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With cash settlement rolling in, ideas fly on how to spend it

After decades of bitter division among Swain County residents concerning the North Shore Road controversy, people on both sides have come to a surprisingly easy agreement in its aftermath.

County leaders and citizens all agree that an advisory committee must be created to decide how the cash settlement is spent.

“It would be nice if you would have a committee chosen from different walks of life,” said Linda Hogue, a long-time supporter of building the road. “That’s not usually the way it happens around here. A certain few decide what’s going to happen, and that’s what happens.”

Leonard Winchester, a fierce advocate for the cash settlement, likewise said a well-chosen group should accept written suggestions then pass along recommendations to county commissioners.

“If we do that, we can really do some great things in Swain County,” said Winchester.

Commissioners Glenn Jones, David Monteith and Steve Moon all support the idea of an advisory committee as well. Commissioners Genevieve Lindsay and Phil Carson did not respond to SMN’s calls.

“A nonbinding committee would be good,” said Moon, who also suggests placing a suggestion box somewhere to take citizens’ thoughts into consideration. “We really need to get more input from the public.”

Monteith agreed that decisions should not be made unilaterally by county leaders.

“I don’t think it should be left up to five commissioners, regardless of who they are,” Monteith said.

Meanwhile, Jones would like to see a grant system put in place with a portion of the money. An advisory committee would review grant applications and make recommendations to commissioners on which projects should receive North Shore funding.


Bathrooms and pedestals


Despite a cooperative spirit regarding citizen input, the first $30,000 in interest money from the settlement has already been allocated by commissioners in their 2010-11 budget.

So far, $12.8 million of the promised $52 million settlement has been appropriated and is parked in a trust fund. Commissioners can only spend the interest — they can’t touch the principal unless approved by two-thirds of registered voters.

Since interest rates fluctuate, the county doesn’t know exactly how much it will get this year, but it has to estimate an amount and account for in the budget nonetheless.

While some confusion has arisen over how much interest will accrue by the end of this fiscal year, County Manager Kevin King maintains it will come in just less than $500,000. King said that Swain leaders have an opportunity to withdraw from the balance every month.

About $15,000 of the interest has been allocated toward building public bathrooms for Riverfront Park beside the County Administration building.

“We have political rallies, birthdays, weddings, day of prayer, different things out front,” said Jones. With no other public bathroom in sight, employees frequently have to open up the doors to the county building during weekends and holidays to allow visitors to use its restrooms.

Another $15,000 will be used to install five granite pedestals memorializing Swain County, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Park Service and the North Shore story.

The pedestals would eventually be included in a historic walking tour of Bryson City.

Winchester said he personally wouldn’t choose to spend the interest on erecting monuments, but he could understand why others would support the idea.

“People put up monuments to recognize organizations and history all the time,” said Winchester. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

But Moon said there are other uses on his mind, especially with county employees struggling under the weight of furloughs and years without a raise.

“It’s been over two years right now … That’s more important than pedestals,” said Moon.


Commissioners’ wish lists


With a bountiful new revenue source in tow, Swain County residents are bound to have differing ideas on how best to spend the North Shore settlement.

Commissioner Monteith raised a stir when he recently proposed using about $4.5 million of the North Shore funds to give every property owner — except for commissioners — a one-year property tax holiday, along with a 3 percent across the board raise for county employees. It would require dipping into the principal, and to do so requires approval by two-thirds of registered voters.

Some decried the proposal as a vote-buying maneuver, but Monteith emphasized that the tax break would be instrumental in helping residents who have all been hit hard by the recession.

“That’s what I was trying to do, help people of Swain County,” said Monteith. “You can’t just pick out who you want. That’s why you have to pick them all.”

In addition, Monteith would one day like to see a museum built in Swain County that would educate visitors on the history and creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The museum would provide new jobs and attract tourists, thereby giving a boost to the local economy.

Moon’s priority is to refrain from jumping into anything major early on and simply allow the interest money accumulate for the time being.

“We don’t need to jump into something blind and commit to something that we might regret later on,” said Moon. “We need to set goals.”

However, Moon would still like to give all county employees a raise and put an end to mandatory furloughs.

“They work hard. That deserves good treatment,” said Moon.

Jones’s chief concern is to leave the principal untouched and use the interest for non-recurring expenses as opposed to regular county operation expenses, like salaries or power bills. For example, the interest money could be used to buy a fire truck one year or an ambulance the next.


