Scott McLeod

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My wife, Lori, and I recently attended the wedding of my nephew in Fayetteville. While there, we wandered around downtown for a couple of meals and I was reminded of how the city’s affiliation with the monster military machine of Ft. Bragg defines this Southern town.

Fort Bragg is the largest U.S. Army base by population, with more than 52,000 active duty soldiers. The base also has more than 12,000 reservists, almost 9,000 civilian employees and 63,000 active duty family members. Throw in almost 100,000 retirees and their family members, and you begin to get the scope of the military’s impact. All told, the census bureau pegs the metropolitan area’s population at about 375,000.

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“But for the grace of God, it could have been my child.”

News of college and school shootings cut straight to the heart of all parents, and I really can’t count how many times I’ve silently mouthed those words. Selfish thinking, in part, but I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to owning such sentiments when I first hear of shootings like those at Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook or (insert tragic school shooting here).

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North Carolina Community College President Peter Hans says his main goal is to advocate for more funding for the state community college system, including working to boost the salaries.

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It’s one of those anniversaries most would rather forget: April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School shooting. Two high school seniors murdered 12 fellow students and a teacher, and they shot and injured another 21 people before they committed suicide. They also brought bombs to the school, so the carnage could have been much worse. 

Twenty years later, the tally of school shootings and mass killings continues to mount. That shooting and its aftermath changed this country, but rather than coming together to find ways to reduce random mass shootings we’ve instead become numb, seemingly accepting the reality that they are part of life in 21st century America.

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From the outside looking in, the current Nikwasi Mound disagreement in Franklin seems almost contrived. I mean, do serious people truthfully believe that the volunteers who comprise the Nikwasi Initiative and who are seeking ownership of this historic Native site have any intentions other than honorable ones? 

And, as town board member Joe Collins said so succinctly in the Franklin Press, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a wealthy tribe. Tribal leaders and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation have millions of dollars to invest in preserving Cherokee culture. Turning the mound over to this initiative would do a lot to attract funding, subsequently turning the mound into a significant cultural attraction rather than just an afterthought for a town that has many important issues affecting its taxpayers.

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A little more than two weeks ago I was part of a public radio panel that was discussing the “state of media in Western North Carolina.” The catalyst for the show was the Gannet corporation’s — owner of USA Today and more than 100 dailies and 1,000 weeklies — nationwide layoff of reporters and editors, including five at the Asheville Citizen-Times. We discussed the importance and relevance of local newspapers and media sites, and how our communities are adapting to the shift away from one or two dominant — and trustworthy — media sources. 

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My son was home from college for spring break. As we ate dinner one night, he described to my wife and me how a professor warned the students that many of the jobs they are studying for will be gone within a few years. Artificial intelligence and automation could put millions out of work in the very near future, the professor had told the class, and my son seemed genuinely worried.

In the next breath, he recounted a speech he heard from one of the lesser-known Democratic presidential candidates who discussed a future where U.S. citizens may receive a “universal basic income,” particularly if AI and automation take us to the point where there just aren’t enough jobs for a growing population. 

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Whereas the public bodies that administer the legislative, policy-making, quasi-judicial, administrative, and advisory functions of North Carolina and its political subdivisions exist solely to conduct the people’s business, it is the public policy of North Carolina that the hearings, deliberations, and actions of these bodies be conducted openly.

— NC General Statute 143-318.9 

When our local boards hold official meetings, they often end with a closed or “executive” session. The North Carolina Open Meetings law allows elected officials to deliberate secretly on a just few specific subjects, which are clearly outlined in the law.

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When the text came letting us know that our daughter Hannah had arrived safely in Costa Rica, a sense of relief — mixed with pride — enveloped me. 

To state the obvious, parenting is both complicated and never-ending. You get your kids to 18 and out of high school, you feel some small sense of accomplishment. If they choose college, you do your best to help out and provide whatever guidance you can. As they enter adulthood, the role becomes more complicated. You’re not quite on the outside looking in, but it sometimes feels that way.

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The libertarian in me believes in the “live and let live” mantra, which when it comes to legalizing pot means I think it’s way past time for it. No adult should ever be fined or arrested simply for possession of small amounts. It’s ridiculous, in my opinion.

