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The extraordinarily difficult struggle to find nurses licensed in psychiatric care has forced the state agency that oversees mental health care in Western North Carolina to discontinue crucial services for its most critical patients.

For months, the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health has tried desperately to lure psychiatric nurses to help staff the new inpatient psychiatric wing at Haywood Regional Medical Center, which opened in October. The Smoky Mountain Center succeeded in pulling together enough staff to run the unit — but only by stealing nurses from its existing psychiatric facility, the Balsam Center.

The diversion of staff to the HRMC unit left the Balsam Center with only half the staff it needed to operate safely. Such low staffing levels could have gotten the Balsam Center in trouble with healthcare inspectors.

As a result, Balsam Center stopped admitting patients Dec. 12 to its adult recovery unit, which offers detox to adults with mental illness, and the crisis management unit, where patients come to be evaluated.

Doug Trantham, director of services for the Smoky Mountain Center, justified the shift of nurses from the Balsam Center to the new hospital-based center.

“Some areas you can make do and come up with other ways to meet the need, but when you’re talking about a 24-hour unit (like that at HRMC), you have to have what you have to have to run it safely,” Trantham said.

Loss of beds, detox facility a blow

Ironically, the psychiatric unit at HRMC was supposed to alleviate the critical shortage of beds for mental health patients that has plagued the state.

Instead, the opening of the new unit has resulted in the opposite — a loss of bed space due to the lack of staff to run two facilities.

“It’s not square one, but it’s definitely a setback,” said Trantham.

“When we had a patient, that’s the first place we took them,” said Macon County Commissioner Chairman Ronnie Beale, who sits on the board of the Smoky Mountain Center.

Now, those in the far western counties must drive the additional distance to HRMC and hope the facility has an open bed. Only six beds are currently available for patients at the unit, though eventually it will house 16.

Extra beds are only one service that’s been lost with the closure of the Balsam Center. Also gone is a place to take patients who need detox from drugs or alcohol, which the adult recovery unit provided. Now, there isn’t anywhere that offers detox in the western part of the state.

“The one thing that has been critical that the Center has provided is detox,” said Trantham. “There is a tremendous need for it not just in our area, but across the whole state.”

The closure of the Center’s detox facility means there will be more competition for fewer places offering detox.

“We’re all going to be struggling to get access to that,” Trantham said.

Detox facilites are few and far between because they’re expensive to run, and 80 percent of individuals who use them don’t have insurance, said Trantham. That means the state must provide a significant amount of money to subsidize an often expensive detox program, and there’s inadequate funding to do so, Trantham said.

Addictions to drugs like methamphetamine are a critical problem in western areas of the state, so the need for a detox facility here is great.

“The real need today, more than ever, is for detox,” said Beale. Caring for drug and alcohol addicts who don’t get help can be a major drain on county services, Beale added.

Before the Balsam Center closed, it was actually in the process of expanding the detox services it offered, said Trantham. That would have helped alleviate the problem. Instead, it’s gotten worse.

Filling the gaps

Though the closure of the Balsam Center has been a blow to mental health care in WNC, there are some services coming online that could help improve care by making it more accessible.

The Smoky Mountain Center has plans to establish three mobile crisis teams, made up of psychiatrists and nurses, that will travel around the seven western counties so patients can get care locally rather than traveling to the Balsam Center in Haywood County.

Before, said Trantham, someone with mental illness in Murphy who needed help would have to travel all the way to the Balsam Center in order to be evaluated.

Now, “we can see them (in Murphy), and determine how to help them, and in the future respond to them there,” Trantham said. “It will be a timesaver for the hospital, for law enforcement, and for the client.”

Hospital workers and sheriff deputies must often watch over a mentally ill person until they can receive care, but now the mobile crisis teams can shorten that period by coming right to the patient instead.

“If there is a positive, it’s moving to using the mobile crisis unit and having them come to the location for an assessment,” said Sheila Price, Clinical Nurse Executive at WestCare hospital in Sylva.

Smoky Mountain Center hopes to have three mobile crisis teams operating in January, and officials in the far western counties are counting on it.

“If they do like they say and put these evaluators out in the area hospitals, it will work real good. If not, we’re going to be in a world of trouble,” said Beale.

Recruitment: the greatest obstacle

Providing mental health care services such as walk-in clinics and mobile crisis teams is contingent on being able to recruit trained professionals. Some wonder how the Smoky Mountain Center intends to recruit staff for new services when it had so much trouble filling positions at the Balsam Center.

“If we don’t have the staff for what we’ve got now, where are we going to get the staff for these other things?” questioned Haywood County resident Patricia Frisbee Meyer, whose son suffers from mental illness.

In truth, recruiting nurses is already competitive, but recruiting those licensed in psychiatric care can be even tougher because there just aren’t that many of them, said Trantham.

“Psychiatric nursing is a subspecialty within nursing, and only a relatively small percentage of nurses are interested and get the necessary experience in it,” he said.

The mountain region presents its own challenges. It’s rural, and not necessarily attractive to those looking for the excitement of a big city. It also lacks a large state psychiatric hospital, another big draw for those interested in mental health care.

Mental health providers are having to expand their search to the national level to find qualified nurses.

“We’re having to pull people from outside our area,” Trantham said. “If we were to compete for the same bumper of staff, you never get ahead because there just aren’t enough to fill jobs.”

Meyer suggests that universities should provide some type of incentive to encourage nursing students to enter the psychiatric field.

WestCare Medical System has had some success with another approach to recruit healthcare workers — capitalizing on the region’s abundant natural resources and outdoor activities. An ad on its Web site says “Work where others play,” and shows people kayaking and hiking.

“This is a vacation heaven for 90 percent of the United States,” said Price. “We are trying to monopolize on the fact that it’s a beautiful place to live.”

WestCare CEO Mark Leonard says the approach has worked.

“It has been effective both for nurse and physician recruitment,” he said. “Not only for recruiting, but identifying individuals and families that are going to be happy here, which is much more of an indicator that they’ll be here long term.”

What’s next?

The fate of the Balsam Center remains unclear.

“It is our intention to re-open the crisis unit next year, but the reality is we do not know when, and under what conditions, it will be re-opened,” Trantham wrote in an email to staff.

It’s all contingent on finding enough people to staff the Center. Though that’s proved challenging, Trantham says he chooses to remain optimistic.

“I think that when you’re in the business of providing services like this, you have to be hopeful, and you have to keep trying, even though it’s challenging,” he said.

Meanwhile, the HRMC unit is filling some of the gaps left by the Balsam Center and helping to improve mental health care in WNC, said Trantham.

“The inpatient unit at HRMC provides a higher level of care, and the capabilities are much greater than a crisis unit can ever have,” he said. “That program had to come first. We shifted our resources there to make sure we got that program off to a good start.”


Haywood Regional Medical Center will terminate its contract with the corporate physician staffing outfit that supplies doctors for the hospital’s emergency department, according to hospital CEO Mike Poore.

“What we are trying to do is improve our overall emergency department,” Poore said. “What we’ve seen is that there are companies that can help us with the processes to improve our service and quality and efficiency. We are working on terminating the current contract.”

Phoenix Emergency Physicians, the current staffing company, was hired just two years ago to replace Haywood Emergency Physicians, a long-time group of local doctors. The local group was pushed out by former CEO David Rice over what largely boiled down to a power struggle. The Haywood doctors resisted Rice’s attempts to exert more control over the ER, perceiving those efforts as a loss of autonomy that would interfere in patient care decisions.

Some ER doctors had also raised red flags about Rice’s management of the hospital and challenged his command-and-control style leadership, an early harbinger of problems that later came to fruition.

While the medical community and community at large went to bat for the group of local doctors, urging Rice and the hospital board to keep them, their contract was yanked and the hospital board voted to bring in Phoenix.

Former hospital CEO David Rice pledged that Phoenix would improve patient wait times and coverage in the ER.

However, Phoenix has not met those expectations. The company has staffed the ER with fewer doctors working fewer hours. Today, Poore said a core of six doctors oversees the emergency department at HRMC as opposed to the core of 10 provided by the former group. Only three are listed on the web site.

Long wait times in the ER have persisted months after the hospital restored its Medicare and Medicaid certification status and returned to full staffing levels.

“We’re not satisfied with our wait times,” Poore said.

However, Poore said simply adding more doctors won’t in itself improve care and wait times in the emergency department. He cited effective management, knowledge, and customer service as other crucial factors for a successful ER.

“You don’t always throw numbers at it to solve the problem,” he said. “The goal is really more on efficiency. If it takes more doctors, then yes, but it’s the process flow; and having the experience and know-how to improve quality.”

The hospital will likely replace Phoenix with another corporate staffing outfit rather than bring operations in house.

“That’s really the trend in the United States — there are these large companies that manage physicians,” Poore said. He said the hospital is currently vetting five different companies to replace Phoenix and hopes to have a new group in place by April 1.


Waynesville leaders vowed to speed up a review of the town’s land use plan after an article in The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago revealed the process is months behind schedule.

The town board directed Town Planner Paul Benson to launch the review in March in response to mounting complaints from developers. A steering committee was appointed in May to lead the review, and a consulting firm was supposed to be selected in June. Yet six months have passed, and Town Planner Paul Benson has still not picked a consultant.

“It’s been slower than we anticipated,” admitted Town Manager Lee Galloway.

That won’t be the case anymore. After the article appeared, town officials told Benson to hurry up.

“I think he understands he needs to put a higher priority on it and move the process more quickly,” Galloway said.

“There have been discussions with town staff and we’re going to move ahead with this,” confirmed Mayor Gavin Brown. “It’s back on track.”

The award-winning plan was passed five years ago and has been lauded as a progressive vision for creating an attractive, pedestrian-friendly community. But it’s also been criticized as being too strict, and some fear its turning away potential businesses that don’t want to comply. The review will determine where there is room for give and take without compromising the town’s vision.

Town officials say they’re close to hiring the municipal planning firm the Lawrence Group as a consultant. The firm, which has offices in Charlotte and other parts of the country, is familiar with Western North Carolina. It helped conduct the Mountain Landscapes Initiative this summer, the largest community-based regional planning project ever in WNC.

“I think they’ve got a good understanding of people in our area,” Galloway said.

The initial cost estimate from the Lawrence Group was more than the amount the town had budgeted for a consultant. Waynesville officials are currently working to adjust the scope of the project so they can afford to hire the firm, Brown said.


Even as one national retailer — Home Depot — is pulling its plans for a Waynesville store, the national restaurant chain Chili’s Grill and Bar is setting its sights on the small mountain town.

The West Waynesville commercial area near the new Super Wal-Mart has been pinpointed as a potential location for Chili’s by Jim Reid, the chain’s western region district manager who is in charge of scouting possible locales. Reid has family ties to the area.

“From my personal observations, there’s nothing (no Chili’s) further west than Asheville, and yet I think that whole area is growing,” Reid says. “And they did just get liquor by the drink — that’s certainly another enticement.”

Voters passed a referendum in May that allows the sale of liquor by the drink in Waynesville.

Reid cautioned that Chili’s has not made a definite decision to come to the area, and that they are also looking at other sites in the western part of the state.

“Waynesville is one of them, but there’s nothing set in concrete. We’re just on a preliminary search,” Reid said.

Reid has turned in his site recommendation to the corporation’s development department, so the ultimate decision is out of his hands.

The announcement that Waynesville is being scouted as a possible location for Chili’s is well-timed. A few weeks ago, Home Depot announced it would kill its plans for a store at the new Waynesville Commons shopping center, anchored by Super Wal-Mart. Officials, including Mayor Gavin Brown, have expressed hope that restaurants could fill the void. The new shopping center has yet to attract any national chain eateries, except the Subway inside the Super Wal-Mart.

Officials also hoped allowing liquor by the drink sales would boost economic development and attract more national restaurants, though none have located to the area since the May referendum.


Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger is back on the county’s Economic Development Commission five years after he played a critical role in overhauling the organization and redirecting the county’s strategy for economic development.

Swanger recently regained his seat as a Haywood County commissioner in the November election after being voted off the board two years ago. But initially, it didn’t look like he would get to also reclaim a spot on the EDC.

When the new board of county commissioners met for the first time in early December and doled out committee appointments, all five commissioners expressed interest in serving on the EDC. Swanger and newly elected Commissioner Kevin Ensley pushed particularly hard for the appointment. Ensley had partnered with Swanger to make the EDC overhaul a reality five years ago.

The EDC only has room for two county commissioners, however, and the decision of who to appoint rested with with Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick. He chose Commissioners Skeeter Curtis and Bill Upton to retain their spots on the EDC, rather than appoint the new commissioners — Swanger and Ensley — to the board. Kirkpatrick had not been not a fan of the EDC overhaul driven by Swanger and Ensley five years ago.

By the following commissioners’ meeting, however, it was announced that Curtis had given up his spot on the EDC to Swanger. Curtis’ attendance record at EDC meetings has been poor. He missed over half the meetings in 2007 and nearly half in 2008.

“He knew of my interest, and I really appreciated his gesture a lot, so I commend him for it,” Swanger said of Curtis.

With his board appointment, Swanger is picking up where he left off. When Swanger was last on the EDC, he helped instate some pivotal changes.

“I was involved in its reorganization to its current state,” he said. “It was a major structural change. It’s safe to say the county government got more involved and the municipalities have a much larger voice now.”

The changes also gave EDC board members more control over the economic development strategy of the organization, and helped move the emphasis away from big new factories to include a focus on recruiting small business and entrepreneurs.

Swanger sees plenty of new opportunities for economic development in Haywood County, including a methane recovery project that could draw alternative energy from the county’s old landfill.

“I think that can be a win-win proposition, in terms of minimal environmental impact while making money,” he said.


Lynn Collins, the director of Maggie Valley Chamber of Commerce, was unanimously appointed as the new director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority this week following a muddled process involving three separate votes.

The process and the outcome seemed clearcut last week, when the first vote was taken and Collins emerged the winner with five out of 12 votes. But by the next morning, one of the TDA members had called for a do-over, citing a technicality in the voting procedure.

The tourism authority initially narrowed down a pool of 200 applicants to five finalists for the job. When the vote on the finalists was held last week (Dec. 18), Collins received five out of 12 board votes, including that of TDA Board Chairman Alice Aumen.

Aumen’s vote swung the decision in Collins’ favor: the runner-up behind her had four votes. Technically, however, Aumen was not supposed to vote except in the case of tie. Had Aumen not voted, there would have been a tie, and she would have had to vote — and would have voted for Collins.

But instead of first waiting to see if there would be a tie, Aumen cast her vote along with the rest of the board. In effect, she pre-emptively cast the tie-breaker.

Pat Smathers, Canton mayor and member of the TDA, claimed the entire vote should be nullified and called for a do-over.

“I was laying in bed thinking about it that night, and it occurred to me, something’s not right,” said Smathers, an attorney who hadn’t voted for Collins but instead backed former county commissioner Mary Ann Enloe for the job.

Smathers waited until the day after the vote to notify Aumen that her pre-emptive tie-breaker was in violation of the TDA statutes, and asked her to contact the board’s attorney. Smathers said his theory was better safe than sorry in calling for a revote.

“It appears to me the vote would be invalid and I don’t want to get controversy started over this,” Smathers said.

Rather than let the board’s vote stand and simply re-cast her tiebreaker, Aumen said Smathers convinced her to call for a whole new vote by the entire board.

In the meantime, second-place vote-getter Larry Harmon, a tourism official from Henderson County, pulled out of the running.

TDA Member Ken Stahl said Harmon pulled out due to confusion over retirement benefits that came with the job — namely that there aren’t any. Harmon thought he could transfer his retirement benefits from Henderson County to his new post, but can’t, Stahl said.

But in an interview Monday, Harmon told The Smoky Mountain News that wasn’t the primary reason he withdrew.

“I decided it would be my best interest and the best interest of Haywood County to withdraw my application so they could move forward and pick someone and do what is best for the county and tourism,” Harmon said.

Harmon said had he gotten the job, he had every intention of taking it. Harmon would not say who called him to tell him there would be a revote, only that he called Stahl to say he was pulling out.

Regardless of the reason, that left Enloe as the new runner-up with three votes and with a viable shot at the TDA director post if she could lay claim to Harmon’s cast off votes.

The two other finalists for the position — John Keith of Waynesville and Austin Mott of Murphy — had received no votes.

Yet when the TDA convened for the re-vote on Monday (Dec. 22) rather than hold an outright vote, they decided to first narrow down the pool to only two candidates. Each TDA member voted for their top two choices. Collins emerged with eight votes and Keith with six. Enloe only got four, and didn’t make the cut.

The TDA board then went into closed session to discuss the two candidates. After 15 minutes, they emerged and voted unanimously for Collins.

“It makes me feel good that we have someone with the ability that knows the tourist industry to step in and take over because we have work to do,” said James Carver, a TDA member and restaurant owner in Maggie Valley.

Carver said Collins can hit the ground running since she is already familiar with the tourism industry in Haywood County, and regularly attended TDA meetings due to her post as the Maggie chamber director. Carver said Collins is also able to work well with parties that don’t always agree for the betterment of tourism.

Even those who didn’t vote for Collins initially praised her abilities.

“I think Lynn is imminently qualified and capable of doing an outstanding job for the county,” said Marion Hamel, TDA board member and president of Smoky Events. “She is excellent.”

Collins said she was pleased with the final outomce.

“I appreciate the board’s vote of confidence and look forward to working with them,” she said..

The director post was left vacant Nov. 1 when former director Scotty Ellis resigned following her second charge in less than a year for marijuana possession.


Officials from Haywood County and the state Division of Air Quality are disputing a recently released report by USA Today that lists two schools in the paper mill town of Canton as among those with the worst air quality in the nation.

The study looked at 127,800 public and private schools. According to the report, only 220 schools in the country have worse air than Bethel Christian Academy, which sits in the shadow of the Evergreen Packaging paper mill. Nearby North Canton Elementary also ranked in the first percentile, with 256 schools nationwide having worse air quality.

Officials, however, take issue with the accuracy of the report, calling the 2005 data it used outdated and pointing out problems with the source of the data.

“It’s pretty clear from talking to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that there’s a big difference between what USA Today called a study and what DENR and other agencies really use datawise,” said Bill Nolte, assistant superintendent of Haywood County Schools.

The three-year-old data did not account for pollution control measures put in place since 2005, which could have changed the ranking of the Canton schools.

“Since 2005, Evergreen Packaging has installed $9 million worth of emission and control technology, which has reduced emissions,” Derric Brown, the mill’s director of heath and environmental safety, said in a statement to the press. “It is a very different picture now.”

The report also listed Progress Energy’s coal-fired plant in Buncombe County as a top contributor to local air pollution. But it doesn’t take into account mandatory emission reduction measures that have since taken place at the coal-fired plant.

“North Carolina got this law — the Clean Smokestacks Act — that required power companies to install controls on coal-fired plants,” said Tom Mather, public information officer for the state Division of Air Quality.

The act passed in 2002, but Mather said it can take years for large power plants to build and install the necessary equipment. The scrubbers and other controls built since 2005 have been “over 90 percent effective in removing emissions,” said Mather.

The Clean Smokestacks Act only affected the state’s 14 utility-owned coal burning power plants. A coal-fired plant privately owned by Evergreen Packaging has been allowed to operate outside of the pollution control measures, said Avram Friedman, founder of regional clean air advocacy group the Canary Coalition.

The USA Today study relied on data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, which ranks areas by their emissions of toxic pollutants from industrial facilities. State officials argue the EPA data was meant as a screening tool to identify areas for further studies, not as a way to measure health risks for citizens, according to a Division of Air Quality press release. Officials also say federal data can be less specific and accurate than that collected on a state level.

“We don’t think the (EPA) model was appropriately used for conclusions in the study,” Mather said. “It’s a very broad database, and we have much better data here in North Carolina.”

Officials also say the report failed to weigh other significant contributors to air pollution, including vehicle emissions and Tennessee Valley Authority power plants in other states.

Reactions mixed

Although Haywood County school officials have had “a number of conversations” with the state Health and Human Services Department and DENR, they don’t plan to take action based on the report, Nolte said.

“(The state) has not issued warnings or alerts, nor told us we had to do anything specific,” he said. “Therefore, we don’t plan to make any adjustments unless a reputable state or local government agency indicates what we need to do.”

Community reactions to the report have been mixed. To many, the data wasn’t exactly shocking.

“It’s nothing new to us,” said Friedman. “We’ve been aware for a long time that we have some of the worst air quality in the country.”

The report did help to key others into the issue of local air pollution, Friedman said.

“I think it’s great that the story showed up in USA Today, because it’s all about public awareness,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen until more people become aware and active on the issue and are upset enough to demand change.”

Laurel Long, president of the PTO at North Canton Elementary, said the report has raised some concern and possibly points to the need for better records of air quality around schools. But Long says the actions people can take now that they’re armed with the information are probably limited, besides pulling their kids out of school.

“People don’t have a lot of choice — it’s not like they can always pack up and go somewhere else,” she said.

Long has been happy with her son and daughters’ experiences at North Canton, and says the report shouldn’t cause parents to overlook the school’s wonderful attributes.

“We love North Canton, and it would be a shame for anybody to overreact and feel they don’t want to send their kids there,” she said. “It’s a shame for the school to be painted with a negative brush.”

