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The landslide last month that destroyed a home in Maggie Valley has spurred the Haywood County commissioners to ask the state for help in keeping county residents safe.

The board of commissioners discussed two separate requests for the state at its meeting on Monday (Feb. 2).

First, commissioners are asking the state to schedule Haywood County for landslide hazard mapping. Two counties — Macon and Watauga — have already been mapped through the state-funded program, which was put in place by the Hurricane Recovery Act of 2005. Henderson and Jackson counties are next on the list, and although the idea is to eventually map every county in WNC, no counties are planned after that.

Commissioners want Haywood next on the list.

“Haywood County has experienced numerous landslides in recent years, with two in the first month of 2009,” the commissioners’ resolution states.

The board is asking for Haywood to be given priority, requesting that the state, “consider scheduling Haywood County for mapping of landslide hazards at the state’s earliest opportunity.”

The second request commissioners are making to the state will likely be harder to fill. The board is asking the state to consider providing landslide insurance — something that is practically non-existent — to Western North Carolinians.

“The Board of Commissioners...recognizes the fact that there is currently no federal or state subsidized insurance for property lost to landslides and the potentially available commercial policies are cost prohibitive for the citizens of Western North Carolina,” the resolution states.

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis emphasized that the board is aware the request is expensive, but that it’s worth asking.

“It’s going to be very cost prohibitive, but I think we need to send this anyhow,” Curtis said.

Indeed, County Engineer Mark Shumpert said landslide insurance can only be obtained on the commercial broker market, and that he’s only heard of one company that offers it. Shumpert theorizes that landslide insurance is hard to get in part because landslides only happen in very specific regions, mostly the Appalachians and the Rockies.

People who have lost their homes to landslides have found they aren’t covered by their regular homeowners’ insurance, from the landslide in Maggie that turned a home into matchsticks to the more subtle slope movement that destabilized foundations of condos in the Hunters Crossing development, nonetheless rendering them unlivable.

Haywood commissioners unanimously approved both resolutions.


Swain County would need more than $4 million to renovate its historic courthouse, putting plans for a cultural museum to be housed on the second floor in jeopardy.

The 1908 building has undergone few repairs since it was built, and thus accumulated a laundry list of expensive renovations.

“We’re looking for money — lots of money,” County Manager Kevin King told commissioners at the county’s annual retreat last Saturday (Jan. 31).

A structural engineering report commissioned by the county revealed the extent of repairs needed before a proposed cultural museum and visitors center can occupy the building.

The idea for a Swain County history museum and heritage center has been tossed around for years. Significant time has been invested in the idea, including picking stories to highlight, collecting oral histories, and most recently, applying for grants to fund the project.

But without massive structural repairs, the second floor could not safely house the museum or anything else.

“The second floor will hold itself up, but won’t hold much more weight,” explained King.

Repairing the second floor alone will cost $2 million, King said.

And any second floor renovations could delay the opening of a visitors center run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association proposed to occupy the first floor.

“We have to come in and do some massive renovations, and whatever renovations we do will impede the downstairs totally. For one, you’d have to drop the ceiling,” said King.

Of course, the second floor won’t necessarily have to be redone if plans for a museum are scrapped. That’s a decision commissioners will have to make — “if we want to continue with the museum on the second floor, or just the visitors center on the first floor,” King said.


Attempts to pass Swain County’s first-ever planning regulations are showing signs of movement, but not in the direction that planning advocates hope.

A county subdivision ordinance, primarily setting standards for road widths and grades, was dropped from discussion by county commissioners a year ago after facing fierce opposition at a public hearing. No work has been done on it since, leaving Swain County as one of the few in the region with no regulations or oversight of construction on mountainside slopes.

The commissioners’ lack of interest in planning has now cost the county a grant that would have rekindled the topic.

Until recently, Swain County was second in line for a pot of money to help communities with planning initiatives, funded by the Southwestern Commission and the Department of Transportation.

The county was given the coveted number two spot because at the time, commissioners seemed serious about a subdivision ordinance and other planning issues.

But since the ordinance is dead in the water, the two grant sponsors asked Swain County Manager Kevin King if it was OK to bump the county further down the list and put neighboring Macon County in the number two spot.

King gave the Southwestern Commission and DOT the go ahead, and later informed the commissioners at the board’s annual retreat last weekend.

“That ordinance was dead anyway,” King told commissioners. “So we don’t have anything in place right now until somebody asks to put it on the agenda.”

King paused to see if commissioners showed signs of interest in the issue, but they remained silent, making it clear they had no intention of being the one to bring the ordinance up again.

Some Swain County residents think now is the time for the county to revisit the issue of planning. The economic downturn has slowed development, leaving commissioners time to hash out details.

“Right now, while land prices are dropping out the bottom, they should be trying to do something,” said Swain native Boyd Gunter. “You got a breathing spell here.”

Gunter, who lives in the Alarka community, has already seen too many developers ravaging his mountains.

“I own mountain land, and I don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. “It’s just pure negligence on these Realtors’ parts to think you can come and build a house anywhere.”

Gunter has been pushing Swain commissioners to put development regulations of some sort in place for at least two years, but to no avail.


He was endorsed by the Family Research Council for his pro-life stance and by the NRA for his support of the Ssecond Amendment. He championed an act for more border security, chaired the national prayer breakfast, and voted against the auto bailout, the Wall Street bailout, and the stimulus bill.

Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, isn’t a Republican, though these recent votes and endorsements might cause one to assume otherwise. In his second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, Swain County native Heath Shuler has earned the accolade of fourth least likely to vote in line with his party, according to the Washington Post.

Shuler has never kept his conservative leanings a secret. But the extent to which he votes against his party has taken some off guard.

“I expected him to be more of a Democrat than he seems to be,” said Jane Allison, a Swain County Democrat who called Shuler’s office to voice her disagreement with his stimulus vote.

Others say the Democratically-controlled Congress has allowed Shuler the freedom to vote against his party with more frequency than ever. Since Shuler is in a conservative leaning district, he’s able to score points for his stance with consituents back home without jeapordizing the Democratic Party’s agenda.

“My take is that it’s a Democratically controlled House right now, and he seems himself as basically having the leeway to vote against his party in order to tag himself with our more conservative voters,” said Mary Alice Lamb, a Haywood County Democrat. “You can fight your own party — that’s fine — as long as it’s in line with what your constituents tell you to believe.”

Jeff Israel, a Canton Democrat, is willing to cut Shuler a little more slack on his votes. Given the demographics of the mountain region, it’s fairly remarkable that a Democrat like Shuler won a Congressional seat at all — particularly one held by a Republican incumbent for 16 years.

“We had other candidates that I felt like were really qualified, but none of them could quite make it across the finish line like Heath could,” Israel said.

According to Israel, Shuler is able to walk a “political tight wire” between democratic populism and the conservative beliefs of rural voters.

“You’re not going to get anybody that follows the Democratic party line right down the middle elected here,” agreed David Hall of Waynesville, a lifelong Democrat who changed his party affiliation to independent in recent years. “The Democrats here are not your far left liberal — they’re not for abortion; they own guns. We’re a different breed of Democrat.”

As testament to the “different breed” idea, Shuler won the 11th Congressional District in the last election by a landslide — but every county except Buncombe and Jackson voted for John McCain in the presidential race.

Not surprisingly, Shuler garners support from a number of Republicans as well. He was the first candidate in years able to do so, said Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, a Republican.

“The district is conservative, and when I was watching the Democrats fill the candidates, they’d get these liberals from Asheville and Hendersonville,” Ensley said. “When they got a conservative Democrat, I knew they’d do real well.”

Ensley finds that many of his views are in line with Shuler’s, though the two men are of different party affiliations.

“I rarely disagree with him,” Ensley said. “Overall, he’s pretty well voted the way I would probably vote if I was up there.”

Harold Corbin, the former GOP district chair in Macon County, said he disagrees with the views of the current Congressional leadership, but Shuler is an exception.

“I think he represents the 11th District well,” Corbin said. “He falls in line with the values of voters.”

Shuler’s views fit with those of his mostly rural constituent base, said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.

“Shuler’s views fit pretty well with many of the rural areas of the district, though his views probably differ considerably from some of the urban areas,” Knotts said.

To those who question his voting record, Shuler points out the difficult balance he must strike in a district that houses polar opposite viewpoints.

“There are some people that are just hardline-based party,” Shuler said. “What I would encourage them to do is get out and let’s go to Madison, Yancey, Clay, and Graham, and be able to see I represent 15 counties, not an isolated group.”


Moral compass

It’s commonly argued that Shuler’s conservative votes aren’t the result of a political agenda — rather, they come out of his core belief system developed in the rural mountains where he grew up.

“He has the same moral compass that most of the people around here have,” Israel said.

Shuler keeps two paintings in his Washington, D.C. office — one of Swain, where he was born and bred, and one of Haywood County, where he resides now with his wife and two kids. He says the scenes help to remind him of where he’s from and the moral foundation he adopted growing up in rural Appalachia.

“The most important thing is to be true to who you are, and what your beliefs are, and don’t change based upon influence,” Shuler says.


Out of line, out of favor?

So far, Shuler hasn’t risked much by continuing to vote out of line with his party.

“I think he’s a smart politician,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at WCU. “He knows it would be hard for him to move so far to the right that the Democrats would choose to vote for a Republican. It’s not a very big gamble.”

But times are changing, particularly in Congress. Some say leaders aren’t going to overlook Shuler’s votes against his party forever.

“It was cute when the Democrats weren’t going to get anything passed anyway,” said Alison, but not anymore.

Traditionally, many Democrats from the South differentiate themselves from the national Democratic party, said Knotts. But it isn’t always a risk-free venture.

“(Shuler) has to be careful voting against a popular president,” Knotts said. “He also has to be careful that he does not upset the Democratic leadership too much. The leadership can withhold resources and make it more difficult for Shuler to advance his agenda.”

Cooper suggests some things voters can watch for.

“Is he not able to curry favor with Democratic leadership in the House?” Cooper said. “I think that’s the kind of thing that people should be watching out for — things like, does he get good committee assignments?”

Shuler has never been completely in line with the leaders of his party in Washington. Early in his first term, Shuler sought to align himself with the Blue Dogs, a coalition of conservative Democrats. The group was viewed as a force to reckon with, as their voting bloc could make or break the passage of a bill in Congress.

But Shuler’s Blue Dog affiliation doesn’t always excuse his conservative votes in the eyes of party leaders.

Earlier this month, the Washington-based newspaper Politico wrote that Shuler was No. 1 on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “bad list” due to his vote against the bailout package and telling a Raleigh audience that House leaders “failed.”

The newspaper reported that Pelosi felt Shuler’s motives were political as much as ideological, and that Shuler was positioning himself for a Senate run against incumbent Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). Buzz about a possible Shuler Senate run had circulated for months, but on March 9, Shuler formally announced he would not seek the seat.

But as Israel points out, ultimately, “it’s not the Democrats in Washington that get Heath elected — Heath gets himself elected on his own merits.”

Voters in Western North Carolina won’t necessarily continue to vote for a Democrat as right-leaning as Shuler, said Lamb.

“I think that a lot of conservative younger folks will move to the cities to find jobs, and the older conservative generation will be dying off,” Lamb said. “I think you’re going to see, with Asheville being the hub that it is, the district as a whole tipping. We can’t vote in a more progressive Democrat right now, but give us another five to 10 years. Heath Shuler should be concerned — don’t get too comfortable voting conservative.”

Israel agrees on some points. “Change is a constant in politics,” he says, and adds that the district will change. But, he says, Shuler is young enough that he’s flexible, and will be able to change with the district.

Plus, Israel says Shuler is the best bet to win if the tides turn back in favor of the Republicans.

“Eventually, the Republicans will get their act together,” he says. “If you got someone in office that was maybe a little more left leaning than Heath when Republicans had high tide years, they would be swept out of office. I think Heath is the type of candidate who could weather that storm.”


Ghost Town investors are banking on finally getting the park’s Cliffhanger rollercoaster up and running in order to attract visitors and increase cash flow.

But the park has miles to go before it can open its centerpiece ride. Not only does it lack state inspections, but also funding to get the coaster into compliance. The amusement park filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with millions in unpaid bills.

Last week, Ghost Town president and CEO Steve Shiver told The Smoky Mountain News that there was one test left to run on the coaster before it can pass inspection. He made a similar assertion last fall that the roller coaster was close to completion.

However, Jonathan Brooks, bureau chief of amusement inspections with the Department of Labor, told a different story last week.

“That’s an incorrect statement,” Brooks said. “They’ve got multiple tests to do.”

Shiver later said he meant that there was only one big test left to run on the coaster, not including some of the minor inspections that still need to be completed. Syntax aside, one thing is clear — much work still remains to get the coaster up and running.

First and foremost, a major series of tests involving the restraints and seat design of the roller coaster cars must be performed. But Larry Moyers, owner of Rotational Motion which has rehabbed the coaster, says he won’t do it until the park pays down some of its debt to his company.

“Right now, I’m owed enough money that I really need to see some sort of hope that I’m going to get paid,” Moyers said. “For me to invest anymore in it without payment would be foolish.”

According to Moyers, that amounts to about $150,000 for work done between April and August of last year.

“In the past six months, I’ve struggled because of the economy, and being owed that much from one customer is huge,” he said.

Moyers says he needs the funds to pay his engineers who worked on the coaster.

Getting Moyers on board is just one step in opening the coaster. The coaster is designed with lap bars instead of over the shoulder restraints, because Moyers’ engineer determined that with the design of the coaster, a shoulder harness would actually cause riders harm.

But Ghost Town’s owners still have to convince state inspectors to OK the lap bar. Inspectors want to see several destructive and load tests on the lap bar and seat designs before they sign off on the Cliffhanger.

Moyers said that, like himself, state Department of Labor Bureau Chief Jonathan Brooks was skeptical.

“He was in the same place I was when I started this project,” Moyers said. “We had to convince him that over the shoulder harness was not viable and we shouldn’t go that way.”

But Brooks still doesn’t appear to be completely convinced.

“At this point in time, I don’t know that over the shoulder restraints are required or not required,” Brooks told The Smoky Mountain News.

Brooks said that Ghost Town’s owners need to initiate the inspection process immediately if they hope to have the coaster ready by the proposed May 15 opening date. Though Shiver said back in November that the results of more than 400 test runs of the coaster had been sent to the state, Brooks said he hasn’t received them.

“I do not have any testing results or inspections from Ghost Town as we sit here today,” Brooks said last week. He also said no request for inspection had yet been submitted to him.

“This is our busy season trying to get stuff done, and the sooner they can schedule, the better off they would be,” Brooks said.

Communication with Ghost Town during the inspection process has been inconsistent, Moyers and Brooks revealed, in contrast to Shiver’s past statements that the park owners have maintained constant contact with state officials.

Brooks said he hadn’t heard anything out of Ghost Town in months until he corresponded with Moyers and a park maintenance worker in late January or early February.

Moyers said he waited so long to hear from Ghost Town that he went ahead and booked other work.

“We had a meeting in November saying we could make a spring opening if we received payment,” Moyers said. “We gave them a very clear timeline and we didn’t get money or a phone call until Feb. 20. The problem was, I had other work lined up that I was committed to.”

Brooks expressed doubts about Ghost Town’s ability to get its rides up and running by its proposed May 15 opening date if it doesn’t act quickly.

“The closer they get to the May opening date without calling for inspections, the more likely stuff may not make it,” Brooks said. “All total, from start to finish, if we started today, we would be right on top of May 15.”

Shiver admitted that the roller coaster may not be up and running by the proposed opening date.

“It may not be day one that it’s open,” he said. He said the investors will likely have to go back to the bankruptcy court and petition to increase the line of emergency credit in order to perform the necessary tests on the ride.

Doing so would be worthwhile, Moyers said.

“I think it’s important to the future of the park to get the coaster open,” he said. “I think if they try to open it without the coaster, it would be throwing good money after bad.”


Federal investigators with the Mine Safety and Health Administration have still not determined the cause of a slide last week that sent a 600-foot slab of rock crashing down at a Waynesville rock quarry.

No one was injured in the March 12 slide at the quarry, which dislodged 480,000 tons of earth and buried a drilling rig. The quarry is located in the Allens Creek area and owned by Harrison-APAC, Inc.

Amy Louviere, spokesperson for the federal mine administration, said a closure order is still in effect in the part of the quarry where the slide occurred until the operator comes up with a plan to prevent future slides. The operator could be fined if it is found to be in violation of mining safety regulations. Men had been working in the area earlier that day, but the slide happened after quitting time.

State geologist Rick Wooten said such a large slide in a quarry is an unusual occurrence.

“This is the first major one that I’m aware of in Western North Carolina since I’ve been working out here,” Wooten said. “It’s certainly not a common experience.”

Louviere agreed that despite the nature of quarry operations, slides are not common.

Just last month, the quarry became the only aggregate mine in the state to receive a Mining Star Award for implementing outstanding safety programs.

— By Julia Merchant


There’s a big problem looming over a rural Swain County road — literally — and exactly how to solve it is befuddling Department of Transportation officials.

A rock slide earlier this month sent several SUV-size boulders crashing into Buckner Branch Road, and left one dangling precariously about 70 feet over the road below.

The force of the rocks that did fall would have caused major damage to a vehicle, said Jonathan Woodard, DOT District 14 Engineer. Luckily, no one was driving past that stretch at the time.

“Some rocks bounced plumb over the road, ripped through the guardrail and went into the river,” Woodard said. “A car would have been crushed or drug into the river.”

DOT officials don’t want that fate to befall someone else should the remaining boulder become unlodged. So they’ve closed off the road. But so far, the boulder refuses to budge — despite the best efforts of DOT officials.

“We’ve dealt with similar situations, but what makes this unique is that the area is so steep, and there’s no good way to access it,” Woodard said. To remove the rock “is going to take being pretty creative,” he said.

So in the past three weeks, DOT workers have pulled on their thinking caps in an effort to solve the problem. They recruited the Bryson City Fire Department, who attempted to hose the rock out of position. It didn’t work.

“We tried to wet down the ground underneath it with water to try and wash some of the debris out from under it, but most of the water just disappeared,” Woodard said.

Workers, stumped, tried another approach. They hooked a cable to the rock, and another end to a bulldozer. They tried to pull or spin the rock off with the dozer.

“It wouldn’t budge,” said Woodard.

Finally, DOT workers think they’ve come upon a solution. They plan to drill a hole in the rock and dynamite it, breaking it into manageable pieces. Then, they’ll hire a company to install a rock catchment fence first. Bids have already been put out to find a contractor for the project.

The DOT will also have to shift the road over about 10 feet toward the river bank. The river is part of Fontana Lake and thus property of the Tennessee Valley Authority, so the DOT is working to secure TVA’s permission.

The road will remain closed in the interim, forcing a detour of 20 minutes the other way to get to town.

Some residents, reluctant to take on the additional drive time, continue to brave the stretch instead. Several vehicles could be seen last week traveling over the muddy, broken pavement, their drivers picking up speed momentarily as they passed under the precrious boulder.


Non-profit agencies and county departments in Haywood County are still reeling from massive budget cuts announced by commissioners last week.

The county commissioners cut funding to all non-profits for the rest of the fiscal year, and called for county departments to scale back their budgets by 7 percent.

The cuts will affect everything from arts to recreation to schools. Leaders continued to call emergency meetings this week to grapple with the grim financial picture.

Some non-profit agencies were hit harder than others, like the Haywood County Arts Council. The group receives $15,000 per year from the county, an amount that will be cut by $11,250 in 2009.

“That’s a lot of money — it’s hard to make up that amount,” said Arts Council Director Kay Waldrop, who called an emergency meeting Monday (March 16) to discuss the cuts with her board of directors.

Waldrop said across-the-board cuts to the arts at federal, state and local levels are making it hard to cope.

“It’s the snowball effect,” Waldrop said. “Just one thing you can try to overcome pretty easily, but when your grants are cut, government funding is cut, donations are down and ticket sales are down — when all of those are cut, it’s a double whammy.”

Waldrop said her organization will battle to keep itself afloat.

“We’re fighting to keep the arts alive in our community,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Waynesville Recreation Center is doing its fair share of fighting. The Center receives $70,000 per year in county support, but won’t get any more for the rest of the year.

The county supplement has allowed county residents to pay the same amount as town residents for a recreation center membership despite not paying the taxes that town residents do to support the center.

