas about religion and government. McMahan feels strongly that the two don’t mix, and Jackson is one of the few counties in Western North Carolina that doesn’t start their meetings with a prayer. However, McMahan is also a devout Southern Baptist who regularly attends church: “When I go to the commissioner meetings, we are there to conduct county business. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray. I do that on my own.”


(Scott McLeod is the editor of The Smoky Mountain News. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

— From the Gospel of Matthew


Purveyors of religion have recently been touting the need for elected officials to make public proclamations of their faith, citing examples of martyrs, saints and Jesus himself proclaiming themselves Christians in the face of certain death. Truth be told, equating such life and death drama as being similar to whether a county commissioner makes a specific kind of prayer at a county board meeting is like comparing an earthquake to a hiccup.

For those who haven’t been following this controversy, a recent court ruling in North Carolina has reaffirmed longstanding case law that says praying to Jesus — thereby referring to a specific religion — to open a county board meeting does not pass constitutional muster. Forsythe County commissioners who want to get a better interpretation of what they can and can’t do are challenging the court ruling allowing only a prayer to a generic god. That lawsuit will sort things out, which is a good thing as leaders in many of our western counties are caught in the crosshairs and trying to figure out how to handle this divisive issue.

Perhaps I’ve lost some of my youthful hellfire, but personally I don’t particularly care what kind of prayer opens a public meeting. I wouldn’t care if a Hindu commissioner gave some prayer that satisfied his own spiritual yearning. I don’t care if Christians do the same. As long as the leaders are carrying out their official duties in an ethical, honest and straightforward manner, let them pray to whatever god leads them down that path.

But my personal feelings, and the personal feelings of those giving elected officials a hard time, are irrelevant. More importantly, what happened at a recent Haywood County board meeting points out exactly why we need laws to govern this issue. Here’s what one citizen said: “If the majority of people want public prayer in the name of Jesus, we ought to have it.”

No, we shouldn’t, and that’s exactly the problem. The majority who wants the prayer is a mostly benign group of local citizens who want nothing else than for their leaders to proclaim their faith and pass laws accordingly. As has been pointed out many times, though, we are a religious nation governed by law, not a lawful nation governed by religion.

In Haywood County, Commissioner Mark Swanger has been a school board chairman, a county board chairman and is now a county commissioner. Swanger has very earnest and intelligent views when it comes to the interplay between the public and public servants. He recognizes the danger when the majority believes it can pass any measures that the majority supports, despite what courts — the check and balance on our legislators and our executive branch — have ruled.

“I am very uneasy with anyone telling a commissioner or anyone else what the content of a prayer should be. That’s what the Taliban does,” Swanger told The Asheville Citizen-Times.


In your heart, not on your sleeve

I was sitting in church on Ash Wednesday last week when the priest said something that caught me completely off guard. Next to Easter, Ash Wednesday is the best attended of all masses, he said. He didn’t say it outright, but the inference was that some come to get the sign of the cross on their forehead with ashes and then go out into the world for all to see.

The hypocrites — Matthew’s words (see the beginning of this column), not mine — were also at work at the recent county board meeting. No, I’m not questioning the religious beliefs of those who spoke, for it seemed very clear that they had very strong feelings about faith.

What is hypocritical is for anyone to put themselves at the gates of Christiandom and declare that they know what is right when it comes to prayer. Can anyone take seriously those who proclaim that a county official who refuses to pray like they want him or her to pray is somehow not a real Christian?

This prayer controversy is not akin to abortion or the death penalty or providing government aid to the poor. In debating issues like those, one’s personal faith does cross into the public sphere, and we seek out leaders who have the same beliefs as us. That is how our system works.

But let’s not judge our elected officials — or anyone, for that matter — based on an interpretation of what constitutes proper prayer. Doing so belittles the personal covenant of faith and vainly attempts to elevate ourselves as judges in a sphere where mere mortals don’t have standing. As the familiar boyhood taunt goes, who died and made them god?

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


The cash settlement now signed and sealed for Swain County in lieu of building the North Shore Road is a good thing, right?

Well, it’s a good thing only if the entire $52 million comes through, and that’s something that this newspaper, the rest of the media in this region, and the leaders who have put their names on this document need to make sure happens.

I’m in the camp of those who have been saying for years that the settlement was among the best of the available options. A real road along the north shore of Fontana Lake just doesn’t make sense, not today. When that promise was made, the idea of protecting wilderness areas was just taking root. The recent Ken Burns documentary about the national parks explained in detail how the national park movement started, fermented, then took off.

Now, six decades later, this area on the lake’s shore is touted by many as the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. There is no way anyone besides the relatives of those forcibly moved from the land could want this road built.

For what it’s worth, I personally favored another, more expensive option. I think the park service should have extended the road by a mile or so and then built a visitor center at its terminus explaining the history of the former logging and mining villages in the area, the promises made to those who left, and how the controversy ended. This, along with $52 million for Swain County, would have been a better outcome.

But this is settlement is what we have, and there is more than a little irony in the new agreement. Once again Swain County residents are given a promise — $52 million — and are asked to trust in the federal government that it will be fulfilled. I’m more than just a little worried, especially given the nation’s budget woes, the capriciousness of political leaders everywhere, and the strong current of partisan warfare that now engulfs Washington. What Rep. Heath Shuler and President Obama’s minions promise may mean nothing to the next set of elected officials who take office.