Factories linked to schools with bad air

Seven schools in North Carolina landed in the top 1 percent of schools in the nation with the worst air quality. Bethel Christian Academy and North Canton Elementary — located in the shadow of Evergreen paper mill — are ranked second and seventh in the state, respectively. The other five schools were all located near manufacturing plants as well. Unlike coal-fired power plants operated by utilities, which must comply with the state’s Clean Smokestacks Act, factories, including Evergreen paper mill in Canton which has its own coal-fired boiler, don’t.

To access the report, visit


The boards of Haywood Regional Medical Center and WestCare Health System are officially seeking proposals from three hospital systems that will likely result in an affiliation with one of them.

The document lays out the primary advantages of HRMC’s and WestCare’s affiliation with one of the larger healthcare systems.

“Affiliation is necessary at this time to meet the challenges posed by declining Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, technological change, and the regional growth of other hospital systems,” the document states.

Haywood Regional and WestCare leaders have been refining the wording of their requests to the other hospitals for two months. Haywood Regional would only provide a summary rather than make the full document public, however, despite being a public hospital that falls within the N.C. Public Records Law. Hospital officials cited the need for confidentiality in the negotiations.

An affiliation has been a likely scenario for Haywood Regional Medical Center since the hospital temporarily lost its Medicare status this year, causing a near shut-down of the hospital for five months and a major blow to its finances. WestCare is also suffering declining revenue, prompting a workforce reduction.

HRMC CEO Mike Poore has said previously that HRMC chose to partner with WestCare in the search for an affiliation because of its proximity and similarities. The hospitals are both small, in rural areas and have similar missions, Poore said.

WestCare Board President Jerry McKinney has voiced his hopes that WestCare could possibly grow and improve its services if affiliated with another hospital.

WestCare officials have said the hospital’s recent economic troubles — it lost $3.2 million between June and August of this year — have nothing to do with the decision to partner with HRMC.

Proposals from the partner hospitals must be submitted by Jan. 30. The RFP asks the potential partners to lay out specific steps and an anticipated timeline for the affiliation.

The joint study committee, comprised of the board members from both HRMC and WestCare, will start reviewing proposals in February, according to Poore. The boards of the respective hospitals will make the final decision.

The request for proposals pose a series of questions, including:

• How will the partner hospital integrate its operations with HRMC and WestCare?

• How will the partner hospital maintain and enhance clinical services?

• How will an affiliation improve patient access to care in Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain and Graham?

• How will the partner hospital help with physician recruitment?

• What is the estimated economic value of each affiliation?

• What are the vision and strategies of the partner hospitals, including organization size, such as number of hospitals and physicians, and geographic reach?

• How would an affiliation benefit HRMC and WestCare?

• Miscellaneous information, such as patient satisfaction scores; how employee satisfaction is measured; policies for staff recruitment and retention; and how patients and families are incorporated into decision-making.

Who gets to play?

WestCare and Haywood Regional Medical Center invited three hospital systems to make a formal pitch of what they could offer should the hospitals chose them as their future partner.

Carolinas Healthcare System is the largest of the three potential partners, with 18 hospitals based mostly around the Charlotte metropolitan region. Novant Health owns nine hospitals in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and on the coast. Mission Health System is the smallest, operating four hospitals in the mountain region.


Home Depot has officially yanked plans to build a store in Waynesville next to the town’s new Super Wal-Mart.

The decision comes after months of continual delays on the project. The home improvement chain had pushed the opening date back to late 2009 or early 2010 before informing local officials several weeks ago of its intention to scrap plans entirely.

“The reason they delayed in the beginning was because of the national economic softness of the market, and then it just got worse,” said Haywood County Economic Development Director Mark Clasby.

Clasby said Home Depot had still planned to open the Waynesville store even after closing its first round of stores. Still, the chain’s decision didn’t come as a total shock.

“I wasn’t totally surprised, because I’ve been following their situation and on a national level, they’ve been struggling,” he said.

Alan Best, president of the Haywood Home Builders Association, would have welcomed a Home Depot, but said current local suppliers like Haywood Builders are sufficiently meeting the needs of the construction industry.

“Home Depot would have been a great asset, but the suppliers that are here now are adequately meeting our needs,” he said.

While Home Depot currently owns the site — large enough for a 100,000-square-foot building — the master developer of Waynesville Commons, Cedarwood Development, wants it back, Clasby said.

Cedarwood has some smaller outparcels at the Waynesville Commons complex it still hopes to unload. Without an anchor store to go in the gaping Home Depot spot, those outparcels will be more difficult to market.

Just what will fill Home Depot’s space is yet to be determined. It could be subdivided between several businesses.

“They’ve had some interest from other retailers on that property, and they’re trying to work through that,” said Clasby. “I’m pretty confident something will come in there.”

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said he hopes to see a restaurant as a tenant at the former Home Depot site.

“There are basic characteristics of businesses that would go into that location, and the next one obviously would be a restaurant,” Brown said.


There aren’t many options for those without a home in Western North Carolina. Sleeping outside is one, but winter nights can get dangerously frigid. Non-profit agencies can sometimes pay for a hotel room, but only for a couple nights at most. The other option is to seek out the closest homeless shelter available — in Newport, Tenn.

Sending the homeless out of state may seem perplexing, but the dire lack of either emergency or long-term shelters nearby leaves organizations that help the needy with little choice. There’s only one shelter in the seven counties west of Asheville, located in Murphy. The Hurlburt-Johnson Friendship House fits 22 people, and has been at maximum capacity for five months.

In recent months, Patsy Dowling, director of Mountain Projects, says she’s witnessed people living in their cars or camping out at the homes of various relatives. There’s little she or other agency directors can do.

“We try our best to send them to the shelter in Newport, Tenn., or Knoxville or Asheville. We’ll buy them a bus ticket,” said Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries. “We are very limited in our ability to provide shelter, and there’s a definite need.”

Strict requirements mean a shelter can’t just be opened in any old building. Homeless shelters must have an automatic sprinkler system and usually need to be located in city limits where city water is available, said Bruce Crawford, director of building inspections for Haywood County.

Then there’s selling the idea to nearby residents, who aren’t always thrilled to have a homeless shelter in proximity.

“You start getting ready to open a shelter, and there’s a lot of opposition; a lot of ‘not in my backyard’,” said Dowling.

A group has formed in Haywood County that is studying the possibility of opening an emergency, temporary stay shelter. The group is also studying a long-term solution, but “we don’t have enough time to create that model before the winter is over,” said Nick Honerkamp, pastor of New Covenant Church, a possible shelter site. The group hopes to secure a structure soon that will stay open through February.

“We can’t do nothing,” Honerkamp said. “So we’ve just decided that we have to do what we can. If we work together, we can solve this problem.”


Recently, more than 50 members of the Haywood County community gathered in a church fellowship hall to brainstorm ways to help with the rising level of need. In the middle of the meeting, a woman and her son entered the church, looking a little out of place. The woman needed to pay her $300 heating bill and didn’t know where else to turn. Without hesitation and within 20 minutes, the group pitched in enough money to cover almost the entire bill.

For every piece of bad news, it seems there are just as many instances of communities stepping up to help those in need.

“It’s been unbelievable, and I can’t even begin to express how grateful we are,” said Patsy Dowling, director of the non-profit Mountain Projects.

Dowling recounts how kids at Tuscola High School slept outside in the cold for a glimpse of how those without heat or shelter live, then donated the money they raised to Mountain Projects’ Share the Warmth fund, which goes toward heating oil and weatherization projects.

Amy Grimes-McLure, director of the Community Table in Sylva, says when her organization needed help, the community answered.

“Our shelves were getting really low this fall, and I made a call for people to hold food drives,” she said.

The organization that typically holds a Thanksgiving food drive to benefit the Community Table had to instead concentrate all its resources on heating projects.

“Regrettably, they weren’t able to do that this year, but we wanted to help keep this going and make it a community effort,” said Jon Brown, director of Christian Education for First United Methodist Church in Sylva.

So seven local youth groups stepped up and packed 240 boxes of Thanksgiving meals to give to those in need.

Recently, the Community Table was faced with another obstacle when its boiler went out. The organization couldn’t afford to fix or replace it, said Grimes-McClure, so Jackson Paper Manufacturing sent over two electricians to make the boiler work again.

Organizations in WNC say cash donations have remained steady, even when agencies nationwide have reported a decrease in giving.

“For the first time, I had somebody call me the other day and say they wanted to give money, and where could they give,” said Kim Cunningham, director of food and nutrition programs for the Swain County Department of Social Services. “People realize how bad it is.”

Both Dowling of Mountain Projects and Lisa James of Haywood Christian Ministries said donations are slightly above average. Grimes-McClure said she worried what kind of response her organization would receive from its winter giving campaign, especially since it was already operating on a tight budget. She was shocked at the amount people gave.

“We had a fantastic response — more than expected,” she said. “We feel so fortunate to live in a community where everybody looks out for one another.”


The trickle down effect from the national economic downturn is starting to feel more like a flood to agencies in Western North Carolina, which report being inundated with people hurting from layoffs and foreclosures.

“We’re absolutely slammed — it’s more than we can handle,” said Kim Cunningham, food and nutrition services supervisor for the Department of Social Services in Swain County. The number of people receiving food stamps in Swain has risen 14.5 percent since Jan. 1 of this year, the rising need a result of layoffs by the county’s largest manufacturers and a slowdown in construction.

Each western county has seen double digit increases in the numbers receiving food stamps, the largest across the board increase in recent memory.

“This is definitely the highest it’s ever been. We’re going out the roof,” reported Al Hudson, program administrator for the Haywood County Department of Social Services, where the number receiving food stamps has risen nearly 15 percent since November of last year.

Nonprofits also report being swamped with people seeking help. Haywood Christian Ministries saw 86 new clients last month needing assistance with food and fuel — last year, the agency would only help 40 new clients a month, according to director Lisa James.

The Community Table in Sylva, a soup kitchen, used to give out maybe one cardboard box filled with food items a month, says director Amy Grimes-McClure. Now, they dole out 25 in that same period.

Many reeling from job cuts

Perhaps most striking, say agency leaders, is the number of new people needing help who have never had to ask for assistance before.

This fact really hit home for Cunningham during a distribution day in December when basic commodities were given out – the largest such event the Swain D.S.S. has ever had.

“We realized for the first time there were so many faces of people we did not recognize,” said Cunningham. “We’re a small community, and usually we know everybody.”

Job losses have rocked the region and are the primary factor behind the number of first-timers seeking assistance.

“We’re hearing of new layoffs everyday, and I’m afraid we’re only at the tip of the iceberg,” said Lisa James, director of Haywood Christian Ministries.

Unemployment rose in all seven western counties between October of 2007 and October of this year, according to statistics provided by the Employment Security Commission. The worst off is Cherokee County, where nearly one out of every 10 residents doesn’t have a job.

One of the hardest hit industries in the mountains has been construction. Building permits for new single family homes have shriveled to half of what they were a year ago in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain, according to permitting departments in those counties.

“We’ve had a couple construction folks who’ve said at this time last year they were making $20 an hour, and this year they can’t pay their electric bill,” said Patsy Dowling, director of the non-profit Mountain Projects in Haywood and Jackson counties.

The effect has rippled through many different sectors.

“It reverberates,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County D.S.S. “If they’re not building houses, then the suppliers and the surveyors and the bulldozers, all of them are affected by it down the line.”

Cunningham has seen the impact play out in Swain.

“There’s no building going on, and a lot of people around here are self-employed as carpenters and things like that,” she said.

The service sector — retailers, restaurants, and the many other businesses that cater to tourists — is another suffering industry.

“I think there’s an overall belt tightening across the region, and fewer people are making discretionary trips to our area,” said Cochran. “We’re in a service economy, and a lot of our jobs are affected by discretionary spending. When people get nervous, they tend to stay home.”

Those without jobs are finding it tough to get one.

“There’s no work — people just aren’t hiring,” said Cunningham.

WNC has historically had a competitive job market, and now the pickings have become even slimmer. Grimes-McClure said some of her newest clients at the Community Table are a family that recently moved to the Sylva area and can’t find work.

“We’re in a rural area so the job situation isn’t great even in the best of economic times, but now it’s really, really bad,” she said.

The changing face of need

As need increases across the region, the demographic of people seeking outside help is shifting.

“We’re starting to see folks with significant assets come in, and that reflects that they’ve been in more of a middle class lifestyle,” said Cochran. “Folks are coming in with large homes and even multiple cars and boats. These are folks that have been living a different level of lifestyle and are now sitting on hard times.”

Agencies report that increasingly, people are finding themselves very suddenly unable to make ends meet.

“We are seeing a lot of emergencies — people who have more money coming out than coming in,” said Cunningham. “It’s common to get quite a few of those, but now it’s just about everybody that walks through.”

And it’s not just the situations that are different, but the types of people. Lisa James of Haywood Christian Ministries reports that there’s been an uptick in the number of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, some of them illegal, walking through the doors of her organization. Many of them work in the construction industry where jobs are hard to come by.

Grimes-McClure says her core group has generally consisted of elderly on fixed income, people with disabilities, recovering addicts and individuals simply having a tough time making ends meet. But lately, she’s noticed more families getting a meal or food items from the Community Table.

“Lately we’ve had whole families,” she said. “Most that come in for food boxes have kids at home.”


When 400 people poured in to Swain County’s jail one day in late September, Sheriff Curtis Cochran was thrilled.

And on an equally unusual note, the crowd at the jail was more than happy to be there. Of course, the group of Swain County residents hadn’t done anything wrong — instead, they were anxious to catch a glimpse of the brand new, $10 million building their taxes had paid for.

Swain County officials have been just as anxious for the facility to open its doors, which it finally did this week on Dec. 8. The county purposely overbuilt the new jail so it could accommodate future growth, which accounts for the hefty price tag.

The county got a 40-year loan for the jail with annual payments of $454,000, two of which the county has already made.

“We don’t need that big of a facility in the next five or six years, but with the way crime is going, we probably will need it in the next 10 or 20 years,” said County Manager Kevin King.

By overbuilding, however, the county took a gamble. It must come up with twice as many prisoners to fill the cells in order to pay for the 25 to 30 percent increase in operating costs over the old facility.

Swain is banking on other counties sending their inmates to the new jail to fill the slots or the county will be left holding the bag for the bigger jail.

Cochran said the sheriff’s office has been in contact with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and counties as far east as Randolph that have expressed an interest in bringing inmates to Swain’s new facility.

The county earns $50 per day for housing inmates from other counties and $75 per day for housing a federal inmate.

If they can’t fill the new jail, the county’s budget, which is already critically tight, will be squeezed even further.

“We desperately need it to pay for itself,” County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones said of the jail.

Swain County is low on cash, and not in a good position to supplement the jail if it can’t pay for the increase in operating costs. The county’s fund balance — akin to its savings account — is at an all-time low of 9 percent of its annual operating budget, hovering just above the mandatory 8 percent the state requires counties to keep in their coffers. The state recommends each county keep a minimum 14 percent fund balance on hand.

“It’s increased some (over the past month),” said King. “But we’re still borderline as far as the Local Government Commission is concerned.”

The delay in the jail opening hasn’t helped matters. An opening was scheduled for March of this year, but was delayed for months.

“We need it to be open, and we’d like it to be open and full,” said King. “That helps us out in these economic times.”

More prisoners, please

The county is hanging its hopes on filling up the more than 100 beds in the new jail to pay for the added cost of running a bigger jail.

The current jail costs $50,000 a year in overhead, from utilities to supplies. The new jail will cost as much as $70,000 in overhead.

For now, the county has also hired more jailers to staff the larger facility. But, if the county can’t fill the extra cells within six months, the extra jailers will have to be laid off, King said.

Whether the county will see an influx of more prisoners remains to be seen. The old jail could house 54 inmates and held an average of 30 to 50 a day, according to Cochran.

Even though the old jail wasn’t generally at capacity, Cochran is confident the new one will fill up. The deteriorating condition of the old jail deterred federal officials and those from other counties from bringing inmates to Swain, Cochran said.

In contrast, the new jail is full of state-of-the-art technology. Video cameras are hooked up in every inch of the jail and beam footage to a control room with multiple television screens. Doors can be locked and unlocked remotely. Visits with prisoners are no longer done in person, but through a video screen that allows authorities to monitor every conversation.

“More than likely, we’ll be busting at the seams before too long,” Cochran said.

County officials are counting on it.

“In this economic time, it would be nice to have an additional revenue source to help subsidize the cost,” King said.

And there’s another bonus, King told commissioners — “If the facility is filled, you won’t have to raise taxes.”


The town of Waynesville has done little to jumpstart a promised review of its land use plan, and critics say the lack of movement is causing the town to lose prospective businesses that don’t want to abide by the plan’s strict regulations.

The idea to revisit the five-year-old plan was suggested by town aldermen in March in response to mounting complaints by developers. A steering committee was appointed by the town board in May. By June, Town Planner Paul Benson was supposed to select a consulting firm to assist the process.

But six months later, Benson has yet to choose a consulting firm.

All told, the entire review process was supposed to take just six months, according to Benson’s marching orders from the town board.

“As originally planned, it was six months for the whole process,” Benson said. “But we’ve had a lot going on, and haven’t been able to focus all the time on it we wanted because we have a couple other big projects.”

Steering committee member Joe Taylor says the town needs to make a review of the land use plan a priority, regardless of what other projects are on line.

“I’ve asked that they go ahead and do something, and evidently it’s not much of a priority for the town,” said Taylor, owner of Taylor Ford Automotive and chairman of the board of Old Town Bank. “Some of us have gone to Paul Benson and asked to speed it up.”

Benson said a slowdown in development caused by the economic downturn made the review process less pressing, a partial reason the town put the project on the back burner.

“We’ve had no major development proposals in the last several months,” he said.

However, a slowdown in development could also present the perfect time to review the land use plan since there aren’t any developers pressuring the town for quick decisions, Benson conceded.

Varied concerns

The town is currently negotiating with one of the five consulting firms that applied to work on the land use plan review.

“We’re hopeful to have a firm picked this month and start the process after the holidays with a consultant coming in and reviewing the ordinance,” said Benson.

An appointed committee of eight members is already on board to help with the project. Members will help guide the process and have varying areas of focus.

Steve Kaufman, president of Reece, Noland and McElrath engineering firm and a downtown resident, is interested in protecting Waynesville’s historic neighborhoods.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re losing some of the neat old historic residential areas right downtown, since a lot of residential is going commercial,” Kaufman said. For committee member and appraiser Mike Erwin, it’s all about striking a balance.

“There has to be a balance between regulation and affordability,” he said.

Russ Avenue, the town’s main corridor, was once the main focus of the land use plan, but now, it’s likely the newly developed South Main Street area near the Super Wal-Mart will take center stage.

Give and take

The town has already veered from the land use plan by making some concessions to developers, including allowing three new stores in Waynesville Commons — Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Best Buy — to place parking in front of the stores. But there’s been a lot of give and take, and the town hasn’t had a problem denying projects that don’t meet the spirit of the land use plan, including a proposed gas station that Ingles wanted to build.

“It’s been sort of a struggle to reconcile what developers want to do with what the vision for the land use plan was,” said Benson. “We don’t want to shut down development, but we don’t want to throw in the towel on the ordinance either.”

Though some have criticized the town making concessions to developers, Benson said doing so is necessary to promote continued growth of Waynesville.

“We’d still be looking at Dayco if we stuck with the ordinance as originally written,” Benson said. The site of the old Dayco rubber factory sat empty for several years before developers chose it as the location for the new Super Wal-Mart.

Even if the land use plan isn’t perfectly followed, Benson said just having it in place encourages smarter development.

“We’re not getting everything the ordinance envisioned, but we’re seeing better development than we would otherwise,” he said.

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.

Members of the land use plan review committee

Each town board member appointed one person to the land use plan review committee. Those five are: Steve Kaufman, David Blevins, Patrick Bradshaw, Joe Taylor and Ken Wilson. Three other members will serve due to their role on existing town committees or boards: Planning Board Chairman Rex Feichter, Board of Adjustment Chairman Mike Erwin, and Community Appearance Commission Chairman Daniel Hyatt.


While sales of new vehicles have plummeted, the service side of the automotive industry is holding steady as people opt to keep their old cars and trucks running.

“So far, it’s extremely busy,” said Earl Hannon, service department director at Anderson Chevrolet in Waynesville. “We’re running about 50 cars a day.”

Scott Rodes, owner of a GM dealership in Sylva, said his service department has seen increased business because people are fixing their old cars rather than trading them in.

At Walker Service in Waynesville, owner Clayton Walker is thankful that business has remained steady and on point with this time last year. He’s noticed some effects from the economy, though — customers are opting for minor repairs or spacing out repairs rather than paying for a lot of work at once.

“People are real tight with their money right now,” Walker said. “They’re real hesitant about big repairs. The main thing for them is just keeping the car safe.”

Joe Taylor, owner of Taylor automotive in Waynesville, says customers are being vigilant about upkeep of their current vehicle.

“People are doing maintenance,” he said.

A last resort

Some continue to pay for repairs simply because they never have enough cash upfront to purchase a new vehicle. They may be living paycheck to paycheck, or are unable to get a loan due to the credit crunch. Or, once they get a little money saved, it has to go toward yet another repair.