But last week’s Smoky Mountain News cover story on marijuana legalization and the growing of hemp created some heavy-duty social media back and forth, so much so that it’s clear Americans are still divided on the issue.

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A genuine dilemma, or merely some people grousing? You tell me.

We’ve been hearing complaints for months now that the homeless situation in and around Frog Level and the Pathways Center in Hazelwood is causing problems for locals and businesses. And that it is spreading to other parts of town.

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“I think it’s the right thing to do as much as we use the park and as free as this is. It’s one of the few there’s no charge. I don’t mind giving back. It’s a beautiful park. It’s ours — I take care of my house, I’ll take care of the park.”

— Mike Walker of Franklin, a frequent Great Smoky Mountains National Park user, who was picking up trash near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center during the shutdown.

It is bringing out the best in some and the worst in others. I’m talking about the government shutdown.

Come this Friday, around 800,000 federal workers won’t get a paycheck, which means many won’t be able to pay their bills. That’s everyone from Secret Service agents and federal prison guards who daily put their lives on the line to rangers in our national parks.

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“Stray from the truth, and whoever corrects you can be dismissed as ‘the other side.’ The strategy runs on a dangerous assumption — that we’re not all in this together.”

— Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year article

When it was reported that Time magazine had named the “guardians” as their person of the year, I have to admit to the sin of pride.

The guardians it was referring to were reporters and journalists, those with media outlets large and small who toil daily to inform on important and fundamental issues so that we might be better citizens.

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I’ve spent most of my career at small newspapers, and one thing I’ve learned is the value of making connections.

I’m not talking connections that bring personal gain, but rather those that bring people together. One of my former publishers used some variation of that word almost every time he talked to reporters and editors responsible for getting out on the street and developing story ideas: “How many people would such and such story connect?” “How can we reach out to that particular community and make some connections?” “We should follow up with that story and connect the dots.”

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It sure would be nice for his constituents to hear Rep. Mark Meadows come out with a mea culpa regarding his actions in the sexual harassment controversy that has dogged his office for the last couple of years. Apparently, that’s not going to happen, even after the official rebuke he received last Friday from the bipartisan House Ethics Committee.

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There were many winners and losers last week on Election Day, but perhaps the best outcome is that the move to end gerrymandering appears to be taking root across the country. 

Nothing will do more to quiet the current strident tone of our political discourse than having state legislatures and the U.S. House better represent the will of the people. That means lawmakers will have to compromise, and radical gerrymandering is the enemy of reasoned debate.

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As election fatigue sets in, keep this in mind: it’s the local races that will most affect each of us. The decisions voters make at the lowest levels of government will have the most impact on our lives here in Western North Carolina. 

The over-the-top television commercials, the misleading mailings, the signs, the newspaper stories and ads, the forums and Q&As, candidate hopefuls out on the stump — all of it adds up. By this point, the overload starts overwhelming one’s senses. What did we do with our time prior to this election, and how did we fill our pages?

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As we started working on this year’s Women in Business stories, a fundamental question kept coming up: do we still need to highlight women-owned and women-operated businesses in this day and age, or has it become so commonplace it’s the norm? Are we perpetuating a storyline about overcoming obstacles that’s no longer relevant?

Haywood County GOP leaders last week took the podium at a public meeting and proceeded to act as shills for Tax Collector Mike Matthews, trying to make the argument that Matthews suffers more from county commissioners and the media criticizing him than from his own ineptitude.

It was a curious — albeit flawed and completely wrong — argument, one that mistook facts for opinions and also included an unsavory dose of the increasingly popular attack on the media as an entity not caring about whether their reporting is accurate.

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The sounds, the feel of the coming fall is always comforting, like reconnecting with an old and dear friend.

It was just shy of 8 a.m. Saturday as I opened my book, blowing lightly at my steaming coffee. I sorted the pillows from our porch furniture on my lap so I could aim the pages in the direction the sun would appear when it cleared the mountain. Angling the book to catch just the right natural reading light is tricky early in the day on the covered porch. My wife, Lori, and I usually play this game together and against each other, the early riser getting the best spot, the loser spending more time than the other to coax the sunlight into position.