There is another “catch” in this agreement that doesn’t involve the federal government. The state is going to hold the money in a trust account so the principal can’t be touched, and Swain will get the interest. Again, another government entity that was part of the original agreement is going to be in line ahead of Swain to actually control the money. When the budget gets tight, those dollars are going to look more like filet mignon than a sacred cow. North Carolina, indeed, has a recent history of withholding money from counties and towns that, by its own statutes, didn’t belong to the state.

Right now, Swain is to get $12.8 million. The rest is to come in over the next 10 years, at the rate of about $4 million a year.

I’m confident that Swain County is going to get this money, but I’m also confident that there will be some greedy hands trying to grab some of it in the coming decade. It never hurts to prepare for battle.


There is no more deserving Main Street Champion than former Waynesville Mayor Henry Foy, who was honored with this award during the recent Main Street North Carolina banquet.

Foy, who served as mayor of Waynesville until 2008, was for decades the face of a town that underwent a dramatic revival under his leadership. Waynesville’s downtown is often held up as a model, and Foy is one of those responsible for its success.

For years, he supported efforts to revitalize the downtown area and never missed an important event that would bring publicity or development. Foy, who still lives a little more than a block from Main Street, was an elected official for 26 years and mayor for 16.

A well-deserved award if ever there was one.

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


Writing about the weather is usually about as exciting as a yawn. For 12 months, though, we in the mountains have been taking it on the chin time and again, and it’s got me wishing for a bit of a reprieve.

The mudslide that tore down Rich Cove in Maggie Valley Friday night is a solemn reminder of just how powerful the forces of nature can be — especially after we have come in and changed the original lay of the land. We’ll leave it to the attorneys to find out if any entity is liable for this slide and its damage, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by predicting that there are almost certainly more slides in our future over the next few months. When we have snow and rain like we have in the last 12 months, disturbed mountaintops with cuts and roads and houses won’t hold.

What makes this recent slide so disturbing, though, is the damage it could have caused. At least four or five houses are deemed too dangerous for residents to return to, and a couple of dozen others were very close. That no lives were lost is a minor miracle.

It also came on the heels of so many other large slides. One in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is being cleaned up now; another huge slide in October on Interstate 40 is stopping tourists from coming our way and it was followed by a smaller rockslide close to Harmon Den on the interstate; and several other smaller slides are disrupting lives throughout our region. Over the last few years, lives have been lost in Peeks Creek in Macon County and in Maggie Valley due to slides destroying homes.

I recall about 15 years ago when I was the editor of The Mountaineer and tourism officials started touting the fact that Haywood County was the most mountainous county east of the Rockies. Depending on who claims some of the mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are at least 14 peaks in Haywood over 6,000 feet. The mountainous slogan bodes well for attracting tourists, but we have to live with the destructive reality of the terrain in this place we call home. For many there’s probably a feeling of helplessness creeping in. Where, and how bad, will the next one be?

There’s little doubt that the rockslides are related to this wet, cold winter. I’ve lived in these mountains 17 consecutive winters, and prior to that spent another five winters in the Boone-Blowing Rock area. I’ve not seen the kind of snow we’ve had this year in all 23 of those winters. We’ve had bigger snowfalls in previous years, but at my house we’ve had snow on the ground since Dec. 18, barring two days when I could see all the grass in my yard. Even if you live on a north face at over 3,000 feet, this is just craziness for the southern mountains.

And they’re calling for more. I fondly remember the jokes about how many times Bob Caldwell, the former well-known weatherman for WLOS, said it was going to snow and it didn’t. So far this year, when they say snow, they mean it.

This crazy winter didn’t come out of nowhere. Since last winter, the rain has been coming down. All spring and summer, my son couldn’t stop equating the constant rains with the potential for a snowy winter and lots of great snowboarding and canceled school. Looks like he was right.

But the rains were welcome. We had been in a severe drought and aquifers were drying up. Just like the landslides, some said it wasn’t just the lack of rain contributing to the groundwater shortages in the mountains. Many said all the wells we were sinking into the mountainsides, coupled with the drought, were setting us up for a severe water shortage. And back during the 2004 floods, many said the prevalence of paved surfaces where the water could not drain multiplied the destructive power of the flood and rain waters.

The rains came so fast and so hard this year that we were out of the drought by summer. The wet weather has carried on, both rain and snow. And so we have the most recent disaster at Rich Cove, with many worried about more of the same. It’s not quite man vs. nature, but the two working out of sync with each other in these mountains make for a volatile, sometimes frightening, mix.

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


If you believe people usually get what they deserve, then the recent conviction of a Jackson County man on elder abuse charges was welcome news. Best of all, it could open the door for similar charges against others taking advantage of the elderly.

Mark Hawk pled guilty to a felony charge of elder abuse and four counts of embezzlement. According to the charges and testimony from family members, Hawk duped his elderly aunt out of nearly $60,000 after gaining a power of attorney. He was sentenced to just five days in jail but was also ordered to pay restitution of nearly $54,000.

The winner in this case, however, isn’t just this victim — Earla Mac Cowan — and her family. It’s the thousands of other seniors in our region who could potentially suffer from the same fate. As many as 10 percent of all seniors who rely on family members for care are victims of some kind of abuse, and for every instance of abuse reported another five go unreported.

These cases present a particular quandary for law enforcement and the judicial system. Most of the time it occurs among family members, making it that much more difficult to prosecute. When is a gift of a large sum of money theft versus just that, a gift? Worse, who wants to publicize internal family issues that are often embarrassing and painful? This case is the first ever conviction on an elder abuse charge in the seven western counties that comprise the 30th judicial district.