“Every time you get money saved up, something else happens,” lamented Mark Michaux, 40, of Waynesville. Michaux finally had to take his 1995 Ford Aerostar van in for repairs after he couldn’t fix it himself. He and his fiancé share the vehicle.

The van is the only means of transportation Michaux’s fiancé has to get to her job at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. The couple has no choice but to keep the vehicle running.

“She’s got to have a way to get back and forth to work,” Michaux said. “It’s not a matter of cost-effectiveness, it’s a matter of logistics.”

Even if Michaux wanted to trade the vehicle in, he points out that he’d still have to invest in repairs.

“It’s got to be running to trade,” he said.


The idea of using the region’s readily accessible natural resources in daily life is nothing new in the mountains, a place where people have traditionally turned plants and animals into everything from medicine to baskets to clothes. Today, officials are pondering whether those resources could be used on a larger scale to establish a natural products industry.

Using biodiversity as a tool for economic development was a major topic of discussion at a recent conference of the Tennessee Valley Corridor, attended by scientists, naturalists and economic development officials from several states.

“If you look at Western North Carolina, it has its own unique bioregion — so we have to take advantage of what’s here in the mountains,” said Daniel Simberloff, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee and one of the speakers at the conference.

What is here is an astoundingly diverse array of flora and fauna. To get a picture of just how diverse the region is, consider that an ongoing study in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has uncovered 890 new species in the Park as well as 6,129 species not previously thought to dwell there.

Other communities have successfully turned their diverse environment into a tool for economic development, said Cheryl McMurray, director of the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville. Utah is one. The state has the largest cluster of naturalist product companies in the United States — 177 companies are responsible for 18,000 jobs and a multi-billion dollar industry.

Already, groups here are studying the economic possibilities presented by the Appalachian region’s biodiversity. One is the Bent Creek Institute in Asheville, which researches the medicinal properties of native plants. The institute is currently examining twelve regionally located medicinal plants with cancer-fighting properties, McMurray told audience members.

The community college system is also getting on board with the burgeoning natural products industry, according to Jonathan Lawrie, an AB Tech professor who addressed the audience. Haywood Community College received a grant to research outdoor cultivation of medicinal plants. Students there are also working to reproduce endangered plants through micropropogation, basically using leaves instead of seeds to create a new plant. In doing so, they hope to preserve the biodiversity of the region.

Students at the Bionetwork Natural Products Lab at AB Tech test micropropogated plants to prove their potency is equivalent to those that grow in the wild and are imported from other places, like China.

“It’s important to leave the native plants alone and stop people form harvesting and destroying habitats,” said Lawrie. “You want to demonstrate that the plants that are cultivated are equivalent to the wild plants, and preserve biodiversity by not harvesting the wild ones.”

The success of a natural products industry in Western North Carolina is contingent upon the region’s sustained biodiversity, which already faces several threats. One high-profile species under siege is the hemlock tree, which is being killed off by an invasive bug called the wooly adelgid. If the hemlock disappears, effects on the ecosystem could be far-reaching.

“What will be the impact on other species as hemlocks disappear?” asked Simberloff.

For example, said Simberloff, two species of beetle have been discovered that eat snails found mostly in hemlock litter. As hemlocks die out, the beetles will lose their food source.

McMurray said the region’s biodiversity means species could be dying out that haven’t even been discovered.

“What’s out there that we’re losing before we even know about it?” she questioned.


Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick took the helm as the new chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners this week.

Every two years following a commissioner election, the five members appoint a chairman from among their ranks. The chairman conducts meetings, guides discussion and generally influences policy by steering the board’s agenda.

Kirkpatrick received unanimous support for the post from the other commissioners at their meeting Monday (Dec. 1), despite rumblings that incoming Commissioner Mark Swanger would have liked to claim the role.

The position is a first for Kirkpatrick, 40, a real estate lawyer and father of three children ranging in age from 11 to 16. He’s currently the longest serving member on the board and will take the helm from outgoing Chairman Larry Ammons, who lost re-election during the May primary.

During his six years as commissioner, Kirkpatrick has become known as a proponent of recreation and more recently for his leadership during the Haywood Regional Medical Center crisis.

Commissioner Bill Upton, who nominated Kirkpatrick for the post, described him as someone who “truly cares about his fellow man,” and a good leader.

“I based it on my observing Kirk for the last two years, especially when he jumped in with the (hospital’s) future directions committee,” Upton said. “At this point, I think he is the right person for the job. He has the personality to pull our board together.”

Some thought Swanger would claim the post of chairman, however. Swanger, who made a come back as the top vote-getter in both the primary and general election, was serving as chairman when he was voted off the board two years ago. He’d also served two terms as chairman of the county school board.

“I believe I am the most qualified to serve as chairman,” Swanger told The Smoky Mountain News after he was elected last month.

In the run-up to selection of a chairman, behind-the-scenes jockeying generally goes on, with some commissioners throwing their name in the ring and the others trading insight on who they might support. This year was no exception.

Swanger said he learned prior to Monday’s vote for chairman that Kirkpatrick had the support of the two incumbent board members — Upton and Skeeter Curtis — and therefore the necessary votes to win the position.

“I knew that a decision had been made and there was no point in challenging an inevitable decision,” Swanger said.

Incoming commissioner Kevin Ensley said he had intended to nominate Swanger for chairman until he learned Kirkpatrick already lined up the necessary votes, with Curtis and Upton in his corner. Kirkpatrick relayed this to Ensley, and Ensley dropped the idea of nominating Swanger.

Ensley said he hadn’t realized that Kirkpatrick would be interested.

“Kirk was my second choice, not my first,” Ensley said. “I haven’t thought about Kirk, because in the past I didn’t think he’d have the time to be chairman. If he puts forth the time it’s going to take, I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”

Kirkpatrick has often been viewed as the commissioner with the most outside responsibility — such as three young children and a demanding job.

Kirkpatrick, who works mainly in real estate law, said the decline in real estate caused by the economic downturn has actually freed up his time.

“I just feel I’m ready to do this, whether it’s a calling or a sense of responsibility,” Kirkpatrick said.

Ensley doesn’t agree with Haywood County’s method of selecting a commissioner chairman, which means only the five board members have a say. In other counties, including Swain, Jackson and Macon, candidates specifically run for the seat of chairman and are elected to the post by voters. Haywood’s process pits board members against one another if more than one person wants the chairman post.

“It seems already off the bat, there’s a division there,” Ensley said.

Upton said in his view, any of the board members could have been chairman.

“I really believe there should be five people on the board that could be chairman, and I think all five could be, but at this point in time I think Kirk’s the right person for the job,” Upton said.

Kirkpatrick and Swanger frequently found themselves on opposite sides of controversial issues when serving on the board together from 2002 until 2006, including their stance on the justice center, restructuring the EDC, and the firing of former County Manager Jack Horton.


After a 15-month legal battle, Haywood County can finally claim ownership free and clear over a 22-acre tract in the Jonathan Creek area that the county wants to make a recreation park.

The county paid $1.1 million for the parcel in August of 2007, then spent more than a year locked in a title dispute over the property. A farmer leasing the land claimed it had been promised to him by the elderly property owner.

Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said the case was dismissed on Nov. 24 following a settlement between the seller and the man who laid claim to the parcel.

The county bought the property during a protracted bidding war in the summer of 2007. The county was pushed from its initial bid of $693,000 to a price tag of $1.1 million as the bidding war played out. The town of Maggie Valley chipped in $100,000 toward the purchase after commissioners swore they wouldn’t go over $1 million.

Some commissioners — although not all — knew up front that a small “cloud” hung over the title when they bought it. However, dissolving the cloud turned out to be much more complex and time-consuming than the county had anticipated.

Newly-elected Commissioner Kevin Ensley has questioned whether the board had acted too hastily in the bidding war.

“I’m glad to hear it got cleared up, but I was disappointed it wasn’t resolved before we closed on it,” said Ensley.

The parcel was part of a 300-acre former dairy farm. When Lucius Jones, the owner of the farm, became unable to care for himself, the conservator of his estate carved out a chunk of the property to sell in order to pay for his care.

However, a man named Greg Ferguson, who once rented the farm, claimed Jones had willingly signed a statement giving Ferguson the property upon Jones’ death. Conversely, Jones’ estate claimed Ferguson had tricked Jones into signing over the property.

In last month’s settlement, Jones’ estate paid Ferguson to get him to drop the suit and allow the sale of the land to the county to be finalized. The cost of the suit and the settlement were both paid by the seller. The county didn’t incur costs related to the title snafu, according to David Teague, the county’s public information officer.

After months of legal wrangling, the county is ready to move on and focus on plans for the 22 acres on Jonathan Creek.

“A dismissal was filed, and what that does is clear up the cloud on the title and therefore it frees up the property to do a couple of things,” said Kirkpatrick.

The county’s first step, Kirkpatrick said, is to take back the money it plunked down up front for the land and instead finance the property. Haywood County is facing tough economic times and a tight budget, and financing the land will allow the county to put the cash back into its fund balance.

With so much cash on the line, the county was dangerously close to the minimum fund balance required by the local government commission. Counties must maintain a cash reserve of 8 percent, or one month of operating costs, but the county is currently at 9 percent.

“Hopefully, we will move from 9 percent to 11 or 12 percent,” said Kirkpatrick.

While the title hurdle has been cleared, the county is far from turning the raw farm land into a recreation park. There’s little certainty on how that will happen.

“My attitude now is, we have the land, so I think we need to do whatever we can to develop it,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

However, the county is currently short on funds to spend on extras like recreation.

“The problem is obviously that the economy is not real good right now and neither is our budget — it’s fairly tight,” said Kirkpatrick.

“We’d have to start off with grants, to say the least,” said Upton. “We don’t have any extra money to do anything.”

The recreation advisory board will likely help the county secure grant funding, said Kirkpatrick. But even if a grant is obtained, the county may not be able to ante up matching funds if that’s a stipulation.

“If it takes a match, we have to think, do we have money available right now at this time?” Kirkpatrick said. “Obviously you want to move forward with the plans but tough times call for tough decisions, and it may not be the appropriate time to do that.”


Construction of a new center for seniors in Swain County has ground to a halt because the project has run out of money.

The 6,000-square-foot facility, which sits atop a hill next to the new Swain County jail, will remain just a shell of a building until the nonprofit that operates the senior center, Community Services of Swain, is able to secure grants to finish the project.

Finding the money to complete the center, however, may be a challenge. Foundations that have traditionally provided dollars for such projects are tightening their purse strings in light of the economic downturn.

“With the way the economy is, the funders have all started to pull their heads in,” said Ken Mills, chairman of Community Services of Swain and the county’s economic development director.

The nonprofit needs $150,000 to complete the center, Mills said, but has applied for close to $1 million in grants, hedging its bets that enough comes through. So far, they’ve secured one $7,000 grant — far from the total needed.

Rejections have been common, and most sound the same, said Mills. Foundations cite economic conditions and restrictions on their investment pools as reasons they denied the request.

Senior Center executive director Betty Seay is disappointed in the delay. She’s been lobbying for a new building for 20 years.

“We need it desperately,” she said. “We’re packed in so tight, and our programs have grown over the years. There’s just not enough space.”

Currently, the center is housed in Swain’s historic courthouse and struggles with tight space and a host of age-related problems. Seniors eat, play bingo, exercise, sing, hold special programs and have health department checkups in 1,400 square feet of space.

Parking is also an issue, and Seay says she’s losing some of her regulars who come for meals because they can’t find a parking spot in the busy downtown district.

Seay thought her dream of a new senior center had come to fruition when construction started last year.

“The commissioners told us we had enough grants to build a building. However, there’s a glitch — we can’t get into it as planned because we’ve run out of money,” she said.

A bird in the hand

When the county broke ground on the senior center, it had grants totalling $250,000 already in hand. County leaders knew it wasn’t enough, but decided to start with hopes the rest would come through as they went.

There is question of whether Community Services of Swain should have gone ahead with construction of the Center without all the funding lined up. But the group says it didn’t want to take too long to start the project and risk losing some of the grants it had already acquired.

“We didn’t want them to turn around and say we couldn’t have the money because we were taking too long,” Mills said. “We knew if we could get it to this point, and get the building finished on the outside, that’s a leap in getting the project finished.”

However, “we’re sick about the way the timing went,” he added.

Mills said a half-finished project could hopefully give the county leverage in securing a grant.

Right now, the nonprofit can do little except wait for a grant to come through so the senior center can be completed.

“We’ve got all these applications out, and right now we’re in a holding pattern,” Mills said. “If we don’t see something in 60 days, we go back through the cycles again.”

If grants don’t come through, Mills isn’t sure what the organization will do except delay the project further. There’s a possibility the county could pitch in, since it benefits many Swain residents. That option was discussed at one point, but now, the county is strapped for cash.

“If we needed to invest county dollars, we were going to do that,” said Glenn Jones, chairman of the county commissioners. “But times is hard, and we just cannot get the money right now. We don’t want to put ourselves in a bind.”

County Manager Kevin King said the county could potentially lease the property from the nonprofit, freeing them up to get a loan to finish the project. Jones said, though, that loans could be hard to come by.

“There’s no money right now to borrow or anything,” he said. “In other years, they would have borrowed money, but the economic times has hit us right now, as it’s hit every other county.”

Community Services of Swain hopes learn whether they were successful in securing additional funding in the next couple of months. Meanwhile, seniors have had to cancel plans for a Christmas open house in the new senior center facility.

“We were going to go in for Christmas and have an open house, and we got all excited about it,” Seay said.


The new executive director of Folkmoot USA, Haywood County’s famed international dance festival, is perfectly poised to help the event’s multinational participants adjust to their unfamiliar surroundings — after all, she’s a newcomer here herself.

Karen Babcock, 47, was recently hired as the third full-time executive director in Folkmoot’s 25-year history. Babcock hails from Maryland, where she spent the past11 years as associate director for the non-profit Ladew Topiary Gardens. While visiting friends a year and a half ago, Babcock fell in love with the culture and scenery of Haywood County.

Itching for a new challenge, Babcock was alerted to the Folkmoot position by a friend. It turned out to be a perfect fit for Babcock, a world traveler who’s always had a flare for international culture.

“From the time I was a child, my parents would host kids from across the globe through a student exchange program,” she said. “That was my first taste of international world and cultures.”

The Folkmoot job also allows Babcock to combine her love of the arts. She holds English and writing degrees and was in charge of a series of 10 high-profile summer concerts at her previous job.

“I’ve always loved music,” she said. “I listen to music all the time, and I especially love world music.”

Babcock was drawn to Folkmoot because it fit with her passions, but she was also taken by the uniqueness of the festival. Every year, dancing troupes from about a dozen countries spanning the globe perform and live in close quarters for two weeks.

“What makes it unique and very special at the same time is that it brings together people from all over the world,” she said. “We create a little village here, and in that time period people break down boundaries and forge relationships. It’s like a little Olympic village of athletes, but it’s a village of musicians and performers.”

Babcock’s only been in her position a few days, so she says it’s too early to detail her plans for Folkmoot.

“I’m in observation mode, and I’ll work with the board of directors to institute changes that we agree upon,” she said.

She does know that her first focus will be on fundraising.

“Folkmoot really depends upon people’s donations and contributions,” she said.

To garner support, Babcock wants to raise the festival’s profile.

“I believe Folkmoot is one of the most unique events in the country,” she said. “It has quite a lot of notoriety in a good way and lots of positive buzz bout it. One of the things I’d love to do is raise the profile outside of the state and region.”

Babcock will also be working to establish connections within the community as she gets to know her new hometown.

“My first business has to be getting to know everybody and understanding who everybody is in the community, and to forge new relations and partnerships,” she said.

Folkmoot Executive Board President Scott McLeod said Babcock stood out among a field of high-quality candidates.

“Karen was our unanimous choice, and we are excited about what she will bring to the festival and the community,” McLeod said. “We encourage Folkmoot volunteers and festival supporters to stop by the Folkmoot Center and introduce themselves.”

Meanwhile, the Folkmoot Board of Directors kept busy while they searched for a new director, and are already well underway recruiting groups to perform next summer.

Several board members traveled to Turkey last month for the International Council of Organizations of Folklore Festivals and Folk Art, Babcock said. Folkmoot has extended invites to groups in five countries and will aim to secure a total of nine groups for next year’s festival.


Tom McDevitt, the former director of the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health who resigned amid scrutiny last fall, was barely out the door when he was tapped by the state to head up a mental health agency down east plagued by turmoil of its own.

The state’s move to replace one director who was fired for mismanagement with another director who resigned under suspicion of conflict of interest caused a public outcry, forcing the state to rethink its decision.

It was announced on Tuesday, Jan. 20, that Leza Wainwright, director of the state Division of Mental Health, had tapped McDevitt to head up the Albemarle Mental Health Center, based in Elizabeth City. The board of the Albemarle Center had asked the state to assume control of its agency following a period of gross mismanagement that culminated with the firing of agency director Charles Franklin.

Wainwright chose McDevitt, who resigned his position as leader of the Sylva-based Smoky Mountain Center in September following intense board scrutiny over some of his actions, including his pay, perks he provided for himself and his family, and heavy-handed leadership style. McDevitt continues to serve as the director of the Evergreen Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Smoky Mountain Center.

The Elizabeth City-based newspaper The Daily Advance wrote of McDevitt’s appointment last week, pointing out that McDevitt had resigned from his previous job after red flags were raised about his activities.

It wasn’t long before comments from readers began flooding the newspaper’s Web site. Many seemed appalled that the Albemarle agency had put its trust in the state, only to see the state replace one fired director with another who had resigned under scrutiny.

Meanwhile, officials associated with the Albemarle agency were struggling to understand the state’s decision to appoint McDevitt.

“One of the ironies is that Albemarle asked for the state to come in and give them a director because of the problems they were having with a director, and now you have this situation,” said Albemarle Mental Health Center’s board attorney John Morrison. “The state was aware we had similar issues — I wonder why they would send (McDevitt) here.”

Pasquotank County Commissioner Chairman Marshall Stevenson said he was “very concerned.”

“He’s got baggage — we don’t need somebody like that,” Stevenson said of McDevitt.

On Thursday, Jan. 22, two days after McDevitt’s appointment, McDevitt and Wainwright attended a meeting with the Albemarle agency’s board of directors. Before the meeting, Wainwright told The Daily Advance that she was aware of the controversies surrounding McDevitt when she tapped him as director, and that they were greatly exaggerated. Wainwright commended McDevitt’s handling of the Smoky Mountain Center’s finances and the changes he had implemented as its director.

But just one day later, Wainwright did an about-face and announced McDevitt would no longer be appointed as the director of the Albemarle agency. She told The Daily Advance that scrutiny over McDevitt’s alleged activities at the Smoky Mountain Center would make it difficult to cultivate much-needed trust at the Albemarle agency.


State questions McDevitt’s severance pay

Not only has McDevitt missed out on the appointment to head another mental health agency, but he could lose his generous severance package from the Smoky Mountain Center.

The N.C. Department of State Treasurer last month weighed in on McDevitt’s severance package, which is equivalent to a year’s salary. The hefty sum may not be legal under state statutes. Specifically, state statute bars one employee from getting benefits not afforded to everyone else within an agency.

The treasurer’s office investigated the severance pay based on complaints from the public. It consulted with attorneys from the UNC School of Government in the process, which pointed out case precedent as well as state statutes.

“It appears that the one year’s severance pay is not permitted,” the state treasurer’s office wrote in a letter to the Smoky Mountain Center’s board. The state instructed the board to review the matter with its attorney, Jay Coward. Coward has been in communication with the state over the issue, but the board has not yet discussed whether to revoke the severance, something that will likely take place at an upcoming meeting, according to Board Member Dana Jones.

The state will keep an eye on the matter to make sure the board resolves it, said Sara Lang, director of communications for the state treasurer’s office.

“Staff of the Local Government Commission must ensure that this issue has been thoroughly reviewed from a legal standpoint and that public funds are being spent in accordance with the law,” Lang said.


Five candidates vying to be the next Haywood County Sheriff appeared at a question and answer forum Saturday, Jan. 24 before a crowd of almost 100, the majority of which were members of the Haywood County Democratic Party executive committee.

The written questions posed by the audience were varied, from how each candidate would handle a crisis to methods for combating the local drug problem to why they are the best choice to succeed outgoing Sheriff Tom Alexander.

Alexander will retire from the post he’s held for 22 years on Feb. 2. Sheriffs are usually elected to office, but since Alexander still has two years left in his term, the county’s Democratic executive committee — composed of all Democratic elected officials, plus party chairs and vice chairs from each of the 31 Haywood precincts — must appoint a replacement. The committee will vote Feb. 7 for a new sheriff, and county commissioners must approve the choice.

Here’s a sampling of the questions asked, along with the candidates’ answers:

Q: What do you think the personality of the sheriff should reflect?

Hollifield: A sheriff must be approachable. “Make yourself available and always carry yourself in a professional way.”

Suttles: A sheriff should be honest and fair, and someone that people know they can always come in and talk to.

Allen: “First of all, the sheriff needs to have a very positive attitude.”