Now, the recreation center must find some way to make up for the shortfall — and raising rates for county residents is one option on the table.

“We don’t have differential rates right now for the town and county, primarily because Haywood County was giving us money to supplement the difference,” said Rhett Langston, director of recreation for the Town of Waynesville. “We’ve got to come up with the money to supplement the difference some other way. We want to be very, very careful and be as fair as possible.”

Langston said the cut won’t affect programs or classes, but that the recreation center, “will definitely feel it.”

Other non-profits to feel the cut most include the Haywood County Agricultural Activities Center, the low-cost Good Samaritan Clinic, and Haywood Mountain Home.


Feeling the pinch

County departments are also reeling from the round of cuts. Some have struggled to trim their already slim budgets. A week after a county mandate to departments to cut 7 percent of their budget, across-the-board cuts only totaled 3.7 percent, Haywood County Manager David Cotton told commissioners at their Monday (March 16) meeting.

The county has tossed around various ideas to save money, including making employees take mandatory leave or cutting work weeks to 36 hours. The most drastic step will be unavoidable, Cotton said.

“We’re looking at layoffs. That’s where we’re going,” Cotton told commissioners.

Cotton said the county will take a look at the departments that have seen a slowdown in a need for their services as places to cut positions.

Robert Busko, director of the Haywood County Public Library system, said his employees have already volunteered unpaid time off and are bracing for more.

“I’m taking a week off without pay, and most supervisory staff are taking five days without pay,” Busko said. “Whenever you have to have employees take time off without pay, that’s one of the last resorts.”

The budget cuts mean the library system is holding off on developing its collection at a time when library use has increased with people seeking low-cost entertainment. The library constantly reviews it collection, ordering new materials on subjects that may be lacking and replacing out-of-date materials.

“We got a few materials ordered before we had to make the cut, but we’re ordering bestsellers only right now,” Busko said.


“A tremendous hit”

Meanwhile, the school system is figuring out how to cope with budget cuts. The school system has already slashed its budget by 3 percent to comply with a state mandate, and is bracing for additional state cuts that could total up to 9 percent — in addition to the county reductions.

“This last (county) one was totally unexpected,” said Mike Sorrells, chair of the school finance committee and member of the school board. “We are taking a tremendous hit.”

School superintendent Anne Garrett called the cuts, “serious — very serious.”

So far, the school system has been able to avoid layoffs. But various projects will have to be put on hold. One of them is a five-year project to get all student records put on microfilm, since some of the paper copies are old and deteriorating. Other cuts will mostly be supplies and materials to various programs, including vocational, special needs, the Gateway Program for at-risk students, and staff development for substitute teachers, who will not be attending conferences in the near future as a result of the cuts.

School officials expressed concern about the impact the latest cuts have had on the system’s general fund balance, or money not targeted for a specific purpose, which has been slashed in half.

The 2004 floods highlighted the importance of having a fund balance. When the school system was hit with unexpected costs, it had reserves to pull from to pay for upfront repairs before federal and state reimbursements came in.

“If we have some kind of crisis where a major piece of equipment goes down and we don’t have money in the fund balance,” that’s not a desirable situation, said Larry Smith, Chief Financial Officer for Haywood County Schools.

The county’s fund balance has dipped as well, and mandatory budget cuts are a necessary way to get the fund balance back to acceptable levels, said commissioners. Plus, cuts have been felt in private industry for some time, so it was only a matter of time before local governments were forced to follow suit.

“The private sector has been having to cut back for several months, and now the county has to cut back,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.


The dire state of finances at Maggie Valley Ghost Town in the Sky led the amusement park to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy March 10.

The filing will allow the partners of Ghost Town LLC to structure a plan to try and pay back creditors, and protect the company from potential lawsuits in the process.

Sluggish ticket sales last season due to surging gas prices, coupled with the high costs of rehabilitating the park’s 48-year-old infrastructure, dealt a serious blow to Ghost Town’s anticipated revenues and debts mounted.

Nearly half a million dollars in liens have been filed against Ghost Town for unpaid services, including construction of the incline railway that takes visitors up the mountain, engineering services, equipment rental, and parts for the Cliffhanger roller coaster. The company owes money to multiple other vendors, according to the bankruptcy filing, and has an estimated debt load of $2.5 million, according to Ghost Town General Manager Steve Shiver.

Shiver said the company tried every avenue to secure a loan, but the current lending environment made it impossible.

“We were on the cusp of making this thing work, and then the credit markets absolutely fell apart,” said Shiver.

The company approached lender after lender, to no avail. The partners poured almost $4 million of their own money into the park, according to Shiver.

They even held state sales tax money garnered from sales of tickets and merchandise, which should have gone straight to state coffers. A document from the state Department of Revenue filed Dec. 19 of last year reveals that Ghost Town owes the state $97,739.82 in back sales taxes.

“They obviously had cash flow issues, and were using the (sales tax) money for cash flow purposes,” said Lee Shelton, a financial expert who resides in Maggie Valley.

In a last-ditch effort, Ghost Town partners were working to secure a high-interest “mezzanine loan,” just before the decision was made to file for bankruptcy, said Shiver.

“The credit markets collapsed and forced us to look at alternative lending,” Shiver said.

Mezzanine loans demand as much as 20 to 30 percent interest.

“Mezzanine financing is usually a lender of last resort, because you can’t raise any more capital and can’t find anyone else to provide conventional lending,” said Shelton.

But at the last minute, the deal fell through, said Shiver.

Bankruptcy “was an action of absolute last resort,” he said.

“We put a lot of money into repairing the park,” Shiver said. “The alternative is to close the doors and sell it for the real estate. It will bring pennies on the dollar in a forced sale.”

For Ghost Town to get back on its feet, two things have to happen — increased visitation and securing a loan to pay off its debts. No one knows for certain if either is going to happen.

Shiver expressed remorse for the situation the park is in.

“I am so, so sorry that we are in this position to owe local vendors and national vendors,” he said. “We don’t like this. I feel for all the small businesses affected by this.”


The Ghost Town lifeline

Small business is the livelihood of Maggie Valley, and Ghost Town’s impact on the many shops, hotels and restaurants in the area is far-reaching.

“We’re all in shock. We’re not happy to hear it,” said Mike Nelson, owner of Abbey Inn in Maggie Valley. “Ghost Town is very, very important.”

Nelson said the park is what defines Maggie Valley, and is still the top attraction – more so than other nearby features, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“They come for Ghost Town,” Nelson said. “That’s what put Maggie’s name on the map.”

Maggie Valley Mayor Roger McElroy observed a drop of 30 to 40 percent in local business during the five years Ghost Town was closed. Visitor numbers since the park re-opened don’t rival what they once were, but the 130,000 people the park attracted last year — according to Shiver — is a far cry better than none at all.

“The point is that 50 percent of those people were from out of state, and most likely stayed overnight in the area,” McElroy said.

Ghost Town not only draws tourists, it creates jobs for locals. The park itself has a $2 million payroll and employs around 200 people in peak season, albeit some part-time; the tourists it draws also create 100 to 200 jobs in the hotel, restaurant and shopping industries.

“There are a lot of folks that are not going to have jobs if this park is not successful, and there’s a lot of money that will not filter through the community,” said Shiver.


Key to success

Ghost Town partners plan to open the park May 15 and are banking on drawing 150,000 visitors this season despite the economic recession.

Critical to the park’s success will be its ability to get two of its biggest rides – the incline railway and Cliffhanger Rollercoaster — working.

Along with high gas prices, the failure to get those rides working since Ghost Town re-opened may have contributed to the dip in visitation during the park’s second season.

“The numbers I heard around town were that in 2007, things were up very nicely since Ghost Town was back, even though they had their problems,” Nelson said. “And in 2008, it definitely slumped off, primarily because Ghost Town did not achieve the numbers it needed.”

Indeed, the Maggie Valley Visitors Center saw the number of visitors increase by 40 percent the year the park re-opened. But in the park’s second season after re-opening, a study conducted by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority found no significant increase in the number of children visiting the county.

Getting the Cliffhanger Rollercoaster inspected by the state has been a major obstacle. The company Ghost Town hired to build the roller coaster train had never built one before, and the design lacked the necessary tests, which slowed the process.

Ghost Town now has just one more test to perform before it can open the Cliffhanger, said Shiver, which the partners were not expecting.

“The thrill and excitement of our roller coaster is that it’s got a loop, but no over the shoulder harness,” Shiver said. “The N.C. Department of Labor wanted to see some tests on the restraints, and that’s what we were getting ready to do.”

When The Smoky Mountain News interviewed Shiver in November of last year, he said the park had completed 400 test runs of the new coaster and sent the results of those to state officials. It’s unclear why more tests have been required.

Attempts to secure the necessary money to run the tests, however, were unsuccessful.

The incline railway is another story.

“That’s got some hurdles,” Shiver said. “It’s close as well. We replaced the track, but we’re in discussion with the vendor. We’re actually in court with the vendor.”

The vendor, Industrial Service Group of Georgia, has filed a lien against Ghost Town in the amount of $407,910. Shiver refuses to discuss the case.

The amount of money Ghost Town investors have spent to rehab old park structures and bring them up to safety code has been a big financial drain.

“This group agreed to pay probably more than it was worth,” McElroy said of the park. “They had to do a tremendous amount of work they didn’t anticipate.”

Shelton wonders if the investors opened the park prematurely.

“There wasn’t competition to buy the place, so it wasn’t like you had to be in a rush,” he said. “They could have taken their time and probably could have brought in the state inspectors and said, take a look at this.”

In a press release, Ghost Town officials said they will make opening the rides a priority, and hope that doing so will increase visitor numbers.

“Once The Cliffhanger Rollercoaster...is open, Ghost Town will appeal to a broader audience, including thrill-seekers, teenagers and pre-teens,” the press release stated.

It added: “By completing the Incline Railway, Ghost Town will save a significant amount of money on bus transportation and will attract more school groups who, in the 2007 and 2008 season, had to be bussed to the top of the mountain where the Theme Park is located.”


Outpouring of support

Right now, Ghost Town is, “working with the courts through our attorneys and our creditors to come up with a real plan that will be acceptable and approved by the court,” Shiver said.

The partners continue to search for financing.

“We’re working with several potential sources for post-petition financing, and that’s ongoing,” said Shiver. “They are companies that specialize in this kind of financing, and there are banks involved as well.”

Shiver said the May 15 opening date, while hopeful, is still tentative.

“We are shooting for that, but of course, it all depends on our ability to restructure and finance,” he said.

The community has shown an outpouring of support for the embattled park.

“I’m just humbled by the support and phone calls that I’m getting,” said Shiver. “It’s been overwhelming, and I’m so grateful and thankful to the people of Maggie Valley.”

The community is doing what it can to help. Maggie Valley’s Tourism Development Subcommittee, which gets funding from the county’s room tax, has agreed to give Ghost Town some of its money for advertising. Local leaders have also reached out to state officials.

“We’ve talked to our legislators and hope that we can work with them and express to them how bad it’s going to hurt if Ghost Town fails,” said McElroy. “Hopefully they can come through with some help.”

“We’ve got to get the word out to the judge that we the community want it to stay alive,” said Nelson.

Shiver wants to get the ball rolling, and put Ghost Town back on the path to success.

“There have been many sleepless nights,” he said. “I’m just anxious to get it done for the community, and for our creditors and investors.”


A Maggie Valley man alerted Haywood County officials this week of a landslide posing a risk to his home in Smoky Mountain Estates in Maggie Valley.

Marc Pruett, soil and erosion control director for Haywood County, visited the site of the slide on Walt Moody’s property on Tuesday. Pruett reported that “the failure comes up within about three feet of the back edge of the house. It’s not good.”

Moody estimated that the slopes above and below his house are between 45 and 50 degrees.

The cause of the slide has not been determined. Moody said that in recent weeks, rains have appeared to soften the ground around his property.

“I think this started with that rain in January,” Moody said. “I’ve never seen the ground that way. We’re leaving footprints and footprints are filling with water immediately. (It’s) like walking on a sponge.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Moody had not decided whether he would take steps toward remediation of the slope.

Moody said recent landslides in the area have brought public attention to the challenges of building in the mountains.

“I believe we’re going to see a significant change in the way construction is managed in the mountains of Western North Carolina,” he said.


Questions continue to follow former Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health director Tom McDevitt — who resigned amid scrutiny last year — in his role as director of the agency’s multi-million dollar nonprofit arm.

McDevitt apparently stepped up as the full-time director of the Evergreen Foundation on Jan. 1, according to a Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health press release. McDevitt had also served as director of the Foundation when he was the head of the Smoky Mountain Center, but only worked eight hours per week for the Foundation.

In his role, McDevitt continues to work closely with the same agency he resigned from amid controversy.

When The Smoky Mountain News asked Foundation board members to confirm that they had approved a contract between McDevitt and the Foundation dated Dec. 12, different board members gave conflicting answers.

The two-and-a-half-year contract awards McDevitt a budget of $308,724 to operate the Evergreen Foundation, including services such as general administration, accounting, budgeting, and investment coordination, as well as overhead. McDevitt’s own salary would comprise most of the budget, but what portion is not clear.

Of seven Evergreen board members, only four were present for the alleged vote to approve the contract at the December meeting where it was discussed. Of those present, one could not immediately remember whether a contract had been approved. The other two refused to comment. Only Evergreen board chairman John Bauknight would speak about the vote.

Initially, Bauknight would not confirm or deny the existence of the contract when he was first asked about it. Then, Bauknight said the vote for the contract was unanimous, but would not say which board members voted for it. He declined to look at a copy of the meeting minutes in order to jog his memory.

“I don’t need to look at them,” Bauknight said. “I don’t have a copy of those minutes, but it passed. The contract was voted on and passed.”

But Bauknight failed to tell other board members who weren’t at the meeting of the contract’s approval for nearly two months, when the board began to get media inquiries about it.

Board member Barbara Vicknair was surprised to learn the contract had been approved. She had left early from the December meeting, and had yet to get a clear answer on the contract vote.

“I’ve heard on one hand it was approved, and on the other that it was not,” she said. “I’ve been told both ways, so I really would like to know if it did or didn’t get approved.” Vicknair said she plans on raising the issue at the Foundation’s next quarterly board meeting.

Linda Cable, another board member who did not attend the December meeting, also was unaware of the contract’s approval, and was also unaware that the board all voted in favor of it.

“I didn’t hear it was unanimous, just that it had been discussed, not approved,” Cable said.

Jimmy Johnson, another board member, did attend the meeting. However, he could not remember if a contract had been approved, and said he would have to “look back on the minutes.” Johnson failed to return subsequent phone calls.

Other board members refused to speak to The Smoky Mountain News. Board member Bob Carpenter called the paper, “extremely careless with (its) news articles,” before refusing to comment and abruptly hanging up. Board member Ron Yowell refused to comment, and referred all questions to Bauknight. Board member Donald Bunn did not return phone calls.

Bauknight placed phone calls to some Foundation board members and told them not to speak with reporters during media inquiries into the contract.

Following media inquiries into the contract, Bauknight agreed to meet in person with The Smoky Mountain News. During that meeting, he said “the contract has been fully aired and discussed.”


‘Full support of board’

Because some board members did not return phone calls or refused to comment, The Smoky Mountain News did not have an opportunity to ask how each felt about McDevitt continuing to work closely with the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health. The two board members who were posed that question declined to comment.

Bauknight, though, said the board is fully behind their director.

“He has the full support, trust, and confidence of the Evergreen board,” he said. “The selection of McDevitt “is absolutely appropriate — no ifs, ands, or buts.”

Scrutiny over McDevitt’s activities as Foundation director dogged him in the weeks leading up to his resignation. A Smoky Mountain News investigation found that McDevitt earned $42,000 per year for eight hours of work each week for the Foundation; used his wife as a real estate agent on sales of Foundation property; employed his daughter; and ran his Evergreen Foundation salary through the books of the Smoky Mountain Center, making his overall wage appear higher and qualifying him for additional retirement benefits.

Having McDevitt stay on as the director of the Evergreen Foundation after he retired was always the plan, said Bauknight.

“We’ve got a gentleman here who, basically, his long range goals a few years ago were when he left Smoky, he was going to stay with the Evergreen Foundation,” Bauknight said. “Why? Because of his management skills and his financial background — it’s a perfect fit.”

McDevitt has overseen the Foundation since its inception. The nonprofit works to benefit the mental health community in Western North Carolina, primarily by leasing its 23 properties in seven western counties to private mental health providers at below-market rent. The Foundation’s affordable properties helped lay the groundwork for the community of providers in the region that provide services to individuals with mental illness.

“If the Foundation hadn’t done what it had done, there wouldn’t be a provider community,” McDevitt said.

Mental health reform that took place in the early part of the decade focused on placing mental health care back in the local communities with outpatient services. This posed a problem for areas like WNC, where the necessary outpatient services were lacking.

Providers were “professionals who became entrepreneurs overnight,” said McDevitt. Evergreen helped make that transition easier by giving providers an inexpensive place to set up shop.

McDevitt attributes the Foundation’s success in large part to his leadership.

“My significant involvement in this organization ... is what made it successful,” he said. “My motivation has been to do what will best benefit the community.”

As the director of the Evergreen Foundation, McDevitt continues to work closely with the same organization he resigned from. The Smoky Mountain Center acts as a go-between for mental health care providers seeking a cheap place to rent and the Evergreen Foundation, which holds the properties.

McDevitt said his continued involvement with the Smoky Mountain Center is not an issue. He will have little contact with the Smoky Mountain Center board of directors, whose scrutiny of McDevitt’s activities ultimately led him to resign. He admits, though, that his relationship with the Smoky Mountain Center administration has changed.

“I’m continuing to work with all the people the same way I always have, though I think there is a little bit different disposition there. That’s only natural. I’m the past CEO, but I’m not their boss anymore. There’s a different relationship,” he said.


Prominently displayed in the window of the Bryson City Fire Department last week were several signs with the same defiant words: “We serve people, not politics.”

The message was a direct reference to a controversy heating up between the town’s volunteer fire department and Swain County commissioners. The two are at odds over how much the county should contribute to the fire department for handling calls outside the town limits. When the Bryson fire department recently asked for more, the county decided it would stop contributing altogether come July. Instead, Swain County will build two new fire stations and buy two new trucks of its own. It will stop contributing to the existing fire stations in Bryson City and Qualla to fund the new ones.

Since 1992, the county has contributed to the Bryson City Fire Department since it provides service beyond the town limits. It is one of three fire stations in the county, along with one in West Swain and one in Alarka. According to Bryson City fire chief Joey Hughes, the Bryson Fire Department was responding to the lion’s share of calls — nearly two-thirds of the total.

“We’ve run more calls in a month than other departments run in a year,” Hughes said.

The county paid the Bryson City department $47,000 this year.

In December, the town fire department asked the county to up the amount to $70,000 to reflect the high volume of calls the department was responding to.

“The letter indicated that they needed more money to operate the department, that they weren’t getting enough to do it,” said County Manager Kevin King.

Instead of responding to the fire department’s request, the county has opted to end their contract altogether starting July 1.

“If we’re going to spend that type of money, it would be better to increase services outside the city limit,” King said.

The county’s new plan is to create a larger, unified department with no involvement from the town. The goal: provide more comprehensive fire service and decrease fire insurance rates for residents.

But Hughes and his department say the county’s decision isn’t a good one. They say the county doesn’t have a sufficient setup to handle the volume of services the town department currently provides. The decision will hurt the town department, they say, but more importantly, it will compromise the safety of Swain’s residents.

“Our budget will be cut in half, and our calls will be cut by two-thirds under the decision,” said Hughes. “We’re not going to be hurting that bad, but it’s the citizens of Swain County that are going to suffer.”

The town of Bryson City contributed $42,000 to the fire department this year.


Dueling fire stations

The county’s new plan calls for buying two new fire trucks and building two new firestations — one in the Ela community, and one at the county’s industrial park. The West Swain fire department will oversee the plan.

West Swain will borrow about $600,000 to $700,000 to fund the project. The county plans to funnel the resources it is giving to the Bryson City and the Qualla fire departments to help cover the loan payments.

In addition to the cost of building the fire stations and buying the trucks, the new plan would cost the county an additional $20,000 per year, which it plans to factor into next year’s budget. Ideally, at least one of the new substations would be up in running in just five months, King said — roughly the time the town’s contract expires.