Michael Rich, Elder SAFE project coordinator for the 30th District Alliance, found out about Cowan’s case and became an advocate for the family members who sought prosecution. He says the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in the past had left them wary of taking on cases like these. To be found guilty under the elder abuse statutes, the victim must be elderly and disabled. In many cases it was easier to just convict abusers without the more stringent penalties included in the elder abuse statute.

Rich, however, says the Jackson County case may help in many ways. “Once it’s known in the community that the law has some teeth, then it’s easy to get people to come forward ... Law enforcement and I are in agreement that however we can get someone, that’s how we’ll get them. But we do know that in certain cases the elder abuse statute is a more serious felony,” he said.

What can we learn from this case?

Well, family members of this particular victim are encouraging those who suspect that abuse has taken place to be strong in seeking prosecution: “... people just have to know there will be doors slammed in their faces, and they have to keep on knocking loud and be ready to go through,” said Ann Buchanan, the niece of the Jackson County victim.

Second, law enforcement in this region is gaining experience in fighting these crimes, so that should reassure those who suspect abuse is taking place. Sybil Mann, who is head of 30 Judicial District Alliance for Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault and over the SAFE program, has been promoting awareness of elder abuse issues in the seven western counties among service providers, law enforcement and the judicial system. Rich, who is program director for SAFE, is doing work on the ground to help those who suspect abuse is taking place.

As our population continues to age, we should be acutely aware of family members and friends who could become susceptible dependant on others for care. And we can be thankful that SAFE is out there, helping those who harbor suspicions that terrible things are happening.

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


Mix a strong environmental ethos, economic realism and strong community pride all together in the same brain (mine, in this case), and in almost any environmental controversy or issue, there’s an outcome that fits nicely into my world view.

Logging in national forests? It’s fine, but do away with large clearcuts and don’t make taxpayers subsidize road building. Coal-fired power plant air pollution? Despite the threat of higher electricity rates, make them install the most up-to-date pollution controls on every coal-fired plant in the country. Buffers on mountain streams? Laws should be stringently enforced and fines for violators should be large. I could go on and on.

When it comes to Evergreen Packaging (the Canton paper mill owner) and its wastewater discharges into the Pigeon River, however, it’s far more complicated.

And now, as the EPA says the state is being too lenient on the mill and threatens to take over the permitting process for its wastewater discharges, I’m more than a little worried about the future of this huge east Haywood plant and the smaller packaging facility in Waynesville.

In the name of full disclosure, however, readers should know a few things. First, I’ve had informal ties to what was formerly Champion International for more than two decades. When I was editor of the paper in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, I was friends with management and rank and file employees. My daughter’s babysitter was the wife of a Champion engineer. I broke bread and tossed back beers with those workers.

As a journalist in Western North Carolina since 1992, I’ve watched as Champion morphed into Blue Ridge Paper Products and then was purchased by Evergreen. Here in the mountains I’ve known dozens of employees, guys I’ve played basketball with, people whose children I’ve coached in soccer, and people I’ve gotten to know because of their involvement in civic groups or who have been elected officials in the region.

Finally, Evergreen just recently became a major sponsor of Folkmoot USA, an international dance festival I’ve been involved with as a volunteer for the past decade. The company didn’t give a huge amount of money, but it did make a commitment that will help Folkmoot quite a bit. Over the last 100 years I would dare say that the owners of the Canton mill have made it the most philanthropic private company in the region.

So there you go.

But wait, if I’m going to be completely honest about how Evergreen affects me, there’s more. The businesses I own, including Smoky Mountain News, will have a better profit and loss statement this year if Evergreen remains viable, keeps providing jobs for 1,400 people, keeps pumping money into the economy, and keeps helping the businesses that purchase advertising from us. I’d venture to say that the list of businesses in Haywood County and the region who could make similar statements is very, very long.

I have a feeling that the disclosures mentioned above don’t really set me apart from most of my acquaintances in Haywood County and this part of the state. The truth is that almost everyone who lives here, and especially those active in community and civic affairs, are in the same position. The paper mill’s employees are our friends who help form the backbone of this place we call home. In addition, the $70 million annual payroll and its $58,000 per year average wage have a profound impact.

I’ll tell you another reason I want Evergreen to emerge from this permitting process still profitable. Call it nostalgia, but there’s a place deep in my soul for people and companies that make something tangible. This feeling led me as a young college graduate to spend nearly 10 years on building sites as a carpenter. These days, we are outsourcing everything. What was once an idealistic disdain for polluting factories has turned into a deep respect for American companies that are able to pay people a good wage while making a profit by building or making things, whether it’s tires, cars, electronics or paper.

We all want the color of the Pigeon River as clear as the water in the Nantahala and Tuckasegee rivers. Absolutely, no doubt about it. It hurts every time I go by that river and see its tea-brown color. Those downriver who don’t benefit from Evergreen have valid arguments about lowered property values. Yes, it’s a huge mill on a little river that would never get a permit today.

Here’s the bottom line: I expect state and federal regulators to demand as much improvement from the mill as is possible without forcing it out of business. I’m no scientist, so in this instance I have to rely on those who know about these things.

But here’s what I do know: I don’t want those friends of mine jobless. I don’t want the town of Canton bankrupt or Haywood County to suffer the loss of its largest taxpayer, negatively affecting schools, law enforcement, health services, the community college and much more.

This is the real world, the place we live in every day. I’m an environmentalist and want Evergreen held to the strictest standards it can meet while remaining open and continuing to be an integral part of this community.

(Scott McLeod is editor of The Smoky Mountain News. he can be reache at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Now that the health care debate is over, here’s what we have: a very middle-of-the-road health insurance reform package. Most on the left wanted much more (the public option), while those on the right admitted they’d like to control health insurance and medical costs but spent all their energy fighting the left as opposed to producing their own proposal.