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North Carolina got a new slice of public land last week when Headwaters State Forest was opened to the public Thursday, Sept. 6, the first large tract to be added to N.C. Forest Service lands since acquisition of DuPont State Forest began in 1996. 

Headwaters State Forest — so named because it contains the headwaters of the east fork of the French Broad River — encompasses 6,730 acres in Transylvania County south of Brevard abutting the South Carolina line and contiguous to the Jocasse Gorges Management Area, the Greenville Watershed and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. It contains three named waterfalls and 25 waterfalls in total, as well as 9 miles of the 76-mile Foothills Trail. Until Headwaters was created, that was the only stretch of the path not in public ownership.

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Every Labor Day we celebrate the American worker. We wax nostalgic about the bygone days of the great American middle class when parents worked hard and expected their children to climb the economic ladder.   

Unfortunately, evidence today shows workers are not doing well. The standard of living for the American worker is, by many measures, falling. Politicians of all stripes need to address fundamental issues that have been ignored if the great working class is to flourish and remain the backbone of this country. And despite challenges, I’m not ready to concede that we can’t turn things around.

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We native-born Americans — most of us, anyway — have no real concept of life under a despot except from what we read. We have been raised on a daily diet of liberty and cut our teeth on the right to free speech. Because of that, it’s not surprising that our appreciation for these cornerstones of our democratic and civil society may sometimes dull. 

That’s why Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the press as the enemy of the people should be treated by all as an assault on core American values. No one thinks Trump will ever become a maniacal totalitarian, but knowingly or unknowingly he’s using their tactics in ways that could damage what most of us hold dear. That’s more than just a little troubling.

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As the yoke of political influence grows ever heavier around the neck of the UNC Board of Governors, Western Carolina University’s chancellor search has gone off the rails and there is not yet any indication when it will get back on track.

Because much of the process used to replace a chancellor is shrouded in secrecy, those who care deeply about this university and its faculty and staff are left guessing as to what exactly happened. But there are many of us who can’t help but suspect the worst kind of chicanery, especially given the brand of politics played by the current legislative leadership. It’s a sad state of affairs, particularly if our great university system becomes just a pawn in this ongoing power play.

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Lori and I have always loved to travel, to go to new places or to get better acquainted with places we’ve been before. It’s part curiosity, part adventure. As the now more famous dead than alive chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain put it in his show’s title, it’s the thrill and the surprises that come with discovering “Parts Unknown.” 

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I’m dedicating my July 4 to the courageous journalists who were murdered last week at the Capital Gazette in Maryland.

Independence Day celebrates our nation’s declaration that it would not abide by the arbitrary decrees from across an ocean by a monarch who feared putting power in the hands of his citizens. With the Declaration of Independence began the formal shaping of this nation and its ideals of freedom that are unlike those in any other country.

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders got asked to leave a restaurant because the owner can’t stand her boss’ politics. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen was heckled at a Mexican restaurant over the administrations policy of illegal immigrant children from their parents. A Democratic lawmaker encourages those opposed to Trump policies to continue to publicly calling out Trump advisers and supporters. 

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Town and counties never have enough money to provide all the services and amenities that their citizens — in a perfect world — would like. That’s an unrealistic expectation, so when local leaders do make smart investments that are somewhat unconventional, we think it’s worth noting.

The decision by the Sylva Town Board and the Jackson County commissioners to spend $250,000 each to conserve an additional 441 acres adjacent to Pinnacle Park is one of those admirable and wise expenditures. 

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I’ve been covering local governments in North Carolina for 30 years, and a small item in Macon County’s budget for 2018-2019 caught my attention like a flash of lightning: the public education budget is $8.5 million, or 18 percent of the total budget; the public safety budget (law enforcement and jails) is $13.9 million, or 28 percent of the county’s budget.

For decades, education and human services (DSS and health departments) have traditionally been the most expensive items for county commissioners. Now we’ve reached a point where it seems law enforcement and jails will take an equal amount or more of our local tax dollars, which inevitably means local schools will be squeezed even tighter.