King said the new stations will mean decreased response times, which in turn would save county residents about $600,000 each year on their fire insurance premiums, King said.

Under the new plan, rescue equipment such as a Jaws of Life would be available at each of the substations, providing residents with an added safety feature.

But Hughes doesn’t think the county’s plan is feasible, and questions why they’re trying to change something that has proven effective — or why they would want to duplicate a service that’s already in place.

“We know what we’ve got works, and what they’re trying to do is untested,” Hughes said. “What they’ve already got is best for the taxpayer. You’re not crossing district lines, and there’s not going to be a controversy.”

Indeed, King argues that Hughes and his department don’t like the new plan in large part because it would mean others would infringe on territory the town department has covered for years.

“They’re just upset because they’ve had that territory for a long time, and they’re not going to be a part of the solution,” King said.

But Hughes said the county never asked his department to be part of the solution.

“Whenever they started planning all this, they didn’t include the town or our fire department in this; they went to the other fire departments and talked to them about it,” he said.

Hughes doubts the county’s ability to execute its plan with the money allocated.

“With that dollar figure, there’s no way under the sun that they can do it,” Hughes said.

And though King said he has assurances from the county substations that they’ll have enough personnel, Hughes wonders if the stations can recruit the manpower to pull it off. His station currently has 34 volunteers; the other two have eight.

“They’ll get enough names on paper, but getting enough qualified, dedicated people is going to be a problem to keep up the response time that we’ve got now,” Hughes contends. “This day and time, it’s hard to get volunteers that are reliable and good at what they do.”

Hughes said it’s critical to have a big pool of volunteers to pull from, because most work full-time. If a fire emergency happens during a weekday, 10 out of 34 volunteers may show up, he said. That number would be closer to two or three volunteers if the same percentage showed up at a smaller station.

Hughes planned to reason with commissioners to keep the Bryson City Fire Department’s contract at a special called meeting Monday night (March 2). But while Hughes calls the county’s new plan, “a shady deal,” King said the fire department has blown the whole thing out of proportion.

“They’re trying to turn it into something it actually is not,” he said. “We’re talking about public safety for the entire county in an effective manner.”


Waynesville Alderman Kenneth Moore passed away Monday (March 2) after a heart attack. He was 74.

Moore was the former police chief of the town of Hazelwood, and had been an alderman since 1995. He was serving his fourth term.

“All of us are devastated that this community has lost such a fierce advocate,” said Alderman Libba Feichter. “He didn’t say a lot, but was absolutely, fiercely loyal to his community.”

Colleagues remembered Moore as someone who genuinely cared about, and went to bat for, the people he worked with and served.

“His belief was rules are rules, but people are people — and people are more important than rules,” said Mayor Gavin Brown.

Moore went out of his way to show interest in the lives of people who knew him. Town Clerk Phyllis McClure remembers that when her grandson fought cancer, Moore never missed a chance to call and check on him.

“He was always looking out for citizens, town employees, and their families,” said McClure. “We really will miss him.”

Feichter said Moore was a tireless advocate for town employees.

“He wanted to make sure that they caught every break, that we made sure they were cared for, and that their salary was fair and equitable,” she said. “He was just a fierce advocate for those people and the people of his community.”

Though Moore’s seat is now empty, his legacy lives on. Brown credited Moore as the first to pitch the construction of new fire and police departments. Moore was able to see his goals realized —the fire department was completed last year, and construction of the police department is well underway.

The other four members of the town board will appoint Moore’s replacement, who will serve until the next regular town election.


There are just two candidates left in the bid to be Canton’s next town manager, but Mayor Pat Smathers said he doesn’t know how much longer it will take the board to finally pick one.

The town has been without a manager since December 2007, when long-time manager Bill Stamey abruptly retired. Stamey’s announcement followed an election sweep that saw the replacement of three long-time Canton aldermen and shift in majority power on the board.

Al Matthews, the former assistant town manager under Stamey, has been playing the roles of interim town manager, assistant town manager, and town clerk for more than a year since Stamey’s departure. Matthews has long been considered the heir apparent to Stamey. When he left his job as the Maggie town manager years ago to come to Canton, he was told by the town board at the time they would one day make him manager. But the arrival of a new board majority voided that promise.

The town board waited six months before starting the search for a manager in the summer of 2008. They received more than 30 applications before closing the search in November.

The long, drawn-out process still doesn’t have a definite ending date.

“It could happen toward the end of March, or it could not happen,” Smathers said.

He said aldermen are trying to arrange a time to interview the two remaining candidates again. The board is not releasing the names of the two finalists.

Smathers said the length of the process is partly because the town board wanted to wait until after it worked out its yearly budget to start a search. They’ve also taken their time in weeding out candidates.

“Let me just say that the board is being very deliberate in what they do, but it is a bit frustrating because we don’t have a manager, assistant manager, or town clerk,” Smathers said.

Smathers said board members, and himself, have varying opinions about what they’re looking for in a town manager.

Alderman Troy Mann told The Smoky Mountain News last month that he would ideally like to see two people sharing the town manager duties.

“If we hire an older person, we would like to also hire a younger person to elevate to town manager (one day),” Mann said. “That way, you have the continuity of government and knowledge between one generation and the next.”

Smathers, though, wouldn’t say whether he agreed with Mann’s suggestion.

“I have my opinion, and what I’m looking for, and I would say that each alderman has their opinion and what they’re looking for,” said Smathers. “I’m not sure that we all agree.”

Smathers, however, noted that as mayor, he can’t vote unless there’s a tie between aldermen.


A flawed bidding process for a demolition job that left a local company out of the loop is causing a major headache for the town of Canton.

The town put its engineering contractor, McGill and Associates, in charge of soliciting bids for the demolition of the old community store building. The old downtown building, which was once a boarding house, has major drainage issues and has been vacant for some time.

McGill selected D.H. Griffin, an international firm with an Asheville office. A few days after the job was awarded, Canton Alderman Eric Dills bumped into an employee of Medford Enterprises, a local company that had also bid on the project. The man explained to Dills that his company had not won the project, but the bid amount he named was lower than that of D.H. Griffin’s bid.

Dills was concerned that a local company had not gotten a fair shot at the project, and brought his concerns before the board at its next meeting.

“I was wondering why we had taken the bid of a national company over a Canton-based company,” said Dills. “We had said before that we wanted the local guys to get shots at our contracts. Canton’s always pushing, ‘spend your money in Canton,’ and we need to lead by example.”

Following the meeting, Interim Town Manager Al Matthews asked McGill and Associates exactly what had happened during the bidding process. Matthews said he discovered that McGills solicited bids verbally rather than writing up the specifications for the project and sending them out — the standard form of soliciting bids for government projects.

Describing the project verbally to companies when soliciting bids left room for confusion. Medford Enterprises either wasn’t told or misunderstood some elements of the project, so their bid didn’t reflect the exact work McGill was looking for.

Though the demolition contract has already been awarded to D.H. Griffin, McGill and Associates called for a rebid upon hearing this information.

“This time, (the bid) was accompanied by a written set of specifications,” said Matthews.

But D.H. Griffin, which believed it had already been picked for the demolition project, protested.

“We received a protest from D.H. Griffin,” said Matthews. “They said we already had a contractual arrangement with them to provide work.”

D.H. Griffin was apparently upset enough to threaten legal action against the town. Matthews said the process has been stalled, and the town has yet to award a second bid.

“We’re withholding the awarding of a contract until such time that we feel any potential legal matters can be addressed,” he said. “We did not award to either company, and will not until legal matters can be resolved.”


People in Cherokee will no longer have to drive or hitch rides into Bryson City to cast ballots during early voting.

The Swain County Board of Elections recently agreed to establish an early voting site in Cherokee, a move that will likely increase voter participation.

A 92-year-old woman from the Big Cove community in Cherokee came to the board of elections and asked it to set up an early voting site on tribal land. Otherwise, Cherokee voters had to travel as many as 40 miles roundtrip to cast their ballots in Bryson City.

“It was placing undue hardship on the voter,” said John Herrin, a member of the Swain Board of Elections.

When it comes to elections for tribal offices like chief, Cherokee runs its own elections. But for state and national elections, Cherokee voters cast ballots under the auspice of either Swain or Jackson counties, depending on which side of the reservation they live on. Jackson already had a polling site set up for Cherokee voters.

“Jackson County residents basically could go a couple miles from their home, while Swain County residents had a 20-mile drive,” Herrin said.

A site for the new polling location has yet to be chosen. The site will only be open during early voting. On Election Day, Cherokee voters will still have to leave the reservation to vote in the Whittier precinct.

Herrin hopes the establishment of an early voting site on the reservation will encourage better voter turnout.

Cherokee voters already showed good turnout in the last election, with 70 percent casting a ballot, according to Board of Elections Director Joan Weeks. But while 25 percent of all registered Swain County voters cast early ballots, only 17 percent of Cherokee did so — a discrepancy likely linked to the distance of the nearest early voting site.

The early voting polling site might also increase participation in local off-year elections, such as county commissioner races, which Cherokee voters previously haven’t turned out for in high numbers.

“Typically, you see a lot of participation from the Reservation on presidential and senatorial elections, and not nearly as much during off years for local county government,” said Herrin. “We might see a lot more, considering they don’t have to be inconvenienced as much as in the past. We can’t just go out there and beat on their doors and beg them, but we can definitely make it as easy as possible to vote,” Herrin said.


A proposed Haywood County ordinance that prohibits various kinds of waste and junk was harshly criticized by speaker after speaker at a public hearing Monday (March 2).

The “Public Nuisance” ordinance prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junk cars to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to safeguard public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.

The ordinance drew more than one reference to communism.

“All of this is like something right out of Karl Marx’s handbook,” said Randy Burris, a Cruso resident. “We have drawn a line today — I will not surrender any more of my rights to any government.”

Russell McLean, a Waynesville resident and the first to speak, called the ordinance “unconstitutional.”

“It completely rips away property rights,” McLean said. “I can’t even have a lawnmower sitting in a shed unless it’s fully enclosed.”

Colin Edwards of Maggie Valley said the ordinance had some good intentions, but ultimately was too restrictive.

“Some things I can understand, like garbage piling up, but you can’t tell somebody what they can and can’t have on their land,” Edwards said.

Maggie Valley resident Burton Edwards said things that appear to be uselessly taking up space can have value to someone else.

“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” he proclaimed. “If all you’ve got from your dad or granddad is a tractor that don’t run, that’s your heritage.”

The speakers professed an overwhelming live and let live attitude. That’s the way it’s traditionally been in Haywood County, they said, and if newcomers have a problem with that belief, they can take a hike.

“If people moves in here and they don’t like what they see, why don’t they move back out and leave us alone?” said Pauly Sidler of Canton.


Some support

The stiff opposition was a marked change from the official public hearing on the nuisance ordinance held two weeks before. Then, just a handful of speakers voiced messages of support for the ordinance.

Phyllis Brockman, a resident of the eastern end of the county, was one of the speakers. She hoped the ordinance would target the auto salvage yard near her property, where she witnesses mosquitoes and rats breeding in discarded tires.

“I believe that anybody should be able to do with their property what they want, up to the point where it begins to infringe on the rights and properties of their neighbors,” Brockman said.

Brockman’s neighbor, Noreen Langford, said she and others “have been held hostage in the community.”

Brockman asked that the ordinance have “an extraordinarily sharp set of teeth in it.”

Commissioners had few comments at the initial public hearing. Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the speakers, “this ordinance is considerably stronger than we have now, and I think it will solve a lot of problems” near their properties.


Commissioners shy away

At the public hearing on Monday, however, Curtis said he wouldn’t support the ordinance.

“The way the draft is written now, there’s no way I could vote for it,” he said.

The rest of the board agreed with Curtis.

“I don’t think any of us support it in its present draft,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

Though many in the audience called for the county to drop the ordinance altogether, commissioners didn’t promise to do so. Instead, the board implored residents to attend the next planning board meeting to vent their concerns. That meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. on March 23 in Haywood County Annex II.


Victims of domestic violence in Western North Carolina recently received a powerful new voice to help bring them justice.

A $400,000 grant awarded to the 30th Judicial Alliance, a group that works on behalf of the justice system in seven western counties, has allowed for the establishment of a three-person legal team with the sole mission of encouraging the arrests and enforcement of domestic violence protection orders in Haywood, Jackson, and Macon counties.

The team, made up of an assistant district attorney, investigator and victim witness advocate, will help address the critical challenge of guiding domestic violence victims through the legal process.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey said getting victims from the point of abuse all the way to a conclusion in the legal process often proves extremely difficult.

“Too often along the way they fall by the wayside for various reasons” including emotional or economic factors, or just pure exhaustion, Bonfoey said at a press conference to announce the effort.

Julia Freeman, director of the REACH domestic violence prevention nonprofit group, said that during an often-intimidating process, the legal team will provide, “that extra support — someone saying, we’re going to get you through this; we’re here for you.”

“They’re going to be there to walk that victim through from start to finish,” Freeman added.

Bonfoey assured the legal team “doesn’t usurp, supplant or diminish the efforts of REACH” or other groups, but instead, provides an additional resource.

“(The program) is truly collaborative in nature,” said Bonfoey. “There’s strength in numbers.”

Freeman said she was thrilled by the prospects of the new resource.

“The team is going to make a tremendous difference to the victims we serve,” she said.

Apparently, it already has. Bonfoey said the team worked with a woman who had taken out domestic violence charges on a perpetrator 18 times but had quit each effort before a conclusion could be reached. The team helped the woman to file a nineteenth charge, and the perpetrator was convicted.


The board of Haywood Regional Medical Center bid farewell to chairman Glenn White April 24.

White had served on the hospital board nine years and became chairman in March 2008 following the resignation of then-chairman Dr. Nancy Freeman. White called his experience “very educational and enlightening.”

“The last year was very difficult,” White told the board and audience at his final meeting. “There were a lot of dark days, but I think at the end of it we’ve come out probably a better hospital than we were before.”

The board presented White with a plaque that had a stethoscope attached to it. Former interim CEO Al Byers, who guided the hospital in the aftermath of it’s loss of federal healthcare funding and who has rarely been seen since his retirement, attended the ceremony. So did former Haywood County Commissioner Chairman Larry Ammons, who led his board at the time the decertification took place.

“Glenn is a leader,” said hospital board member Cliff Stovall as he presented the plaque to White. “He doesn’t push himself out front, but things are happening in his head and behind the scenes that make an operation work.”

Hospital CEO Mike Poore also stood up to thank White for his service. He called White “a good steward” during a “very eventful period in this hospital,” and thanked White for his “sage advice and guidance.”

White was one of the last board members still serving who was on the board when the hospital’s decertification took place in February 2008. Now, only two of 12 remain who were part of that board — Mark Clasby and Dr. Dick Steele.

Clasby, whose three-year stint makes him the longest serving member, was appointed as the new chairman.

“This is a new chapter in our history, and an exciting time as we go forward,” Clasby said as he accepted his new post. “I welcome the new board members to help us with this endeavor as we continue to make this hospital the best hospital in the nation.”

At the meeting, the hospital board welcomed three new members. One is taking White’s place. The other two are filling newly added positions, part of the planned expansion of the board to 12 members total.

New board member Norman Yearick is an industrial engineer with management experience in manufacturing. Also joining the board is Bennie Sharpton, a resident and practicing surgeon in Haywood County who has previously served on the hospital board. The third new board member is Dr. Christofer Catterson, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine


County involvement changes

When two positions opened up on the Haywood Regional Medical Center board of directors a year ago, Haywood county commissioners spent hours conducting interviews with each of the 37 people who applied.

But this most recent go around, commissioners drastically reduced their level of involvement in vetting hospital board candidates. Instead of conducting interviews with the 19 applicants, commissioners only interviewed the five recommended by the hospital board.


So what gives?

According to County Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick, the most recent selection process followed correct protocol, while the previous one — where commissioners interviewed all 37 candidates — deviated a bit from statute.

According to state statute and procedures set up by the county when it formed the hospital board authority, the county makes all appointments to the hospital board based on the hospital board’s recommendations, Kirkpatrick said.

Last summer, however, the hospital board did not submit any recommended names to the county, so commissioners simply interviewed everyone who applied.

County commissioners have the authority to approve all the recommended candidates; approve some of them; or approve none of them and request a whole new slate of recommendations.

That was unnecessary this time around, because commissioners were satisfied with all five candidates the hospital board recommended to them.

“We could have interviewed more, but I think all of us felt the five that we interviewed were outstanding candidates,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.


What’s a college without a college town?

It’s an almost unimaginable scenario to those who love the unique, quirky places that grow up around major universities. But it’s very much the reality when it comes to Western Carolina University and the community that houses it, Cullowhee.

Despite its proximity to the college, students hardly frequent the commercial district. Not that there’s much to draw people in — a Mexican restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a barber and an auto repair shop are about the only things there, and the storefronts badly need an update.

“It’s an eyesore,” says Chris Blake, a WCU assistant English professor and co-chair of the group Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE). “If you drive through, you’ll see a number of broken signs. There are no sidewalks, no streetlights. Cullowhee is dark at night.”

The community’s appearance is a major deterrent to potential student business that’s just a stone’s throw away.

“Cullowhee is the backdoor of Western, and there is right now a disconnect between the university and the town,” says Blake. “Students don’t go to Cullowhee to do much at all.”

CuRvE’s goal is to help breathe some life back into the community. But where to begin?

“What would students like to see in Cullowhee, and what would bring them down to the area?” Blake’s group asked themselves. “We want to revitalize Cullowhee, but to do so, we need to know what it would take and what kind of changes they want to be made. If we can’t get students involved, I don’t know if it can happen.”

Enter political science professor Todd Collins. Together, the men came up with an idea to survey the student body and ask what they’d like to see in Cullowhee.

“We had been needing the data for some time, and we just did not have the means to collect it or the resources to do so,” says Blake. “Todd had the perfect connection, because his group of students is involved in survey work. This was the perfect fit.”

Collins’ students were game. They knew firsthand how students felt about Cullowhee.

“We get Chinese takeout every once in a while and we love (the Mexican restaurant), but other than that, we don’t really spend much time down there,” said Caroline Wright, a sophomore political science major. “We don’t even really drive that way.”

Collins’ classes created a 26-question survey to gauge just how students felt Cullowhee could be improved.

“We thought about what questions we wanted to be asked,” says Katy Elders, also a sophomore political science major.

Asking the students what they wanted out of Cullowhee was an approach that hadn’t been tried before.

“This is the first time anybody had tried to do any survey of the student body as a whole, and reach out and talk to students collectively,” says Collins.


Students speak

The response was overwhelming. Close to 1,100 took part in the survey, which was sent out through email. It was totally voluntary — students didn’t get a prize for participating.

“I was shocked,” said Elders. “There was more response than we’ve had for other surveys on campus.”

“I was really surprised by the number of people who had things to say other than, ‘I want a bar, or ‘I want a Burger King,’” Elders says. “There were some really long, really well-developed answers, with many people saying we like the way that Cullowhee is, and we don’t want it to lose its small-town appeal.”

The survey shed some light on how often students frequent Cullowhee businesses and their opinions about the area’s current state.

Students overwhelmingly felt that Cullowhee’s appearance could use an overhaul. About 70 percent said the appearance of businesses and buildings “needs lots of improvement,” while close to zero said that it “needs no improvement.”

Some students wrote that they didn’t feel safe in the area.

“Some said they’re afraid to go there at night because it’s dark, and not well lit,” said Collins.

When asked how frequently students use the businesses in Old Cullowhee, just 11.5 percent said they do so weekly. Most students — 32 percent — said they never use the town’s businesses. Of those who live on campus, closest to the Cullowhee commercial district, 38 percent never go there.

Yet students would be willing to go to the area if there was something to offer. Seventy-two percent said they’d frequent the area weekly if new businesses were developed there.

Simply improving the area’s appearance will attract students, according to the survey.

“Students said they’d be twice as likely to use businesses if they were just cleaned up,” Elders says.

An improved look could have further-reaching benefits, students seemed to think.

“A lot of students mentioned that they thought a nicer Cullowhee area would help with student retention, and keeping students around here on weekends,” says Collins. “It also may provide more jobs.”


Smart growth

But although students indicated they’d like more offerings in Cullowhee, they’re picky about what businesses set up shop in town.