Time to move on. On the next major domestic issue identified by the Obama administration — immigration reform — we can’t do middle of the road. We need bold immigration reform, a way to bottle the allure of America that will attract the 21st century’s top recruits from around the world while at same time enacting laws that will discourage mass waves of illegal immigration.

This is a complicated issue. Reform should not focus so much on punishing those who are already here illegally — especially the kids and young adults who had no choice in the matter — as it should on controlling future problems. We’ve got to provide paths to citizenship for those already here. It’s just ridiculous for our country to spend energy and resources packing up young men in their 20s and sending them back to countries they know nothing about. Did anyone read the story in the Asheville paper last week about the bust where one of the arrested was in his 20s, had been here illegally since age 2, and immigration authorities were going to ship him back to the Latin American country of his birth that he hasn’t visited since leaving? It makes no sense.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week (see excerpt) about a dinner he went to honoring the best young scientific minds in American high schools. The honorees read like a phone book from China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam and other parts of the world.

No one is saying that the American kids we all rhapsodize about — the Caucasians playing sports and hanging out at the mall — aren’t just as smart. They’re just different. Our kids usually tend to mature later, get serious about life and school later, and that’s OK. But we need to keep the doors open to those problem-solving immigrants who push their children into science careers.

And then we have the immigrants mostly from points south who have are getting here way too quickly for some but who, obviously, are much more willing to do blue collar work for wages that allow business owners — farmers, contractors, restaurant owners — to earn a profit. When I was 12, the tobacco and vegetable fields provided summer work for Southern suburban kids one generation off the farm who needed a job; today, those same jobs are held almost exclusively by immigrants, legal and illegal.

It’s seems pretty obvious that the future success of the U.S. economy is dependent on rolling out the welcome mat to diversity. Immigration reform needs to slow the flow of illegal immigration from the south while providing reasonable access to those who want to work — whether it’s in the fields or in the labs — and those who want to attend our universities and colleges. The country that leaves the door open will rule the 21st century, and I’m afraid that we are leaning more toward an irrational fear of immigrants. If that sentiment takes roots, we’ll all suffer the consequences.

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


The primary election is over now, but even before the vote tallies made winners and losers out of so many candidates, this election season seemed to be sweeping in a tide of activism in the mountains.

The truth of this struck home the night of April 22. I had just moderated a political forum in Swain County, which was a first for me. More importantly, it was the first time many in Swain remembered a political forum being held during the primary election.

The turnout from the public wasn’t as good as it could have been, but that’s to be expected. Most people are content to read about the issues in the papers or vote for friends or friends of friends, and go on about their business. I’ve had an opportunity to attend dozens of local forums over the years, and more often than not organizers end up disappointed with the attendance. At the Swain County Center for the Arts at Swain County High School, about 75 folks showed up.

But not everyone is content to sit at home and read about it. As former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neil is credited with saying, “All politics is local.” County commissioners are about as local as it gets, and their decisions affect our lives in everything from the quality of our schools to public safety.

This truism manifested itself in two ways. One, the number of candidates running for county commission and sheriff in Swain County was, in a word, staggering. For the most part the candidates were well meaning people with a desire to give back to their communities. With 13 candidates running for commissioner and eight running for sheriff in Swain County, the election was somewhat of a free for all.

In Haywood County, a total of 11 candidates ran for three open seats on the county board. I can’t remember a time when so many local elections had so many viable candidates running for office.

The second point that hit home after the Swain forum was about the organizers. Neither Vicki Crews or Robin Hamilton are lifelong residents of Swain. Both moved here as adults, and neither come from a background of political activism. They simply wanted to get all the candidates together and allow the public — and themselves — the opportunity to gather some information prior to the May 4 primary.

Their goal wasn’t high-minded and it wasn’t devious. Instead, they were driven by a desire to make educated decisions at the ballot box. Plain, simple, and critical to the proper functioning of our system of government.

There’s a lot of anger about government right now, and polls show that Americans have as little trust in their political leader as at any time in our republic’s history. I think the reasons for that are two-fold: one, some particularly controversial issues, like health care and immigration, are fueling passions; and two, the digital age of media gives those who are mad and unhappy more power than ever. Any observer of government knows that anger is the best tool for galvanizing an audience.

But all’s not bad. The very fact that so many people are taking part in local politics, holding meetings, organizing forums and running for office provides ample evidence that the public is engaged, and that the pendulum is swinging. By November, perhaps, we’ll know which way.

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


Western North Carolina is a patchwork of small communities, close-knit groups operating independently to make their own town or area thrive. Whether it’s in the Nantahala Gorge, up the plateau in Cashiers or in downtown Canton, there are real people busting their butts each day who hold the well-being of their own “neighborhood” as a sort of higher calling. Personal success is intimately linked to the success of the community.

The latest — and in all likelihood, the final — effort to salvage the Ghost Town theme park that helped transform Maggie Valley into a unique kind of tourist town is a story that stretches across the mountains into several of these small communities. How this story finally unfolds will help define the future for those who call these places home.

Because our communities are small, those with lots of money have lots of power, the “big fish in a small pond” scenario. Al Harper, a successful entrepreneur whose holdings include the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, is one of these folks.

According to a story in this week’s Smoky Mountain News (page 6), Harper is close to securing a loan for $15 million. He plans to use about half the money to pay off a portion of the theme park’s $13 million in debt. A bankruptcy court has decided the rest of the debt will be wiped away, leaving about 200 businesses large and small to write off what in some cases is a substantial debt (in the interest of full disclosure, the theme park owed some money to this newspaper for advertising costs that will never be collected).