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Fifteen or so years ago, meetings like those Monday and Tuesday night in Waynesville were all too common: private citizens who usually keep to themselves flooding a public meeting because they are worried how a particular development project will affect their lives and their communities, and they wanted to make sure their voices were heard. Large, high-end residential developments were being planned across the mountains in the early 2000s, and steep slopes, water quality, traffic, viewsheds and a concern for preserving that highly subjective “sense of place” and “quality of life” were on many minds.

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Symbolism is often just as important as reality. The decision by the Cherokee Tribal Council to ban all media from council chambers except the tribally owned Cherokee One Feather is rife with symbolism about values and open government, and the picture it paints is not very positive. 

Specifically, the Tribal Council took direct aim at The Smoky Mountain News and our reporter Holly Kays. The Council member who made the motion to ban media asserted incorrectly that this newspaper had misquoted her. We did not misquote her, and a video of the meeting clearly shows that to be the truth. Despite that, the motion passed with just one Tribal Council member voting against it.

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We Americans are spoiled. Too often we take our way of life for granted, both the freedoms we have and the institutions that keep our democracy intact. Our republic is strong, but its survival is not a given. 

People who have traveled know that the biggest hearts beat in those who have the least. That’s a truth you’ll find throughout the world. In places where people struggle to find the day-to-day basics needed to stay alive, where scarcity is a way of life, you find friendliness and generosity in abundance.

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It’s one of those issues that garner headlines and controversy but really shouldn’t.

I’m talking about the Brunch Bill, the law passed by the state legislature that allows businesses to sell alcohol starting at 10 a.m. on Sunday if they want. Many municipalities and counties around the state have supported the law, deciding to let local businesses make that decision for themselves.

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It was the shortest funeral service I’ll likely ever attend. And though there were tears and somber conversations, there were also a lot of happy, smiling people. And for good reason.

Joyce Jones — Aunt Joyce to me — passed away March 22 at 91 years old. Her husband, Uncle Robert, also 91, had died on March 4. Took her 18 days to be reunited with her man, the guy she had been married to for 74 years. A perfectly fitting end to one hell of a life together. What’s not to like about that?

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I’ve always admired those who speak out, those who have opinions and feel compelled to share them.

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Doing nothing to enhance school safety is not an option. Thoughtful gun control measures would be helpful and are one tool to help get there, but there are other — perhaps more beneficial — avenues we as a society should pursue.

At a Haywood Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting last week, Waynesville Police Lt. Tyler Trantham’s topic was how to plan for live shooter situations in businesses, churches and schools. It was the second part of his presentation, the first having come on Feb. 7 — exactly one week before the school massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day.

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Would you turn your back on a long and meaningful friendship because of widening political differences? I won’t do it, and I don’t understand people who would. 

The gun control debate is the perfect example. It’s as polarizing and divisive issue as there is, especially after what happened two weeks ago at a high school in Parkland, Florida. 

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That feeling in the pit of my stomach is familiar. I imagine it’s something like what people with ulcers feel — nervous, tightening, churning, almost painful. It’s telling me that there is very likely going to be fallout from a story we are about to publish. I won’t sleep well that night after we send the paper to press. After all these years and so many editions, it still comes with certain stories.

Is what we are about to publish going to hurt a friend? Are we being fair?  Have we told both sides if that’s what the issue demands? Did a community leader I admire do something bad that we are about to report? Are we obligated to publish a story that is going to cost us advertising dollars, taking money away that we could use to invest and make the company stronger? Are we sure this is a public figure we are writing about, because if it’s not we could face libel charges?

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In last week’s edition of The Smoky Mountain News we published articles about positive political and economic signs in two towns in our coverage area. Sylva and Canton both have a lot of momentum right now and were the towns we wrote about.

But for the most part, the entire coverage area of The Smoky Mountain News — Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, along with Cherokee — is actually doing pretty well and beating the odds versus a lot of places in North Carolina. Unemployment is low, population is growing modestly, and the small businesses we deal with on a weekly basis remain optimistic about the future.