A surprising number preached smart growth, and said they don’t want to see chain stores come to the area.

“A lot of students mentioned smart growth,” says Collins. “They didn’t want huge chains and strip malls. A lot of people mentioned trying to keep the small-town feel of the area.”

Such opinions are in contrast to Chancellor John Bardo’s proposed plan to construct a “town center,” retail complex with shops, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses on 22 acres of WCU’s property. Bardo has mentioned the possibility of chains like Barnes and Noble and Moe’s Southwest Grill coming to the town center.

Faculty protested the idea of major chains inhabiting Cullowhee, saying such stores could make it harder for small, local businesses to survive. Elders, like many other students, shares faculty concern about the impact of chain stores.

“I personally don’t want to see a Chili’s or Applebee’s,” she said. “I think we already have a unique set of restaurants and shops here.”

Blake stressed that Cullowhee’s identity needs to be determined by the people that live there, not an outside corporation.

“Someone could come in from outside and say we’ll make this into a town that may not have the flavor of what Cullowhee is,” he says. “The identity needs to be unique to Cullowhee, not what someone thinks Cullowhee should be.”

The issue of alcohol proved to be divisive in the survey, largely because of the chain stores that could follow. Cullowhee is dry, and needs to incorporate as a town before it can allow alcohol to be served there. The survey didn’t specifically ask about bars or alcohol. It did ask students if they favored incorporation. The majority was in favor of it, and Collins thinks that was because they support bringing alcohol to the community.

In responses to open-ended questions, many students wrote about their desire to see bars in Cullowhee. Others opposed it, and the survey revealed two camps on either side of the issue.

“You have your whole big group that really wanted incorporation because they really want alcohol, and a bunch of people who want to see local businesses as opposed to chain restaurants and stores,” said Wright.


More outdoors

A number of students advocated taking advantage of what’s already there — namely, the area’s natural resources — and placing more of a focus on recreation.

Elders says that surprised her.

“There was a significant amount in favor of recreation activities, which I didn’t anticipate would equal the desire for restaurants and other businesses,” she says. “A lot of students are interested in hiking, tubing, and fishing.”

Specifically, many students expressed desire for better access to the Tuckasegee River that runs next to WCU’s campus. Currently, one must traipse through a hill of rocks and brush to get down to the river. An access point could allow for a canoe put-in, swimming, tubing and fishing in a convenient location. Elders says she and her friends routinely drive 20 or 30 minutes out of town for places to swim and fish.

Improving river access has been a long-held desire of CuRvE’s.

“Right now, students don’t use the river,” says Blake. “We have the potential to have something very similar to Cherokee, but it will take quit a bit of money.” The Oconaluftee River that runs through the nearby Cherokee Indian Reservation is a popular fishing and wading spot.


Tool for change

The survey results, the first of their kind, have the potential to be a powerful tool.

For example, said Collins, they could influence businesses to clean up their buildings, or they could help a business decide to relocate to the area by showing the untapped market that resides there. Or if a group is applying for grants to fund parks or greenways, the results are evidence of the number of people who would use them.

Plans are in the works for a second round of surveying, this time of residents in the area. For now, the survey seems to have prompted students to get on board. Many of them wrote that they’d like to volunteer in any revitalization effort.

“I just really hope that people realize we actually do care about what’s going on in the area, and that we’re not just stereotypical college students who only want to hang out and party,” Wright said.

She added that she’s personally optimistic about Cullowhee’s potential.

“It could use a little help, but I really do think that it has the potential to be a really cool little place in the mountains.”


Should a private business receive taxpayer money to stage an event?

That was the question of the hour at two recent meetings of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority as the board discussed how to dole out its dollars.

The debate was prompted by a funding request from the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa. The resort had snagged the interest of the Western North Carolina Porsche Club and enticed them to hold a car show on the property in July. The group had never had an event in the mountains west of Asheville, so representatives from the resort saw it as a prime opportunity to attract a new breed of clientele.

“We’re trying to bring some different kinds of business to this county,” Waynesville Inn owner Dave Stubbs told the TDA board. “Our feeling is you have to have that targeted. You can’t just say, ‘come to Haywood County’ — you’ve got to have a specific thing going on. We’re trying to take the lead to design and sponsor a specific event.”

TDA members seemed impressed with the idea.

“I think we’ve got an opportunity to really reach out and do something new,” said board member James Carver.

But would the Porsche show really benefit Haywood County as a whole, TDA members wondered? After all, the whole event would be hosted on the grounds of the Waynesville Inn, with meals and a special room rate included in the package.

“I think what you’re trying to do is certainly admirable, but I think the point is there are many events that come into town but they’re not based at a hotel and the money isn’t going to a hotel,” said board member Marion Hamel.

Hamel continued to argue her case the next day at a meeting of the TDA finance committee, which was coming up with funding recommendations.

“The problem is, you’re setting a precedent,” she said. “We have turned down so many ads and events because it doesn’t include everybody, and we’re in danger of setting a precedent we can’t afford to set.”

Board member Jen Duerr said that attitude, long prevalent in the TDA, was doing the area more harm than good.

“I think that’s what’s holding this area back,” she said.

Chair Alice Aumen said she saw a need for the TDA to be more flexible in its thinking.

“Let’s see if we can make it fit rather than saying no, because I think that makes us look very close-minded,” Aumen said. “If someone has gone to all the trouble to bring in this event, they deserve something.”

TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins told the board to think twice before turning down an event that someone else had done all the effort to attract.

“If somebody out there is willing to take on some of this stuff and help us expand our reach and our markets, then we need to think seriously about letting them help us,” Collins said.

Board member Ken Stahl said that despite good arguments in favor of funding the Porsche event, doing so would still raise some questions.

“We have a problem if we directly subsidize a private enterprise and then they directly benefit from it,” said Stahl.

The board eventually settled on a compromise: it would fund the Porsche event, as well as another event being held at a Maggie Valley hotel, for the events’ inaugural year only.


Business owners hoping to be annexed by Waynesville in order to serve alcohol be out of luck.

At a meeting of the Waynesville board of aldermen on April 14, town leaders failed to approve an annexation request by Grandview Lodge Owner Terry Ferguson. Ferguson maintains that he wants his lodge to be annexed in order to gain access to town services like water and trash pickup. He also said becoming part of the town would save money on his insurance rates in a tough economic time.

“What we are trying to do is trim our expenses as a small business,” Ferguson said. “Times are tough right now, and businesses are trying to cut in every way they can.”

But another perk that Ferguson would gain — namely the ability to serve liquor, wine and beer to patrons of his restaurant — quickly became the focus of the debate.

Haywood County is dry, so businesses outside town limits can’t serve alcohol. Though Ferguson said being able to serve alcohol wasn’t his main goal, he filed an application to obtain an ABC permit from the town of Waynesville, according to Waynesville Police Department Lt. Chuck Way. Way said Ferguson’s request was denied because he wasn’t in the town limits.

When Ferguson came before the town petitioning for annexation, neighbors of the Lodge came with their own petition in hand — one opposing the request, namely because it would allow for liquor by the drink.

“We’ve had a very quiet neighborhood for many years now, and I just have a little petition we passed around worried about liquor by the drink,” said Scott Muse, a Grandview area resident.

The petition cited liquor as the primary reason for opposition, saying that isn’t conducive to the family neighborhood that surrounds the lodge, “where children roam and play.” It didn’t mention beer or wine.

Another neighbor stepped up to say he was concerned that the availability of liquor could change the character of the community.

“We have a very quiet, peaceful neighborhood,” said Sam Cable. “I feel that should alcoholic beverages be permitted, this would open the door for our community to not be as quiet as it is.”

Ferguson continued to maintain that alcohol wasn’t the primary reason for his annexation request.

“This is not an issue of liquor by the drink at all, and it should not be presented that way,” he said after the meeting.

But Mayor Gavin Brown stated that whether or not Ferguson presented it that way, “the issues now mix.”

Alderman Leroy Roberson agreed.

“It seems like it’s coming down to liquor by the drink, though I think (Ferguson) made a solid point about the services Waynesville can provide,” Roberson said.

Brown argued that citizens outside of the Waynesville town limits did not get an opportunity to vote on whether they supported having liquor by the drink and it wasn’t the town’s place to force it upon them. Waynesville residents passed a referendum allowing the sale of mixed beverages on May 6, 2008.

“Those folks don’t want liquor by the drink in their community, and I’m not going to impose it upon them,” Brown said.

Brown was an open supporter of the liquor by the drink referendum. In fact, it was one of his campaign platforms when running for mayor two years ago. Shortly after his election he proceed with the ballot measure as an issue of free choice. The desires of Waynesville voters should not be imposed on those outside town, he said.

“It was never my intention to impose my views on that section of the community,” Brown said.

The board seemed concerned about setting a precedent if they granted Ferguson and his lodge the annexation.

“There are a thousand parcels of land that have businesses on them that are outside the city limits that would want to be annexed so they can sell liquor by the drink,” said Brown.

Alderman Wells Greely cautioned that more thought needs to be given to how the two issues — annexation and liquor by the drink — connect with one another.

“What about other places that might choose to be annexed?” Greely questioned. “With liquor by the drink being so new, I think we need to take baby steps as we go through and think about liquor by the drink and how it affects this community.”

Alderman Gary Caldwell said he wouldn’t support the annexation.

“I don’t feel good about it at the present time,” Caldwell said. “It would be unfair, and it would be hard for me to vote on it.”

In general, aldermen agreed that they weren’t opposed to the idea of having liquor. Alderman Libba Feichter pointed out that having a liquor license allows for more control on the part of the proprietor over how much patrons consume. Currently, Grandview Lodge and other places offer brown-bagging, which allows customers to bring in their own bottle and generally consume as much as they want.

In the end, however, aldermen failed to make a motion to grant Ferguson’s annexation request.


Requests for Haywood Tourism Development Authority money this year ran the gamut from the predictable to events making their debut this season.

The TDA generates a pot of money from a 4 percent tax levied each time someone pays for a hotel room in the county. Three percent of that money goes into a general fund to be divvied up among the entire county, while the other 1 percent is divvied up by zip code. Each of the county’s five geographic regions — Maggie Valley, Waynesville, Lake Junaluska, Canton and Clyde — receives an amount of money proportional to the room tax they collect.

Maggie Valley, with its many hotels and motels, generates the most room tax of any zip code, and thus has the most money to give. Its zip code fielded nearly $200,000 in requests. As has been the case in the past, the biggest number of applications targeted festivals, including Run to the Valley Street Rod Show, Maggie Valley Fall Days, Mountain Music Jamboree, a Harley rally, Vettes in the Valley, and a classic auto and truck show. The TDA finance committee recommended funding for each of the events.

Big winners when it came to the TDA’s recommendations were a festival director position, for which $20,000 was recommended. This position is funded by the town of Maggie Valley and the TDA, and there is already a person hired. The Maggie Valley Lodging Association’s request for advertising to motorcycles also made out well, with a TDA recommended amount of $11,600. The money will go to fund a Speed channel advertising package.

The TDA extended conservative funding recommendations to Ghost Town in the Sky, the Maggie Valley theme park that recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Some of the requests were denied funding, such as the park’s Gospel Sundays series and its request for an Industry Partnership with the TDA. The TDA did agree to provide some money for a Ghost Town Media Day, though to the tune of $1,500 rather than the $4,000 Ghost Town requested. Ghost Town’s request for co-op advertising was also granted, though only half of the $10,630 requested was recommended.

Ghost Town CEO Steve Shiver didn’t show up for a public hearing on TDA funding requests, though he was scheduled to speak. Shiver’s absence didn’t appear to help the park’s case. The TDA is already reluctant to extend money to the theme park due to concerns over whether it will be able to open this season.

“On my cheat sheet here, I’ve got a big fat zero” next to Ghost Town, remarked TDA Finance Committee member Ron Reid as the committee went down a list of funding requests.



The TDA fielded a diverse list of requests for Waynesville’s 1 percent money. Among them: $3,000 for a traveling Vietnam Wall, $3,000 to light the Public Art sculpture in downtown Waynesville, $3,000 for an Appalachian Lifestyle Celebration and $3,000 for a Wine and Winter Festival in downtown Waynesville.

The recommendation to award $11,605 to the Downtown Waynesville Association for co-op advertising sparked a debate over where advertising dollars being spent — in this case, some ads are placed in local publications like The Smoky Mountain News, The Mountaineer and the Asheville Citizen-Times. TDA members questioned how effective those venues are for reaching a regional audience.

“Co-op advertising is a great idea, but we’re advertising in all the wrong places,” said Reid.


More of the pie

A variety of events tapped into the TDA’s 3 percent pot of money. The finance committee put its stamp on funding amounts requested for a Haywood County Agricultural brochure, Smoky Mountain 9-ball and Wheelchair Tournament, the Fines Creek Bluegrass Jam, and Maggie Valley’s Miss Maggie program.

Not every request was met with complete approval. A play in honor of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 75th anniversary was awarded less than the requested amount after TDA members determined that some of the money was going to fund entertainment.

“I didn’t think that we paid for storytellers and dancers. I thought we paid for advertising and brochures,” said TDA Finance Committee member Marion Hamel. “I think it’s a great thing to do, but I don’t think we should be paying for the entertainment.”

The TDA also modified a request for money to help advertise a golf package deal featuring the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa and the Maggie Valley Country Club. Members agreed to award the requested $150 on the condition that the Lake Junaluska Golf Course be invited to become a part of the deal.

The TDA board will vote on the funding recommendations April 22.


Waynesville’s South Main Street — the two-lane thoroughfare that is the major artery between downtown and the new Super Wal-Mart — could be increased to four lanes and even have roundabouts, according to preliminary redesign options recently laid out by the Department of Transportation.

Town officials have been hounding DOT for more than a decade to redesign the corridor, which also serves as one of the gateways to Waynesville.

The DOT made forays into a feasibility study for the road in 2002, but the plan went nowhere and was shelved.

South Main Street is now back on the drawing board. Town leaders are hopeful the DOT will come up with a redesign that fits in with the town’s land use plan and makes South Main Street more pedestrian friendly and aesthetically pleasing.

South Main Street has long been the neglected end of town. The need to redesign the dated corridor has grown more urgent since the arrival of Super Wal-Mart in 2008. The two-lane road is no longer able to handle the amount of traffic that has been added as a result of the megastore and buildings that have sprung up around it. According to DOT, 18,400 vehicles per day are coming and going in the vicinity of Super Wal-Mart.

“We needed something addressed,” said Mayor Gavin Brown. “It’s not going to go away — it’s an issue and it’s a problem.”

DOT has laid out several redesign options to study. One calls for widening the thoroughfare to four lanes from Hyatt Creek Road, just next to the Super Wal-Mart, all the way to U.S. 276 right at the edge of downtown. A raised median would be placed in the middle.

Another option calls for widening the road to four lanes about half way to downtown — near the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa, i.e. country club — then to three the rest of the way. Roundabouts could be included in the three-lane section.

A third option would maintain the road as a two-lane corridor and implement intersection improvements such as roundabouts.

The options differ from those offered up in the 2002 study, before the town’s land use plan was in place. That study recommended a four-lane divided road with extra turn lanes in some places at a cost of $27 million. The old study estimated that 30 businesses and a dozen residential homes would be displaced by the redesign.

Starting early last year, town officials pressed DOT to revisit the feasibility study so it incorporated the town’s land use plan. The town opposes major widening of the road all the way into downtown or through residential stretches, Brown said.

In the commercial area, the town does not want a five-lane road, Brown said, preferring a four-lane road with a landscaped median in lieu of a middle turn lane.

In addition, the town wants eight-foot wide sidewalks on either side of South Main Street to accommodate bicycle and pedestrian traffic and street trees lining the corridor.

“Sidewalks are necessary for the safety issue — people are going to walk to these facilities,” Brown said, referring to the new Super Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and other businesses that have cropped up around them. Currently, the sidewalks lining South Main Street are patchy at best, and at points, disappear completely, leaving pedestrians dangerously close to oncoming traffic.

The initial plan didn’t include sidewalks — in fact, the new plan likely wouldn’t either if the town didn’t make it a priority to push for them.

“The DOT is very focused on automobile transportation, and they talk about being multi-modal, but I’ve seen them be pretty reluctant to include things like bike lanes and sidewalks because its an extra expense,” said town planner Paul Benson. “If the town wants to see amenities like that, we’ve got to get involved.”

By all indications, that’s just what Waynesville officials have done. Brown said he’s called the DOT every two months for the past year to check on the status of the study.

In an telephone conference with DOT designers in January, the town voiced concern over whether an overly wide road would be compatible with the town’s design guidelines and vision for the corridor. Town officials reiterated their wishes for sidewalks and street trees.

Brown said the regional DOT office has been very willing to work with the town and has helped them communicate their wishes to the state office.

“They completely understand the town’s vision and were very supportive of my comments,” Brown said of the regional Division 14 office.

DOT Feasibility Studies Unit Head Derrick Lewis cautions that the new designs being studied could change depending on the input of local leaders.

“We’ve changed our process to actively solicit government input at multiple points within the process,” Lewis said. “We’re just trying to get it closer to what everybody wants, and we actually get a better product in the long run.”

Lewis said the DOT will also seek public input early in the process, before the final designs are laid down. Members of the public will be invited to share their ideas and concerns at a workshop this summer.

Town officials promise to be vigilant in making sure the final product reflects the town’s vision.

“If we don’t like what we see, we’ll lobby for changes,” said Benson.


Swain County, 86 percent of which is already owned by the federal government, lost a little more land from its tax rolls this month when commissioners voted to transfer 621 acres of land to become part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian reservation.

The tribe has owned three parcels of land — located in the Cooper’s Creek area, Kituwah, and Governor’s Island —for seven years. The tribe paid $11,500 a year in property taxes to Swain County for the tracts.

But after owning the land for the required amount of time, the tribe was legally able to petition for the land to become part of the Qualla Boundary. That way, it won’t be subject to property taxes.

Swain County is operating under a tight budget, and losing the property tax base will be a small blow, to say the least. But the Cherokee plan to build affordable housing and a mental health center on the parcels — things that could benefit those who live and work in Swain County. Commissioners weighed their options, and decided it would be easier to support the Eastern Band’s proposal.

“If the tribe were going to use the property for something controversial like gaming, we would say that we wouldn’t necessarily like that,” said County Manager Kevin King. “Yes, the county could fight it, but in the end, if they can demonstrate the need for it, you’re never going to win.”

King also said the commissioners wanted to keep the tribe and county on good terms.

“We have a really good relationship with the tribe, and we want to continue it,” King said.

Receiving the support of Swain commissioners was a final step in the process of placing the land into the Eastern Band trust. Now, the tribe is waiting for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to give final approval to the move.

Eastern Band Principal Chief Michell Hicks praised the commissioners for their support.

“Us mountain folk here in Western North Carolina, we know we have to work together to accomplish things for the people of our tribe and our communities,” Hicks said.


Waynesville leaders will finally kick off the town’s much-anticipated review of its six-year-old land use plan on April 22.

Town aldermen have hired the Davidson-based Lawrence Group, renowned in planning circles, as the consultant for the project. A $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation will pay for a portion of the $54,000 consulting fee.

The lead consultant, Craig Lewis, will be in Waynesville Wednesday, April 22, through Friday, April 24, to interview stakeholders and attend a meeting of the land use plan steering committee.

Stakeholders will be selected individually and could include the county Board of Realtors, Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Commission, for example. Mayor Gavin Brown had a broad definition of what a stakeholder is — “basically anybody in the community that’s involved in the use of land in Waynesville.”

However, Brown said the process will place particular importance on collecting feedback from developers.

“To be quite honest, this (review) is geared to some extent toward the developer segment of the community,” Brown said. “The last go around, for whatever reason, they weren’t engaged, and now we’re trying to engage those folks.”

Mounting complaints from developers that the strict architectural guidelines and other aesthetic criteria are too arduous prompted town aldermen to launch a review of the land use plan. Town leaders resisted making piece-meal or knee-jerk changes to the plan’s smart growth principles, and instead opted for a thoughtful and comprehensive review of the pros and cons of the town’s development standards.

The stakeholder interview process is not the same as a public hearing, which is planned though a date has not been set. Brown assured the public will get a chance to have their say at some point.

“There’s no question about that — I believe in everybody having their say,” Brown said.