Ezell: Integrity is the most important trait. “That is paramount.” The sheriff also needs to be an effective communicator who can easily talk to people.

Gilliland: “You have to have a heart for service, and you have to have a heart for the people of Haywood County.” Dedication and approachability are also important. “I’m dedicated to this county — I have never wanted to leave and go somewhere else.”

Q: What makes you the best candidate?

Hollifield: “Even though I’ve been out of law enforcement for quite some time, I have not forgotten the professionalism. The law applies to every person, and I will make sure that the laws are enforced.” He also promises to crack down on underage drinking in particular.

Suttles: Experience — he’s had 35 years of law enforcement experience, including 15 years in the sheriff’s department. He’s most familiar with the inner workings of the sheriff’s office. “I’ve trained under Sheriff Tom, and he’s run a good ship.”

Allen: Law enforcement experience in different areas — he’s worked across various judicial districts, and worked with officers to prepare cases for trial.

Ezell: His experience as a polygraph examiner and inspector for the U.S. Postal Service has given him “broad perspective dealing not only with state agencies, but federal agencies and law enforcement; also makes me appreciate the conditions we have to operate within and gives me an appreciation of what citizens expect from the sheriff’s department.”

Gilliland: He has diversified work experience, from law enforcement to business, which is critical for a sheriff, who must “wear many hats.”

Q: How would you handle budget concerns with the county commissioners?

Hollifield: “What I would attempt to do is cut out excess spending.” He’ll also request the State Bureau of Investigation conduct an audit to make sure everything is in place.

Suttles: Said the current sheriff’s department budget is $3.7 million, more than half of which goes toward running the county’s jail. “We’ve already cut back some, but I know they’re going to ask for another cut. We don’t want to lay off anybody. We’ll take a look at it, and I’m sure we’ll find a way to cut it back somewhere.”

Allen: Would maintain an open dialogue with the county manager.

Ezell: Would break the budget down item by item. “Then, identify those areas that are completely critical. Those are the things that can’t be cut. Then you look at what’s left, and you try to make it as cost effective as you possibly can.”

Gilliland: Would seek out federal and state grants to ease budget constraints.

Sheriff candidates:

• Raymond Ezell — Retired polygraph examiner for U.S. Postal Service; former criminal investigator for postal service, B.S. in Criminology

• Ken Hollifield — Former highway patrolman and sheriff’s deputy; currently a truck driver

• Bobby Suttles — Current chief deputy and 14-year employee of sheriff’s department; former Waynesville police officer

• Albert Allen — Former highway patrolman; currently chief of security at Haywood Regional Medical Center

• Russell Gilliland — Current Maggie Valley police officer; formerly owner/operator of HVAC Electrical Company


A hulking space in the strip mall along U.S. 74 in Clyde that has sat vacant since the departure of Wal-Mart could get a new tenant — the Haywood County departments of Health and Social Services.

A new building to house both departments is the next project on the county’s list of capital improvements. A larger and more conducive space for DSS, which is currently housed in the county’s decades-old former hospital, has been a particular priority. The county is currently shelling out almost $30,000 per year to maintain the cramped, run-down DSS building.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the building is not adequate,” said County Commissioner Mark Swanger. “It’s in disrepair and it’s very expensive to maintain. You’re dealing with an almost 80-year-old building.”

DSS has almost completely outgrown its space.

“They’re pushing maximum capacity and in some cases they’re really pushing the limits of being able to provide services in the space they have,” said County Manager David Cotton.

Relocating the county departments to the old Wal-Mart location would provide thousands more feet of space.

The move may also provide the county with the best hope of finding a tenant for the empty big box structure. Competition to attract tenants is set to increase in Haywood County as the amount of empty space increases.

Goody’s clothing store is going out of business nationally and will leave behind a store front in a strip mall in Waynesville. Home Depot canceled plans at the last minute to open a new store in Waynesville, leaving a gaping site in a brand new big box retail complex where Super Wal-Mart moved to.

And in the wake of a cratering economy, most large retail chains aren’t in the market for new locations. Belk’s clothing store, currently located near Ingles, once expressed interest in relocating to the old Wal-Mart building to give it more space, but the company changed its mind.

“Right now, there’s not a whole lot of retailers that are looking to expand,” said Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director. “Everybody’s pretty cautious right now. The county’s interest (in the Wal-Mart property) is very encouraging.”

Old retail outlets or malls that have been repurposed as office space are known as greyfields, said Clasby, and it’s a phenomenon that’s happening around the country. In Buncombe County, commissioners are currently looking at converting the Biltmore Square Mall, which is for sale, into a county office building.

The relocation of county offices to the old Wal-Mart building isn’t definite, although county commissioners discussed the purchase in closed session. The county has asked Cotton to explore the possibility of the Wal-Mart site, but officials are investigating other options. Those include everything from renovating the current building used by DSS to finding a vacant parcel and building a new facility, Cotton said.

The economic downturn has tightened the county’s budget, which may lead some to question the county’s timing of buying or building a new facility. But the current economy has presented some good deals, said Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick.

“Now’s the time to take advantage of lower costs in loans, construction and purchase of property,” he said.

Money from the proposed federal stimulus package could help finance the purchase or construction of a facility, said Cotton, though it’s unclear how long it will take for the money to trickle down to local governments.


It was the ultimate David and Goliath battle. North Carolina officials, fed up with coal-fired power plants pumping pollution into their state, took on the nation’s largest public power company — the Tennessee Valley Authority — and won.

The landmark ruling, handed down Jan. 13 in federal court in Asheville, forces TVA to spend more than $1 billion upgrading emissions controls on four of the company’s coal-fired power plants that are located within 100 miles of the North Carolina border.

The lawsuit called on TVA to clean up nine plants, but the ruling will only apply to the four closest to the state’s border. Such a lawsuit has been in the state’s game plan for years. But first, the state had to clean up its own utilities, achieved with the NC Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002. The act was intended to give North Carolina the “moral high ground” to demand TVA do the same. The act directed the attorney general to use all resources, including litigation, to demand emissions reductions from polluting plants in other states.

Attorney General Roy Cooper referred to the state’s lawsuit as “a last resort” after requests to get TVA to clean up failed.

The outcome of the lawsuit marks a crucial victory for Western North Carolina in particular, a region that has long born the brunt of TVA’s damaging effects. Air pollution here has damaged lungs, clouded vistas, poisoned fish and pumped soil and water with toxic chemicals.

“TVA is responsible for decreasing the health of this entire region,” said Will Harlan, an ultra-athlete and executive editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine who testified at the trial. “They’ve had many opportunities to modernize their equipment and install pollution control devices at low costs, and every time they’ve chosen to skirt the law, find loopholes, and put profit over public health. It’s finally catching up to them — the public is not standing for it anymore.”


A varied legacy

TVA wasn’t always seen as the bad guy. When the authority was established in 1933, it was hailed for bringing electricity to rural Appalachia, and along with it jobs and prosperity. Although many locals resented TVA for manipulating their natural resources, it can be easy to turn a blind eye to something potentially harmful if it’s supporting one’s livelihood, says Avram Friedman, a Sylva resident and the director of the Canary Coalition, a clean air advocacy group based in Western North Carolina. Just look at some of today’s examples.

“They’re aware of it, but still see the dollar signs,” said Friedman. “You go down to Forest City and a lot of people are employed by Duke Energy, and it’s a tremendous boon to the economy, so they’re blinded by the health effects. People in Canton are in denial about the impact of Blue Ridge Paper.”

But the same technology that was hailed for improving life in rural Appalachia has also made the region’s residents sick. Alarmingly, North Carolina ranks fourth in the nation in terms of the number of deaths (1,800 each year) linked to power plant particulates, according to information on the North Carolina Division of Air Quality’s Web site.

Asthma is the most common illness linked to power plant pollution. One in three children in Western North Carolina have experienced an asthma attack, according to statistics quoted by Friedman.

But it was the terrifying experience of a healthy adult — Harlan — that experts at the trial relied on as they attempted to prove the direct link between TVA’s air pollution and health problems.

Harlan was an unlikely victim. He has no history of the disease, and as an ultra-distance runner he possesses healthier lungs than most of the population. But on a 72-mile run through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Harlan’s breathing became labored and he felt a heavy tightness in his chest.

“My breathing got really bad to the point where I could barely walk,” Harlan recounts. “It was really scary.”

Alone and stumbling over rocks in the dark, Harlan couldn’t make it to the shelter where his wife was waiting with food and water five miles away. He waited out the attack, then finished his run the next morning. Immediately, Harlan set out to find what had caused his bizarre experience.

The several specialists Harlan visited concurred that he had suffered a pollution-induced respiratory attack. Unbeknownst to Harlan, there had been an ozone warning in effect for the Park the day of his run.

The attorney general’s office heard about Harlan’s experience and asked him to be a witness in the trial against TVA.

“Up until this point it had been a lot of numbers. This helped put a face on the effects of air pollution,” Harlan said.

The strategy proved damning to TVA’s case. The attorneys didn’t challenge Harlan’s testimony, instead opting to get him off the stand as quickly as possible.

“Evidence and statistics are easily debated, but they don’t’ want to see that human side, because that can be really eye opening,” Harlan said. “They’d rather keep it in the realm of facts and statistics.”

TVA’s expert epidemiologist tried to cast doubt on the link between air pollution and illness. He “expressed skepticism about whether exposure to (particulate matter) results in adverse cardiopulmonary effects,” according to the final ruling handed down by Federal Court Judge Lacy Thornburg.

The judge didn’t buy it.

“The court believes that TVA’s experts’ suspicion of this conclusion is unwarranted, indeed, their skepticism runs counter to the vast majority of scientific studies,” the ruling states.

Despite Thornburg’s ruling, Harlan says TVA officials were still reluctant to take responsibility for harming the health of citizens in WNC.

“There was no remorse,” he said.


Environmental carnage

The silent witnesses to the devastating effects of TVA’s air pollution — streams, forests, and animals — played an equally integral role in the trial.

“North Carolina alleges that airborne particles from TVA’s electricity generating plants enter North Carolina in unreasonable amounts threatening ... the beauty and purity of a vast natural ecosystem,” Thornburg stated in his ruling.

Even plants in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park suffer the harmful effects of ozone pollution. Research at Purchase Knob in the Haywood County section of the park has linked high-elevation ozone to leaves withering and yellowing, and the plants producing fewer seeds for reproduction.

Impacts on the ecosystem are all to familiar to scientists like Bill Jackson, an air resource specialist with the U.S. Forest Service based in Asheville. According to Jackson, some of the most harmful effects are observed in the region’s streams and rivers. Sulfur dioxide released by coal burning power plants creeps into watersheds and erodes important elements like calcium and magnesium that help keep acidity levels low.

“We have taken quite a few water samples in WNC, and we have documented watersheds that do not have a buffering capacity,” said Jackson. “The acid neutralizing capacity should be a large, positive number. We have streams that when we take measurements, they’re negative.”

If a stream is too acidic, it’s no longer a conducive environment for the many organisms that live there. The smallest organisms, like algae, are the first victims. If the algae dies, insects that rely on it as a food source are threatened.

“And of course we have fish feeding on the insects, and this chain occurs,” says Jackson.

Fish are common victims of pollutants from coal-burning plants. Fish hatcheries in Cherokee have reportedly attributed die-offs in the trout population to sulfur dioxide emissions.

In September, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a warning that mercury linked to coal-burning plants had contaminated the fish, particularly walleye, in Fontana Lake. It was devastating news to locals like Leonard Winchester, whose daily fishing routine and diet were disrupted by the warning.

Winchester, who ate the fish several times a week, was so concerned he sent off blood samples to be checked for mercury contamination. Luckily, he was OK, but has significantly scaled back how much walleye he eats.

“Before I ate a huge plate of walleye, nothing else. There were all these fixings my wife insisted on making but I ate the walleye. The rest I left sitting there,” Winchester said. “Now it might be a little more rationale. I eat two or three pieces of walleye and some of that other stuff.”

He also throws back large walleye, instead keeping the smaller ones with less mercury accumulation in their flesh. Winchester believes the mercury was coming from TVA plants, carried over the mountains in rain clouds. He hopes mercury levels will go down now that TVA has to clean up.

But according to Jackson, the environmental impacts of TVA’s air pollution may, in some cases, be irreversible.

“Some watersheds will improve. Others will not,” he said.


Seeing through the haze

Though it may take a while to see noticeable improvements from TVA’s emissions controls, one change will take effect quickly, says Jackson — namely, improved visibility in the mountains.

Over the years, a growing cloud of haze caused by particulates from coal-burning power plants has slowly enveloped the Smokies, making it difficult to see a long distance. Since 1948, visibility has dipped from an average of 73 miles to 25 miles, according to the National Park Service.

The impact of decreased visibility on the economy of the mountain region was a critical part of North Carolina’s suit against TVA. The state argued that the haze caused by TVA’s air pollution was costing the state billions of dollars in tourism revenue.

But the views will clear quickly once TVA installs the emission controls mandated in the lawsuit, Jackson said.

“Improvements in visibility start occurring within days that the pollution control devices are operating,” he said. “If we could shut off all the coal fired power plants, in two or three days visibility everywhere would be absolutely fantastic.”

Even though TVA is only putting controls on four power plants, “you will see a difference,” Jackson said. “You’ll have more days that are clearer and that you can see further.”


A day in court

In the beginning, Harlan and many others harbored doubts that North Carolina could really win its case against TVA.

“I knew that the TVA had been getting away with things for years,” Harlan said. “There were not a lot of previous cases that had succeeded in stopping TVA from doing whatever it wanted. I knew the cards were stacked against us, and I didn’t know if that could be overcome.”

Harlan thinks the case will encourage other states to assert their rights to clean air.

“Now, any state can sue any other state for pollution crossing the border,” he said. “That will lead to federal intervention and force the EPA to take more serious action.”

Friedman says the lawsuit’s impact all depends on how TVA responds to it.

“If they take care of it now, they set a great precedent, but if they spend resources appealing the process, it could go on for years and years,” he said.

But real improvement to air quality will only occur when coal-burning plants are replaced by cleaner technology, said Friedman.

“I think ultimately, what’s really going to have an impact is when we take measures to reduce energy consumption and begin to replace power plants,” he said.

But will consumers demand a move toward alternative technologies? Harlan thinks so, as people become more aware of the detrimental effects of burning coal.

“I think there’s been a very heightened awareness of how coal-fired electricity generation is harming the health of people,” he said.

Power companies are aware of this shift in public perception, Harlan said.

“I think they are realizing that the tide is turning against them, and they’re kind of desperately trying to change their image by promoting clean coal as a way of greenwashing their image,” he said. “I think people are seeing through the latest clean coal gimmick, and it will require (the power companies) to make meaningful changes.”


Canton Mayor Pat Smathers is determined to realize his dream of turning a historic house in downtown Canton into a hotel, restaurant and retail space— and he wants taxpayers to help fund it.

Smathers has sat on the 129-year-old building for 10 years, dabbling in its renovation here and there, waiting for the right people and opportunity. Finally, he has a plan in order, which includes a boutique hotel, “unique” restaurant run by a local couple, extended stay apartments and retail spaces. He hopes to pay for much of the project through two grants — one for $25,000 and one for $120,000 — from the North Carolina Rural Center. He’s also putting up $120,000 of his own money.

The grant pool, dubbed the Building Reuse and Restoration Program, is a pot of money dedicated to “spur economic and job activity and job creation by assisting in the productive reuse of vacant buildings in small towns.”

Smathers says he’s applying for the money because he needs capital; but also because he thinks his project fits the grant’s goal of spurring job creation. He says he can create 10 restaurant jobs, four hotel jobs and five retail jobs — assuming he can find shopkeepers willing to lease the retail spaces, which he hasn’t so far.

Smathers couldn’t apply for the money on his own, because it’s only awarded to local governments. He asked Haywood County commissioners to sign their name to the application, which they agreed to unanimously last week.

While most entrepreneurs seek loans from a bank, take out a second mortgage on their home or borrow from their nest egg to launch a business venture, Smathers isn’t sure whether he could get a loan from a bank for this project.

“Financial institutions aren’t doing much investment in small towns,” Smathers explained. “And if they’re not getting involved in the communities, then I do think it’s the role of government to sort of prime the pump.”

In this case, that means grants funded by state taxpayers. But Smathers said the project has more service industry jobs.

Downtown revitalization has been a major goal for the town of Canton, and Smathers hopes his project will spur other businesses to open in the area. Mark Clasby, the Haywood County Economic Development director, thinks Smathers’ project will do just that.

“I’m excited about this and I think it’s a great opportunity to help downtown Canton revitalize,” Clasby said.

Canton Alderman Troy Mann is a bit more hesitant in his optimism.

“If the project could ever be completed, it might help,” Mann said. “I think it could be an asset, but I’m not going to say it’s going to be as productive as some have said.”

It’s not that Mann doesn’t want the project to be a success — he does. It’s just that he’s seen too many businesses come and go downtown and questions Canton’s potential to chase a tourist-based economy.

“You don’t have enough of a population base to support some businesses, and that’s the reason the businesses don’t exist,” he said. “No matter what kind of business goes in there, if you don’t have the population, it doesn’t matter.”

Mann thinks there are steps Canton needs to take to lay the groundwork for a downtown revitalization, such as cleaning up the town to make it more attractive to families and establishing a chamber of commerce or merchants association.

In Clasby’s opinion, things like restaurants are a part of that groundwork, and that they help attract other businesses, like retail. He points to the success of downtown Waynesville as an example.

“You look at downtown Waynesville, and it used to be a disaster zone,” said Clasby. “Back in the early ‘90s, there was one restaurant or two. Then others came in, and now there’s a number of restaurants down there.”

Smathers may be taking a risk with his hotel, restaurant and retail project, but a stipulation of the Rural Center grant gives him extra motivation to succeed. If he can’t create the number of jobs he’s promised in two years, he’ll have to pay back the grant money to the Rural Center.


A comprehensive review of the town of Waynesville’s award-winning land use plan is set to begin following the town’s selection last week of a consulting company to lead the process.

The board of aldermen unanimously approved a $54,000 contract with the Lawrence Group, a regional planning firm that recently completed work on the Mountain Landscapes Initiative.

Town Planner Paul Benson called the Lawrence Group “the leading firm in the state with this type of ordinance.”

“We feel like it’s a great fit,” Benson said. “The firm can come in and tie up the loose ends, perfect our regulations and improve the readability; add good graphics to it and make it a more understandable ordinance.”

Benson has come under fire recently for being slow to move the review process along. The entire process was slated to take six months, but in November — the sixth month since the town decided to update the ordinance — Benson had yet to select a consultant to guide the review.

Benson blamed the delay on the large number of permits his office has had to review, as well as two other ongoing studies that have taken up time — the Russ Avenue Corridor Study and Pedestrian Plan.

“We may be moving slow and steady, but we are moving,” Benson told aldermen.

Benson said a town-appointed steering committee intends to meet weekly with the Lawrence Group to facilitate the process. At this point, the town will rely on the committee, not community input, to guide the review.

All told, the review will take almost a year rather than the six months originally budgeted. Benson said the six-month timeline wasn’t realistic.

“I apologize about the optimistic schedule. It wasn’t realistic given the workload we had at the time,” he said.

Mayor Gavin Brown, who has recently expressed discontent with the slow pace of the review process, said he’s ready to move it forward and won’t dwell on the delay.

“I’m not going to worry about yesterday,” he said. “We need to move forward on this.”

Alderman LeRoy Roberson told Benson to keep the town updated.

“I’d like a monthly report about what the committee was doing,” he said. “For months I was kind of in the dark.”


No South Main?

Though the review process is moving ahead, some may feel it’s leaving out the most vital part — South Main Street, a corridor that is rapidly developing due to the opening of Super Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other stores.

Benson said it was too expensive to incorporate a corridor study of South Main Street in the land use review process.

Business owners and Realtors in the South Main area have been some of the most vocal in calling for the land use plan review.

Roger Winge, a Realtor, said he wasn’t able to sell a prime parcel of land to Walgreen’s because the chain took issue with the town’s land use plan. Joe Taylor, chairman of the board of Old Town Bank, said the bank has been waiting for the land use review to be conducted before constructing a permanent building.

Benson noted that even though South Main won’t be incorporated into the town’s review process, the N.C. Department of Transportation is working on its own corridor study of the area. Benson said DOT is considering implementing a 100-foot right of way along South Main and widening it to a four-lane road with a center median, sidewalks and bike lanes.

Town officials, however, said they’d still like to see the area incorporated into a review of the land use plan.

“South Main Street is a hot spot for development right now,” said Town Manager Lee Galloway. “Maybe we can see if there’s some things that are cheaper. We need to talk to (the Lawrence Group) about some smaller scale work, possibly.”

Alderman Libba Feichter agreed that South Main Street should be included.

“I think it’s really, really important to get South Main Street right,” Feichter said. “It needs to be done right. All the advice we can get will make it a better end product.”

Benson said he will talk with the Lawrence Group to see if South Main Street can be worked into the review process.


About the land use plan

In 2003, the Waynesville town board passed a groundbreaking land-use plan that elevated the town to a state example of smart growth principles. The plan calls for landscaped parking lots, sidewalks, street trees and more attractive buildings, with the aim of making Waynesville a more walkable community. Critics of the plan have called the guidelines too onerous and say they deter commercial growth. The town is about to start a review of the plan to make sure it has been effective.