That decision also leaves many investors, some local and some from far away, with huge losses. Those running the park since its re-opening in 2006 have cost a lot of people a lot of money.

It’s the little guys in the small towns that make this story interesting. Among those is Ghost Town employee Randy Bryan. He cashed out $200,000 in his 401K to invest in Ghost Town. He’s lost every penny.

“If I was ever going to give up on something, this would have been it. But I refuse to quit, I refuse to lose. I believe too much in it,” said Bryan.

Maggie Valley resident Alaska Pressley also invested substantially in the park.

“Any price is worth it to help this area,” she told a reporter last week.

There is that community spirit, that willingness to risk a life’s work for a community and — if it had worked out — some financial reward.

This Ghost Town tale is now part of the story of Bryson City. In order to get the loan, Harper is putting up his railroad as collateral. That means if the park does indeed go belly up, which many believe it will, a portion of Bryson City’s tourism lifeblood may disappear with it. In its worst year, Harper says the railroad attracts 150,000 customers. That’s a lot of people spending money in a lot of stores and restaurants in Bryson City. Those people disapper, and Bryson is City hurts.

We haven’t had the opportunity to interview business leaders in Bryson City about this new scenario, about how their future is now directly tied to Maggie Valley and Ghost Town. I suspect those who have dedicated their lives to Bryson will be there, willing to step up and fill the void if the need arises.

Tourism is a unique business. It’s not high-speed fiber-optic stuff, it’s not about connectivity or e-commerce. Sure, marketing these properties will rely on some of that. But when it comes down to it, it’s about selling an experience. Harper’s business model at the railroad and, we suspect, at Ghost Town is about creating memories, tugging at the nostalgic fiber that runs through all of us.

I’m certainly no judge of his chances for success, but I will bet on the resiliency of these communities regardless of whether this final gamble pays off.

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


For its entire existence, this country’s leaders have wrestled with the slippery issue of power and how much is too much for government at all levels. In times like these, as tax revenues disappear while the free market struggles, the issue takes on even more significance.

So when Haywood officials said last week that their decision to privatize trash and recycling services was more about fiscal reality than philosophy of government, there was no reason to doubt them. Still, this move toward getting out of the trash business presents an interesting opportunity for a discussion about local government and its responsibilities.

Haywood commissioners made some waves last week when they voted to stop providing a service that was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of operating their own convenience centers and a “pick” line at the county-owned recycling center, commissioners voted to privatize many solid waste services. The decision will save nearly $500,000 per year. Another switch that’s liable to happen within a year — the closing of the transfer station in Clyde — could save an additional million dollars a year. A task force studying the cost of these services also says hiring a firm to manage the entire landfill would provide large cost savings.

All that sounds great from a budgetary perspective, and one would think there would be widespread praise for the savings. Unfortunately for the Haywood commissioners, that’s not what happened. As always, people’s lives are in the crosshairs when a decision of this magnitude ripples through the system.

More than 15 county employees will lose their jobs as the county shuts down a line of service that has been expanding for the last couple of decades. Leaders of the municipalities are upset and most private trash haulers don’t seem happy.

So what’s next for Haywood and other counties struggling with declining tax revenues while the cost of everything else — gas, health care, wages, to name a few — continues to rise? Perhaps the sheriff’s department or the health department will go private. Government at all levels is better off by privatizing and outsourcing services that the private sector can provide, right?

“I think it’s function-specific,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education.”

Swanger’s right, but there is some irony in the fact that this move by Haywood comes at the same time the burgeoning Tea Party movement is criticizing government spending at all levels, and a local group has been riding Haywood commissioners incessantly. Let’s be clear that the hectoring by these government critics has nothing to do with the decision in Haywood. Still, there’s little doubt that the rise to power of the Tea Party is related to the economic crisis and government spending, which becomes an easy target when times are this tough. More than ever, there is a clamoring to cut costs and keep taxes low.

I’m not one of those who believe too much government is necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly inefficiencies in government regulations and bureaucracies, but the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico right now points to real and ongoing need for oversight of certain businesses. The vital services that government provides to citizens are a reflection of our fundamental values as a society, whether it’s health care for the poor and elderly, or EPA regulators to keep an eye on industrial polluters. In many cases the only entity that can step in and provide these services is government, and that’s the way it ought to be.

The question of how far government’s hand should reach into our lives will never be settled outright. From our local courthouses and town halls to Raleigh (where a privatization of mental health care a few years ago has left us with a broken system) and up to D.C. (where many question using tax money to bail out banks and automakers), it’s a fundamental issue our founding fathers left unsettled.

These are the same philosophic issues that pitted Thomas Jefferson and his anti-government, agrarian vision against the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and his pro-business, strong central government beliefs. This was the central controversy at the time the republic was formed, and it still bedevils our government at every level.

I suspect that in the next few years we’ll see more attempts by local governments to divest or privatize services. It will be up to voters to decide whether that’s good or bad. Haywood commissioners can say this is about the budget and not philosophy, but it’s hard to see the difference from inside the voting booth.

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


How do you kick out a member of a Native American tribe? The Eastern Band of Cherokee is about to find out, and there’s no way it’s going down without some bitterness and fighting.

The EBCI is almost finished with an audit of its enrolled members, and the Tribal Council is apparently leaning towards DNA testing to determine who is actually a member in the future.

The 1924 Baker Roll is the official document from which tribal membership is determined. Those families on that roll who meet the blood quantum level are considered members of the tribe. The enrollment audit started in 2006, and the tribal council is set to decide in June how to proceed with those whose tribal identity is being questioned.