Town planner Paul Benson said at least two public hearings must be held according to law, and he hopes the town will hold even more. But Benson added that the public already has a voice in the process through the eight members of the land use plan steering committee, which was appointed by alderman.

“The general public basically has eight permanent seats in the process,” Benson said.

Before public hearings are held, town officials and stakeholders will work with the consultant to amend various sections of the land use plan, bringing each section back before the land use plan steering committee to review. In total, 29 districts will be reviewed, and Benson says they’ll all receive equal attention.


What is the Waynesville land use plan?

Waynesville’s land use plan is based on smart growth principles. It requires commercial developers to build sidewalks, plant trees along the street and in their parking lots, and adhere to architectural standards. Signs are kept short and parking lots are kept small, or at least not oversized. Parking is placed to the side or rear so that building facades and not parking lots define the streetscape.


The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has announced plans for an affordable housing development and substance abuse treatment center in Swain County.

The tribe plans to build an affordable multi- and single-family housing development on a 300-acre tract in the Coopers Creek area. The development could have as many as 175 homes on it, according to Chief Michell Hicks.

Though the housing will only be open to enrolled members of the tribe, the housing will help add to the base of affordable housing in the region. The lack of housing in general has been a problem for the Cherokee, who are hemmed in by the borders of the Qualla Boundary.

“We don’t have a whole lot of lower- or mid-income housing here,” said Hicks.

Hicks said of the tribe’s interest in purchasing the Coopers Creek tract, “we’re running out of buildable land, and the goal was to try to find land that had some prospect for multi-use.”

Hicks said the tribe hopes to keep home prices as low as possible.

“(With affordable housing) we do our best to stay under $100,000 for homes. Then again, you have homes that will push the $200,000 mark,” said Hicks.

The tribe hopes to break ground on the project in 2010. There are no estimates of construction costs yet.

The tribe hopes to build a substance abuse center in the Kituwah area, which has special significance to the tribe. Kituwah, referred to as the mother town of the Cherokee, is thought of as the birthplace of the Cherokee people. A council house once rested on an Indian mound that is still visible on the property, and the area is listed as a National Historic Site.

The regional mental health center would be built across the road from the sacred mound site. It would serve not only enrolled members, but the general public. The center would specialize in treating adult and juvenile substance abuse — treatment that is sorely lacking in the region, Hicks said.

“It’s something that has been neglected in North Carolina and in Western North Carolina,” said Hicks.

Drugs are one of the leading crime problems in Cherokee, and by offering treatment for addicts, Cherokee could bring down crime rates. Hicks said the tribe will seek financial assistance at both federal and state levels to fund the project.

To operate the center, the tribe will need to hook it up to Swain County’s water and sewer infrastructure. Currently, the tribe has a 20-year, 50,000-gallon per day agreement to use Swain’s infrastructure. But the mental health center would far exceed that agreement, and would likely prove too much for the current system to handle.

“We can’t put that kind of facility on the system,” Hicks said. “The infrastructure would have to be upgraded.”

Hicks said the tribe would likely propose footing the bill to upgrade the water and sewer infrastructure currently in place in the county and in Bryson City.


Take note — members of the public with an agenda to push could learn a thing or two from the mass of Haywood County residents who came out repeatedly to protest the county’s proposed nuisance ordinance.

Commissioners voted unanimously at their Monday (April 6) meeting to indefinitely discontinue discussion of the nuisance ordinance in light of mass public opposition.

The nuisance ordinance seeks to crack down on junk on peoples’ property, and prohibits everything from outdoor storage of scrap metal to junked motor vehicles to non-maintained swimming pools. Though the ordinance aims to maintain public health, many county residents attacked it for infringing on their personal property rights.

The Monday meeting marked the third consecutive commissioners’ meeting that was overwhelmed by as many as 200 residents coming out to protest the nuisance ordinance — many of whom had never attended a governmental meeting in their life. The crowd was so large some were diverted into an overflow room to watch via closed-circuit television.

Residents missed work and other commitments in order to take part in the public outcry. Some offered apologies as they nervously stumbled over their public comments, explaining that public speaking was something they had little experience with.

The opposition even went so far as to form its own official group, called ‘We the People,” which attracted a crowd of 100 to its first meeting. Their organization was impressive.

Eventually, residents opposing the ordinance got exactly what they wanted — commissioners killed the nuisance ordinance. It was a display of democracy in its truest form. Even commissioners seemed impressed.

“It is apparent by the number of people in this room that the process works,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger.

“I hope everyone has learned a lot about county government,” remarked Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

The learning process was evident. People who had never plowed through a county ordinance read the nuisance ordinance front to back several times. Members of the opposition questioned how they could get access to information like minutes, and asked commissioners when and how meetings were scheduled.

The learning curve wasn’t all good. If anything, many members of the public learned most of all that they should pay more attention to what their government is doing.

“It really woke us up — it’s made us realize we can’t trust this government,” said Randy Burris on Monday. “It’s made us realize how quickly our freedoms can be took away from us, and it’s up to us to stand and defined it.”

If opponents of the ordinance stay true to their word, commissioners will have a new breed of watchdog looking out for county interests.

“You have awoken a giant that I hope will stay with the decision that they have made to be attentive to their government for a change, and to watch what’s going on with this county,” said Rusty McLean on Monday.

Of course, it is not the first time mass crowds have turned out in protest at commissioner meetings with a sustained presence, only to have the audience thin out when the issue at hand was concluded. In the past 10 years, commissioners saw repeated standing-room-only crowds on two other occasions. One surrounded construction of the justice center, with debates centering on the price tag and location. Another heated and extended controversy broke out over a proposed maximum security state prison in the county. After both died down, the audience at commissioner meetings returned to nothing more than county staff and reporters.


The neighborhood covenants of a Maggie Valley homeowners association were put to the test in court recently.

A developer sued the Sherwood Forest homeowners association after they tried to block his foray into rental condos. David G. Baker, formerly of Charlotte, wanted to develop a six-unit condo and extend town water and sewer to the property. The only problem — the covenants of Sherwood Forest forbade multi-family units. The covenants define Sherwood Forest as a neighborhood of single-family houses.

Baker attests that he wasn’t aware of the covenants when he purchased an existing home in the subdivision in 2006, and that no one, including his Realtor, informed him of their existence.

“He felt the information he received when he purchased it was that he was entitled to (build the condo),” said Baker’s attorney, Bryant D. Webster of Black Mountain.

Apparently, the conflict between Baker and the homeowners association started when residents of the subdivision witnessed construction work on the property and notified the homeowners association that it appeared to be in violation of the neighborhood covenants, according to the lawsuit.

The existing home on the lot already had the makings of a multi-family unit, Baker argued. The three-floor house had a separate kitchen and bath on each floor, as well as a coin laundry in the basement.

But this is where the situation gets murky. Both sides agreed that the property was used to house members of the same extended family up until it was sold in 2003, which would explain the separate kitchens. However, Baker contended that in 2005, the property was entered into a multi-leasing situation, with three separate, unrelated individuals renting out each floor.

The homeowners association didn’t agree. It claimed the leases that Baker presented as evidence were insufficient proof that the unit was ever rented out by floor, according to the lawsuit. And members of the homeowners association filled out sworn affidavits attesting that they only became aware of the multi-family use of the property after Baker bought it in 2006. They said there was nothing in the external appearance of the building to indicate it was used as a multi-family unit, and that there were never more than one or two cars there at any given time.

Baker ended up suing the homeowners association to construct his six-unit condo. His main defense was that the homeowners association failed to complain about the multi-family nature of the structure within the required six-year statute of limitations, which he claims started ticking when the unit was first built.

“We felt it was a very strong argument that ... they had not exercised those rights within the applicable time period,” Webster said.

In a judgment handed down March 23 in Haywood County Superior Court, neither party was a clear winner, or a clear loser. The court found that Baker’s structure had been used for multi-family purposes in the past, and could continue to be used as such. However, the court restricted Baker to the three units — one on each floor — and didn’t grant him permission to build three more like he had planned. It also didn’t grant Baker rights to town water and sewer.

“What the court did was in essence split the baby and found that ... it would not be fair to prevent Baker from using it as a three-family unit, but that it would not be permitted to be anything more than that,” said Homeowners Association Attorney Bill Cannon of Waynesville. “The covenants of the subdivision remain intact.”

Cannon said he believes most of his clients — in total, the owners of 38 separate homes named in the lawsuit — were satisfied with the outcome.

Bryant said he felt “both sides got some of what they wanted.” However, he questioned whether the judge should have allowed the six condos Baker wanted since it was already classified as a multi-family structure.

“Our position is multi-family is multi-family, and once that is permitted, whether (Baker) does six units or three is of no real difference,” Bryant said. “Obviously the court didn’t see it exactly that way and we certainly respect the process and the wisdom of the judge who decided, and sometimes getting some of what you want is the best you’ll do.”


Residents of a downtown Waynesville neighborhood are up in arms about a proposed three-story, 64-unit condo development that would provide affordable housing for senior citizens — and, they fear, also lower the property values of their homes.

The development, called Richland Hills, is under the wing of Asheville-based nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities, which has several developments in Buncombe County. Rent will range between $300 and $500. To be elligible, you have to be over 55. There is also an income cap.

“Low income is not going to fit here,” said neighbor Lela Eason, who is leading the opposition to the development. “This is a well-established neighborhood, and it will completely change the face of it.”

Mountain Housing Opportunities Project Director Cindy Weeks contends that the neighbors would like the development if they understood it better. The architect designing the building is the same one who worked on the Laurels of Junaluska, another senior development in the county, and the building will use green features.

At this point, there’s probably little Eason and her neighbors can do to halt the project, said Town Zoning Administrator Byron Hickox. The project has already been approved unanimously by the town’s planning board and community appearance commission. It meets all the required building, architectural and landscaping guidelines.

The development is located in the East Waynesville Neighborhood District, where high density development is allowed, said Hickox. Town zoning allows for 16 units per acre in that area, and though Richmond Hills will be three stories tall, it still falls just under the maximum allowed height of 35 feet.

None of that has deterred Eason and her neighbors from waging a protest against the development. Eason faults the town for not informing her community of the development sooner. She says her sister-in-law was the only person to get a letter notifying of the proposed project, and that only came last week.

“It’s kind of sneaky that the whole community doesn’t know about it,” Eason said. “There are people who can see it from their properties who are furious, and they have no clue it’s about to take their property values down.”


A poor fit?

A sheet of paper being passed around the East Waynesville district accuses the proposed Richmond Hills development of catering to low income individuals at poverty level. The paper states that drugs are sold out of similar communities in Asheville, and that the safety of the neighborhood may very well be jeopardized should this development be built.

The “low-income” stigma is one Mountain Housing Opportunities has battled many times in its 20-year history. The idea that the nonprofit builds housing projects is incorrect, says Project Director Cindy Weeks.

“People in their heads have some idea about public housing, but that’s not us,” Weeks said. “Nothing about this will be remotely related to public housing. We’re very selective about tenants, and we get background checks and even credit checks.”

Weeks is used to dealing with skeptics. Her answer? She tells them to check out the non-profit’s other developments.

“One-hundred percent of the time, they’ll come back and say it’s beautiful,” Weeks says. Contrary to the reported drugs sold in these complexes, “we’ve never had problems with neighbors; no complaints; no police problems,” she says. “Here in Asheville, it’s gotten to the point where we don’t have much concern over what we’ve built.”

But Mountain Housing Opportunities is dealing with unfamiliar territory in Waynesville. The Richmond Hills project is the group’s first outside Buncombe County. The town was picked based on the results of a market study the nonprofit conducted, which identified Waynesville and Haywood County as having a need for senior apartment homes.

“There’s a lot of seniors in the western part of the state that might be living in substandard housing, not close to medical services or shopping,” Weeks said. “This would be an alternative for them.”

Weeks said a downtown Waynesville location seemed ideal for its accessibility, among other reasons.

“What we liked about the location was that it was well-located to shopping and services in the downtown,” she said. “The site is relatively flat and easy to develop, and we can get access to utilities. Plus, it’s just a nice neighborhood.”

Maybe a little too nice for such a development, says Eason. A one-story, high-end apartment complex would be a better fit, she says — the Richmond Hills complex might be better suited to other areas of the county.

Downtown Waynesville Association Director Buffy Messer doesn’t agree. She says the development will be a good fit downtown.

“I think its actually a very good addition to the area,” Messer says. “We are encouraging more residential in the downtown area. The goal is to expand both shopping and residential.”

Messer says she thinks fear is the driving factor of the opposition to Richmond Hills.

“In many other cities with what is considered low-rent housing, there have been some serious situations with drugs, alcohol and domestic problems,” Messer says. “But we already have some affordable housing throughout the town of Waynesville that probably people don’t even know about.”

Messer says the development is a good way to get seniors living downtown.

“I think so many of our seniors are having to move outside the town and county because we don’t have affordable options,” she says.

With an income cap to qualify, however, it is unclear whether residents will be big patrons of downtown shops. Similar developments by the same entity in Asheville have an income cap of $22,000.


Too late?

Hickox says the residents of the East Waynesville district should have raised their protests earlier.

“The bottom line is that now is not the time to make the argument of if it’s a good fit for the community,” Hickox said. That should have been done more than six years ago, when the zoning guildelines were established that allowed for high density development in the district.

“If you wait until they’ve already proposed the project, you’re too late; you’re too far behind,” said Hickox. “If it meets the standards, the town doesn’t have the legal ability to deny it.”

The Richmond Hills project still has to go before the town Board of Adjustment — the final step before it’s approved. That meeting isn’t really for public comments, Hickox said. Those could have been given at the planning board and community appearance commission meetings. Someone making a case before the Board of Adjustment needs to present hard evidence of why the project shouldn’t be allowed. An example would be a history of traffic patterns in the area and evidence of why the project would clog traffic.

The Board of Adjustment meets on Tuesday (April 7), just after The Smoky Mountain News has gone to press. If Richmond Hills is OK’d — and there’s no indication it won’t — Mountain Housing Opportunities will start getting financing in place.

Construction of Richmond Hills is slated to begin within six to eight months — but not without a fight, vows Eason.

“We have a community crying out saying ‘no,’” she says.


Weeks following an escape at the brand-new Swain County jail, county commissioners agreed to an emergency appropriation of $139,000 at the request of Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Cochran asked commissioners for the money at their meeting Monday (April 6) to cover the costs of things like unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.

The county is already shelling out $454,000 per year to cover the cost of the loan on the $10 million facility. And in September of last year, commissioners agreed to provide $205,000 for five new staff positions to get the jail up and running.

The $139,000 doesn’t include another $40,000 that will likely have to be spent to replace the locks at the jail if a key used in the March 21 escape of inmate Jeffrey Miles isn’t located, Cochran said.

Swain’s fund balance is currently at 9 percent, barely above the 8 percent minimum mandated by the Local Government Commission.

“Do you feel like we could really justify adding $139,000 to our budget?” asked Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay on Monday.

County Manager Kevin King said Tuesday that the approval of Cochran’s request will bring the fund balance dangerously close to the minimum amount that is mandated.

Cochran said he simply didn’t anticipate the exact costs of moving into the new facility.

“We moved into a brand new facility, and we’ve had to buy things that we honestly just didn’t budget for when we moved in,” he said.

Cochran said he’s already shifted some staff positions in an effort to cut costs. The move will eliminate two positions at the jail and add a school resource officer position.

“We’re just trying to move people around to get the most effectiveness, without hitting me in the back pocket or you in the back pocket,” Cochran told commissioners.

Commissioner Philip Carson questioned whether Cochran could benefit from more jail staff to provide extra security, in lieu of Miles’ escape.

“Have you considered an extra set of eyes in that control room per shift?” Carson asked. Jailer Anita Vestal is accused of helping Miles plan his escape. She was the only one in the control room watching over the cells when the escape happened.

Cochran said he would welcome extra help, but has no money to pay for it.

“I would not turn down extra eyes, but that monkey’s on your back if you want to fund it,” Cochran said to the board.

When commissioners built the jail, they made it bigger than necessary to house Swain’s inmates. They hoped to house inmates from other counties and subsidize the cost of the jail. The 106-bed facility is double the size of the old jail and has plenty of extra room.

“As (Cochran) gets more and more inmates, more and more money’s going to come in,” said Commissioner David Monteith.

Cochran said the number of inmates in the facility has already increased.

“When we moved into the new facility, we had 28 inmates,” he said. “Today, we have 56.”

According to Cochran’s office, most of those are from Swain County. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is the only out-of-county entity housing its inmates in the jail.

Commissioner Steve Moon asked Cochran about the maximum number of inmates that could be held at the jail.

“What’s keeping us away from that?” Moon asked.

Moon’s question was met with a peal of laughter from the audience. Though not said outright, it seemed implicitly understood that the escape of an inmate has likely been a deterrent to other counties’ desire to house inmates at Swain’s facility.


The group that Joe Moore hangs out with most days is an eclectic one, with names like Jack Straw, Reuben, and James Brown. They’re a loyal bunch, following Moore around his Bethel farm whenever they get a chance. They don’t talk much, and they’re extremely furry ... they’re alpacas.

Moore had never considered raising alpacas, a species native to South America that resembles a llama and a camel, until his business partner suggested it. Moore’s partner had read an article in Forbes Magazine about how the animals are a good investment. Moore got his first one five years ago — and he’s been hooked on alpacas ever since.

Today, Moore owns about 30 — half male, half female. He left his former job as an instructor at an outdoor education program for high schoolers to tend to his herd full-time, and now relishes the days he spends with his animals.

“I worked with people for so long, I was ready to work with animals,” he laughs.

His two kids and wife, Laura, also join in the fun on their Bethel farm and fully support Moore’s effort.

Moore knew little about the species before he got his first one, but now he’s obsessed. Apparently he’s not the only one. The alpaca industry in the country grew exponentially — today, there are about 150,000 animals being raised in the state, according to Moore, including several hundred in Western North Carolina alone. Imports of new alpacas from South America are now banned. That’s what makes them a good investment in the eyes of many.

Alpaca fiber is said to be some of the best in the world. Moore’s alpaca fiber beat out angora and cashmere fiber to win a “Best in Show” prize at a recent event. Some of it is so fine, it must be handspun. A nice alpaca sweater can run $350 and up; other top of the line garments can be as much as $1,200.

There’s some major money to be made from alpacas — breeding animals can retail for tens of thousands of dollars; Moore said a top male recently sold for a whopping $1.15 million. This is a serious business, and in many ways, resembles Wall Street.

“A lot of them are owned like stocks, where people own thirds,” Moore explains.

An alpaca catalogue sitting in Moore’s living room is no flimsy booklet that gets recycled shortly after reading — it’s a bound, hardcover book with high quality photographs. Each alpaca is listed with a picture, and alongside it, a laundry list of blue ribbon awards their fiber has won them.

“If an animal wins ribbons, it qualifies the price you charge for a stud,” Moore says. “The show industry validates what you’re charging for the breed.”

Moore makes a living by breeding alpacas and selling them, and by selling the animals’ fiber, which can go for up to $60 per yard.

The alpaca fiber industry in the U.S. is actually at a critical turning point, Moore says. No mass production of fiber exists, simply because the concept is a difficult one. The alpaca fiber that isn’t too fine to be spun on a machine can only be processed on machines that make silk.

“There’s no one jumping at the chance for mass production,” Moore says. “It’s all just small mills right now.”

Moore says North Carolina State University, as well as Belmont University outside Charlotte, have both hinted at their willingness to possibly step up and pioneer the alpaca fiber industry in the state.

But fiber isn’t the most lucrative part of the alpaca industry — at least not to Moore. Three years ago, he started his own shearing business. While cutting fur off of animals doesn’t necessarily sound like a way to make millions, it’s astonishingly profitable. Very few people know how to shear alpacas, and Moore’s skills are highly in demand.

“There aren’t a lot of shearers, and my business has doubled since I started it.” Moore says he’s now booked an average of six months in advance.

Every year in late spring, Moore lives like a nomad for eight weeks. He sets off from home with a pack of shearing tools on his back, and travels to alpaca farms up and down the East coast. This year, he’ll visit about 50 farms ranging in size from two to 80 alpacas. He charges $35 per animal.

Moore wouldn’t trade his unusual career for anything. He loves his animals, as well as the unique lifestyle it affords him.