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As the new year dawns and I take account of everything that’s happened in the past 12 months, it’s Donald Trump that grabs the top spot in my “what the hell happened here” category.

I’m a proud American, and for some reason that seems something unpopular to say these days. I’m no patriot and have never been tested in that manner or served in the Armed Forces, but I still cherish what this country stands for: freedom, equality, a place where one can rise to the level of their own ability, a place that lends a hand to those struggling to gain freedom or achieve success. Above all, a place that strives to achieve a moral high ground in both domestic and international relations.

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In this holiday season, I have much to be thankful for. At least that’s the way I see it, though others may call me crazy for what I consider my blessings.

Skip past this column right now unless you’re OK with a little self-indulgence while I talk about what we do here at The Smoky Mountain News. I mean, it’s an odd business: we gather information from throughout the region — news from various sources and paid advertisements from businesses — package it in print and online, and give it away each week in hopes you’ll read and find what we do relevant, useful and interesting so we can do it again next week.

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“It’s exciting to think about what Haywood County could be. The desire is there.”

— Buddy Melton, fiddler/singer, Balsam Range

It’s inspiring when you come across people who have both a vision and the wherewithal to turn it into reality. It makes me want to climb on board with them and be a part of that success. That’s what I see happening with local bluegrass supergroup Balsam Range and its “Art of Music Festival.”

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I don’t like following crowds and have a naturally occurring cynicism of trends. That said, there’s one holiday promotional movement that strikes a real chord with me.

I’m talking about the “Small Business Saturday” or “Shop Small Saturday,” whatever name one chooses as a label. It’s this Saturday (Nov. 27), and the concept is to shop at the privately owned businesses in large and small towns across the nation as a way of supporting all they do to help their local communities.

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Lightning. It’s a yellow, 20-ounce Vaughn framing hammer with one of the claws broken that I’ve owned for about 34 years. It was purchased brand new at a building supply store in Boone, along with the leather tool belt and speed square that I also still use.

This past Saturday, I spent hours finishing the floor joists on what will eventually be a 20-foot-by-16-foot shed and workshop. This is the workshop I’ve been putting off building for, oh, about 20 years.

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Asheville is red hot in more ways than I can list here. Pick up a travel magazine, visit an outdoor adventure website, listen to interviews with famous musicians or screen stars, or read articles discussing best places to visit, retire, live, eat or open a business and Asheville is among the places brought up.

I know that’s not breaking news, but the fact that we all know it’s the truth is why I think it was a smart idea for Haywood County to partner with the Asheville Chamber of Commerce for economic development marketing.

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Local politics in Western North Carolina have long been dominated by the good ole boys. But like they say about winter in “The Game of Thrones,” change is coming.

I’ve spent much of my career as a journalist — the past 25 years — covering the towns and counties west of Buncombe County, watching as local civic leaders made decisions that have had lasting effects on the region. Aside from Sylva — which has a long tradition of female leaders in politics and business — it’s been a game dominated by old white guys.

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“A lie can run around the world before the truth has its boots on.”

That’s one of the few quotes or sayings I can summon up at will. At some point it was etched into my memory. An internet search credits it to Terry Pratchett, a recently deceased but very popular British author of fantasy novels whom I have never read.

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Something newspaper editors never say: “I wish that fewer people responded to that piece in last week’s paper.”

Well, thanks to the nature of the online world that we currently live in, I’m going to buck tradition: I wish fewer people responded to that piece in last week’s paper.

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This is what it means to be an American.

I’m talking about NFL players and coaches and owners uniting to protest during the national anthem because they disagree with our president after he called for team owners to fire every “son of bitch” kneeling during the anthem. I’m talking about black athletes at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968 raising fists in support of the Black Panther movement, of people who burn flags, even those who heckled Vietnam War veterans on their return home because they disagreed with the conflict.

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Some things we know, but when someone lays out the numbers and reveals in specific numbers how the big picture is changing right before us, things come into sharper focus.

I’m talking about race and politics. Things are changing drastically here in North Carolina and throughout the nation. This new reality is creating a kind of cultural flashpoint, and the sparks are being seen in many different arenas.

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