What citizens want


First on Hogue’s mind is to create better access to the North Shore cemeteries isolated by Lake Fontana. Numerous family cemeteries now lie inside the national park and are accessible only by foot or four-wheel transport. A low-water bridge critical to access some cemeteries has been washed out for more than a year.

“It’s downright dangerous to go to the cemetery,” Hogue said, adding that cemeteries also need better upkeep, seating for the elderly who visit and handicapped accessibility.

That’s all that Hogue would like to see done in the short-term. “I need to see some money come in before making plans,” said Hogue.

At a minimum, the North Shore money should not be used to pay regular operating expenses for the county, according to Winchester.

Moreover, Winchester would like it acknowledged that the money belongs to all Swain County residents, not just those with ancestors from the North Shore. The entire county bore the cost of building the road that was later flooded by the government and deserves to benefit as well.

“It is an insult to Swain County to refer to this money as if somehow or another it belongs to the people of the North Shore,” said Winchester.

If the decision on how to spend the money were up to Winchester, he’d use the interest money to make high-speed Internet accessible to every Swain County resident. Ideally, a fiberoptic network would be made available to every individual and business in Swain. With a strong fiberoptic backbone already in place, Winchester says the bandwidth and infrastructure could be as competitive as those found anywhere else in the country.

High-speed Internet would allow employees to easily access work-related programs from home, doctors to quickly transmit patient files, and much more.

“That would be a major plus in terms of economic development, in terms of marketing Swain County,” said Winchester. “You always want to get the biggest bang for the buck. We need to look very seriously at the type of projects that leverage this money to get other money.”

What is the cash settlement?

Earlier this year, Swain County ended a long uphill battle over a road the federal government had promised to rebuild after flooding it to create Lake Fontana in 1943.

Swain County residents wrangled for decades over whether the county should pressure the government to rebuild the road or pursue a cash settlement in its place.

In the end, commissioners voted 4-1 to accept a $52 million settlement through installments in coming years.

One-legged soccer coach inspires young players

At 9 years old, Italian Joseph Di Lillo lost his leg as a civilian casualty in World War II. He felt he no longer fit in at home or school. After months of self loathing, Di Lillo ran away and found purpose again playing soccer on a team comprised of handicapped children at an orphanage in Rome.

Now Di Lillo lives in Bryson City and hopes to impart the values he learned through soccer to children and young adults in the community, he said.

“He’s very interested in the kids’ welfare. He has a love for soccer, and he has a strong desire to teach that to the kids around here,” said Julie Richards, who has coached a clinic with Di Lillo. “It’s very impressive to see him out there when it’s 90 degrees, and he’s carrying that gear all over the place, especially on one leg.

Having only one leg doesn’t ever stop him, said Romano Michelotti, another coach who’s worked with Di Lillo.

“He wouldn’t quit playing soccer if he had no legs at all,” Michelotti said. “The community is fortunate to have someone like him.”

About three years ago, Di Lillo founded the Western North Carolina Youth Soccer Association. It runs spring and fall soccer clinics for 60 to 65 children. There is no registration fee, and a $1,000 grant from the Asheville Community Foundation covers the cost of shin guards and cleats. The association has also received two $500 grants from Wal-mart and Sam’s Club, he said.

But that’s not enough. The association needs a field to play on, Di Lillo said.

“I’m desperate for a field,” Di Lillo said. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to quit.”

Di Lillo has been told a field in Swain will cost at minimum $250,000, and he doesn’t have the money. While he could always leave the county to coach elsewhere, De Lillo wants to stay in Swain. With a high incidence of poverty, kids in Swain County have little opportunity to play soccer, which can sometimes be too expensive to afford.

But finding a field in Swain is not the biggest obstacle Di Lillo has had to overcome.

Di Lillo grew up in Italy during World War II. In his book Soccer: My Life, My Passion, he recounts the struggles and loss his family faced during the war. Nazis forced his father onto a German military truck because they thought he was a “suspicious individual.” The soldiers severely beat Di Lillo’s father and left him abandoned on a country road.

Another day when a convoy of German soldiers headed to Rome, one soldier threw a small parcel off the side of a truck. Thinking it was a can of food, Domenico, one of Di Lillo’s brothers, grabbed it. But it exploded, ripping off his thumb.