“Alpacas are awesome,” he exclaims more than once, beaming from ear to ear each time.


Want to visit?

For those who want to meet Joe Moore’s alpacas, he offers visits to his farm, Indian Springs Farm in Bethel, and is available to give presentations to groups. Contact 828.648.1263.


Economic development officials have adopted a policy that will give business incentives to clean, renewable energy projects that locate in Haywood County.

County officials hope the policy will convince green businesses to locate in the region, as well as provide a justification for giving incentives to businesses that don’t create many jobs.

Incentives will be given to solar, wind and hydropower energy projects that generate more than 50 kilowatts of energy. Projects that make use of landfills, brown-field sites, rooftops and other locations with minimal economic value will qualify for an 80 percent break on property taxes over a five-year period. Projects not located on those sites can receive a maximum of 60 percent in incentives.

Officials hope the incentives will make the county more attractive to prospective green businesses.

“Everyone wants to go where they feel welcome,” pointed out County Commissioner and Economic Development Commission board member Mark Swanger.

“If we can put this up on our Web site, we may attract other businesses of that same ilk or nature,” agreed Waynesville Mayor and EDC Board Member Gavin Brown.

The policy comes weeks after scrutiny over the decision by county commissioners to grant business incentives to FLS Solar Energy, a company that plans to build a solar energy farm on an old paper mill landfill in Canton.

The county granted FLS a five-year, 80 percent break on its business property taxes, saving the company $32,000. However, the entire project would only create about 12 jobs, and those would come during construction.

“(The current policy) leaves it open for anyone coming in and saying, you did it for XYZ, will you do it for me?” said Swanger.

The new policy addresses that issue.

“(The policy) is being developed in recognition that while developments of clean, renewable energy sources ... (may) not provide as many permanent jobs as traditional economic development projects ... development of clean, renewable energy projects also provide many intrinsic benefits to the community that traditional economic development projects do not and require little public infrastructure or services,” it states.

For the few jobs that are created by these projects, the policy requires companies advertise and recruit in Haywood County.

County commissioners must approve the policy before it can be formally adopted.


After a search that has dragged on for more than a year, the Canton Board of Alderman has finally selected a town manager.

It’s not exactly a big change. Al Matthews has served in an interim position since long-time manager Bill Stamey retired in December 2007. Before that, Matthews had served as Canton’s assistant town manager since 2000.

The board voted 3-1 on March 23 to appoint Matthews as town manager. Alderman Eric Dills dissented, expressing concern that Matthews doesn’t live inside the town limits. At that meeting, the board changed the town ordinance to permit town managers to reside outside town limits.

Dills has since made it clear that though he disagreed with the rest of the board members, he’ll respect and support Matthews.

Matthews said the fact that he lives in the Jonathan Creek area of Haywood County rather than in Canton would not affect his job performance.

“I feel it’s more of a position of dedication rather than location,” Matthews said. “I’m on call 24/7 and I doubt there are too many times that I can’t be reached anywhere I am.”


More hiring

With the board’s support, Matthews says he’s ready to get down to business — or rather, continue the business he’s worked on as interim town manager.

Matthews enters his new role during a tough economic time that’s not going to allow him much flexibility when it comes to embarking on new town projects.

“We’re not going to have any extra money to play with, so we’re going to have to be extremely mindful of the budget this year,” he said.

That said, Matthews isn’t short on plans or ideas. His first step will be hiring an assistant town manager who will be in charge of economic development, working actively to recruit new businesses and helping existing ones.

Matthews says the process of hiring an assistant manager will almost certainly take a shorter amount of time than the manager search did. Matthews already has a stack of applications from the town manager search that he plans to utilize.



A top priority of Matthews has been, and will continue to be, the appearance of the town. Matthews says that’s an item important to town residents.

“A little over a year ago, we had a public forum on what the people wanted to see, and the recurring thing was the appearance of Canton,” Matthews said. “Not only downtown, but in the residential areas as well. We need to make sure citizens do a good job in keeping up their own properties.”

Town staff have already made some moves toward improving the town’s look by hauling out five dump truck loads of mulch to create flowerbeds and grassy medians.

“That’s something we can do at a reasonable price, that improves curb appeal, and makes a good first impression on our visitors,” Matthews said.

Matthews knows, though, that many other things that can improve the town’s appearance will be costly.

“We have a lot of sidewalks in desperate need of repair, and things that cost a lot of money to work toward. It won’t happen overnight,” he said.

In the long run, Matthews thinks the improved appearance of the town will help economic development, particularly in the downtown area.

“Economic development is at the forefront of this board, and appearance is one of the most important things,” he said. “We’re working on it, and want to actively work with the community to clean up the whole area and make it more appealing. Then hopefully our downtown area will continue to grow and flourish, and older buildings will be renovated and occupied.”

Matthews said the town is also looking into ways to use the many vacant parcels of land flooded by the 2004 hurricanes. The lots are located in the flood zone and for the most part can’t be rebuilt on, so the town board has had to get creative. One recent idea in the works calls for turning a lot across from the town hall that once housed Plus Laundry into an area for downtown activities and events. Another idea: converting vacant lots in residential neighborhoods into community garden spaces, which the Canton aldermen plan to discuss at their upcoming meeting.

Canton Mayor Pat Smathers says Matthews’ ideas, coupled with his experience working for the town under the former manager, make him a good fit at a time when Canton is working to redefine itself.

“He knows the old, but he’s got new ideas and a new way of doing things,” Smathers said. “I think at this time in our town, Al Matthews is the best fit. I think he’s going to be the transition figure we need.”


One would be be hard-pressed to find someone uttering anything but praise for new Waynesville Alderman Wells Greeley.

The 6-foot, 5-inch former college football player and one-time Canton alderman is a well-known and well-liked figure about town. In his role as fourth generation director of Wells Funeral Home, Greeley has helped shepherd numerous residents through some of their most difficult times — and garnered an impressive level of respect doing it.

“I think he’s a great guy and a great choice for Waynesville,” said Canton Mayor Pat Smathers, who has known Greeley for years.

Greeley was picked by town aldermen to serve out the remaining term of the late Kenneth Moore, who passed away March 2. Greeley says that’s left him with some big shoes to fill.

“Kenneth Moore has left such a legacy of service and dedication in his tenure as an alderman,” Greeley said. “He was a champion of the little guy, and I would really hope to carry on the accessibility that he always had. But that will be a tough act to follow.”

Here’s a little bit more about Greeley, including some of his views on issues currently confronting the town.

Smoky Mountain News: Why did you want to be alderman?

“It’s a level of political involvement that I think is rewarding, because you live right in the community and are accessible on a daily basis to the people you’re serving. I don’t really have visions of political grandeur — I just enjoy this level of service at the town level,” said Greeley.

SMN: What makes you a good alderman?

Greeley says his background has prepared him for the position. His experience as an alderman in another town has provided him with a unique view of things.

“I think the fact that I interact with people throughout the county and in both towns gives me a perspective that will be ultimately valuable in making decisions,” he says.

He also says his job as a funeral director has let him interact with citizens from the whole spectrum of backgrounds and incomes.

“My vocation puts me at all levels of population in this county,” he says.

Greeley has other traits that qualify him for his position.

“I’m pretty much a team player and I don’t come to this job with any other agenda other than being able to serve and give something back to the community,” he says.

SMN: What were some of your accomplishments in your previous role as an alderman?

Greeley served as an alderman in Canton from 1981 to 1985. Though his experience was years ago, his tenure means he’s confronted issues at the town level before. As a Canton alderman, Greeley was involved in several annexation and zoning issues. He also helped push for beautification of the downtown area. In addition, he and the board declared Rough Creek Watershed a natural area, laying the groundwork for the opening of the watershed for hiking and biking.

Greeley points out that Canton and Waynesville, “are two totally different venues.” He says Waynesville represents a more tourist-oriented setting. Even though each town possesses its own unique set of problems, Greeley says cooperation will be important when dealing with future challenges.

“There are real partnering relationships that may need to occur,” he says.

SMN: What are your feelings on growth?

Greeley says he’s generally supportive of the current aesthetically friendly development standards and smart growth principles in place.

“Growth is a wonderful thing. It’s got to be controlled growth, but not to the standpoint where its infringing on people’s rights,” he says.

Greeley thinks the land use plan has been successful in its goal to improve the town’s appearance, particularly along the Russ Avenue corridor.

“I’m very pleased in terms of Russ Avenue,” he says. “If I’m an advocate for something, I’m an advocate for the aesthetics of how (the town) will appear for residents and visitors.”

Greeley says the town needs to be careful in granting variances, or exemptions, to the land use plan. Businesses frequently ask for these, and some have criticized the land use plan for not being flexible enough and discouraging industry.

“Variances are something that demand a lot of attention because the minute you allow a variance in one aspect, it no doubt affects another,” he says.

Though he supports the land use plan as it currently stands, Greeley also supports a review of the plan to make sure it’s effective. A five-year review of the plan is currently under way.

“To me, every piece of legislation and every ordinance in the town is subject to review on a continual basis,” he says.

Greely thinks the next big area where the land use plan will be tested is in the South Main Street corridor, which has experienced rapid growth recently with the arrival of Super Wal-Mart and other big stores.

“I think we need to pay particular attention to that and keep it sidewalk and bicycle accessible,” he says.

Related to that, Greeley says he will make the continued development of the town’s greenway an issue of primary importance.

SMN: How will you handle the budget?

W.G. “The budgeting is going to be a real challenge,” Greeley admits. “The one thing I will do very diligently is pay attention to line item expenses to, if nothing else, cast a new set of eyes to say, are there any economies of scale we can possibly save.”


Officials: Appointment process is suitable

Three others also vied for the alderman seat filled by Wells Greeley — Waynesville residents Julia Freeman, Ron Reid, and Bruce Carden, according to Alderman LeRoy Roberson. Roberson says he was surprised more didn’t apply.

“I think part of it is that people have been satisfied with the way the town’s being governed,” Roberson speculated.

The town board has received some criticism over the informality of the selection process. Candidates verbally notified alderman of their interest, then filled out a questionnaire asking their views on town issues. If board members had further questions, they met with candidates individually. The interviews weren’t conducted in public.

Mayor Gavin Brown has defended the process, and so does Roberson.

“Quite honestly, this was much more open than any of the previous times,” Roberson said. “When I first served on the board in 1991, the questions that I had were: would you like to serve on the board, and then the next thing, I was on the board.”

State guidelines provide little guidance on filling vacated town board seats, so the process was left up to the discretion of the town board.

“I’m sure there’s a better way, I just haven’t seen one that’s going to be better other than holding an election, and I don’t think that’s really necessary,” said Roberson.


In the latest tangible consequence of countywide budget cuts, the Haywood County Library system is scaling back hours at each of its branches starting April 6.

Both Waynesville and Canton libraries have reduced their evening and weekend hours, with the Waynesville library closing altogether on Sundays and Canton open only half a day on Saturday.

The cuts will remain in effect until at least June 30. Programming won’t be impacted, but other things will, like the availability of meeting rooms and for some, convenience.

Patrons at the Waynesville library expressed mixed feelings about the cuts. Maggie Barton, a basic skills instructor at Haywood Community College, looked disappointed as she examined the sheet taped to the entrance informing library users of the new hours.

“It’s an inconvenience,” Barton said. “I live in Canton, work in Waynesville, and teach in the evening, so I would have to schedule my time to be able to come here.”

Another patron, Becky Prevost, was inside the library thumbing through a stack of magazines. The cuts wouldn’t impact her much, she said — Prevost figured that if people want to use the library, they’ll find a way to make the hours fit their schedule.

“This library is one of the best in the state, and if you want to come bad enough, you’ll come when it’s open,” Prevost said.

One man leaving the library Monday who identified himself as homeless lamented the loss of the library’s Sunday hours. Because not many other places are open on Sunday, he passes time at the library using the computers, reading papers and catching up on current events.


Another day, another budget cut

The reduced hours are a direct result of the county’s mandate that all departments cut 7 percent from their budgets for the last three months of the fiscal year. The library system had to trim $105,000 from its budget. That meant cutting staff positions — which left it without enough staff to work during library hours. The system has lost six part-time positions since December, about half the total number of part time staff, according to Library Director Robert Busko.

Busko said that while part-timers may only work a few hours at a time, they’re valuable assets to the staff. They can be called in as an extra hand when the library gets busy, or sub for someone who’s sick or on vacation.

The cuts in staff and hours come at a time when the library system, like others nationwide, is seeing an increase in usage. Unlike systems around the country, Haywood’s increase has only occurred recently. A few months ago, library use was actually down. That’s because budget cuts forced the library to stop ordering new material.

“We didn’t buy new books, so we didn’t have what people wanted to read,” said Busko.

The library is now buying new books, but only bestsellers.

Busko tries to maintain an optimistic outlook, but said the cutbacks in materials, staff and hours have been a blow. Eyes cast downward, he shakes his head.

“It’s been tough. Tough,” he says.


Library hours cut

The Waynesville library will close at 6 p.m. most days of the week, as opposed to 9 p.m. While Saturday hours remain unchanged, the Waynesville library will be closed altogether on Sunday.

The Canton branch is cutting 11 hours from its schedule. It will remain open on Sundays, but will move to a half-day on Saturday and trim its weekday hours. The Maggie Valley and Fines Creek branches are both halving their Wednesday hours.

For a list of the new library hours, visit www.haywoodlibrary.org.


Haywood County is having a bit of an identity crisis.

The Tourism Development Authority touts the county as a place “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.” The slogan, created in 2005 by the Tombras Group marketing agency, appears on everything from billboards to print ads to visitor guides. But since it was created, the TDA has welcomed a slate of new members and a new executive director, all of whome have their own opinions about the logo.

At a recent TDA retreat, the slogan’s effectiveness — and whether it’s a good representation of Haywood County — was called into question.

Betty Huskins, a senior vice president at regional economic development group AdvantageWest, facilitated the March 25 retreat. Huskins asked the TDA board to throw out several phrases that represent what attracts visitors to the area. Board members came up with several, including “feeling grounded,” “getting back to basics,” “family values,” and “breath of fresh air.” The current slogan and its focus on the Great Smoky Mountains was conspicuously absent from the suggestions.

“What do they feel? I don’t think it’s ‘gateway to the Smokies,’” Huskins commented.

Board chair Alice Aumen questioned what the slogan tells visitors about the area, if anything.

“Does “Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies,” say anything?” she asked.

The use of the term “Smokies” to refer to far western North Carolina has long posed a dilemma for tourism groups trying to promote the area. Though the region is technically in the Smoky Mountains, many feel that it’s not thought of as such.

“We’re sitting here touting ourselves as the Smoky Mountains, but as far as the consumer is concerned, Tennessee owns the Smokies,” said Lynn Collins, TDA executive director. “Could we identify ourselves better?”

After the retreat, Collins added that “research has proven that in the consumers’ minds, Tennessee pretty much owns the Smokies, and maybe we could position ourselves better.”

Board member Ken Stahl, who was on the TDA when the slogan was adopted, said he likes it more than some of the others the TDA has used in the past. Stahl said the phrase evokes an image of beauty, which is a major reason visitors are attracted to the region.

“If you’ve ever experienced a sunrise here and watched that, particularly when there’s mist on the valleys and the mountains, it’s a gorgeous, beautiful sight,” Stahl said.

TDA members also questioned whether the current slogan targets the area’s largest visitor demographic, which Huskins said is generally a higher-educated, older individual with money to spend.

“We need to start thinking about who our brand is, and marketing to that individual,” said Board Member Ron Reid.

Stahl, however, thinks the logo already targets the county’s major demographic of visitors.

“Our profile is people who are 55 and older that come here with discretionary spending,” Stahl said. “They come here for the scenic beauty, and you can’t highlight it any more than ‘Where the Sun Rises on the Smokies.’”

The TDA has no immediate plans to change its logo, but members did express interest in collecting feedback as to what the county’s brand should be. Collins, who has experience in previous jobs developing brands, said the TDA could start by conducting an online survey of people who have visited the county and asking them to describe in several words what they think of the area.

“You tally feedback and find a pattern out of it, a common theme,” Collins said. “It usually stands out, and you tweak it a little bit and take it and run with it. I’m hoping that can happen (here) as a result of doing some surveys and things.”

Collins said the method of relying on visitor feedback would be in contrast to the way things have been done in the past, when the TDA board paid a marketing organization to come up with a logo and campaign.

“In years past, that brand has been determined from the top down,” she said. “(At the retreat), we talked about going from the bottom up.”


TDA considers downtown location

The Haywood County Tourism Development Authority is in talks with the Haywood Chamber of Commerce about the possibility of moving both organizations into a roomy, historic building on the corner of Walnut and Main streets in Waynesville.

The building, which has sat on the market for more than a year, would be a prominent location for both organizations. TDA Executive Director Lynn Collins said her group has already gotten quotes on the rental price per square foot and has toured the house to determine which part of the building the TDA would occupy.

Collins said the TDA is waiting for the owner of the house to get back to the group with drawings, square footage and prices.

“Then we can look at our budget and see if we can afford it,” Collins said.

The TDA will also look at costs it will save by combining some of its business equipment with the Chamber.

Collins cautioned that discussions about the move are still “very, very preliminary.”


The town of Maggie Valley fired its part-time festival director after he failed to produce results a few months into the job.

The town hoped their new hire, Bill Cody, would lure more festivals to the town-owned festival grounds as a way to bolster Maggie’s tourism economy.

“We anticipated that the position would continue for a while, but it just wasn’t working out,” said Town Manager Tim Barth, who made the decision to terminate Cody two weeks ago.

Events are on tap at the venue on only about half the weekends during this year’s peak tourist season from May to October. The town brought Cody on in February in hopes of ramping up the schedule.

“It was something that we wanted to try to help get more tourism into Maggie,” said Alderman Colin Edwards of the position. “That’s why we hired Bill Cody. We talked about it for months off and on before it ever happened.”

But while Cody pitched several ideas and said he tried to recruit different events, he didn’t attract a single festival in his three and a half months on the job.

“He mentioned some possibilities, but he didn’t have any specific events that he was able to point to,” Barth said.

Among Cody’s ideas were a bluegrass festival, a Popcorn Sutton Day, and a storytelling festival.

Cody told the town’s Parks, Recreation, and Festival Advisory Committee that he wanted to add two to three new events to the Festival Grounds by 2010. He wasn’t in favor of one-day events, arguing that they didn’t encourage visitors to stay overnight and support local restaurants and motels. Cody also wanted to develop a DVD promotional packet to distribute to promoters, but never started the project.

Edwards doesn’t believe Cody necessarily failed to do his job, but rather, that he was put into a tight spot due to the difficulty of recruiting festivals in the current economy.

“I feel like it was a no-win situation,” Edwards said. “Everybody wanted results right now, and it takes a while to get new festivals.”

The cost of renting the Festival Grounds presented somewhat of an obstacle in marketing them. Renting the Grounds costs $1,500 for three days, including a $1,000 deposit, and additional fees of $250 per day for stage, water and electric.

Cody tried to lure one event sponsor back who cancelled a mini-truck show scheduled for May. The sponsor said he felt the extra fees were, “ridiculous.”

Cody told the Parks, Recreation and Festival Advisory Committee that it posed slight problem telling promoters that the rental fee is $1,500, then continuing to tack on charges.

Maggie Valley will likely hire a new festival director. Cody’s salary, equivalent to about $750 per week, was paid by tourism revenue, namely a 1 percent tax on overnight lodging earmarked for tourism initiatives in Maggie.

“I think that the town is going to continue the position, but I think that we’re going to sit down and talk about it probably after we have a chance to get through the budget,” said Barth.

The town is currently finalizing its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Edwards said he thinks the town’s first attempt at hiring the position was a learning experience.

“I think it’s a position that the town could benefit from having,” Edwards said. “We’re just going to have to rethink everything and I believe we need to set goals for a festival director.”

This isn’t the first time the Festival Grounds has had a person to promote it paid with money from the room tax. The Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce had a festival coordinator until recently. With the Chamber cutting back on the number of events it puts on, such as the BBQ Festival and the Trout Festival, there was no longer a point in having the position, said Jena Sowers, manager of the Maggie Valley Visitors Center.


Several years ago, an idea was planted to establish an institution of higher education on the Qualla Boundary that would emphasize and preserve the rich artistic traditions of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Out of that dream, the Oconaluftee Institute of Cultural Arts took root — and today, the program is thriving.