Allegations that the Swain County Sheriff’s Department mishandled the capture of an escaped inmate earlier this month has strained the already-tense relationship between county officials and Sheriff Curtis Cochran.

Jody Smallwood, 37, escaped from a holding room in the Swain County courthouse Jan. 5. The seven-hour search for Smallwood, involving both county and Bryson City law enforcement, ended with a high-speed chase down U.S. 74.

When Smallwood made a last ditch effort to elude capture at the end of the chase, Cochran says he drew his weapon and fired two shots at the tire of the stolen van Smallwood was driving in order to disable the vehicle. Smallwood was then Tased and apprehended, according to local media reports (Cochran wouldn’t comment on the Tasing).

But a letter received by the county, signed “A Concerned Citizen,” claims the capture of Smallwood was mishandled.

“I have reason to believe that the apprehension of an escaped inmate from the Swain County Jail ... was grossly mishandled and that excessive force was used,” the anonymous letter states.

The letter writer claims that Cochran, who has not undergone basic law enforcement training and had no law enforcement experience prior to being elected in 2006, violated policies and procedures put forth by the Swain County Sheriff’s Office by using deadly force to apprehend Smallwood, even though the situation did not present an imminent threat.

The letter also accuses law enforcement officials of unnecessarily beating and Tasing Smallwood repeatedly.

County Clerk Cindi Woodard emailed the letter on Jan. 12 to the board of county commissioners and to two media outlets — the Smoky Mountain News and The Smoky Mountain Times. Though the letter is public record, making public a complaint that reflects negatively on a county department has happened rarely in Swain County.

The county defended its decision to release the letter, saying that emails received by the county’s account are public record, and that media outlets have before requested to be informed of such complaints.

“We just did proper procedure,” said County Manager Kevin King. “It came to (Commissioner Chairman) Glenn Jones, who received it via the county email account. That made it a public document at that point in time. (Media outlets) have indicated that they want to get those letters.”

Jones said he just wanted the county to play it safe, in case the complaints materialized into something bigger.

“What if something happened and you were to come by and say, if you had this letter, why didn’t’ you send it to me?” Jones said.

Jones said he felt the letter was legitimate, although King said it was signed with a false name. King said he had already “heard rumors from other individuals about some of the stuff,” contained in the letter.

Cochran, meanwhile, says the county probably had its own motives for sending out the letter — and it wasn’t to follow protocol.

“I smell politics all over this,” he said.

The sheriff and county officials are currently at odds over a lawsuit that Cochran filed against the county. In it, Cochran, a Republican, demands a pay increase to match the salary of the former sheriff, a Democrat. The sheriff’s salary was slashed when the county did away with a practice that once served as a salary supplement, just as Cochran took office. Cochran claims partisan prejudice played a factor.

But when King was asked whether the lawsuit played a part in the county’s decision to send out a letter that reflected negatively on the sheriff, his answer was, “absolutely not.”

As far as looking further into complaints alleged in the letter, county officials say it’s not their responsibility to oversee the sheriff’s department.

“He’s an elected official, and he’s supposed to take care of his own department,” said Jones.

King agreed.

“We’re not a watchdog of the sheriff — the people are,” King said. “If he’s done wrongdoing, other people would have to bring a suit against the county. We have no control over what the sheriff does.”


Probing the escape

The sheriff’s department has launched an investigation — but not into what happened when Smallwood was apprehended.

“The only thing we’re investigating is how he got out of the holding cell,” said Cochran. “We don’t have an investigation on nothing else.”

There is no statewide policy in place that mandates an investigation when shots are fired. Instead, it’s up to the individual law enforcement agencies.

It may be impossible to ever prove whether Smallwood’s apprehension was handled correctly. But the writer of the anonymous letter received by the county claims that the incident could have gone more smoothly if Cochran, who fired the gun, had undergone basic law enforcement training.

“Maybe this is the kind of law enforcement you have when you give an untrained man a badge and a gun,” it states.

Cochran is quick to defend his lack of experience, and says voters have put their trust in him for a reason.

“I was qualified by the people of Swain County in November of 2006 to be sheriff,” he said.


Democratic officials in Haywood County are gearing up to choose a successor to outgoing Haywood County Sheriff Tom Alexander, who will retire from his post of more than 22 years on Feb. 2.

Sheriffs are usually elected to office, but since Alexander still has two years left in his term, the county’s Democratic Executive Committee must appoint a replacement.

Alexander said he had considered retiring before winning his sixth term in 2006, but wanted to stay on through the completion of the county’s law enforcement and justice center.

The committee is taking resumes for the sheriff post until 5 p.m. on Jan. 21.

Haywood County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Jones said he’s already been contacted by several people who want the sheriff position, but was unsure as of press time how many candidates will vie for the spot (a list of candidates will be available on the Smoky Mountain News Web site after the resume deadline).

“I’ve been contacted by several individuals, but there’s a big difference between contacting and actually doing it,” he said. “We know there will be more than one or two. It’s going to be very interesting.”

The candidates will appear at a forum from 1 to 3 p.m. the following Saturday, Jan. 24, where they’ll state their case for why they should be the next sheriff and field questions from the Democratic Executive Committee.

The executive committee is comprised of an assortment of county Democrats. The group includes all Democratic elected officials — everyone from mayors to the tax collector to the register of deeds — plus the party’s chairs and vice chairs from each of the 31 precincts.

Jones said the committee is taking the responsibility of selecting a new sheriff very seriously.

“We’re charged with electing a person who is capable and qualified of being sheriff for all the citizens of Haywood County,” Jones said. “This is a heavy responsibility, and not something to be taken lightly. We look at it with a heavy sense of duty.”

The executive committee will vote for a sheriff at its Feb. 7 meeting. A candidate must receive 50 percent of the votes plus one additional vote to win election. The committee will hold as many votes as needed until one candidate emerges with the majority.

The executive committee will recommend the winning candidate to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. If commissioners take action and approve the choice at their next possible meeting, the county could have a new sheriff in place as early as Feb. 16.

Chief Deputy Bobby Suttles, the sheriff’s office second in command, will take the helm of the department in the interim between Alexander’s retirement and the selection of a new sheriff.

Alexander’s retirement comes amid allegations that he may be involved in the video poker investigation that has already sent former Buncombe County Sheriff Bobby Medford to prison. A witness during Medford’s trial mentioned the Haywood County sheriff being paid off, and at least two subpoenas have been issued for information about Alexander and the sheriff’s department. No charges have been filed.


A mentally ill man allegedly beat by a Bryson City policeman will not be charged with assaulting the officer involved in the incident.

Jacob Grant, 25, pled guilty last week to a lesser charge of resisting arrest and obstruction of justice and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation.

Bryson City Police Officer Leon Allen claims that Grant swung his elbows at him while Allen was attempting to take Grant into custody on a mental commitment order, but didn’t file the charges until two weeks later following negative media publicity on the alleged beating. Out of 10 witnesses who filed police brutality complaints against Allen, none noted aggression on Grant’s part.

The alleged beating took place on Sept. 15, 2008, when Allen attempted to serve a commitment order to Grant at the request of Grant’s family. The family had taken out of order because Grant, who suffers from schizophrenia, had stopped taking his medicine.

When Grant asked to see the commitment papers, and Allen couldn’t produce them, a verbal argument ensued and allegedly escalated into Allen beating Grant repeatedly, according to numerous witnesses.

“At the time that occurred, Jacob did sustain a fairly substantial number of injuries,” said Grant’s lawyer, Andrew Banzhoff, to Judge Steve Bryant, before asking Bryant to reduce the charges. Banzhoff would not comment on whether he was satisfied with Grant’s plea bargain.

The Grant family has not filed a lawsuit against Allen, who is still working for the Bryson City Police Department. It is possible those charges will be forthcoming, said Banzhoff.

“The Grant family will look at all their options,” he said.


For 25 years, Superior Court Judge Marlene Hyatt has often worked as much as 12 hours a day, five days a week presiding over some of the toughest legal cases in North Carolina. Her job has taken her to every corner of the state to rule over serious crimes, including murder, trafficking, armed robbery, burglary, sex offenses and more.

Hyatt has seen it all — ranging from the woman who chopped her husband up and scattered his remains along the Blue Ridge Parkway to a state trooper killed by a semi-truck on I-40 to a battle to save an old magnolia tree from a developer’s ax.

Though her line of work may have exposed her to some of mankind’s most horrible and heart wrenching acts, she still doesn’t think the world is a bad place. Rather, she maintains a more matter-of-fact view.

“You see the good and the bad, and humankind is what it is,” she said.

Governor Beverly Perdue will appoint Hyatt’s replacement. A local committee has formed to recommend names. An election for the seat will be held in 2010.

When elected resident Superior Court Judge in 1986, Hyatt was the first woman in the state to hold such a position. Now, at age 55, Hyatt is finally stepping off the bench. She wants more free time to do things her demanding schedule hasn’t allowed, like garden. As her judicial career draws to a close, Hyatt sat down with The Smoky Mountain News to reflect on what she’s learned.

“It’s been a really interesting job,” she says.


Most challenging cases

Hyatt has several, but the first that came to her mind was the 2005 civil trial centering around a landslide that killed a woman in Maggie Valley. The trial pitted the late woman’s husband against both the Department of Transportation and the Maggie Valley Sanitary District. Determining just who was at fault in the woman’s death was complex, and the trial resulted in a hung jury. The matter was later settled out of court. “It was very sad,” Hyatt remembers.

In general, Hyatt says medical malpractice cases are some of the hardest to try, and almost always depressing.

“It may or may not be the doctor’s fault, but regardless, there’s a serious injury. Things have happened that were heart wrenching,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, Hyatt says cases resulting in the death penalty are also tough. She hasn’t had any such cases recently, but there have been several in the course of her career.

“There are people that are on death row and some who have been executed whose trial I presided over,” she says. “I think there are some cases where it’s necessary.”

Hyatt prefers civil cases over criminal ones, which she says are more interesting.

“In criminal court, they’re tried with certain offenses, and if they’re found guilty, there’s a sentencing structure. In civil court, it’s usually not as well-defined,” she says. “There are more issues to work out, and it’s more interesting legally.”


Her longest trial

Hyatt’s lengthiest trial lasted six weeks, and is a great example of how broad the scope of her work is. The case, tried in Charlotte, pitted two brothers against one another in a battle over an irrigation company. Their father had started the company, brought his sons in, and then died, leaving them to fight over whose it rightfully was. In many of Hyatt’s trials, such as this one, she walks away with an expanded knowledge of a very specific and random subject.

“I learned a great deal about irrigation equipment,” she says with a chuckle.

Six weeks may not seem that long, compared to, say, the O.J. Simpson trial, which lasted nine months. But Hyatt says lengthy trials like that “wouldn’t happen in North Carolina.” Once a trial begins in this state, its conducted all day long, every day, until a verdict is reached. In contrast, the Simpson trial was recessed for several days at a time and often lasted only a few hours each day.


Keeping emotions in check

No matter how horrible a case is, Hyatt hasn’t let her emotions get in the way of a verdict. It’s the absolute hardest part of the job, she says, and the most critical.

“That’s one of the things you have to learn early on to really do, because you aren’t able to do your job if you let your emotions interfere,” she says. “Regardless of how it may be — whether you feel sorry for somebody, or some who are arrogant and not the kind of people you feel sympathy for, you learn to (keep emotions out). It makes your job very hard if you’re unable to do that.”

Maintaining a neutral stance is how Hyatt is able to move on to her next case, no matter how hard the previous one may have been.

“You give that case the attention it deserves, and that’s the one for that period of time. You do what you need to do, get it to a verdict, sentence if you need to, enter judgment, and go on to the next week,” she says.

Even today, Hyatt still chokes up when talking about the sole trial in 25 years that made her cry on the bench. It was a case in Transylvania County where a mother killed her infant son. The mother was diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis. The woman’s family knew she suffered from mental illness and monitored her and the infant around the clock. One day, for whatever reason, the family left the woman alone with the child for a brief period. It may have only been a few minutes, but when they came back, the child was dead.

Watching a tape where the woman methodically explained to state investigators the motive for killing her son shook Hyatt to the core and was the only time the judge cracked in court.

“I had never cried in a hearing,” she says.


Trends and changes

Overall, the biggest change Hyatt has seen in crime over her career is that there’s more of it — as the state’s population has increased, so have the number of criminal and civil cases.

In terms of the types of crimes circulating through the judicial system, Hyatt says sex offenses have accounted for the largest increase. There are a couple of reasons behind the trend — more people tend to report sex offenses than did in the past, and many more women are willing to come forward.

“At one point in time, women would not talk about it. That’s changed, though I think there’s still some reluctance,” Hyatt says.

The punishments for sex offenders have also changed — now there’s a registry to keep track of them, as well as GPS monitoring.

“We have to determine how long to monitor and which kinds of cases to register, and all of that has become much more complicated,” says Hyatt.

Drugs, namely what types, are another big change Hyatt has witnessed during her years on the bench. When she first started, it was cocaine or marijuana. Then it was crack cocaine and certain prescription drugs. More recently, methamphetamines, some ecstasy and designer drugs have become the most common substances.

“Which is the drug of choice changes. Particularly in Western North Carolina, there’s been more of a shift to meth and designer drugs,” Hyatt says. She thinks that’s because meth is easy for people to make themselves, rather than buying it from some faraway source.


The state of the courts

Hyatt is well-versed in the ins and outs of the state’s court system, and knows what’s working as well as what needs work.

On the positive side, the judicial system in North Carolina hasn’t seen an increase in the number of frivolous lawsuits filed, a problem that has plagued much of the country. The state has rules in place that make it hard for someone to file a civil suit at the drop of a hat. For example, when someone accuses a physician of medical malpractice, the accuser (or plaintiff in legal speak) must first locate a specialist in the same field that can swear under oath that the accused physician wasn’t providing the expected standard of care. That’s cut way down on the number of medical malpractice suits filed, says Hyatt.


Structured sentencing

The state of North Carolina has a system of structured sentencing in felony cases, which means the judge is required to hand down a certain sentence based on the offense, number of prior convictions and other factors.

The aim of structured sentencing was to make punishments fair and equal across the state — a person convicted of a crime in Murphy would receive the same punishment in Manteo. Hyatt agrees with the goals of this type of system, but nonetheless, says it can be limiting.

“There are cases in which I would like to have more discretion, and I don’t have that discretion under structured sentencing,” she says. For example, in some cases, Hyatt would like to give the convicted person jail time, but can only mandate probation. Conversely, some who she would like to provide with a lighter sentence are required by law to go to jail.


A lack of resources

Hyatt says funding for the judicial system has decreased in the last few years, making it hard for the system to run efficiently. Too few staff have less than they need to perform an increased number of tasks.

“We’re expected to do more and more with less and less,” Hyatt says.

The problem, she says, is a lack of both “physical and fiscal,” resources. Clerk of court offices and courtrooms are insufficiently staffed, while at the same time more requirements are being put in place that amount to more paperwork.

Counties also lack adequate physical facilities, such as courtrooms and jury assembly rooms. The lack of space limits the number of cases that can be processed at one time and bottlenecks the system.


There’s something about Haywood County.

In recent years, the small Western North Carolina community has found itself as the setting of three nationally acclaimed novels.

It started with the release of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain in 1997. Audiences ate up the Civil War drama, and it wasn’t long before many flocked to see the real-life setting of the fictional account. Cold Mountain maps and tours sprang up to cater to tourists near the mountain’s location in Bethel. More than 10 years later, they’re still coming.

“I’ve been told that people come to the area specifically to ask where Cold Mountain is,” says Robert Busko, director of the Haywood County Public Library system.

This past year saw the release of two more novels that are putting Haywood County and Western North Carolina on the map — both literally, and in a more literary sense. Serena, by WCU professor Ron Rash, has won rave reviews in the New York Times, New Yorker, and Washington Post. Wayne Caldwell’s Cataloochee is fast gaining in popularity and was written up in Oprah’s magazine.

If the success of Cold Mountain is any indication, these works will very likely raise the national profile of the county and the region.

“It’s beneficial for the county — when you have writers writing about the area, people become curious,” says Margaret Osondu, owners of Osondu’s Books in downtown Waynesville. “It gives you a sense of pride.”

Rash and Caldwell’s successes, coupled with those already enjoyed by Frazier, are additionally cementing the region’s reputation as a literary hotspot.

“I would definitely have to say (it’s becoming better known),” says May Claxton, who teaches a course on Appalachian literature at Western Carolina University. “If you start to list all the authors from Asheville and over, it’s a very impressive list, and there’s still so many writers coming up with new stuff.”

A literary tradition

Though recent works have boosted the region’s profile, Western North Carolina has a literary legacy stretching back nearly a century. For example, Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, is still widely regarded as a leading manuscript on life in the Southern Appalachians. And Caroline Miller, who in 1934 became the first woman to win a Pulitzer prize, lived in Waynesville.

“I do think there’s some really quality writing coming out of the area, though I’m not sure that it’s really recent,” Claxton says. “We can go back to Kephart and others, and there’s sort of a history of really good writers. There’s an interesting question about whether we’re just getting more attention paid to (the region) now.”

Osondu agrees that authors have and do abound in WNC. Exactly what it is about the region that inspires and breeds writers is something she can only speculate on.

“I think it’s because it’s so beautiful and the pace of life is slow, so you have time to be inspired,” she says.

The Appalachian tradition of storytelling could also play a part, theorizes Claxton.

“There’s such a history of storytelling and all that’s been passed down, and people realize how important that is,” she says.

A league of its own

The South is known for breeding authors, but works from WNC could stand out because Appalachian literature has its own unique qualities.

“I think there’s something very special and very interesting and a little different about the works form here,” Claxton says.

Themes in Appalachian works tend to stray from those explored in traditional Southern writing. For example, says Claxton, the conflict tends to be between those who live in the area and “outsiders” coming in to exploit it, rather than between slaves and masters.

Plus, life in the region was often tougher than in other parts of the South, and it shines through in writing.

“If you think about living here as opposed to somewhere with a more congenial climate, people were tougher here, and more prone to look for the bad and good in life,” Claxton says. “Also, I think the work ethic here was really, really strong compared to other parts of the South.”

One particular theme common in both Appalachian and Southern literature — the land and a sense of place — resonates in the works of Frazier, Rash and Caldwell.

“The land is really the central character in all of these books,” says Osondu.

A connection to the land is a theme shared in works by many Southern writers.

“I think that Southern literature comes out of a particular place and is very connected to place in a way that urban-based literature is not as connected to nature,” Claxton says.

The emphasis on place is likely a major drawing point for readers yearning for a simpler time, when people lived off the land.

“I think part of the interest could stem from the rest of the country becoming more urbanized and getting away from that connection,” Claxton says.

That’s much the same reason that people move to the area in the first place.

“All these people that move into this area are looking for more of a connection to place and the culture here,” Claxton says.

That may be why books by Frazier, Rash and Caldwell — all of which explore the culture of the area — are widely read on a local level.

“All of those books circulate really well,” says Busko. “The local people like to read them because it’s their story, and the people that move here want to acclimate and absorb as much as the local culture as they can.”


Western Carolina University’s College of Business recently secured a $1 million donation from BB&T — but not before discerning faculty fought to loosen the strings that came with the donation.

Stipulations attached to the money — namely that business students be taught an ardent pro-capitalism philosophy — raised a red flag for many faculty. Professors took a stand in order to preserve the university’s control over its own curriculum, and in doing so, sparked a debate about the influence of corporate dollars on campus.

More than 25 universities, including NC State and UNC-Charlotte, got a similar donation from the Winston-Salem-based BB&T Foundation. At most of the schools, the donation has come with several stipulations — universities have to set up a course of study focusing on the ideas of philosopher and author Ayn Rand, and make Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, required reading.

BB&T CEO John Allison is a major Rand devotee. He discovered the philosopher in college and aims to spread her message through the bank’s donations.

“It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete,” Allison said of Atlas Shrugged in a New York Times article.

Rand’s controversial philosophy that espouses capitalism above all else — called objectivism — has been both hailed and hated since her first major novel was published in 1943 (see related article). To many at WCU, though, the issue wasn’t Rand’s philosophy — it was allowing a private donor to dictate the curriculum.

“Among some faculty from a number of areas there was some concern as to whether or not the objectivist philosophy is something we ought to be teaching. I think that quickly got taken over by the thought that that’s not the issue — the issue is whether or not by virtue of someone giving us money we should teach his particular point of view or subject matter,” said Richard Beam, Chair of Faculty at the college.

When word spread of the proposed gift last April, some faculty were concerned. One in particular was Darryl Hale, a professor of philosophy.

“I felt like somebody needed to be a gadfly and raise these issues,” Hale said.

After speaking with various faculty and receiving an estimated 40 emails in support of his stance, Hale became an unofficial spokesperson for those who questioned the donation.

“Many feel very strongly that curriculum is a faculty issue,” Beam said of the opposition. “The idea that any donor could have conditions that effectively dictate specific textbooks or course content is something touchy to a lot of folks.”

Nationwide, some say corporate donations that influence education are becoming more common — and that schools need to be wary.