Later in the war when Di Lillo and his 5-year old brother Sebastiano headed home from school, the two found themselves in the middle of an air raid. Bombs fell on an ammunition plant near the school. As a result of the plant’s explosion, Sebastiano died from hemorrhaging two days later.

A British military truck hit another brother. At the hospital, doctors said he would die. The family wanted him to die at home so they could have control of the remains. But the hospital would not release the boy, so Di Lillo’s family lowered the boy out of the window in a bed sheet at night. He died the next day at home.

And it was during the war that Di Lillo lost his leg. In 1942 on his way home from school, a Nazi military truck ran into him, fracturing the femur in his thigh. It took seven hours for Di Lillo to receive medical attention. The doctor amputated Di Lillo’s leg to prevent complications and infection.

“At the age of nine, I found myself without a right leg and shattered by the reality of being handicapped for the rest of my life,” Di Lillo wrote. “My best and closest friends withdrew their friendship.”

Some of his relatives thought God was punishing him for poor behavior, and he was no longer able to help on the family farm.

Di Lillo’s father insisted he return to school despite his son’s embarrassment about his lost leg. Although Di Lillo once excelled in school, when he returned he began to associate with street urchins and routinely skipped class.

His uncle found out and told his father. His father beat him and tied him to a tree for two days. No one was allowed to bring him food.

When he was untied, he decided to run away from home and go to Rome. He took the Italian equivalent of $10 for a train ticket and a soccer ball. Di Lillo had never seen a game or played with the ball.

“For unexplainable reasons, holding the ball under my arm I felt I had a companion with me,” he recounted in his book.

Feeling that life had no meaning, Di Lillo wandered the streets of Rome hopeless. Di Lillo thought about jumping off a bridge and drowning in the Tiber River.

At that moment, a man approached Di Lillo and brought him to a headquarters for the Italian Communist Party. He was given a little money and became a temporary foster child before he was placed in the San Michele orphanage.

The orphanage had a soccer team of handicapped boys, and because Di Lillo couldn’t run, he played goalie. The team would play before professional soccer games, and the orphanage would get a small fraction of the ticket price.

“I saved the orphanage quite a bit of money,” Di Lillo said. “At the orphanage there were only two things to do: pray the rosary to save the orphanage or play soccer.”

When Di Lillo was 20, he could no longer stay at the orphanage. He returned home and applied for a visa to come to the United States.

He worked odd jobs and traveled before coming to Chicago where he met his wife, Concetta, at a festival called the Feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. She spoke little Italian, and he barely knew English. But Di Lillo said it was love at first sight.

The couple married and moved to Iowa, where she started attending graduate school at the University of Iowa. Di Lillo, 26, started attending high school but he never received a diploma.

With the help of an Italian professor, Di Lillo began attending the University of Iowa where he coached and played soccer on the International Soccer Team. He transferred to Northern Illinois University where he completed his undergraduate degree in comprehensive social sciences.

From there, he went on to Southern Illinois University where received a scholarship to coach and play soccer and ultimately graduated with a doctorate in international relations.

“I had such a craving for education, I couldn’t stop,” he said.

After retiring from a professorship, Di Lillo moved to Bryson City in 2002 to be closer to his children and grandchildren. His daughter came to North Carolina first to attend Western Carolina University and decided to stay in the area after graduation.

Di Lillo is no an assistant coach at Swain County High School.

Ben Christoph, who graduated this year, played goalie and received two years of Di Lillo’s tutelage.

“Everything he taught me about soccer and life is summed up by his motto: ‘Give 129 and a half percent all the time,’” Christoph said. “He said, ‘Never ever give up no matter what your circumstances.’ Coming from him, it meant so much more.”

Christoph recalls Di Lillo teaching the team innovative drills and demonstrating some of them himself.

“It was beyond admirable how at his age and his condition how he’d show us the drills,” Christoph said. “It made me give a lot more than I thought I could.”

Swain jail may finally see return of federal prisoners to help offset costs

In rare good news for Swain County’s jail, a new agreement will soon usher federal prisoners into the often half-empty facility.

Sheriff Curtis Cochran has worked for months to secure an official deal with the U.S. Marshals Service, which will pave the way for the return of federal prisoners and score the county $55 per prisoner per day.

“We’re thrilled to have this agreement with the Marshal Service and look forward to working with them,” said Curtis.