The OICA was created out of a desire to establish a community college on the reservation and is only the second higher education institution in the country to offer a two-year degree in Native American arts.

The program celebrated its move into a new location in Cherokee last week. With its 5,600 square feet, studio spaces, a gallery space and a classroom to house its 10 students, the new home of the OICA is testament to how far the program has come.

The arts college was established in 2007 through a partnership with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University. It started out with two students in a space barely big enough to turn around. But while the program had humble beginnings, it was built around a lofty and unique vision.

“A lot of art has been focused out West, and a lot of people’s impression of Native American art is Southwestern art,” says Luzenne Hill, marketing director for the OICA. “But every tribe interprets their art in a different way.”

Specifically, the program aimed to showcase the artistic traditions of tribes east of the Mississippi River. Craftmaking, initially born out of necessity, has been passed down through generations by native tribes like the Eastern Band. Skills like basketweaving, woodcarving and pottery are so intertwined with native culture that many tribal members simply see them as a way of life.

“For decades, our people have been crafters, but haven’t always looked at their crafts as art,” said Juanita Wilson, chair of the OICA board.

The OICA teaches traditional art forms like basketweaving with native materials, pottery, and wood carving. But students also receive education in a variety of non-traditional art forms.

“We insisted that we keep tradition at the heart of it, but also wanted to go beyond that,” Wilson said.

Students learn traditional arts and crafts, but are also instructed on foundations of art education like western art history, drawing, and painting. Hill said the goal is to enhance the students’ art experience as much as possible, so that whatever speaks to them can also become a way of expressing their work.

“What we want to do is open people up and say, these are possibilities,” Hill said.

Henrietta Heeter, the first graduate of the program, knows perhaps better than anyone of the possibilities the program helps students to see. The OICA enticed Heeter to pursue her first higher education degree at the age of 50.

What finally convinced Heeter to return to school was, “the thought of our people having our own art institute, because there are amazing artists here,” she says.

Heeter says she’s enjoyed it all — from pottery, to carving, to weaving on a loom with native rivercane and white oak. Her true passion lies in painting, which she did at the OICA with pastels, charcoal, watercolors, and other materials.

“It opened me up to other possibilities with what I can do with my art,” Heeter says. “Hopefully I can now make a living off of it.”

Through the program, which directly transfers to a fine arts degree program at Western Carolina University, Heeter will go on to pursue an undergraduate degree.

The tribe, in conjunction with SCC and WCU, hopes to expand the OICA to attract students from all over the Southeast and Midwest, eventually increasing the program’s enrollment to 25 or 30 students.

Program leaders ultimately hope to locate the OICA in a permanent home in the old Cherokee High School.


When Phil Drake puts his mind to something, there’s little he can’t achieve. Drake’s company, Drake Enterprises, is one of the largest private employers west of Asheville, and, it seems, owns half the businesses in the region, including The Athlete’s Foot, Dalton’s Christian Bookstore, Dnet Internet Services, Drake Software, the Franklin Golf Course and the Fun Factory.

So while the idea of constructing a 1,500-seat performing arts theater in a rural region like Western North Carolina might seem over the top, leave it to Drake to pull it off. And that’s just what Drake and his wife, Sharon, have done with the Smoky Mountain Center for Performing Arts in Franklin. The soaring, state-of-the-art structure is nearing completion, and will welcome its first performance July 3.

“This is a lifelong desire to do this for his community,” Chris Malone, the lead project architect, told a group of reporters gathered at the facility for a special Media Day last week. “This is an affair of the heart.”

Even Malone seemed in awe of the structure.

“It’s beyond what I thought it was going to be,” he said.

Indeed, the performing arts center is impressive. The auditorium features an incredible 60-foot wide, two-story stage complete with an orchestra pit. The soaring room is equipped with state of the art sound, a phrase the Drakes don’t take lightly — the speakers, Meyer M’Elodie Line Arrays, cost thousands of dollars each and are among the best on the market.

“Since we’re doing a lot of music groups, sound is most important,” said Effie Rosbert, a set builder who led a tour of the facility last week. “This is clear, perfect sound.”

Behind the scenes is a huge backstage area with every comfort a band or touring group would want. One room features a dozen individual lighted vanities for performers to make up their faces. Another room is set aside to allow a band to practice before the show. Several other rooms are simply places to hang out, and one section, open to fans, is where performers will sit to sign autographs.

Nearly 30 acts are lined up through December, starting on July 3 with the Oak Ridge Boys. Other musicians to grace the stage this season are The Charlie Daniels Band, Sawyer Brown, The Isaacs, and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Plays this season will include Aida, The Jungle Book, Annie and the Velveteen Rabbit.

The Drakes seem aware that the venue is quite large for a town the size of Franklin and that filling the space consistently could be a challenge.

“This is Franklin,” said Rosbert. “We don’t know how the market’s going to bear. Some people can’t afford to come to show after show after show.”

The theater’s odds of success, however, may be pretty good with Drake’s magic touch, Malone said.

“A lot of venues like this struggle, but they approach it in a different way than Drake.”


On June 4, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will go to the polls to cast their vote on the most controversial issue that has faced the tribe in recent history — whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

The vote is a historic one, marking the first time in more than a decade tribal members will go to the polls to weigh in on whether beer, wine and liquor can be sold on the Qualla Boundary.

A vote on alcohol sales was soundly defeated in 1992. But over the past decade — since the arrival of the casino and a monetary motivation — tribal leaders have toyed with the idea of allowing alcohol sales within the casino only but not the reservation at large.

It made the hot-button issue more palatable, but tribal leaders still stopped short of holding a referendum until citizens themselves pushed the measure onto the ballot with a petition.

The issue remains a divisive one among tribal members. In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the vote are busy mailing out flyers, putting up billboards and giving speeches to bolster their case.

Two main groups have emerged to campaign in the debate over the alcohol vote. The opposition is composed primarily of a coalition of the 20-some Baptist churches in Cherokee who are staunchly opposed to the consumption of alcohol in all cases.

“I’d be fine if they have prohibition all across the nation again,” said Bo Parris, pastor at Cherokee Missionary Baptist Church. “I promote abstinence from alcohol.”

A second group made up of supporters of the measure contends that alcohol at the casino is strictly a business decision that will help increase revenues that benefit the tribe.

“We think it’s definitely the right thing for business,” said Norma Moss, head of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, which directs and guides tribal casino operations. “It’s a business decision, not a moral decision.”


Luring casino traffic

Since it was constructed just over ten years ago, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has been a boon to the tribe. Casino revenues have helped the Eastern Band, once considered the poorest population in the region, to build schools, a hospital, and housing for tribal members.

But casino profits are waning with the recession. The tribe received a total $223 million from the casino in 2009, down from $244 million in 2008.

Supporters of the upcoming referendum say the addition of alcohol is crucial to attracting new customers and keeping casino profits up. Harrah’s Cherokee is the only casino in the Harrah’s chain that doesn’t sell alcohol.

“Alcohol is very much a part of the business model for casinos, and if you’re going to make a casino as successful as it might be, then you need to provide alcohol,” said Don Rose, chairman of the petition committee that helped get the referendum on the ballot and a tribal council candidate.

Rose says alcohol is needed to keep the casino competitive with others in the region.

“In business you either go up or down — you don’t stand still,” Rose said.

The tribe is working to increase the casino’s viability with a $633 million expansion currently underway. The expansion will add world class restaurants, shopping, and a spa, as well as double the number of hotel rooms and the size of the gaming floor.

“As we build our expansion, our goal is to become a resort, and we want to attract more destination gamers,” Moss said.

But a true resort, Rose argues, provides all the amenities a traveler is looking for, including alcohol. Studies have shown that for destination gamers in particular, the availability of alcohol is important. Seventy-three percent of destination gamers consume alcohol.

“For destination gamers that travel to resorts, that are loyal to properties, the lack of alcohol is an issue,” Moss said. “Our ability to sell alcohol enhances our image as a destination resort. We’re really excited about the products we’re going to have if we have alcohol. It opens up new possibilities for us to be able to offer something different to the customer.”

Casino officials hope the availability of alcohol would increase the casino’s customer base, and attract not just gamblers, but large conventions as well.

All told, new customers could increase casino profits by a minimum of $44 million, and as much as $70 million, each year, Moss said.

The casino’s multi-million dollar expansion will definitely increase casino revenues all on its own, even without alcohol, Moss said. But alcohol would provide a way to increase profits without putting up a large amount of capital.

“The investment of capital that we’re putting into the master plan project is significant,” Moss said. “What we will put into putting alcohol in place, if it’s passed, is a small amount of capital for a big return.”

Opponents of the alcohol referendum say their fear is that the vote will open the door to allowing alcohol elsewhere on the reservation.

“I don’t think it will stop at the casino,” said Ed Kilgore, pastor of Acquoni Baptist Church.

Moss wonders how many restaurants on the reservation would want to serve alcohol.

“I don’t know how many businesses would actually be interested in serving alcohol,” said Moss. “Our number of restaurants in Cherokee is somewhat limited.”

But some business owners beg to differ.

“Why should the casino have it and not restaurants?” questioned Jenean Hornbuckle, who, along with her husband, runs the Cherokee Motel, which sits directly across from the casino. Hornbuckle fears allowing alcohol exclusively at the casino will create unfair competition for small business owners who can’t offer it.


Trickle down effect

Whether casino profits are up or down has a direct impact on tribal members and the services they receive from the tribe. Of the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among individual tribal members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.

Per capita payments could prove the biggest motivator when members of the Eastern Band cast their votes next week. The first of two per capita checks this year will be distributed June 1, just three days before the alcohol referendum. The first check is in the amount of $3,892 — smaller than last year’s two payments, which averaged about $4,390 each.

Supporters of the alcohol referendum are using the smaller per capita amount to sway voters.

“We point out that the per capita is less than it was last year,” Rose said. “If we had alcohol, that would not have been the case.”

So will per capita checks really have an impact on how tribal members vote? Rose thinks so.

“I think that if this one did go down, they’re fearful that the next one will be less,” Rose said. “I think it will be a substantial impact on decision making.”

Moss and the TCGE have predicted that if alcohol is added to the casino, per capita payments will increase by about $9,000 per person by 2015.

Parris and others who oppose the measure are less optimistic about promises of increased revenues due to alcohol. Parris points out that casino revenues nationwide have plummeted in the wake of the recession.

“We don’t believe that the sale of alcohol would boost the money that comes in,” Parris said. “Casinos across the country are having trouble. The whole country in general is having trouble.”

Nonetheless, Parris concedes that the promise of larger per capita payments will sway tribal members to vote in favor of the measure.

Besides per capita payments, the idea of maintaining and growing tribal services could also convince people to vote for the alcohol referendum.

“We have basically on the reservation a one-trick pony called the casino, and it’s been terrifically successful,” said Rose. “As a result of that success we’ve entered into programs dependent on the casino revenue stream, things like infrastructure, water and sewer, housing and education for the children.”

But Kilgore said referendum supporters can’t prove that tribal services will benefit from the measure.

“Are they willing to put in writing a guarantee?” asked Kilgore. “No, because they have no idea. Implying that is a smoke promise. It’s not a valid argument, because it’s not proven.”


Historical problem

What Kilgore and others in the opposition camp do say is proven is the negative affect alcohol will have, and already has had, on the tribe. Historically, alcoholism has affected a disproportionate number of Native Americans, and those who oppose the measure say the Cherokee are no different.

“The Cherokee people have over the years had a real problem with alcohol,” said Kilgore, who has experienced firsthand the devastating affects of alcoholism.

“As a former foster parent, I’ve dealt with children that have had to be removed from their homes because of alcohol abuse,” Kilgore said. “I have listened to these children lie in bed at night, crying out for their parents.”

Alcoholism, “effects the individual, their families, and the community as a whole,” Parris said. “Alcohol is a drug, and divorce in families and family abuse goes with it; even killings in the past.”

Supporters of the measure like Rose acknowledge that increased use of alcohol can contribute to those things, but disagree that allowing alcohol at the casino will lead to divorce, abuse or murder.

“Will selling alcohol by the drink in the Cherokee casino increase the consumption of alcohol and cause those things? The answer is absolutely not,” Rose said. “For one thing, alcohol is already there. Secondly, the local people are not going to go to the casino and pay $7 for a drink, when you can get a bottle for that amount in Bryson City (the location of the nearest ABC store).”

Moss said tribal members aren’t the casino’s targeted customers anyway.

“We are not marketing alcohol to tribal members, we’re marketing to our customer base,” Moss said. “It’s an extremely low percentage of tribal members that visit the casino. Very, very low.”

After months of tense debate, the decision of whether to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino will be left in the hands of voters June 4. The referendum requires a turnout of more than 30 percent of registered voters, and needs a majority vote to pass.

Both sides of the issue are hopeful, but somewhat hesitant to predict the outcome.

“I’m cautiously optimistic about the results,” Rose said. “My feeling is that people are recognizing the downturn in the economy and the potential impact on the tribe to continue the services it’s providing and the amount of per capita. A lot of people are saying I’m not in favor, but the greater good will be served.”

Kilgore said he’ll really only know where the tribe stands when all the votes are totaled.

“It’s very difficult to gauge because you will not really know where people stand until they mark their ballot,” Kilgore said. “But I feel very good that the Lord is going to give us a victory.”



A timeline:

A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but has been toyed with several times since then.

1980: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 2 to 1.

1992: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.

1999: Patrick Lambert, head of the gaming commission, convinced tribal council to hold a referendum on alcohol sales. A groundswell of opposition spurred council members to cancel the referendum before it could be held.

2006: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a referendum on alcohol sales at the casino. Opposition swiftly mounted a campaign. TCGE withdrew their request before tribal council had a chance to vote on it.

2008: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a tribal referendum on allowing alcohol sales at the casino only. It narrowly passed tribal council, but was vetoed by Chief Michell Hicks.

2009: Supporters of a referendum submit a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote.


It’s a project that’s been years in the making, and on Saturday the scores of Jackson County residents who gathered to watch the groundbreaking for the county’s new library couldn’t stop beaming.

The excitement and pride was palpable as — one after another — speakers at the ceremony had their remarks met with whoops and cheers.

“A few said this community would never be able to raise the funds,” said County Commissioner Chairman Brian McMahan. McMahan said he had just one thing to say to those who doubted the project: “Yes we can!”

Librarian Dottie Brunette dedicated her words “to all those in the community who have made sure all their wishes were heard and heeded.”

Indeed, it was largely the community that made the push to turn the historic Jackson County Courthouse, built in 1912, into the library’s new home. Plenty of roadblocks were thrown up along the way during the process as naysayers deemed the site unworkable. The board of commissioners was long split on the library location, and even went as far as to purchase another piece of land for the library.

But the community persevered and promised to raise funds for furnishings and equipment once the county chose the old historic courthouse site.

The Friends of the Library, the group that spearheaded the fundraising campaign, committed to raise at least $1.6 million to purchase furnishings and equipment for the new library facility, said June Smith, the group’s president.

“As of today, I’m proud to announce $1,023,153 has been raised,” Smith told the audience, a declaration that was met with cheers and applause.

Speakers commended not just the library, but the role the facility will play in preserving the county’s best-known landmark.

Howard Allman, chair of the Jackson County Library Board, called it, “a beautiful fusion of our past and our future.”

“(We’re) not just building a library, but saving and revitalizing a treasure of our past,” Allman said.

Boyce Deitz, a representative of Rep. Heath Shuler’s office, said Jackson County leaders of yesteryear would be proud of the effort.

“It’s a shame all the people who walked these halls couldn’t be here,” Deitz said. “I know they would be proud to know this was being preserved.”

After the speakers finished, the crowd migrated over to the site of the groundbreaking behind the old courthouse. County commissioners Brian McMahan, Mark Jones, William Shelton and Joe Cowan donned hard hats and grabbed shovels for the groundbreaking. Dr. John Bunn gave a moving speech just beforehand.

“It’s infrequent that we have the opportunity where the past, present and future come into focus at the same time,” Bunn said.

Bunn dedicated the library “to the minds, hearts, and people of this community .... that their lives may be enriched.”


Tight times in Haywood County have forced commissioners to consider significant job cuts and a tax increase in an attempt to make up for the county’s falling revenues.

The county has $72.5 million in requests for the 2009-2010 fiscal year but just $62 million in projected revenues.

At a budget workshop May 14, County Manager David Cotton told commissioners he was recommending cuts of up to 35 positions to balance the county’s budget, which must be adopted by June 30. Cotton called the recommendation “agonizing.”

Cotton said he hopes some of the reduction of force will be done voluntarily through expanded early retirement incentives and employees who take a voluntary 10 percent pay cut, equivalent to a 36-hour work week.

Departments that have seen a slowdown in work due to the economy will likely be among the first hit by layoffs.

“Some of the departments still are not seeing the demand for service,” Cotton said.

One of the most significant slowdowns has impacted the building inspections department. Building permits were down 50 percent in recent months, Cotton said.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in the industry that see lots of positions the county ramped up for that aren’t as busy as they used to be,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who owns a land surveying company. “Unfortunately, because of the national and state economy, we just don’t have the workload we used to have.”

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the job cuts were tough, but necessary.

“I don’t think anybody likes the idea of people losing their jobs,” Swanger said. “It’s just a fact that if the demand for services decreases and there’s no near term expectation that that service demand will recover, we’re faced with a choice.”

Cotton also recommended that employee benefits like pay increases, the county’s 401K match, and the annual Christmas bonus be eliminated or scaled back.


Hike taxes, gain revenue

Commissioners are considering a property tax increase to help balance the budget. Cotton recommended hiking the tax rate between 1.3 and 2.3 cents per $100 of valuation.

The more property taxes are raised, the fewer job cuts county employees will face. Raise the rate by 2.3 cents, and the county could cut the minimum of 25 positions. If the rate is raised by 1.3 cents, job cuts could total in the mid-30s.

Commissioners debated how much of an increase they supported, and finally proposed one in the middle — 1.7 cents.

A wave of public opposition to raising taxes has confronted commissioners at recent meetings, and the board seemed well aware of the delicate balance necessary in making the decision.

“There’s a lot of anxiety out in the community,” Swanger said. “Between 1.3 cents and 2.3 cents isn’t a lot, but it might be the difference between grudging acceptance of a tax increase and revolt. I do sense a level of anxiety and anger out there that I haven’t experienced before. There’s a point where if we go beyond that point, I think we’d regret it.”

Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said despite the opposition to a tax increase, the county was left with little choice.

“Nobody on this board wants to raise taxes,” Kirkpatrick said. “However, we also have a civic and fiduciary responsibility to this county to run it properly and provide for our citizens. That is why we’ve made the decision that we’ve made.”


Schools, nonprofits slashed

Other areas will also see a big reduction in county funding under the proposed budget, such as the school system. Haywood County Schools requested $775,000 from the county for capital projects; Cotton recommended half that amount. Haywood Community College requested $500,000 for capital projects, but would be awarded just $165,000 under the proposed budget.

Nonprofits are also taking a serious hit, which Cotton called, “one of the tougher decisions.”

“The budget essentially eliminates all funding to non-mandated nonprofits,” Cotton said.

The Haywood County Fairgrounds, the Good Samaritan Clinic, Folkmoot USA and the Haywood County Arts Council are among the organizations that won’t receive funding in the coming budget year.


While the feeling of stately grandeur evoked by Jackson’s historic courthouse has remained over the years, many of the original features of the building have not. Little by little, the courthouse architects, McMillan Smith and Partners out of South Carolina, hope to peel away layers of renovations and return some of the historical detail to the structure.

The three-story old courthouse was built in 1912 in a neoclassical, neotraditional style of architecture, says lead project architect Donny Love. A concrete foundation, unusual for the time, was poured, and wooden beams, including hemlock, were trucked up the steep hill to form the structure. It probably wasn’t an easy process, Love says.

“It would have been difficult, especially for the time, to build in that location,” he says. “With the types of equipment they had, it would have been seemingly difficult to transport the materials to the top of the hill and place them.”

The original building was actually red, not the stark white it is today. Most of its features were very much in keeping with the trends of the early century, including two story columns and a second story porch. Intricately carved banisters ran along each stairwell, and detailed wood trim covered the walls. Arches provided architectural detail common to the period.