“It is more and more of a trend. We don’t think it’s a good one, but unfortunately, this is occurring more and more frequently as we’ve seen funding for schools drop across the nation, be it K-12 or college level,” said Tonya Hennessey, project director for CorpWatch, a corporate watchdog group based in Oakland, Calif. “We would always urge schools to tread very carefully in circumstances like this.”


Faculty weigh in

In its agreement with the university, dated March 14, 2008, BB&T agreed to give WCU $1 million over seven years. Officials from the College of Business, aware that the bank had made donations to other schools, approached BB&T about the money because they wanted to establish an interdisciplinary business course, “designed for students to explore issues involving ethics, leadership and capitalism,” said Ronald Johnson, Dean of the WCU College of Business.

In exchange for its donation, BB&T wanted “to impact the leadership, ethics and capitalism” curriculum, according to the agreement. Some of the ways it would do so proved to be a bone of contention with some faculty, who didn’t become aware of the terms of the agreement until after it was already signed by university administrators.

The agreement called for the establishment of a new Distinguished Professorship of Capitalism. “The Professor shall work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute and have a reasonable understanding and positive attitude toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism,” it stated.

This was a red flag for Hale and others, who wondered how the professor could be critical of Rand’s philosophy if he or she was expected to hold it in a positive light.

“It is clear that s/he will have little academic freedom to analyze critically Rand,” wrote Hale in an email to the chancellor, provost and deans.

There was also concern over the involvement of the Ayn Rand Institute. The organization seeks to further Rand’s ideas, and is viewed by some as espousing radical right-wing viewpoints. Recent opinion pieces and articles on its Web site included “The Danger of Environmentalism,” and “Animal ‘Rights’ and the New Man Haters.” Faculty were cautious of the organization wielding too much power over the new curriculum.

“The concern was that there was an implication, whether intended or not, I can’t say, that the Ayn Rand Institute would amount to a veto power as a selection of a faculty member for the professorship,” said Beam.

Another concern lay with BB&T’s requirement that Atlas Shrugged be required reading for at least one course, and that a free copy of the book be provided to all juniors.

“An outside influence that would require a certain book to be read would probably be detrimental to what we’re about as an educational institution,” said Leroy Kauffman, a WCU professor of accounting and former dean of the College of Business.

Many felt the choice of what book to use in a course should be left to the professor teaching it.

“The idea of an external agency mandating to me that I must include some material I find personally offensive,” said Beam. “That wouldn’t mean I wouldn’t include it, but I want to include it as a matter of choice based on my expertise, directions and goals for the course.”

Faculty brought their concerns to the university administration, which agreed to address them even though the agreement between the school and BB&T was already in place.

Chancellor John Bardo called for the creation of a faculty task force to study the matter. The task force met a number of times over the summer and came up with some changes to the terms of the donation that place the power to determine what is taught at WCU squarely in the hands of the faculty.

“We don’t really look at it as a renegotiation, but rather as an effort to clarify some language that was unclear in the original agreement,” explained Clifton Metcalf, the university’s vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs.

The modified agreement makes no mention of the Ayn Rand Institute’s involvement in the curriculum, instead stating only that the distinguished professor “shall maintain open communications with the Donor concerning his or her role within the College of Business and University and the implementation of the Gift Agreement.”

Another change — faculty aren’t required to use Atlas Shrugged, unless they want to. And the teaching of Rand’s ideas must be accompanied by other viewpoints.

“The University will ask each faculty member ... to consider, in their sole and unfettered discretion, the assignment of portions of Atlas Shrugged and other writings from both pro-capitalist and anti-capitalist perspectives,” the revised agreement states

“It moved (the teaching of Rand) from mandatory to being clearly at the option of the professor, which to me is a significant change,” Beam said.

Faculty were generally pleased with the outcome.

“I think the way they worked it protects the interest of the donor and the integrity of the academic institution,” said Kauffman.

Although the new agreement does little to ensure the teaching of Ayn Rand’s ideas, the BB&T Foundation didn’t seem to mind. BB&T CEO Allison signed the modified document on Aug. 13, and in an accompanying letter wrote, “we understand that these amendments do not change the fundamental purpose and intent of our contribution commitment.”

The university officially announced the donation in November.

In the end, WCU was able to snag the money on its own terms, thanks to a group of faculty who stood up in defense of academic integrity.

Prior to BB&T’s donation, there had never been a widespread debate at WCU over the influence of private donations on curriculum.

“It was not an issue that had risen to general knowledge and hence general discussion in quite the way it did with this particular grant,” Beam said.

The university is now prepared if a similar matter arises in the future. A policy instated last month calls for “a process of faculty peer review of any gifts to Western Carolina University that might affect the curriculum.”


As renovation of Haywood County’s historic courthouse drags on, the county continues to tack on tens of thousands of dollars in additional costs over and beyond the project budget.

Last month, county commissioners approved an additional $45,000 in rent and phone lines for the temporary building housing county offices. That brings the total cost overruns to $262,923.

Included in that figure are $78,365 in consulting costs and $143,558 in attorney fees, both stemming from the county’s firing of the project’s original contracting firm and subsequent litigation.

The renovation of the courthouse is now 65 percent complete, and county officials think they’ll be able to stay within budget until the project is completed in April, said County Manager David Cotton.

The project was supposed to have been finished in June 2008, but stalled when the county fired KMD Construction, the contracting firm overseeing the renovations, on May 5. At the time, the project was behind schedule and the county wasn’t happy with the work KMD had done.

Work on the courthouse didn’t resume for several months until August while the county hashed out the details of finding a new contractor.

The search for a new firm fell on the shoulders of the bonding company the county used to insure the project. Though the bonding company hired another firm — Nicholson Professional Consulting — to provide direct supervision for the project, the labor is still being provided through KMD Construction. County commissioners approved the rehiring of KMD in a 4-1 vote.

Meanwhile, the county has been embroiled in a series of litigations against KMD, accusing the company of shoddy work and an inability to follow a timeline that caused the project to fall months behind schedule.

When finished, the courthouse will house various county services, including Veteran’s Affairs, Register of Deeds, Land Records, Geographical Information Systems, Tax Administration, Human Resources, Information Technology, Finance, and County Administration, according to Cotton.


For 25 years, Superior Court Judge Marlene Hyatt has often worked as much as 12 hours a day, five days a week presiding over some of the toughest legal cases in North Carolina. Her job has taken her to every corner of the state to rule over serious crimes, including murder, trafficking, armed robbery, burglary, sex offenses and more.

Hyatt has seen it all — ranging from the woman who chopped her husband up and scattered his remains along the Blue Ridge Parkway to a state trooper killed by a semi-truck on I-40 to a battle to save an old magnolia tree from a developer’s ax.

Though her line of work may have exposed her to some of mankind’s most horrible and heart wrenching acts, she still doesn’t think the world is a bad place. Rather, she maintains a more matter-of-fact view.

“You see the good and the bad, and humankind is what it is,” she said.

Now, at age 55, Hyatt is finally stepping off the bench. She wants more free time to do things her demanding schedule hasn’t allowed, like garden. As her judicial career draws to a close, Hyatt sat down with the Smoky Mountain News to reflect on what she’s learned.

“It’s been a really interesting job,” she says.


Her most challenging cases

Hyatt has several, but the first that came to her mind was the 2005 civil trial centering around a landslide that killed a woman in Maggie Valley. The trial pitted the woman’s husband and widower against both the Department of Transportation and the Maggie Valley Sanitary District. Determining just who was at fault in the woman’s death was complex, and the trial resulted in a hung jury. The matter was later settled out of court. “It was very sad,” Hyatt remembers.

In general, Hyatt says medical malpractice cases are some of the hardest to try, and almost always depressing.

“It may or may not be the doctor’s fault, but regardless, there’s a serious injury. Things have happened that were heart wrenching,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, Hyatt says cases resulting in the death penalty are also tough. She hasn’t had any such cases recently, but there have been several in the course of her career.

“There are people that are on death row and some who have been executed whose trial I presided over,” she says. “I think there are some cases where it’s necessary.”

Hyatt prefers civil cases over criminal ones, which she says are more interesting.

“In criminal court, they’re tried with certain offenses, and if they’re found guilty, there’s a sentencing structure. In civil court, it’s usually not as well-defined,” she says. “There are more issues to work out, and it’s more interesting legally.”


Her longest trial

Hyatt’s lengthiest trial lasted six weeks, and is a great example of how broad the scope of her work is. The case, tried in Charlotte, pitted two brothers against one another in a battle over an irrigation company. Their father had started the company, brought his sons in, and then died, leaving them to fight over whose it rightfully was. In many of Hyatt’s trials, such as this one, she walks away with an expanded knowledge of a very specific and random subject.

“I learned a great deal about irrigation equipment,” she says with a chuckle.

Six weeks may not seem that long, compared to, say, the O.J. Simpson trial, which lasted nine months. But Hyatt says lengthy trials like that “wouldn’t happen in North Carolina.” Once a trial begins in this state, its conducted all day long, every day, until a verdict is reached. In contrast, the Simpson trial was recessed for several days at a time and often lasted only a few hours each day.

Keeping emotions out of the courtroom.

No matter how horrible a case is, Hyatt hasn’t let her emotions get in the way of a verdict. It’s the absolute hardest part of the job, she says, and the most critical.

“That’s one of the things you have to learn early on to really do, because you aren’t able to do your job if you let your emotions interfere,” she says. “Regardless of how it may be — whether you feel sorry for somebody, or some who are arrogant and not the kind of people you feel sympathy for, you learn to (keep emotions out). It makes your job very hard if you’re unable to do that.”

Maintaining a neutral stance is how Hyatt is able to move on to her next case, no matter how hard the previous one may have been.

“You give that case the attention it deserves, and that’s the one for that period of time. You do what you need to do, get it to a verdict, sentence if you need to, enter judgment, and go on to the next week,” she says.


The only case that brought Hyatt to tears

Even today, Hyatt still chokes up when talking about the sole trial in 25 years that made her cry on the bench. It was a case in Transylvania County where a mother killed her infant son. The mother was diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis. The facts of the case are heart wrenching — the woman’s family knew she suffered from mental illness, and monitored her and the infant around the clock. One day, for whatever reason, the family left the woman alone with the child for a brief period. It may have only been a few minutes, but when they came back, the child was dead.

Watching a tape where the woman methodically explained to state investigators the motive for killing her son shook Hyatt to the core, and was the sole time the judge cracked in court.

“I had never cried in a hearing,” she says.

The woman was found mentally unfit to stand trial and sent to a state psychiatric hospital.


Trends and changes in criminal activity

Overall, the biggest change Hyatt has seen in crime over her career is that there’s more of it — as the state’s population has increased, so have the number of criminal and civil cases.

In terms of the types of crimes circulating through the judicial system, Hyatt says sex offenses have accounted for the largest increase. There are a couple of reasons behind the trend — more people tend to report sex offenses than did in the past, and many more women are willing to come forward.

“At one point in time, women would not talk about it. That’s changed, though I think there’s still some reluctance,” Hyatt says.

The punishments for sex offenders have also changed — now there’s a registry to keep track of them, as well as GPS monitoring.

“We have to determine how long to monitor and which kinds of cases to register, and all of that has become much more complicated,” says Hyatt.

Drugs, namely what types, are another big change Hyatt has witnessed during her years on the bench. When she first started, it was cocaine or marijuana. Then it was crack cocaine and certain prescription drugs. More recently, methamphetamines, some ecstasy and designer drugs have become the most common substances.

“Which is the drug of choice changes. Particularly in Western North Carolina, there’s been more of a shift to meth and designer drugs,” Hyatt says. She thinks that’s because meth is easy for people to make themselves, rather than buying it from some faraway source.


The state of the court system

Hyatt is well-versed in the ins and outs of the state’s court system, and knows what’s working as well as what needs work.

NC has kept frivolous lawsuits at bay

On the positive side, the judicial system in NC hasn’t seen an increase in the number of frivolous lawsuits filed, a problem that has plagued much of the rest of the country. The state has rules in place that make it hard for someone to file a civil suit at the drop of a hat. For example, when someone accuses a physician of medical malpractice, the accuser (or plaintiff in legal speak) must first locate a specialist in the same field that can swear under oath that the accused physician wasn’t providing the expected standard of care. That’s cut way down on the number of medical malpractice suits filed, says Hyatt.


The limits of structured sentencing

The state of North Carolina has a system of structured sentencing in felony cases, which means the judge is required to hand down a certain sentence based on the offence, the number of prior convictions and other factors.

The aim of structured sentencing was to make punishments fair and equal across the state — a person convicted of a crime in Murphy would receive the same punishment in Manteo. Hyatt agrees with the goals of this type of system, but nonetheless, says it can be limiting.

“There are cases in which I would like to have more discretion, and I don’t have that discretion under structured sentencing,” she says. For example, in some cases, Hyatt would like to give the convicted person jail time, but can only mandate probation. Conversely, some who she would like to provide with a lighter sentence are required by law to go to jail.


A lack of resources

Hyatt says funding for the judicial system has decreased in the last few years, making it hard for the system to run efficiently. Too few staff have less than they need to perform an increased number of tasks.

“We’re expected to do more and more with less and less,” Hyatt says.

The problem, she says, is a lack of both “physical and fiscal,” resources. Clerk of court offices and courtrooms are insufficiently staffed, while at the same time, more things like GPS monitoring and registration requirements are being put in place that amount to more paperwork.

Counties across the state also lack adequate physical facilities, such as courtrooms and jury assembly rooms. The lack of space limits the number of cases that can be processed at one time and bottlenecks the system.


Superior Court Judge J. Marlene Hyatt, whose district stretches across the western part of the state, will retire from her post March 1.

“I am retiring as a senior resident Superior Court judge effective March 1, 2009,” Hyatt, 54, wrote in a letter on Dec. 29. “Making this decision has been a difficult one. Being a Superior Court judge is interesting, challenging work.”

Hyatt, a Waynesville native, is the resident Superior Court judge for District 30B, comprised of Haywood and Jackson counties. She was elected to her position in 1986 and is one of only seven women Superior Court judges currently serving in North Carolina.

Incoming Gov. Beverly Perdue will appoint Hyatt’s replacement, who will hail from either Haywood or Jackson counties. A local committee has formed to suggest names to Perdue.

Elections for the non-partisan post are held every eight years, the next one occurring in 2010. Whoever is appointed will have an edge over other candidates going into that election by hanging their campaign on experience already serving in the post.

Legal circles are buzzing with speculation about who will fill the seat. The replacement will have big shoes to fill — Hyatt is widely respected for her fair stance on cases.

“I always found her to be very balanced and fair. I’ve both prosecuted and defended in front of her, and felt my client would have a fair day in court,” said Haywood County attorney Bob Clark, who once worked as an assistant district attorney.

District Attorney Mike Bonfoey also had only good words for Hyatt.

“She’s been an excellent judge. She’s served the people of Haywood and Jackson county very well during her years,” he said.

The jury is still out on who will replace Hyatt. Bonfoey said he won’t be vying for the seat.

“I’ve been elected to serve as DA and I think I’ve been effective in this job and plan to continue to serve the people of Western North Carolina and Haywood County as District Attorney,” he said.

Candidates will have to be highly qualified with a lengthy legal background, as the Superior Court judge position is demanding. The Superior Court has jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases. Generally, the court tries civil cases involving more than $10,000 in money and all felonies.

“It takes a high level of legal knowledge, and a strong personality because you often times deal with many of the top lawyers, not just locally but across the state,” said Clark. “It really takes someone with intelligence, common sense and backbone.”


A visitor center that would showcase the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a local heritage museum could one day occupy the Swain County historic courthouse on Everett Street if and when the senior center currently in the courthouse moves out.

The visitors center will be run by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, a nonprofit that also runs a visitors center near the Smokemont Park entrance in Tennessee. The group has already pledged $100,000 to construct the center, according to Dan Wood, executive director of Swain County Partnership for the Future.

“They’ve been wanting a presence over on this part of the Park for a long time, and it’s a good fit right there with the Chamber of Commerce nearby,” said Wood.

Wood said the visitors center will feature five or six plasma screen televisions, one with a touch screen electronic map. The center will also house a small sandwich shop with drinks and coffee.

“We think a welcome center ... will bring more and more tourists to this area to stop by and map out their trip,” said Wood.

Wood and others had hoped to begin construction of the visitors center as early as March, but it’s now on hold indefinitely until the senior center can be relocated. Plans called for moving the senior center into a new building, but the county ran out of money to finish it.

The new senior center is being built with grant money, but the county only got half the grants it needed. Construction was launched with hopes more grant money would come through to complete it, but so far that hasn’t happened and the half-completed structure is in a holding pattern.

“Everything has ground to a halt with the senior center,” Wood said.

Wood is also reviving the idea for a Swain County history museum and heritage center to occupy the historic courthouse.

The idea has been tossed around for years. Initial plans called for the museum to focus on Swain County stories of national significance, including the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the creation of Fontana Lake, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the region’s natural history.

A three-year planning process identified stories to be highlighted and work collecting oral histories was completed. A cost estimate was done, putting the total project cost at $1.5 million.

“Then, it kind of fell into a black hole of nothingness,” Wood said of the project. “Until I got here about a year ago, nothing had been done since 2004.”

Wood said arranging a move for the senior center has held up the process of planning for a visitors center and museum, which has been admittedly slow.

“Things move like a glacier,” he said. “But now, we’ve started to get money. I’ve written two separate grants (for the visitors center), and they both look good.”

Wood said the museum is likely at least two years from completion.


Cataloochee Wilderness Resort, a 4,500-acre proposed development in Haywood County’s Jonathan Creek community, appears to have fallen off the map.

Developers first announced plans for the massive Resort in November 2007. They touted residential, commercial and retail phases, including golf courses, a ski resort, high-rise hotel and more than 2,000 single-family homes — though the developers never purchased a single parcel of land in the area they planned to develop.

Residents were shocked at the scale of the proposed resort, which would have spanned both sides of a valley from ridgeline to ridgeline. Many also questioned the involvement in the project of Dean Moses, a local businessman who left behind a string of failed business proposals in Haywood County in the past.

Following a big splash a year ago, the alleged developers have fallen silent. So last week, The Smoky Mountain News tracked down Frank Singleton, the former director of public relations for Cataloochee Wilderness Resort, to find out the latest.

Singleton said that the heads of the project told him months ago to stop doing any marketing, advertising, or public relations work for the Resort.

“It’s been about eight months since we stopped doing work for them,” Singleton said. “When the financial meltdown started, they basically said ‘right now, we’re going to have to hold off.’”

Singleton said the project may still be moving along, but at a snail’s pace.

“I think this economy has brought everything to a temporary standstill,” he said. “I think they’re still moving along slowly on some things while they wait for the lending environment to improve.”

Singleton, though, hasn’t spoken with the directors of the Cataloochee Wilderness Resort development “in months.”

The Haywood County planning office also reported that it has yet to receive any plans from the developers of the Resort.


Today at HRMC, 10 sets of eyes peer over the shoulders of the hospital administration, ready and willing to question every move.

Though the hospital had a board of directors in place when the hospital lost its Medicare and Medicaid certification a year ago, oversight arguably wasn’t the board’s strong suit. But today, the buck stops with the hospital board when it comes to avoiding another crisis.

In the months following the hospital crisis, it was out with the old, in with the new on the hospital board. The original board members either resigned or didn’t reapply for their terms. A host of Haywood residents, appalled by the hospital’s downfall, were more than happy to step up and play watchdog. When two seats became open in April, county commissioners were flooded with a staggering 37 applications (in contrast, many boards are happy when one person applies). Seven out of 10 sitting board members today are new since the crisis.

The clean sweep will continue in April, when long-time board member and chairman Glenn White will step down and the board is expanded by two. When that occurs, only two out of 12 board members will have been in place under Rice.

“It’s good to have those without experience, because they keep it fresh,” said Cliff Stovall, who was appointed to the board in June. “You don’t want to just do it the way that it’s always been done.”

Board members come from a wide range of backgrounds: a banker, a retired Army colonel, a former district attorney, a nursing instructor, to name a few.

“I think it’s important to have people that aren’t entirely immersed in medicine, because it brings a different point of view,” said Pam Kearney, who also came on board in June.


Back to basics

Defining just how the board is supposed to function has been a top priority. Since the crisis, the board has had to do some serious reinforcing of its core mission — overseeing the hospital administration.

“We didn’t have any concept of what the board’s duties were,” said Roy Patton, who became a board member in June. “There had been more or less a structure for the board, but I don’t think that the board had ever learned to use it. The former CEO kept the board pretty much in the dark.”

That’s not the case anymore.

“The board’s role is oversight, and I think we’ve come to realize how much more important that is than we may have realized at one point,” said Patton.


In the drivers seat

The revamped hospital administration has made it much easier for the board to perform its duty as watchdog. Former CEO David Rice held a tight grip on the flow of information, so what the board knew about day-to-day hospital activities was limited.

“We asked questions in the past, too, but it’s the answers and responses that you get that are key,” said Mark Clasby, a board member who had served for a year and a half when the crisis hit.

“I think that the board was just somehow lulled into pretty much an acceptance of what Rice said was going on,” Patton said.

Consequently, HRMC’s loss of Medicare and Medicaid certification caught board members completely off guard.