For now, it’s hard to say how many federal prisoners will be filing into Swain’s jail. The new deal falls short of a contract, so the marshals aren’t obligated to send any prisoners, and the jail is not required to set aside a certain number of beds for them. Such contracts only go to jails with federal money invested.

Swain’s new $10 million jail, which opened in December 2008, is more than four times larger than what the county needs to house its own inmates. County leaders hoped to house overflow inmates from other counties, but those counties were simultaneously building new jails of their own.

The county recently learned its last and best customer, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is moving forward with plans for a jail of its own as well.

This flurry of jail building in the region has posed yet another problem for Swain — other new jails are stealing away a share of the federal prisoners up for grabs.

“Lucky for us, we had a lot of jails that were newly constructed,” said Lee Banks, supervisor of the U.S. Marshals office in Asheville. “When they came on line, we were quick to provide them with prisoners that we’ve had, Cherokee County in particular.”

Fortunately for Swain, though, a federal courthouse is located in Bryson City near the jail.

“It’s what, a mile away from where we’re at,” said Cochran. “If they’re going to utilize this courthouse, it would be more feasible for them to house their inmates here.”

Swain routinely housed federal prisoners until four years ago, when the Marshals Service pulled out due to safety concerns. The old jail was plagued by temperamental locks and lacked a fire sprinkler system. Back then, the daily rate for federal prisoners was only $30 per person.

Although the new jail opened 14 months ago, it has taken time to reconnect with the federal marshal service.

Banks said he hasn’t sent federal prisoners Swain’s way since the new jail opened more than a year ago simply because there have been less prisoners.

Swain’s jail is currently housing a lone federal prisoner, who’s been there since October.

“Now we’ve got plenty of jails on line, I have fewer prisoners,” said Banks. “I’m not complaining — it’s just that our prisoner population has been low recently.”

At this point, it’s difficult for Banks to pinpoint how many federal prisoners will soon be occupying Swain’s jail.

“We’re using multiple jails in multiple areas of the state,” said Banks. “So it’s hard for me to predict how many prisoners we’ll have in the future.”

Cochran estimates that he would have 21 beds available for federal prisoners, 16 male and five female, but that number is flexible, he said.

As of last week, Swain County had 40 inmates in its 109-bed jail, including 18 from Cherokee and one federal prisoner.

Cash settlement here at last

Swain County officially signed a cash settlement with the federal government in a moving and historic ceremony Saturday, ending a bitter decades-long dispute over the North Shore Road.

Swain will received $52 million from the government, and in exchange will drop its claims to a 30-mile road the government flooded 66 years ago and never rebuilt.

“It has taken Swain County 67 years to reach this point today,” said County Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones. “The journey has not been easy folks.”

Congressman Heath Shuler, a Swain County native and football star, received three separate standing ovations during the ceremony for his critical work to bring the settlement to fruition.

“When you were up here playing football for the Maroon Devils, who would have ever thought you would be the missing piece of this puzzle?” Jones said.

Shuler fought tirelessly to win political support in Washington, including within the White House, for a settlement and to secure the first round of appropriations.

“It is not just about the money. It is letting go of something in the past that has divided us,” said Shuler, who choked up during one part of his speech. “I think maybe that’s why God has put me here, to bring a divided community back together.”

Under the cash settlement, Swain will get $12.8 million now and the rest in increments over the next 10 years. The amount of the settlement is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded, plus interest.

“What we have tried to do in this whole issue is get an injustice for Swain County done and over with,” said Claude Douthit, a father of the cash settlement movement, following the ceremony. “I have tried and tried and tired for all of these years to bring people on board and educate them. It has taken me a long time to ever get the stars right so to speak. It finally came about.”

Luke Hyde, an attorney and leader of the cash settlement movement, led an invocation at the beginning of the ceremony, which was held at Swain County High School.

“Bless what the public officials will do here today and go with us into the future so we can do a better job for our children and our children’s children,” Hyde said.

The money from the settlement will be placed in a protected trust fund. The county will get the annual interest, which will amount to more than $3 million a year once the full settlement is received.

Jones referenced the motto on a sign outside the high school where the ceremony was held, declaring “Our best and then some.”

“We want to put this note in our kids’ pockets and say ‘We have given you our best and then some,’” Jones said. “Some way or another every citizen in Swain County will benefit from this cash settlement. I can see great things to come.”