Some are saying that new members should only be admitted after a DNA test, regardless of their family history. Others want to go further and do DNA testing on all enrolled members in order to clean up the rolls.

The potential for misery and family upheavals is just around the corner. What if someone has lived their entire life as a Cherokee and now is told, no, you don’t have enough Cherokee blood ? It seems the council has no choice but to follow through with DNA testing, but for some the results will be life changing.


Years of column writing have taught me this — think you’ve written something enlightening that the multitudes should take to heart, and the piece is quickly forgotten; dash off a column that you’d rate as benign at best, and the phone rings off the hook and the email box gets slammed.

Last week’s piece about Haywood County’s solid waste system and proposed changes in how it operates falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but comments from a couple of county commissioners do merit a mention. First, I said commissioners voted to make changes to the solid waste system. That’s a mistake. The proposed budget includes cost savings from the overhaul of the system, but the budget has not been approved yet. Nothing’s been decided for sure.

Second is the widespread use of the term “privatize.” Some are taking exception to that description. A Haywood task force has recommended changes to the solid waste system that would send some services to the private sector. The pick line that separates recyclables would simply disappear, as commissioners would outsource recycling services if the proposal were approved. A private company would also be in charge maintaining the convenience centers. At this point, the county would still be heavily involved in maintaining the transfer station and running the landfill.

Solid waste won’t be privatized entirely. Fewer county employees will be involved in solid waste disposal and recycling. The column’s premise was that these economic times are going to force many elected leaders — not just Haywood’s — to look for cost savings, and that outsourcing what were once government operations is likely to occur more rapidly until things get better.

I think that a close look at what can be outsourced is a good idea, that there is only so much government can and should do. In Haywood’s case, the overhaul of the solid waste system is a good idea with plenty of merit.

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


“Do I want to dictate what the college does? That is not my job. As county commissioners, it is my job to ask questions.”

Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick

The Haywood County commissioners have done their job, and now it is time to let Haywood Community College and its trustees do theirs — build a new Creative Arts Building that will educate the next generation of craft entrepreneurs in the Southern Appalachians.

The proposed new building has been scrutinized for months. County commissioners, college trustees, college administrators, and citizens have dissected the size, the energy saving measures and the cost of this building. HCC administrators, trustees and architects were asked to sharpen their pencils to reduce costs and even re-think the need for this building in light of other needs. In the end, very little changed.

The energy saving technology has been perhaps the most contentious part of this building. According to the experts we’ve spoken with, the technology works and is not experimental. The tax breaks make it a virtual no-risk investment (see story page 12), and one of the only reason there aren’t dozens of  green buildings like this going up is because the recession has sidetracked or stalled projects across the country.

Saving energy, like the simple act of consuming less of everything, is what will ensure the future economic sustainability of this country. Technology to do this will change and evolve quickly over the next few decades, but everyone is going to have to get on board. The state and federal governments are mandating it. And it’s simply the right thing to do.

This building is also critical to maintaining HCC’s prominence in the $200 million Western North Carolina craft industry. The college’s program of turning out artists who are also trained entrepreneurs is heralded as unique and among the best in the entire nation. In a place where nearly every expert agrees that small entrepreneurs are the keys to economic health, this community college program is a diamond in the rough. It won’t keep its current status — or gain an even better reputation — if we don’t invest in the program.

Although some have criticized the proposed building, it has not been widespread. In fact, it seems just the opposite. There is a lot of support among the business community and the civic leaders of Haywood for this project. The fact that voters approved the referendum in 2008 directing sales tax money to HCC was an indicator of the public support for the college. Yes, this building is expensive, but it has been vetted by HCC administrators, college trustees, the county commissioners and the public. No one has developed ways to re-design and save substantial money and still meet the college’s needs and the state mandates. The fact that you get what you pay for is sometimes just the simple, if expensive, truth.

Commissioners, on one hand, should be commended for how this process has unfolded. Coming on the heels of the debacle at Haywood Regional Medical Center, where the hands-off approach of the county was criticized, it’s easy to understand why this project has met such scrutiny. It also didn’t help that HCC President Rose Johnson’s name came up on the short list of potential new presidents at Asheville-Buncombe Technical College during the time debate about this building started.

But those arguments don’t detract from the need for this project. Voters OK’d the sales tax money and commissioners have turned the plans inside out and asked good questions, but it’s time to approve the plans and rely on college trustees and administrators to make this project successful.

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


In this business of covering the news, we often bear witness as apathy wins the day. Citizens sit back and let elected leaders, powerful corporations or a boisterous minority get their way without putting up a fight.

That’s why the conclusion to the Duke-Kituwah standoff is so refreshing. It’s not so important that one side lost and the other won — although the decision to move the electrical substation does stand as a victory for opponents. But it was the effort by the citizens group and their zeal that should be remembered and emulated.

The electrical substation was slated to be built within sight of Kituwah, the location of the mother town of the Cherokee that is considered a sacred site by the tribe. As soon as plans became public, members of the tribe and nearby citizens raised a storm of protest. They began lobbying Cherokee tribal officials and Swain County officials to stop the utility’s plans.

As the controversy swirled, Duke held to its opinion that the entire project was necessary in order to benefit the tribe. The irony here was hard to miss — the substation would benefit Harrah’s expansion and thereby tribal coffers that rely on the casino, but would mar a sacred site central to the identity of the tribe.

Chief Michell Hicks and tribal officials took a firm stand. Early in the controversy Hicks had this to say of the proposed substation site and Duke’s communications with the tribe.