But around the 1960s, the building underwent some heavy modifications. The wooden detail was removed, and staircases and the balcony overlooking the courtroom were replaced. The floor was covered over. Such updates were common in that era, Love says, and were meant to provide buildings with a more modern look — but they also erased some of the original detail.

“If they make it through that time period, often they’re not renovated and the original detail is still intact,” Love says.

The Jackson County courthouse hadn’t escaped that fate. The county hired Love’s firm to restore the building and design the library wing that will connect to it. But there was a challenge — there weren’t any original plans to draw from.

“There weren’t blueprints. Back then, they didn’t do a lot of drawings,” Love says.

Love’s firm had to go back and measure each room. As for determining what the original courthouse actually looked like, Love and his colleagues lucked out.

“The courthouse in Madison County was built by the same architect from essentially the same set of drawings,” says Love. “We visited that one to get an idea of what this building looked like before it was modified in the 1960s.”

The Madison County Courthouse had not undergone the same renovation cycle that Jackson County’s had, so it’s served as a roadmap for the architects in recreating the historical detail of Jackson’s.

Not every detail will be restored in the current renovation process, estimated at around $1 million for the courthouse alone. The large clock that hangs on the front of the courthouse, for instance, will stay, though it wasn’t part of the original structure. Initially, the area where the clock was likely had a skylight for the courtroom, Love says. The area was closed up, and the clock was placed on the building.

Other parts of the courthouse will look noticeably different than they do today. Plans call for replacing all the stairs leading up to the building, and placing streetlights along them as was the case originally.

With the groundbreaking of the new library last Saturday, work is already under way at the courthouse. One of the biggest challenges encountered so far is the stabilization of the site, which sits atop a steep hill. Plans call for the library building to come up to the edge of the hill, so a large retaining wall has had to be built.

“We’ve had to make the slope work with the building,” Love says.

Despite the challenges, Love says working on an old building, even one that doesn’t exactly resemble its historical self, is endlessly fascinating.

“It’s always neat to go in a building and try to understand what took place in it,” he says. “I think in this building, there wasn’t very much of the historic building left, but nevertheless you can still get kind of a neat feel for what it must have been like to sit in those offices and look over the whole town.”


A murder suspect and the guard who allegedly helped him escape from the Swain County jail have been returned to North Carolina.

Former jailer Anita Vestal arrived at the Macon County Detention Center Monday (May 18), said Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland. Inmate Jeffrey Miles is being held at a prison in Raleigh, according to Asheville Citizen-Times reports.

Vestal and Miles have been held in a Vallejo, Calif., jail since they were captured at a motel in the area April 19 after nearly a month on the run.

Investigators believe Miles used a key that Vestal provided him to unlock a door and let himself out of jail on March 21. Miles then hid in a van that Vestal drove to her apartment. The pair left in Vestal’s father’s Ford Ranger pickup.

Miles and Vestal waived extradition, which expedited their return to North Carolina. They were driven back to the state by officials with the North Carolina Department of Corrections.

Holland said the Swain County Sheriff’s Department asked him to hold Vestal at the Macon Detention Center prior to her return to the state.

“I think the fact of the matter is because she’s a former employee for the Swain Sheriff’s office, it’s very appropriate for her to be held at a different facility,” Holland said.

Vestal is being held in the women’s section of the prison, and has not had additional security extended to her.

Holland said he had no idea if the arrangement was permanent. The Swain County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office will decide when and if Vestal is moved.


Though the Swain County government hasn’t escaped the recession completely, the blow dealt by the economy has been softer there than in other places.

While other local governments are contemplating tax increases, Swain County commissioners are looking to lower the county’s property tax rate by one cent. And while local governments across the state are laying off lots of employees, just three positions will be cut from Swain’s county departments.

Those proposed cuts were laid out in a commissioner workshop last week focusing on the 2009-2010 county budget.

In general, the Swain County government runs a tight ship, said County Manager Kevin King, which is why large cutbacks haven’t been necessary.

“We’re bare bones in our line items,” King said. “It’s not like we have this fluff in our budget. We’re cutting it close every year.”


Positions cut

County employees are taking the biggest hit under the proposed budget cuts. They will be made to take a mandatory week of furlough. Commissioners volunteered to take two weeks of unpaid leave.

The three positions that would be cut under the proposed budget come from fee-structured departments or were put in place over the last year.

One deputy position will be cut, and the building inspections department will lose two positions — a building inspector and an environmental health specialist. The department has seen a dramatic reduction in its workload due to the slowdown in the second-home market in the mountains. King said building inspections are down between 50 and 60 percent in the county, and that the county took in just $200 in building permit fees in April.

All told, the personnel moves — with the furloughs and the eliminated positions — would save $233,000.

“I hate to see anyone get laid off or lose their job,” lamented Commissioner Phil Carson.

King assured commissioners that while things may not seem that bad right now, the cuts are necessary as a precautionary measure.

“We’ve been through tougher times, but if you have three to four years of this economy and you don’t do these cuts, you’ll be back in the same shape,” the county was in previously, King said. Swain’s fund balance once hung at dangerously low levels.

Commissioners hope to ease the burden on county residents by proposing a one-cent property tax cut, from the current rate of 33 cents per $100 of valuation to 32 cents.

Under the property revaluation that went into effect this year, properties values rose an average of 30 percent. It’s unclear whether the move will satisfy the scores of Swain residents who have turned out to protest the revaluation figures.


New jail

As it stands, the county has to find $110,000 additional monies to cut before its budget is balanced. But more cuts could be possible if the county’s new jail fails to produce enough revenue to make the hefty $454,000 per year loan payments on the facility.

Revenue on the jail has so far not met projections, King said. The county projected $565,000 in revenue, but has collected just $100,000 so far this year.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the county has projected its revenue based on 25 out-of-county prisoners housed at the jail each day. The county receives a certain amount of money from housing state and federal prisoners from other counties.

However, Sheriff Curtis Cochran reported that the jail is averaging between 15 and 20 out-of-county prisoners per day.

King asked Cochran to let him know if he doesn’t think the jail will be able to increase its out-of-county prisoner numbers to meet projections.

“I guess we’re going to be optimistic about the future of the jail,” King said. “I guess. If not, we’re going to have to scale back $300,000 somehow.”


A rift that splintered the town’s longtime farmers market in downtown Waynesville into two opposing groups of vendors continues to persist this season, resulting in two separate markets that will operate just half a mile apart.

“They’re going to have their market, and we’re going to have ours,” said vendor Judy West matter-of-factly.

The markets both start on May 13, and will operate during the same time period on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.

The split occurred at the end of last season, precipitated by the market losing its long-time spot on Main Street. A philosophical division over the direction of the market had been brewing for some time. When it was time to find a new location, factions went in two directions: one to the parking lot of Haywood Regional Arts Theater and one to the American Legion, just half a mile apart.

The two groups have yet to reconcile.

“We have not had any communication with the other market,” said Joanne Meyer, director of what has been renamed Haywood’s Historic Farmers Market. “We just went on from where we started at the end of last season, and took it forward.”

Whether the community can support two markets so close to one another remains to be seen, though both groups express confidence in the viability of their own respective market.

“I think ideally it would be better if we had one market, but I think the markets have split, and I think that people will shop both markets,” Meyer said. “They’ll have their customers, and we’ll have ours. The value-added products will bring a lot of interest to our market.”

Indeed, that’s the major difference between the two farmers markets. Haywood’s Historic Market sells baked goods, cheese, meat, and even fish, from vendors both in and out of the county. Meyer says more than 30 vendors have applied to hawk their goods this year, and there’s ample room in the HART parking lot for more.

The Waynesville Tailgate Market, as it is called, may not offer value-added products, but it’s promoting itself as the original, strictly Haywood County growers market.

“This is the one in operation since 1985,” West said. “We’re strictly Haywood County growers, and Haywood County grown.”

The Waynesville Tailgate Market will continue to offer the same goods it always has.

“We growers of Haywood County wanted to keep our own market, and we wanted to stick strictly with the fresh fruits and veggies,” West said. “We didn’t want the value-added products like jams, jellies, salsas and everything else. We just didn’t want to go down that route.”

That doesn’t mean the Waynesville Tailgate Market lacks diversity in its offerings. West alone will sell dahlias, blueberries, raspberries, grapes, potatoes, onions, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and asparagus this season. She said more than 40 vendors have applied to sell at the market.

Despite the competition, Meyer believes that a desire to eat locally will help her more recently established market sustain itself.

“The response was very good last year, and I do think it will actually grow,” Meyer said. “There are a lot of people who are really interested in buying local food. I think it’s going to do really well this year.”



Origins of the split

The rift between the markets started when a group of vendors created the Waynesville Tailgate Market Committee to study the possibility of moving the burgeoning market from its home in the parking lot of Badcock Furniture on Main Street to a flatter, larger location. Some vendors also wanted to expand their selections to include meats, cheeses, baked goods and other value-added products.

But the idea wasn’t supported by a segment of market vendors, including West, who favored continuing to operate the market as it had been for nearly 20 years. The group was opposed to moving the market or beefing up the selection of goods, and objected to an expansion which would bring in competition from other counties.

The vendors’ case for staying put was complicated by a request from the owners of Badcock, who wanted the tailgate market moved due to limited parking space and liability concerns. But on the day vendors were supposed to vacate the Badcock lot, some refused to budge, culminating in a tense standoff with police.

The vendors finished up the day and were told they had to find a new spot. Meanwhile, the Waynesville Tailgate Committee and about half the vendors had already moved to a new home in the parking lot of the HART theater. The other vendors, however, refused to join them, and the next week set up shop just a half mile away in the parking lot of the American Legion.


It’s slim pickin’s out there, as Western Carolina University students are finding out. This past weekend, more than 1,100 graduates walked across the stage and into the most unforgiving job market in decades.

The competition is stiff. Fewer companies are hiring — the college reported a 30 percent decline this year in the number of career fairs held for students, said WCU Career Services Director Mardy Ashe. The downturn has hit every field, even traditionally stable ones like healthcare, where recruitment of students is down 16 percent.

New grads are competing with much more experienced workers who have been thrust back into the job market. Alumni contacts to the Career Services office have increased dramatically, as more people in the workforce lose their positions, Ashe said.

Ashe commonly hears students say that they feel finding a job won’t be tough for them, even though they know the market is a challenge right now.

“Many of them are very naïve about what to expect after graduation,” Ashe said. “On the other hand, some of them are also planning. They’re looking at alternatives.”

With resourcefulness and flexibility, some students have been successful. Here’s how a few WCU grads landed a job in this tough economy.



For Amanda Tomlinson, a finance and accounting double major, scoring a job meant doing something she hadn’t planned on. Tomlinson initially wanted to work for a bank — financial planning is her specific interest — but kept hitting a wall.

“I started applying three months ago, and probably applied for 40 positions,” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson scoured online job search engines like Monster, CareerBuilder, and even Craigslist, to no avail. Without experience in her field, most employers wouldn’t even grant her an interview.

“Businesses sent back replies saying, ‘You’re not qualified,’” said Tomlinson. “But my biggest problem is that they didn’t let me get to the actual interview. I’m a pretty driven person — I double majored and finished in three years. But applying online, they just shut you out of the system.”

Tomlinson got turned down for even the most basic gigs, including a bank teller position.

“They sent me a one line response that said, ‘You’re not qualified,’” she said. “It was really upsetting. With the knowledge I’ve gotten from WCU, I’m qualified, but nobody wants to give me the opportunity. It was very, very tough.”

With no luck in her desired field, Tomlinson began to look elsewhere. The approach worked. She was hired as a clerical assistant for a building materials company. She’ll be handling paperwork as the company gets contracts for jobs funded by the federal stimulus package.

“It’s not really something I wanted to do, but it is something,” Tomlinson says. “I’m going to be out of school, and I have to pay bills.”

Ashe gives Tomlinson big kudos for her persistence, which played a role in her success.

“The more things you send out, the greater the likelihood you’ll be lucky,” Ashe said. “I would be persistent in this kind of economy until they tell you to stop.”

But Ashe says she would be cautious relying too much on job search engines, which, as Tomlinson discovered, don’t always yield results.

“The job search engines are not as successful as students think they’ll be,” Ashe said. “You’re competing with millions of people who’ve got the same things you’ve got.”

Having geographic flexibility is also helpful, Ashe said. Tomlinson narrowed her search to Western North Carolina, since she wanted to stay close to her boyfriend, a football player at WCU.

“Students and alumni with the most problems are those who are inflexible geographically,” Ashe says. “Consider other parts of the state, or even the Southeast.”


Shifting plans

Geographic flexibility was key in helping Cara Ward, a theater major, land a prestigious graduate school assistantship.

“I was originally aiming for Florida. That’s where I’d like to end up,” Ward said. “I found things there, but the opportunities were better in other places.”

Those places included Wayne State University in Detroit — Ward’s hometown, and the last place she figured she would end up.

“I swore I would never return to Michigan after I left,” Ward chuckles. “But when they offer you something like that, you don’t say no,” referring to the graduate assistantship she landed at Wayne State.

Going straight to graduate school after college wasn’t in Ward’s original plans either, but she couldn’t let the opportunity pass her by.

“My original plan was after graduation I would get a job, work for a couple of years and make sure this is what I wanted to do, and then apply for grad school,” said Ward. “But I figured I might as well do it.”

Ward also has a summer job lined up at Stagedoor Manor, a theatrical summer camp for kids serious about breaking into the industry. She’s working as a costume designer, and will design six shows over the course of the summer.

How did Ward manage to find such great gigs? Some serious networking. She came across both opportunities at the Southeastern Theater Conference, where she was able to impress potential employers face to face and hand them her portfolio of design work in person.

“Networking is more than essential to theater students especially,” Ward said. “At the conference, I made connections with other people throughout the country and the world and had my portfolio reviewed by all of them.”

In the current economy, networking is the best way to find a job, Ashe affirms, and racking your brain for who you know. Any connection is worth trying, she says, including friends of family, family of friends, former employers, and faculty members.


Free labor, big payoff

It’s not always fun to work for free, but in recent WCU graduate Stephanie Drum’s case, the end reward was well worth it.

This past spring, Drum held a part-time, unpaid internship five days a week at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County. The Lake doesn’t generally take on interns in the spring, but since Drum agreed to work for free, they agreed to let her come on. Drum, who concentrated in professional writing, gained a wealth of experience in her field, creating walking tour and visitor guides as well as web content.

Then, as luck would have it, a temporary communications specialist position opened up at Lake Junaluska. The department didn’t have to look far for a qualified candidate, since Drum had been learning the ins and outs of the business for months. Lake Junaluska officials offered her the position.

For Drum, the internship provided a direct path into her desired field.

“I think I would have had a very hard time if I hadn’t interned,” she said. “I’m glad they make us do it.”

Indeed, the communications and English departments at WCU require students to do an internship as part of their coursework. But mandatory or not, Drum says every student should try to do one.

“If they get offered the chance to take an internship, even if it’s not required, they really should,” Drum said. “It will pay in the end.”

Ashe says finding an internship is one of the smartest moves a student can make when it comes to scoring a job, because employers “want to see directly related experience.”

Now Drum has professional experience in her field, which will come in handy when her job ends in July. Still, Drum isn’t limiting her job search to just one field. She knows the market’s tough, and she’s willing to be flexible.

“I’m kind of worried about getting a job in my field. If I can’t do that, I’m pretty sure I could find a seasonal job,” she says. Drum may even return to the summer gig she’s held for a few years during college — working at Wal-Mart.


For nearly a decade, a group of Jackson County residents have envisioned a greenway that would meander for miles from one end of the county to the other. Now, the Greenway Committee is finally ready to turn this lofty goal into a reality — and they want the public to help.

The Greenway Committee’s Master Plan envisions a path that from Cashiers to Whittier, passing through the county’s communities and towns along the way and using the Tuckasegee River corridor as an anchor.

But what section should be completed first? Should the trail be made of dirt, gravel, stone or wood? Where should trail entrances and overlooks be? What spaces could the greenway help preserve?

“This is so important,” said Linda Dickert, a Greenway Committee member. “The other counties have one, and there’s no reason Jackson can’t, too. This gives people a safe area that they can take their kids, bike, hike, and see the absolute beauty of this county.”

A series of public workshops next week will give the public a chance to voice their opinion, said Emily Elders, recreation project manager for the county.

The workshops will allow residents of Jackson County to collaborate on a dream that has been several years in the making, and wasn’t always easy to pursue.

The Greenway Commission was formed in 2000, but lacked paid staff or a dedicated source of funding.

“I think one of the problems we had when we started was we didn’t have the authority or the guidance and we didn’t know what we were supposed to do,” said Dickert.

The group had plenty of ideas, but not much direction.

“They got a lot of plans done, but it was hard to get anything on the ground,” Elders said.

A major obstacle was the lack of funding.

“It was overwhelming,” Dickert said. “We looked at this plan, and I’m thinking, how in the world are we going to do this? We were trying to do it for little or no money.”

The commission eventually decided it needed a full-time person dedicated to pursuing the dream of a greenway. Elders was hired in September of last year and got the ball rolling.

The first leg of the greenway will break ground next month in the form of a sidewalk between Sylva and Dillsboro and a trail through Mark Watson Park.

Charting a path

Much of the challenge, as with any greenway project, will be convincing landowners to let the trail pass through their property.

“We have looked at different ways to do it,” Elders said. “Of course, we would rather have a voluntary agreement to cross a property. If we needed to acquire property, that’s obviously going to be a challenge because we have such limited funding. Land is not cheap to buy.”

Elders hopes people will see the merits of a greenway in that it helps preserve natural areas.

“Not only do you have recreational benefits, but you have environmental benefits,” Elders said. “In the long run, if you’re doing it correctly, it’s preserving public access to natural resources.”

Some of the route will inevitably run along sidewalks, but the goal is to keep it along waterways as much as possible. The public will help define the exact path the greenway will take.

Sewer lines owned by Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority follow the river and creek cooridors in the area, potentially providing the right of way for some segments.

The public workshops will also double as a chance to create an alternative transportation plan for the county.

“We’re doing a bike and pedestrian component of the plan for anyone interested in riding their bike or walking to work, or biking and walking for recreation,” said Elders.

Connecting individual communities so people can get around safely is a major goal of the greenway, Elders said.

Elders hopes the series of public workshops will keep the greenway momentum going.

“I don’t want it to fall by the wayside like it has before,” Elders said. “I want to make sure that we keep doing things. As limited as the funding is, you can do a lot more than you think. Eventually, a cohesive system will be there.”


The Swain County Sheriff’s Department got a welcome piece of news recently when it learned the escape of an inmate won’t cost as much as previously thought.

Jailer Anita Vestal and accused murder suspect Jeffrey Miles were picked up in Vallejo, Calif., April 20, nearly a month after Vestal allegedly helped Miles escape. The county won’t have to pay the cost of driving across the country to retrieve the inmates, which wasn’t clear previously. Instead, the N.C. Department of Corrections is in charge of handling the pickup, said Swain County Chief Deputy Jason Gardner.

Gardner said that Vestal and Miles “are in the process of getting picked up,” but he has been provided with little information about when the pair will arrive.

“They won’t tell us anything,” Gardner said. “They’ll call us when they’re an hour out.”

Gardner said Vestal and Miles will return to the Swain County jail “very temporarily” for processing but will be held elsewhere.


Replacing locks unnecessary

Two jail keys allegedly used in the escape were recovered by Vestal’s father, Ronnie Blythe, when he retrieved his pickup truck that Vestal and Miles had used to flee to California, said Gardner. Blythe turned the keys over to the Swain County Sheriff’s Office. If the keys had not been located, the locks at the jail would have had to be replaced at a cost of nearly $40,000.

Vallejo police didn’t find the keys when they conducted a search of the vehicle. Gardner suggested that they may have simply skipped over it.

“These keys that fit the jail here look more like a regular key,” Gardner said. “They may have saw it, and just didn’t realize what it was.”

Swain County commissioners have already struggled to pay for unforeseen costs at the county’s new $10 million jail facility. Most recently, commissioners granted a request from Cochran in April for an additional $139,000 to cover the cost of unemployment insurance, supplies and maintenance.

Charges against Vestal, 32, include: conveying messages with convicts or prisoners, providing drugs to an inmate, felony conspiracy, and felony harboring escapee. Felony conspiracy and misdemeanor escape from jail will be added to Miles’ murder charges.


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