The signing

The Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar was scheduled to appear and sign the settlement in person. But as a major snowstorm barreled down on Washington, D.C., late last week, Shuler and his staffers rapidly concocted a contingency plan.

The document required four signatures, one from each of the original signers to a 1943 agreement promising to rebuild the road. Shuler dispatched his aide Ryan Fitzpatrick on Thursday to collect the signatures ahead of time and deliver them to Swain County in time for the ceremony. After getting Salazar’s signature in D.C., Fitzpatrick promptly flew out to Raleigh and met with Gov. Beverly Perdue. He was scheduled to fly out from there to Knoxville on Friday to collect a signature from the Tennessee Valley Authority, but impending winter weather in the mountains led him to change his plans and fly on to Knoxville that night, and finally on to Swain County by car on Friday.

At each stop, he took a celebratory photo of the document with his cell phone and sent the picture back to Shuler. The documents never left his side during the two-day journey.

“I had them either on my lap or in the passenger seat right beside me,” Fitzpatrick said.

The final two signatures — that of Swain County Commissioner Glenn Jones and Congressman Shuler as a witness — were saved for Saturday’s ceremony.

Salazar sent written remarks, delivered by Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson.

“It is not often one can end a 70-year old controversy with the stroke of a pen,” Salazar wrote.

The settlement was good news to environmentalists, who have spent decades fighting the road through a large, remote territory of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“I was afraid I would die before I got it done,” said Ted Snyder, a Sierra Club activist who has been part of the fight since the 1960s. “It is an enormous win.”

Road to Nowhere crusade over at last

A defining moment in the decades-long debate over the North Shore Road will play out in Swain County this week.

Commissioners are slated to vote in favor of a cash settlement from the federal government in lieu of building the controversial road — ending Swain’s bitter 66-year battle once and for all.

“It will be a historic vote for the county,” said Swain County Chairman Glenn Jones.

The vote will be held at 11:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 5, at the county administration building. On Saturday afternoon, a signing ceremony is planned to ink a new agreement with the federal government.

Under the cash settlement, Swain would get $12.8 million now and a total of up to $52 million by the year 2020 — the full amount that Swain has been seeking as compensation.

“The completion of this agreement will be the most significant event in the history of Swain County and certainly the most positive,” said Leonard Winchester, an advocate of the cash settlement and chair of the Citizens for the Economic Future of Swain County.

Since the 1940s, the people of Swain County have been waiting for the federal government to rebuild a rural highway that was flooded by the creation of Lake Fontana. Failure to make good on the promise relegated Swain to relative isolation with few roads in and out, a dead-end destination hemmed in against a national park and large mountain lake.

Under the new agreement, Swain County will forgo its long-standing claim for the road under an old agreement with the federal government dating back to 1943.

“The 1943 Agreement is hereby extinguished and superseded and shall be of no further effect,” the new agreement states.

The lone vote against accepting the cash settlement will come from Commissioner David Monteith, an ardent supporter of building the road.

“My heritage is not for sale,” Monteith said.

Many families who once lived in the North Shore area before it was made part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are deeply resentful of any attempt to let the government off the hook.

Monteith is skeptical that Swain will get a penny more than the $12.8 million currently on the table. In the 1943 agreement, the federal government pledged to rebuild the flooded road “as soon as” Congress appropriated money to do so — not exactly a hard and fast promise.

The new agreement is likewise vague, stating that Swain will get “additional sums” as appropriated by Congress not to exceed the grand total of $52 million.

“It is a sellout to say ‘if and when’ funds are made available,” Monteith said. “It is the same as before. It is not worth the paper it is written on.”

But Jones said the agreement to be voted on Friday gives Swain far more leverage to collect than the old 1943 agreement ever did.

Through a clever bit of lawyering in the 1943 agreement, the federal government inserted a hold-harmless clause stating: “failure on the part of Congress for any reason to make such appropriations shall not constitute a breach or violation of this agreement.”

The new agreement contains no such hold-harmless clause. In fact, it says the opposite.

“This Agreement is binding on the parties, through their officials, agents, employees and successors,” the new agreement states.

It was important language that the county fought hard to get inserted this time around. Also in the new agreement, the government admits that the cash settlement is being offered as a substitute for the road it never rebuilt.