“The bottom line is it’s a disrespect to our tribe and a disrespect to the people of Swain County,” said Hicks.

As Duke relented, tribal cultural preservation officer Russ Townsend said it could set an important precedent.

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

But it’s Natalie Smith and the Citizens to Protect Kituwah Valley who deserve the most praise. The dedicated group lobbied tribal council and Swain commissioners while mobilizing a statewide media campaign. They refused to give up and from a very early stage and took the moral high road, a position that in most cases will win the day. It’s a lesson in grassroots organizing that hopefully will inspire others to stand up and fight when the time comes.

(Scott McLeod is the editor and publisher of The Smoky Mountain News. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


A meeting that could lead to a completely new personality for the Cullowhee area will be finished by the time this hits the presses, but I’m hoping that the meeting gives fresh momentum to efforts to transform the Western Carolina University community.

A meeting was held last night (Aug. 3) between the Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) and the leaders and citizens of the town of Forest Hills. The Cullowhee group presented a formal proposal to Forest Hills to annex a portion of the community near the college. The move would effectively create a college town, putting portions of the Cullowhee community into the Forest Hills town limits. The move could pave the way for alcohol sales in bars and restaurants, and would offer strong land-use planning and access to state and federal grant money.

Such a move would be a stretch for both Forest Hills and the university community. Forest Hills has only 347 registered voters and was created as an enclave from the university. It is a haven where residents try to keep out some of the problems associated with college students, like loud parties and single-family residences crowded with 10 students and 10 cars parked in the street and yard.

Annexing around the university would give Forest Hills control of its destiny. It could create commercial and residential areas, working with the university as it plans for growth and change. There are lots of examples — Chapel Hill (UNC), Boone (ASU) and Greenville (ECU) — of small North Carolina towns working hand-in-hand with the local universities to create unique, livable and cool college towns. This is an opportunity to start down a similar path.

For many WCU professors and administrators, creating a lively business district around the college has been a long-time dream. Brian Railsback, an English professor and head of the Honors College, said he envisions old Cullowhee with new businesses and walkways and paths along the Tuckasegee River. Almost everyone who has ever spent time at WCU has had similar thoughts, imagining what old Cullowhee could be with some fresh investment and new businesses.

There is apparently a lot of support from the university for incorporating areas around WCU. The college town feel would certainly help attract students and professors, along with giving Jackson County and Forest Hills new sources of sales tax money.

In the end, this is really about fulfilling potential that has languished for decades. Forest Hills, WCU and the larger Cullowhee community are great places just as they are. But they could be much, much more. Here’s hoping this new dialogue opens some doors that have been shut for way too long.


The federal government, the nation’s largest land manager, has a responsibility ... to help develop a conservation agenda worthy of the 21st century. We must look to the private sector and nonprofit organizations, as well as towns, cities, and states, and the people who live and work in them, to identify the places that mean the most to Americans, and leverage the support of the federal government to help these community-driven efforts to succeed. Through these partnerships, we will work to connect these outdoor spaces to each other, and to reconnect Americans to them.

— from President Barack Obama’s memorandum establishing the Great Outdoors Initiative

It’s not often that we find something good for both the soul and the pocketbook. Then again, there are not many places like the mountains of Western North Carolina.

The listening session in Asheville last week that was part of America’s Great Outdoors Initiative should, perhaps, give rise to a dose of optimism about the future of this region. And in a summer where the economic downturn has remained stubbornly entrenched and the BP oil spill has changed our understanding of what an economic disaster can be, we can use a little good news.

This newspaper has devoted lots of coverage to the Obama administration’s Great Outdoors Initiative. American Whitewater Executive Director Mark Singleton, who lives in Jackson County, has been involved in the outdoor recreation industry for a couple of decades. He was invited to Washington, D.C., in April to the kick off ceremonies for the initiative. Singleton and the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee’s Vice Chairman Ken Murphy have written informative columns on our editorial pages about the initiative. The listening session in Asheville was the subject of a long story in last week’s paper.

It’s difficult to know yet — with all the other problems leaders in Washington are grappling with — whether this initiative will bear fruit. But we are at least getting a chance to send the message to Washington that investing in wilderness areas is important on many levels.

All of us are nurtured by our connection to the outdoors and to wild places. For those who don’t often get the chance to escape, I would challenge them to take a two-hour hike, a ride down one of our rives in canoe or a raft, or simply to drive up on the Parkway and stop for 30 minutes at an overlook. It just works wonder for de-cluttering, unplugging and reconnecting.

For those in this region who don’t regularly get outdoors, there’s another reason to support this effort that we hope will lead to larger investments in protecting natural areas: the outdoors and the outdoors recreation industry are the bedrock of our economy in the mountains.

The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the two most-visited units in the park system. In 2009, the Parkway had 16 million visitors and the GSMNP recorded 9.5 million visitors. This does not include the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, which are among the nation’s most visited national forests. These millions of visitors are the foundation of our tourism industry, and they come back year after year. Just about every business and government unit in these mountains are dependent on the money they spend while here.

So a renewed effort to conserve more places and to enhance the recreational opportunities in our parks and national forests will mean good things for this region and its people. Whether a hunter or a kayaker, a camper or a motorcycist, lend your support to this initiative. All of us in WNC stand to benefit.

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


We in the news business provide historians with some of the crucial data necessary to write the story of any particular point in time. Reporters gather facts and opinions that are snapshots of how people feel, and then we make every effort to put that information into perspective so that it’s meaningful and useful to readers. At its best, good journalism can help people make informed decisions.