But as the hospital’s culture began to change in the wake of the crisis, so did the relationship between the board and the administration.

“I think the thing that I see changing is that the board members and the administration are actually having dialogue and discussions,” said Kearney. “It’s not a one way street. The communication lines are now open, and board members are not denied access to information.”

Kearney said the board has demanded the larger role.

“I think the board really is driving it,” Kearney said.

Since the crisis, the board has put measures in place to make sure it’s not kept in the dark.

For example, an immediate notification process requires the hospital administration to notify board members of any incident affecting HRMC.

“It allows the board to be in the loop of information from day one,” said Kearney, “so we don’t read about it in the media or find out about it secondhand.”

In contrast, Rice kept such incidents a secret from the board. Board members were unaware of the brewing crisis a year ago that the hospital’s Medicare status was in jeopardy.

Board members also now attend exit interviews when any hospital inspection is completed, which “enables the board to learn firsthand if there are serious patient concerns,” said Kearney. “This was discouraged in the past.”

At a recent exit interview, surveyors even opened up the floor so board members could ask questions — something Kearney recognized as a real turning point for HRMC.

“There was not one person in the hospital who was going to make or break that survey, as was the case in the past,” she said.

Haywood County Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who along with other commissioners appoint the hospital board members, said the crisis should serve as a wake-up call to anyone serving on a board to be more diligent in their oversight. Too often, those at the helm of an organization can lull their board into complacency or charm them into compliance.

“If you tried to remove David Rice two weeks before that happened there would be a firestorm,” Ensley said. “The one good thing that has come out of this is all the boards in the county see you really have to watch what management is doing. We could all point our fingers at ourselves because people weren’t paying attention.”


Not afraid to ask

The idea of the board taking the wheel marks a sharp change from before the crisis, when decisions were often made in a unilateral manner by the administration.

“I don’t think that we would now be able to have that same reliance (one the administration),” said Patton. “I think we’re always going to be saying, is this right?”

Today, there is no shortage of questions for hospital administrators at board meetings.

“I can assure you that nobody leaves without getting questioned to the hill,” said board member Cliff Stovall, who was appointed in June. “There’s no timidity on the board. There are no wimps in the meetings I’ve been in.”

Board members hope a renewed emphasis on oversight and open communication will ensure they’ll never again be blindsided, as was the case a year ago.



Though the hospital is still on a road to recovery, board members say there have been some key turning points since the crisis.

Patton says positive change began to take hold right away.

“I think that immediately, when things fell apart, some things started turning around,” he said. “All of a sudden, we had training going on, and more attention to the things that we hadn’t been paying attention to earlier.”

Stovall said one of the board’s biggest accomplishments since the crisis has been getting the hospital’s finances back in the black. The hospital’s lack of debt made this easier, he said.

“We did spend a lot of money just to keep going, but our money did not evaporate,” Stovall said.

Clasby said as of December, the hospital was ahead of its budget for the year — a positive but preliminary sign, since the fiscal year only started in October.

Board members also named the hiring of CEO Mike Poore as a key accomplishment.

“It’s just been a breath of fresh air for us,” Patton said.

Board members expressed mixed sentiments on whether the hospital has overcome one of its greatest challenges: regaining the community’s trust.

Stovall said he views the frequently full parking lot at the hospital as a sign that people are coming back.

“I think that’s an indication that people are using it, so it’s restored confidence,” he said.

Patton was a bit more hesitant.

“I would say yes, there has been some trust regained, but I don’t think that we’re to the point where we can say, we’ve done it now and we can relax,” he said.

Kearney also says there’s work to be done.

“The community sentiment is more positive toward the hospital than a year ago, but we haven’t yet seen a sufficient increase in the daily census,” she said. “I think that’s the only tangible way you can measure that. I would say there are people that are going past Haywood and going to Asheville.”


Phoenix rising

The crisis that hit Haywood Regional helped to erase a culture of fear and overhaul the hospital’s administration and practices. So is HRMC better off for it?

“That’s a real difficult question, because you just blew $10 million,” said Kearney. “We spent some of our future, which is unfortunate.”

Clasby says that in the end, HRMC did emerge as a better hospital — though the road to get there was tough.

“It’s a shame and it’s sad that we went through what we did, and it was very painful for the community,” he said. “But we had an opportunity unfortunately to correct the things that were wrong and to rebuild this into an excellent, quality institution. It’s kind of the rising of the phoenix.”


In yet another piece of positive economic news, Waynesville-based Haywood Vocational Opportunities announced a proposed expansion that would create at least 50 new jobs.

HVO, which makes disposable medical supplies, plans to pay $400,000 for 10 acres at the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the eastern end of Haywood County and spend more than $1 million to construct a 40,000-square-foot building on the site.

The county recently spent $700,000 to grade the industrial site, and therefore is selling it at a loss. That’s just the nature of the business, said county Economic Development Director Mark Clasby. Grading industrial sites to ready them for building is one way to lure companies.

“That’s part of the economic development incentive, to work with existing businesses to retain them, or in this case, expand. That’s even better — it’s an investment in jobs for the future,” Clasby said.

HVO’s proposal has been OK’d by the Economic Development Commission, and is now awaiting final approval by county commissioners.

The company currently employs 315 full-time workers at its factory in the Hazelwood community. It also runs an employment and training program, which enrolls 120 people. The company operates under a unique business model — about 25 percent of its employee base at any given time has a disabling physical or mental condition that is a barrier to employment.

HVO has maintained a rapid rate of growth at a time when many businesses are struggling with the economic recession. The company moved into its current headquarters in 2005 and is already looking to expand. It added 72 new jobs in the last 18 months, mostly hourly positions, according to HVO President George Marshall. HVO is forecasting continued growth over the next 24 to 36 months.

“We have emerging business that, right now, I can’t comment on,” said Marshall.

The company plans to add 50 new jobs over that time period that will range from machine operators to assemblers. That’s apart from the jobs directly linked to construction of the building.

HVO makes a niche product that isn’t easily outsourced, which has helped it to weather the economic downturn.

“Basically, we’re in a real specialty market as it relates to healthcare,” Marshall said. “We produce custom surgical products for the healthcare industry, which, generally speaking, has not been able to be taken offshore. As commodity products have moved, this was one element that really could not practically, nor economically, be moved.”

HVO has developed a huge market for its products.

“Our customers are throughout the U.S. and international,” Marshall said. About 30 percent of HVO’s business is outside the country, including clients in Sydney.

Marshall said that HVO will aim to complete its new facility at the industrial park by the end of 2009.


FLS Solar Energy wants a tax break from Haywood County in exchange for an $8 million solar farm the company is building near Canton.

FLS is asking county commissioners for financial incentives that would allow the company to pay 20 percent of the taxes on the equipment it uses to operate for five years, saving FLS $6,400 a year or a total of $32,000.

Through the program, FLS would pay the total equipment tax up front, then receive a grant for 80 percent of the bill from the county.

The company’s request has received the endorsement of the Haywood County Economic Development Commission, though it’s not exactly in line with the intent of creating jobs. The solar farm will only create 12 jobs, most of them during the design, development and installation stages, said FLS president Michael Shore.

However, EDC officials believe the county will reap more benefits from the project than just job creation.

“This is kind of unusual because this really won’t create jobs, but you kind of have to look to the future,” said EDC director Mark Clasby. “This will bring recognition and awareness that Haywood County is interested in green initiatives.”

While the amount may not seem like much, it will make all the difference to FLS, Shore said. FLS will have to pay back money put up by investors — about half the total project cost — within a five-year period, making for very thin profit margins, said Shore. Financial incentives from the county will help the project make it through the lean time.

“This allows us for it to be a profitable project in the first five years,” Shore said. “Starting year six, the margins of the project improve significantly, so we’re happy to pay our fair share of taxes at that point.”

FLS has signed a 25-year contract with Progress Energy to sell solar power generated at the Haywood site, guaranteeing that the company will be shelling out full property taxes for at least a 20-year period.

“Over the lifetime of the project, we anticipate paying at least $180,000 in taxes,” said Shore.

Shore says that by providing tax breaks for FLS, Haywood County could position itself as a good place to locate a green startup.

“In the Southeast, it’s up for grabs where the leadership (in alternative energy) is going to come from,” he said. “Now, Haywood County has the opportunity to put itself on the map as a leader in this new green economy.”


Local legislators are preparing to fight yet another attempt by the state to close the only minimum security prison west of Asheville.

The 125-bed Haywood Correctional Facility in Waynesville, commonly referred to as the Hazelwood prison, has landed on a list of potential closures as the N.C. Department of Corrections looks for ways to scale back its budget.

It’s not the first time the state has considered shutting the Hazelwood prison. The aging facility was built in the 1930s and now sits between a neighborhood and commercial district.

“The prison has been recommended a couple of times for possible closure, but some of us in Western North Carolina that represent Haywood County have been able to stand at the front door and put it off,” said Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva. “This is not something new — it’s been discussed.”

Haire is hopeful that legislators will be able to save the Hazelwood prison this year, as they have in the past. But he says that the fight is already becoming more difficult, and that legislators can’t hold off forever.

“I think that down the road at some point it’s going to be a greater issue, and it is now, about keeping it open,” he said. “One of these days it’s going down.”

Haire said it won’t matter how powerful the coalition of legislators from the region are or how hard they fight.

Legislators have always been able to save the prison, arguing that it benefits the area. The facility provides jobs for 44 people. Inmate labor has fueled hundreds of public works projects around the region — everything from picking up roadside litter to construction projects at public schools and government buildings.

“It’s a very important facility not only for serving the minimum security needs of inmates, but they do a lot of work across Western North Carolina,” said Sen. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville.

Haire estimated that inmate labor saves western counties, “thousands in construction projects.”

Additionally, the prison is conveniently located for families to visit their loved ones behind bars.

“It gives folks hope for their family to be able to visit them and hopefully help to transition them back to everyday life,” Haire said.

Two other minimum security lockups are on the chopping block, too. The three facilities, among the smallest in the state, have been grouped together as one item that could save the state $3.4 million per year if all were shut down.

That begs the question of just where inmates would go.

“Where would these prisoners be sent?” asked Haire. “I don’t know. That’s where we’re really short on beds at the time, is minimum security.”

The state’s prison population recently spiked for the first time in many years, Haire said. State projections show that starting in the next fiscal year, North Carolina will have nowhere to put an estimated 2,300 inmates. California plans to deal with a similar problem of too few beds and not enough money by releasing prisoners.

The rise in prisoners in N.C. is linked to the state’s sentencing system, which leaves judges with little discretion and clogs prisons.

“The prison population is going up much faster under structured sentencing, where judges are tied into this sentencing grid,” Haire said.


Other options

Queen said the Hazelwood prison is actually on another list — “not for closure, but for being reconstructed as a new and modern minimum security unit serving Western North Carolina.”

“WNC needs a new minimum security unit that is modern, a little larger, and that is both economical in size and an economical new building,” said Queen.

Queen said he and other local legislators have continued to fight to keep the Hazelwood prison open until the facility is updated or a new one is built nearby.

“We’ve been fighting to keep it open until we can get it rebuilt,” he said.

Haire thinks Western North Carolinians should be thinking about whether, and where, they’d want another minimum security facility located. The issue of having a new prison in the region came up several years ago, but no site was ever picked.

“There was no site identified, but a lot of people became very concerned because they thought it was going to be in their community,” Haire said.

Haire says residents need to weigh the benefits of having a prison in considering whether a new one should be built in the region. For many, it may be a case of “Not in my backyard,” but if the prison comes, so would added benefits of jobs and public works labor, Haire says.

“I think we’re going to start having to look to the future, and I think the future is now,” he said.

Queen doesn’t anticipate a large amount of opposition to a facility that houses only low-risk inmates.

“The minimum security unit doesn’t have that level of pushback,” he said.

Queen said an updated facility was initially on his list of priorities for this legislative session, but the economy will likely put a hold on plans.

“The economy has changed priorities,” he said. “Though it doesn’t necessarily change the demand for prison beds in our state. It may actually exacerbate the demand.”


A group of Haywood residents appealed to county commissioners for an ordinance assessing the impacts of large developments.

The ordinance would require large developers to assess the impacts of their projects on surrounding communities and the environment. On Monday night (Feb. 16), the group called Haywood Community Alliance presented the board of commissioners with signatures of nearly 400 county residents who support the idea.

“Such an asset review would provide local government and citizens with important information about anticipated effects on natural resources of the area, as well as existing infrastructure,” Lynn Jeffries, the group’s chair, told commissioners.

The board agreed to send the proposed ordinance to the planning board to review. The planning board could use that ordinance, or draft one of its own.

The request to commissioners marks the first time a group of citizens has formally asked them to take action on development. Recent regional planning projects, like the Mountain Landscapes Initiative or the Haywood Growth Readiness Roundtable, have emphasized the importance of local government involvement, but have stopped short of formally requesting that commissioners address the issue.

A year-long effort led up to Haywood Alliance’s request to the county. The group first showed commissioners an initial set of signatures they collected, but that generated little response from the board.

“We weren’t seeing any action; nothing moving forward,” Jeffries said.

But Jeffries says her group was convinced commissioners were interested in addressing growth and development. Last year, commissioners extended an invitation to various community clubs offering the county’s assistance with planning. The offer had no takers.

“We felt the commissioners last year had reached out to these clubs and said ‘okay, who wants to have this dialogue?’” Jeffries said. “So we felt they were already pursuing community input and trying to find a vehicle where community members could give input to commissioners.”

Jeffries said the issue got put on the backburner when election season rolled around, but that her group continued to engage in talks with the county to form a proposal and encourage commissioners to act.

She said that development issues have somewhat dropped from the radar as the economy has taken center stage, but that a period of slow development is an ideal time to address issues of growth.

“Let’s take this lull time as the perfect opportunity, when we won’t have any huge developments coming down the pike right this second,” Jeffries said.

Commissioners haven’t promised they will adopt the proposed ordinance — only that the county will take a look at it. The process may not be easy. Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said he is well aware, and supportive, of the deeply rooted sentiment of autonomy over your property that has made passing other planning initiatives in the region a challenge.

“I would look at (the ordinance) with a keen eye, simply because people around here have worked a long time for what they have,” Kirkpatrick said. “I do not want to see additional restrictions placed on those people who are private landowners.”

Jeffries said planning efforts don’t have to infringe on personal property rights, however.

“I do feel like that’s a challenge to getting this message across, but I don’t think it has to be,” she said. “I think you can find a consensus where we can exercise our personal property rights with the understanding that we live in a community, we don’t live in isolation. The things that we do affect our neighbors, and will affect our future.”


The Swain County School District has terminated a popular program that emphasized science and math education, offered students smaller classes and helped combat the system’s high dropout rate.

The three-year-old School of Applied Science, Math and Technology was axed last month, despite having two more years of grant funding left. It had 160 students out of 600 at the high school.

The SASMT got a five-year grant from the N.C. New Schools Foundation, which funds programs that offer an alternative approach to traditional high school curriculum.

While the program didn’t cost Swain schools anything thanks to the grant funding, that grant would run out in two more years and the school system would have to shoulder the cost of about $52,000 annually. Administrators felt it would be impossible for them to come up with the money, and opted to throw in the towel sooner rather than later.

“We studied our options for over six months before we made that decision,” said Regina Ash, head of instruction for the Swain County Schools system. “We studied options, we argued about it. This was not something we took lightly. It was not a first choice, but with the budget going the way it is going we felt this was the best option for us.”

The alternative style of learning offered by the SASMT proved popular. Few students left the program, and it boasted an extremely low dropout rate — only one pupil in three years. A review commissioned by the New Schools Foundation gave the SASMT high marks in October 2008, finding that, “achievement has been consistently above district averages in all core subjects.”

“You in essence are closing down a program that has proven to be very effective,” said Sam Houston, president and CEO of the North Carolina Science, Math and Technology Education Center.

While Houston said he cannot speak to the school’s situation, he questioned any decision to terminate the program before the grant ran out.

“It would be wise for them to continue for the next two years,” he said.

The SASMT principal, Jeff Payne, expressed disappointment in the program’s termination.

“We hate to see it going away,” Payne said. “We feel like we were successful, but it’s just one of those things that we hope to learn from the experience.”

The high school has pledged to incoporate the education principles from the special science and math program into all classrooms school wide.


The wrong equation?

The success of the SASMT lay partly in its small size, which helped cultivate an intimate learning environment.

The program operated like a school within a school, with students in the same building but segregated from the regular student body for most of their classes, enjoying smaller class size and a more intimate setting.

“It’s building the relationship on a deeper level, so that the teachers know the kids, their problems, and their families,” said Ash. “When kids and teachers know each other better, they both perform better. The depth of understanding helps the relationship on both ends.”

But with all their perks, small classes in an underfunded, rural school district like Swain’s present a host of challenges. Already in Swain, there aren’t enough teachers to go around. The SASMT was sharing teachers with Swain County High School, and with its multiple small classes was stretching teaching resources even further.

“As a small school, the quota of teachers is small and insufficient to cover even the core subjects for all students,” noted the New Schools review.

Limited teaching resources proved to be a fatal blow to the SASMT.

“We started splitting those groups up, and we didn’t have the teacher resources to do it the way they’re supposed to be done,” Payne said.

The school district would have had to hire additional positions as required by the SASMT, including a principal and guidance counselor — a move the system likely couldn’t afford when the time came.

“The problem is they require you to have a separate principal and a separate guidance counselor,” said Steve Claxton, community schools coordinator for the district. “We’re talking about very few students to do those things, and we didn’t see it being fiscally possible for us to continue to have two principals, and a guidance counselor just for (SASMT).”

Particularly, Claxton said, when the district is already facing the possibility of eliminating existing positions in its budget cutbacks.

“We’re looking at losing teachers. How are we going to come up with money to pay people that we don’t pay now?” he said.

But Houston says the benefits students reap from the program make the upfront cost worthwhile.

“You have a very small student population, so when you calculate the per pupil cost, it looks like they are terribly expensive,” Houston said. “But the truth is, the return on the investment is huge.”

While a lack of funding for new positions played a role in the termination of the SASMT, Payne believes small classes could be an inherently flawed approach at small, rural schools. That approach may have worked well in larger districts the New Schools Foundation first experimented with, but likely won’t play out the same way in smaller ones.

“They’ve tried to go to smaller schools, and that’s part of the problem — we’re already a small school to start with,” said Payne.

Even when the SASMT merge back into the rest of the student body, the student population of Swain High School will total about 600.

“I’d rather have a high school with 200, but when you start getting into those really large schools, then you’re looking at losing the relationship component,” Payne said. “Those are the schools that the new schools project will work better for.”

Ironically Payne believes that the small classes that made the SASMT work led to its downfall.

“It got worse and worse to be able to have those small classes, and in my opinion, the division of resources to different programs limited what people could actually do,” he said.

So while the New Schools Project may contain some beneficial ideas, some of them are impossible to apply at smaller schools, says Payne.

“It’s not the New Schools project’s fault that we don’t have the resources, but there’s only so much you can do with what you have.”


Math, science won’t disappear

Swain cut the SASMT at a time when an increasing importance is being placed on math, science and technological education. But the subjects weren’t a factor in the decision to end the program, said Claxton.

Instead, the additional cost the district would have to incur to continue the SASMT when its grant ran out was a deterrent.

“They’re expecting us to continue to run it, versus all the other programs already in place — things like athletics,” Claxton said.

But Payne says it’s more important than ever that students learn the subjects taught by the SASMT.

“Pick up any magazine, or go on-line, and look at what jobs are going to be needed in the next 20 years,” he said. “The world’s changing, and technology is a big part of it, and science and math are a part of that technology.”

Payne worries that those subjects won’t play as big of a role in the regular curriculum.

“It’s not going to be as big of a focus probably,” he said. “I think we had more emphasis, not just by giving them a couple more classes, but also by integrating those areas into their classes.”

Ash, though, assures that the school is making steps to incorporate those subjects into everyday classes, and make sure students know how to apply them in the outside world.

“Our teachers are embedding technology in their instruction, and when our kids are doing projects, they are using technology in presentations,” she said. “We’re making sure that the work they produce is more relevant and more connected with what they’ll be producing in the workplace.”

Plus, the district is emphasizing math and science education in the curriculum.

“We’ve been building our science and math program for a while, and trying to offer advanced courses for our students,” Ash said, like a yearlong Advanced Placement course that covers Physics and Pre-Calculus.


“We’ve learned a lot”

All in all, Swain County school officials say the SASMT was anything but a wash. In fact, the professional development it provided taught the district some valuable lessons and approaches it hopes to hold on to.

“We’ve learned a lot from it, and we’ll incorporate some of those things into the system next year,” Claxton said.

Payne tends to agree.

“A lot of the stuff we learned from this experience we’re going to keep,” he says. “Hopefully, students aren’t going to be missing much at all.”

Payne would like to see lasting change result from the SASMT concepts.

“I’m hopeful that we’ve learned a lot, and that we’re changing the culture of the whole high school and the way that teachers and students interact with one another,” he said.


Swain County’s complete lack of services to handle the growing stray animal population is putting a heavy burden on a nonprofit shelter and forcing county commissioners to weigh their options.

“We have absolutely nothing right now, and we are trying to develop a plan,” said County Manager Kevin King.

It’s been months since the county canceled its contract with Valley River Animal Control, an Andrews agency that made weekly rounds to pick up strays. Granted, people plagued by stray dogs or cats lurking about their yard had to corral them until the animal catcher came through. But it was better than nothing — which is what residents have now.

The contract with Valley River was the county’s sole strategy for handling strays. It doesn’t run an animal shelter or have animal control officers of its own.

A local shelter run by the non-profit, no-kill organization P.A.W.S. (Placing Animals Within Society) has long acted as a de facto county shelter. That role was tough but manageable.

But without Valley River, PAWS has been left to shoulder the entire burden of stray animals. The small shelter is overwhelmed by those trying to dump off strays or unable to care for their own pets.

“Once the contract was ended, I think our requests on a monthly basis have doubled,” said Ellen Kilgannon, PAWS’ executive director.

In all of 2008, PAWS fielded 633 requests to take in stray animals. In December alone, the organization took 85 calls. The economic downturn isn’t helping — Kilgannon said lately, PAWS has seen a spike in “people that can’t afford to keep their animals anymore.”

If the trend continues, PAWS could field more than 1,000 requests in the next year.

PAWS is already stretched to capacity, said Kilgannon. It only has slots for 16 cats and 15 dogs at one time. She wishes the county would build a shelter that could accommodate more.

“We would very much to like to see the county have an open admission shelter, that being, you could take an animal to the shelter and then they would accept it and there would be no limits on the numbers they could accept,” Kilgannon said.

Any takers?

Building a shelter is one option on the table, King said. But the county isn’t eager to bring animal control services in-house. Swain would rather contract with an outside agency to handle strays — whether it’s to haul them off or house them in a shelter somewhere else.

The county has been in negotiations with several agencies since August, but without much success.

“Up until this time, we still don’t have a contract with anybody,” said King.

One problem the county is running in to — other counties are already struggling to handle their own stray populations, and are hesitant to take on that of another county.

“The majority of people we’ve talked to have said if they had the space, they would be talking to us more seriously,” King said.

It’s a problem that PAWS is already familiar with. If their shelter is full, it’s often forced to tell disbelieving callers that their only option is to hang on to the stray until space opens up.

“We apologize and say we can put an ad in the newspaper to try and find the animal a home, but that’s about all we can offer them,” Kilgannon said.

First things first

Building a shelter is not the county’s top priority. First, the county is attempting to put an animal control ordinance in place. The ordinance has already been drafted and is currently being reviewed by the county’s attorney. Then, the county would like to hire an animal control officer. After those things are in place, the county may consider building a holding facility or even a larger shelter facility.

It’s all a learning process for the county, which has always contracted out for services to control the stray population.

“This is the first time we’ve had to do it ourselves,” said King. “This is starting from ground zero. We’re trying to get educated on the pitfalls of the process, crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s.”

Part of the process is figuring out how to fund in-house animal control services. The county’s former contract with Valley River was a bargain at only $21,000 per year. King estimates it will be at least triple that to hire an animal control officer and give them the equipment to operate. That amount wouldn’t include an animal shelter building, which could cost roughly $150,000 for a bare bones facility, King said. Macon County recently spent $500,000 to open up its shelter facility.

PAWS: We need help now

While the county looks for a solution, commissioners seem unwilling to help PAWS deal with the flood of animals in the meantime.

Commissioners recently ignored a request from PAWS board chair Julie Thorner for $10,000 that would supplement the organization’s low-cost spay and neuter program. For the past year, PAWS has been operating with a grant that allowed individuals receiving Medicare, Medicaid or food stamps to get their animals fixed for a mere $8. That grant expired in January. Without it, PAWS will have to return to charging between $40 and $50 for spay and neuter surgeries.

The $8 bargain was effective in getting people to fix their animals. In 2008, the number of people spaying and neutering their animals through the program increased 25 percent over the previous year, said Kilgannon.

Though the county couldn’t give PAWS the money, King said commissioners still appreciate the work the organization does on behalf of strays.

“I really commend PAWS for all that they’ve done for the county, because they have a tremendous spay and neuter program which eliminates the need for euthanizations,” said King. “They’ve done a fabulous job.”

But kind words alone don’t provide the financial support that PAWS desperately needs.

The situation in Swain has become so dire that PAWS is taking a serious look at whether it can continue to operate.

“The economic downturn and lack of animal control have really caused us to consider, ‘Do we stay open?’ and ‘Can we continue and afford to keep our doors open?’” said Kilgannon. “Any support that we would see from the county government and the community at this point in time would be a huge morale boost and give us hope.”


At a time when the state’s fractured mental health care system seems beyond repair, local mental health officials have hit on a solution that could go a long way toward fixing it.

The key might lie in a new program playing out in the halls of the sixth floor of Haywood Regional Medical Center. The floor has been converted to a 16-bed psychiatric wing, which opened in November and is run by the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health. Officials recently took The Smoky Mountain News on a tour of the facility.

The psych ward was established with a state-funded grant given to only two hospitals in North Carolina, one of which was HRMC. Desperate for a way to relieve overcrowding in the state’s mental hospitals, state officials asked HRMC to build a psychiatric unit that would provide more bed space closer to home.

Before it opened, there were no long-term beds for psychiatric patients in all of 15 western counties, and patients had to be transported to Broughton Hospital in Morganton. Often, patients in critical need of immediate care had to wait for days until a bed opened up at Broughton, putting a strain on the patients, their families, and the sheriff’s deputies who had to wait with them.

But with the opening of HRMC’s psychiatric unit, the number of patients going to Broughton from WNC has dropped dramatically, according to the first round of statistics released by administrators at the Smoky Mountain Center. From Jan. 1 through 28, only five patients went to Broughton from WNC — a two-thirds drop over the same period a year ago when 17 patients were admitted from the region.

Smoky Mountain Center officials are hesitant to declare success so early on. But the numbers indicate what is “potentially the lowest admission rate ever to Broughton,” said Smoky Mountain Director Doug Trantham. Trantham said that already, two other hospitals are interested in partnering with the Smoky Mountain Center to instate a similar program.

Smoky Mountain officials believe that the program’s unique model of care, which emphasizes recovery, likely is a big reason for its success rate. The model is in contrast to the institutional model that has traditionally been employed in the psychiatric field.

Under the old model, a patient had to adhere to a strict schedule — waking up, eating, and attending therapy groups at the same time every day. But the recovery model gives the patient more of a say, allowing the patient to decide whether he or she is ready to wake up, or if they instead need more sleep, for example.

Patients in the psychiatric program at HRMC take walks, do yoga, and gather to socialize and play games with other patients.

“It’s a support network that gives you the strength you don’t have outside,” explained a 20-year-old female patient staying at the unit, who spoke about her experience during The Smoky Mountain News’ tour of the facility.

Smoky Mountain Mental Health officials are reporting additional success with their efforts to improve mental health care in WNC. Officials at Smoky Mountain are making steps to re-open the Adult Recovery Unit at the Balsam Center by April, which will provide additional bed space for patients in need of psychiatric care.

“The unit was closed on Dec. 12 following a determination that there were insufficient staff resources, particularly experienced and trained nurses, to safely operate,” both the new HRMC unit and the Adult Recovery Unit, according to Smoky Mountain Center officials.


How far would you drive for $100?

That’s the dilemma Haywood County cattle farmer Neal Stamey faces each time he hooks his trailer up to his pickup truck, loads up the cow or cows he’ll sell that day, and makes the 100-mile round-trip trek across the state line to a cattle auction in Newport, Tenn. There, a bidder will snap up Stamey’s animals, hopefully for a fair price. If Stamey’s brought only one cow, he’ll be lucky to make $100.

“There’s not enough money in the cattle business to have to haul cattle 100 miles to sell them,” Stamey says. “You can’t afford $150 bucks of gas for one cow.”

Since the closure of the only regional livestock market five years ago, these far-reaching auction houses are the only viable option Western North Carolina cattle farmers have if they hope to make a sale. The financial burden of the journey has forced an increasing number of cattle farmers out of business.

But now, the local farmers have asked for the state’s help to stop that decline with the construction of a state-of-the-art livestock market in Haywood County — a move that could prove crucial to preserving the region’s rural heritage and landscape.

In recent years, North Carolina lost more farms than almost any other state.

“Our concern is to keep producers in business, and keep all this land in farming,” said George Ivey, a Haywood County farming advocate. “In many cases, if you sell off the cattle, the only thing you’re growing there are houses.”


A blow to farmers

Livestock is a surprisingly big industry in this region. More than 3,000 farmers in 19 western counties keep cattle, selling off 80,000 each year. Haywood County leads the region in the number of cattle farmers, with 500 farmers that raise nearly a quarter of the region’s cattle.

But the total number of cattle in this part of the state has been on a decline since the region’s primary auction house, located in Asheville, shut down five years ago. Most farmers now trek to markets in Tennessee South Carolina, and Georgia.

“Historically, we’ve had markets here in WNC, and it’s been tough without them the last several years,” said Bill Teague, director of the Mountain Research Station in Waynesville.

The lack of a market, coupled with a severe drought that has gripped the region and led to skyrocketing hay prices, has led many cattle farmers to get out of the business altogether.

“A lot of people just quit and sold,” both their cattle and farms, said Lyman Bradley, a Jackson County cattle farmer.

“You’ve had the loss of a reliable and local market, and that’s enough to drive some people out of business,” agreed Ivey.

The situation has been helped a bit with the re-opening of a 1960s-era livestock auction in Canton, today run by Ed Johnson, a Madison County farmer. The auction was re-opened a year ago, and it’s seen some success.

“Before Johnson opened the auction, most everyone had to go out of state,” Bradley said.

But the facility is outdated and small, lacking the capacity that the former Asheville market had. A recent auction there featured 18 cows for sale — an impressive number given the icy, chilly conditions that day, but still far below the 800 to 900 cattle that were auctioned off each week at the Asheville market.

A large livestock market, “is something we need drastically,” Stamey said.


Big shoes to fill

Market advocates estimate it would cost $2.5 million to $3.5 million to construct the type of livestock market that will bring buyers — and in turn, competitive prices — to the region’s cattle farmers.

Initially, they wanted to build a slaughterhouse, but then realized they needed to lay the groundwork by providing a place where farmers could sell their cows.

The proposed market will be located in the heart of Western North Carolina cattle farming country along I-40 at the Haywood-Buncombe County line.

The first round of funding for the market — $500,000 for construction planning — will come out of the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund. The trust fund was created following the lawsuit against Big Tobacco and used to help tobacco-dependent regions find another economically viable way to make a living. Essentially, one industry that has all but vanished in WNC could help another embattled industry survive.

“Our primary purpose is to improve the quality of life by increasing the income for the family farmer, and hopefully be able to replace the loss of income that occurred with the loss of tobacco,” said L.T. Ward, chairman of WNC Communities, the organization through which the Tobacco Trust Fund grant has been funneled.

Stamey, a cattle farmer, said that’s exactly how the trust fund money should be used.

“This is not taxpayer money — this is money the tobacco industry made before it was put out of business,” Stamey said. “In surrounding states, they’ve put that money back in agriculture, and we deserve some of that money.”

The parallels between tobacco and livestock are many, and both played a vitally important role in sustaining families in WNC. Just as families kept a small tobacco crop to supplement their income, many also kept a few cows — and that number has increased since the tobacco buyout.

“Tobacco used to be a good cash crop for a lot of farmers,” said Ivey. “With that gone, more people have turned to cattle to recover some of that income they used to get from tobacco.”

Stamey says beef cattle, like tobacco, has long played an important role in Haywood County. “In the past, tobacco and cattle have been big industries here,” he said.

Stamey’s parents kept a few cattle, and Stamey himself continued that tradition, though his full-time job was at the the paper mill in Canton.

The cows “sort of help supplement your income,” Stamey said. And there are several advantages to raising cattle. Cows can graze on hillslides unsuitable for crops, and they’re easy enough to tend to, requiring a feeding every three days in the winter and none in the summer, when they can be left on open pasture.

Stamey says he, like others, continues to keep cattle not just for some extra income, but also because it’s in his blood.

“I reckon it’s sort of like fishing. If you ever get hooked on it, you just keep doing it,” Stamey laughed.

By building a new livestock market where farmers can sell their cows easily, those involved hope to preserve a way of life in Western NC and possibly attract a new generation of farmers.

“You’re not going to get as many young people in the cattle business if they don’t have somewhere to sell them,” Stamey said.


Ripple effect

Besides preserving mountain heritage, market supporters predict that a new livestock auction will have more tangible economic benefits.

First and foremost, the new facility will benefit farmers — not only by saving them the cost of transporting livestock long distances, but also by earning them more money on each sale.

“A viable market will attract buyers that are willing to pay higher prices,” said Ward. At a recent presentation of the livestock market plans, Ward promised a group of cattle farmers: “You will have more money in your pockets when you complete those transactions.”

Officials hope the new market will also generate jobs, and in turn, that employees will put their money back in the local economy. Ward predicted an increase in the number of livestock produced. That could bring more industry that centers around livestock, such as veterinarians.

Additionally, a portion of $1 from the sale of each cattle will go to fund the state’s Beef Checkoff program, which goes to market and promote N.C. beef products. The state misses out on that money when its cattle are sold out of state.


Pushing out private industry?

Some in the cattle industry don’t support the proposed market, particularly operators of existing markets who feel like the state is pushing them aside and out of business.

“That’s not what the (tobacco trust fund) money is for, to build a facility to compete with private industry,” said Al Eatmon, who runs a cattle auction in Shelby.

However, a state report that analyzed the need for a livestock market in WNC found that the Shelby market attracted less cattle than the closest out of state markets, though it’s one of only two in WNC.

Ed Johnson, owner of the cattle market in Canton, says advocates of the new market have ignored the effort he has made to help farmers by opening up his operation last year.

“They told me, if you don’t get this open, some of us will lose our farms,” he said.

Johnson has sacrificed to keep his operation open for the farmers who rely on him — he hasn’t pulled a paycheck in three months. He says just $10,000 would go a long way toward making needed repairs to his facility, and help it become a viable market.

“This works. We can make it work,” he said.

Johnson questions why the state is choosing to spend millions on a new facility rather than helping out an existing operator like himself.

“They’re looking to help out the local guy, yet they’re wanting to spend $3.5 million on a new market,” he said.

Randy McCoy, a Macon County cattle farmer and frequent patron at Johnson’s auction, said the money the state wants to spend is excessive.

“I don’t know if they have enough cattle in the area to spend that kind of money on a stockyard,” he said.

The state’s report did find that there aren’t enough cattle in WNC to sustain two competing markets. Ward said the plan to build a market was already in motion by the time Johnson opened his, and that the new market is targeting the 40,000 cattle currently being sold at auctions out of state, not the ones Johnson is selling.

“I’ve spoken to Johnson to clarify that we are not creating a market to try to take his market,” said Ward. “On the other hand, we will not be able to direct the producer, and if they emigrate from him to our market,” there’s nothing the state can do, he said.

Ward said Johnson is welcome to throw his name in the hat along with other operators interested in running the market. WNC Communities, the recipient of the grant that will help build the market, plans to lease the facility to a private operator at a low cost.

Ward said the state’s study showed that most cattle farmers support the new livestock market, and that benefiting the farmers is the ultimate goal of the market project.


The Haywood County Democratic Party has tapped Chief Deputy Bobby Suttles to replace outgoing Sheriff Tom Alexander.

Suttles is a 14-year employee of the sheriff’s department and a former Waynesville police officer. He won 111 of 166 votes cast by members of the Democratic Executive Committee on Feb. 7.

A total of five candidates applied for the sheriff post. Only three received a nomination from the Executive Committee — Suttles, retired NC Highway Patrol trooper Albert Allen, and Maggie Valley police officer Russell Gilliland. The other two — Ken Hollifield, a truck driver, and Raymond Ezell, a retired postal inspector, did not receive nominations.

Haywood County Commissioners must approve Suttles before he is officially appointed as the new sheriff, but they are bound to rubber stamp the party’s recommendation.

— By Julia Merchant


Farmer Skipper Russell thought he was helping drive tourism with his famous corn “maize,” an agricultural attraction he operates each fall in Bethel. After all, the maze attracted nearly 7,000 visitors this year, many from out of town, who came to wander through the series of intricate paths cut into his corn field.

But the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, which promised Russell $3,000 to advertise the attraction says Russell didn’t follow the guidelines associated with the money — so he won’t be getting any of it.

The tourism authority says Russell failed to list them as a sponsor on any of his advertising, be it billboards or brochures. That’s a stipulation the TDA makes to anyone it doles out money to: receive TDA dollars, and TDA better get some recognition.

Russell admits he failed to read the fine print and accepts responsibility for what he says was an innocent mistake. TDA officials brought the mistake to his attention in December, after the maze had closed for the season.

“It was just an oversight I made. I guess I just overlooked that,” he said.

TDA’s refusal to refund the $3,000 is a blow to Russell, who spent more than $8,000 on advertising for the corn maze. The blow stings even more because Russell made a special effort this year to use his attraction to highlight Haywood County. The corn maze featured a bicentennial theme in honor of the county’s year-long celebration to honor its 200th year.

Russell accepts the TDA’s decision, though as a farmer struggling after a particularly bad season, the loss of $3,000 will make finances tighter.

“Well, I’ll have to be OK with it,” he said.


A shuttle to transport commuters between Haywood and Buncombe counties is gaining momentum following the state’s recent offer to donate land for a park-and-ride lot.

The proposed lot is at Exit 33 along I-40 in Canton on land owned by the Department of Transportation. The DOT would pay to pave and light the lot, according to Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s Economic Development Director.

The acquisition of land for the park and ride is a final piece of the puzzle to getting the system up and running. A vehicle to shuttle riders will come from the non-profit Mountain Projects agency, which already operates public transportation internally within Haywood County.

The park and ride system would target the some 4,000 Haywood residents who work in Buncombe County, a number estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau. Users looking to save gas and money or avoid traffic would park their vehicles in the lot, pay a fare and take public transit to one of two or three dropoff sites in Bumcombe. Exit 50 near Mission Hospital and the Asheville Transit Authority have been debated as possible dropoff locations.

The Smoky Mountain News first reported on a potential park and ride system for Haywood in July, when Mountain Projects, the nonprofit agency in charge of the county’s public transit, received a grant to develop a transportation system between Haywood and Buncombe counties.

At the time, commuters who were told about the idea expressed an interest in learning more. Many said cost was a major factor in whether they would take public transportation. A shuttle would have to save them money before they would consider trading in the freedom of having a personal vehicle. Keeping costs low is a challenge for public transportation, since drivers must be paid and buses must be filled in order to break even.

Though a timeline has not been set, the project will likely continue to move forward since it has garnered support from several bodies, including the county commissioners and Haywood Community College.

“I think this is a good thing,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.


Property owners at the site of last month’s landslide in Maggie Valley are being tasked by county officials with the job of stabilizing the mountain in the wake of the slide.

The county has given the property owners until Feb. 21 to have a professional inspection conducted of the collapsed slope, the first deadline in a long remediation process.

Edward and Pamela McAloon, whose house sat on a nearly vertical slope, weren’t home when a 300-foot wall of mud slid off their property during heavy rains Jan. 7, destroying the home of their downhill neighbors Bruce and Lorraine Donin. The Donins, who were on the second and third floors of their house when the slide occurred, emerged badly shaken but uninjured.

Haywood County’s slope ordinance passed in 2006, too late to force the McAloons to hire an engineer and submit a slope stability plan when constructing their house on such steep terrain. But it does give the county power to force the McAloons to clean up the mess. In contrast, counties without such an ordinance lack the power to force any slope remediation by the property owner, meaning a failed slope may never be fixed or fixed at taxpayers’ expense.

Haywood’s ordinance gives the county’s engineering review board power to step in and require the owners of property “upon which a critical slope is located” to have a professional inspection performed to determine what it will take to fix the slope. On Jan. 22, the engineering review board gave the McAloons 30 days to do just that.

The board will also instate a timeline for repair of the slope, said County Engineer Mark Shumpert — another authority put in place by the slope ordinance.

The county can require the property owner “to repair the slope to adequately eliminate the hazard...within a time period as determined by the Engineering Review Board.”

The county has not yet set a timeline for the McAloons to repair their slope because of some issues that complicate the site, Shumpert said, such as access.

“Access to the site is going to be very difficult,” he said. “To cross that stream they may have to work with the Corps of Engineers and the Division of Water Quality, in order to obtain the permits to do that.”

Getting the proper permits to work around the stream that runs through the property will likely be the biggest obstacle to repairing the slope.

“It might take them six months to give them the permits they need,” Shumpert said. That’s why the county has opted not to set a timeline for remediation just yet.

Shumpert said he has not heard from the McAloons since the slide, and doesn’t know if they’ve hired a contractor to evaluate and start repairs.

But the attorney retained by the McAloons, Canton Lawyer Pat Smathers, said the couple has hired an engineer to take a look at the property. Smathers would not say whether his clients should be held financially responsible for the disaster, though he did say, “they regret what occurred.”

County inspection records indicate the McAloons were warned at least three times about the slope’s potential for failure.

The Donins, whose home was destroyed by the slide, have retained attorney David Wijewickrama of Waynesville, though they have not filed a lawsuit.


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