Years from now, those who look back at the summer of 2010 will no doubt write about the BP oil disaster, the lingering international economic crisis, and Barack Obama’s withering public support. Perhaps those digging into what was happening in our little corner of the world might look at the results of the recent Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/Smoky Mountain News poll results that have been published in this newspaper and online (, “WNC Public Opinion Poll”) during the last couple of weeks.

The project, which we’re calling “Creating a Regional Policy Dialogue,” is the first of its kind in Western North Carolina. WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts saw a dearth of hard data about how residents of this area felt about important political issues. They approached us about partnering to gather that information and then publishing the results. The poll called nearly 600 registered voters in Jackson County, and it was conducted by Public Policy Polling out of Raleigh. Public Policy Polling has earned a reputation as one of the most reputable polling agencies in the Southeast.

Some quickly write off polling data, and that’s not surprising given the sheer volume of such information on a national basis. But what’s unique — and extremely interesting — about this PPI/SMN poll is its subject matter. We now have a baseline of information about how Jackson County residents feel about certain political issues during June of 2010. That information is interesting in and of itself, as the stories on our website attest.

But perhaps more intriguing will be to update this information in six months or a year to see how the onslaught of media we are all exposed to can change opinions. Maybe we’ll find that the barrage of information doesn’t necessarily lead to quickly changing public opinion.

The demographics of Western North Carolina are unique. The traditional, conservative mountain residents are now intermingling with new faces from all over the country. Anecdotally, we know this is a place that values tradition and attracts alternative lifestyle advocates. It’s a dynamic populace that — along with the mesmerizing draw of the mountains — has made this area one of the most popular places in the country to live.

Our hope — that is, The Smoky Mountain News and the WCU Public Policy Institute — is that we can continue to accumulate polling data unique to our region that provides insight into what people are thinking and why. Anytime you can get voters to think about and discuss important issues, it will hopefully lead to better decision making by leaders. That’s a good enough reason in itself to try to continue and build on this regional project to assess the feelings of residents west of Buncombe.

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


Tourism leaders in the mountains agree they’ve got to re-invent their marketing tactics over the next decade to stay competitive. Apparently, there are a multitude of opinions on how to do that.

When we ran a story in last week’s issue called “Tracking WNC’s tourists,” (, we heard lots of different ideas on who is coming to the mountains and what they want to do. After reading that story and looking back through our archives at other tourism-related stories we’ve done over the years, two points stood out. One, dependable market research on WNC’s tourism trends simply does not exist; two, a new brand of active, older visitor who wants a full slate of nonstop activity is replacing the tourist of decades past who came for relaxation.

The second point may be the most relevant. In year’s past, tourism officials here touted the middle-aged, working families with young children who would spend long weekends in small hotels, visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a day of hiking and a picnic, then go back to their hotel. The next day a visit to Ghost Town might highlight the day, perhaps with dinner out afterward.

Of course, the affluent country club set and the second-homeowners were mixed in, but marketing to those segments was pretty straightforward.

But those days are long gone. I happen to know about this first because I’m one of those new families. With three kids of different ages in tow and my own interest in biking, hiking, rafting, etc., my family packs a full day in during our vacations. I’m 50, and I still relish a 15-mile mountain bike ride, perhaps a hike after lunch, then dinner out. I’m also looking for cultural attractions to provide my children — and myself — with any kind of educational experience that’s available. When we travel with our kids, we go from the time we get up until it’s bedtime.

In an age when most of us lead sedentary work lives, relaxation means getting out and doing stuff. It’s both cathartic and energizing to stay on the move during vacations.

This kind of tourist is also trying to get their kids interested in the outdoors and activities. They are looking for a few days away from television, video games, and the organized sports activities that run their daily lives and that leave many children completely ignorant of nature.

I think keeping these families coming to the mountains won’t be that difficult, it’s just going to take more sophisticated targeting of “micro” groups. A good example is what Julie Spiro and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association has done with its fly-fishing map to Jackson County. They went after a specific sector of the travel market, and their investment in this map has led to free publicity from articles that have appeared in a host of publications.

That kind of effort to appeal to different groups —skiers, whitewater enthusiasts, railroad buffs, golfers, bikers, motorcyclists, anglers or hikers — is probably what is changing the most. Those folks are getting their information in lots of different places. It is going to take a constantly evolving marketing approach that encompasses a variety of media.

The reason no one has the answers is that there is no one right answer. In the old days, it was a print and television advertising campaign that changed little from year to year. That just won’t work anymore.

The shortage of marketing research about Western North Carolina is a much more vexing problem. I’ve been covering tourism here for almost 20 years, and have been hearing the same refrain: tourism leaders need data, but no one has found the money or a way to obtain it. A few studies have been done, but the information is quickly outdated and only useful to particular groups.

The money is the big issue. Investing in research takes away from the budget to actually do marketing. Any tourism entity that takes this approach is in danger, in the short term, of losing market share to those who are still spending all their money on advertising.

There is really only one way to get this information: it has to be a regional effort funded by some entity like AdvantageWest. If tourism is our biggest industry, it seems money spent grading industrial sites or affixing tax breaks to large businesses might be better invested in an ongoing market research program to help tourism leaders keep their eye on the ball.

I’m not talking about a one-time effort, but an ongoing market research program to determine who our customers are. It will take hundreds of thousand of dollars, but it might be the best money ever spent.

Accomplishing this will take a united effort from tourism leaders. This won’t be a panacea that will make all of the tourism industry’s troubles go away. No, it’s about gathering useful information so we can at least stay in the game in this fast-changing economy.

(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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