“At least the federal government has made a commitment and they are saying ‘We do owe Swain County’,” Jones said. “If it is not all paid, I think you would have a leg to stand on.”

To make good on the promise of a full $52 million by 2020, Congress would have to appropriate an additional $39.2 million over and above the $12.8 million that’s been secured already. It amounts to about $4 million a year.

Winchester said he is hopeful that will come to fruition. Instead of being left up to Congress, Winchester said the $4 million appropriation for 2011 appears in the President’s budget.

Jones said he was “very confident” that additional annual payments will be made to Swain County.

Money received from the cash settlement will be placed in a trust fund with the N.C. State Treasury. The state will remit interest off the account to Swain County, but the principal cannot be touched unless supported by two-thirds of registered voters in Swain County. The interest off $12.8 million would be close to $800,000 a year.

Whether Congress ever makes good on the agreement could depend on a congressman from Western North Carolina effectively lobbying for it. To date, Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a Swain County native, has done just that.

“He’s the one we have to give the credit to,” Jones said.

The $12.8 million already on the table for Swain was secured by Shuler. Shuler also worked hard to negotiate the agreement being voted on Friday.

During initial talks, the park service was reluctant to sign on to a new agreement that included the dollar figure of $52 million, but Shuler lobbied for the past year to bring them around.

“We appreciate the exceptionally hard work of Rep. Heath Shuler and his staff to bring this matter to closure in a way that will benefit all the citizens of Swain County forever,” Winchester said.


Some background

When the federal government flooded a road leading from Bryson City to Tennessee with the construction of Lake Fontana in the 1940s, it signed an agreement promising to rebuild it one day, but only completed a small segment.

Historically, the flooded road connected many small communities, but the territory was evacuated and made part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Building a new road today would mean traversing some 30 miles of Smokies backcountry. It would carry a price tag of more than $600 million.

The $52 million cash settlement sought by Swain is based on the value of the road at the time it was flooded plus interest and inflation.

Treadway, Reidmiller run unopposed

This year’s elections in Bryson City will be a cinch for Alderwoman Stephanie Treadway and Alderman Tom Reidmiller. Both are running unopposed to retain their seats on the board.

Treadway, a 40-year old insurance agent with Allman Insurance, has been an alderwoman for almost 12 years. She said she’d like to continue working on improving the town’s water and sewer facilities. She also would like to see more streetscape work done, especially on Main Street.

Reidmiller, 68, is a retired Ford dealership owner who has served as alderman for more than four years. Reidmiller was appointed to the board in 2005 to fill a vacancy.

Reidmiller said his number one priority was to set up a “more efficient” water system. He said he decided to run again because he believed his business experience could contribute to the town’s success.

New bike shop opens in Bryson

Andy Zivinsky and Diane Cutler were determined to move to the mountains.

Their passion for all things outdoors was making the Raleigh area increasingly ill-suited to the type of lifestyle they wanted.

“We were only taking an outdoor trip once a month and it wasn’t enough. That was only 12 fishing trips or 12 backpacking trips a year, and we wanted that to be the main part of our life,” Cutler said.

Between mountain biking, bird watching, hiking, camping, rock climbing and fly-fishing, they couldn’t get it all in during weekend trips consumed by driving back and forth across the state. Last year, they spent a week of vacation backpacking and fishing on Hazel Creek in the Smokies and romping through Joyce Kilmer.

But it was a trip into Bryson City that sealed their fate.

“It was a kind of fluke. We had been backpacking for four days and thought ‘We could use a shower and comfortable bed,’” Cutler recounted. “When we got into Bryson City our jaw dropped and we were like this is where we want to live. It is small and it wasn’t real polished. It wasn’t yuppie.”

Cutler said it had just what they were looking for: lots of outdoor recreation every direction you turned.

“Some people look for good schools, some people look for great restaurants or art and culture, but our thing is outdoor recreational activity and this place has everything — paddling and hiking and biking and fishing and bird watching,” Cutler said.

Zivinsky was also impressed with how unpretentious it is in Bryson.

“We decided, ‘Wow this was just the best place in the world.’ It wasn’t built up and over exposed,” Zivinsky said. “We tried to find jobs and that didn’t exactly happen so we decided to make jobs.”

In the Raleigh area, Zivinsky worked at a tire store and Cutler worked for a non-profit energy efficiency firm, which she has stayed on with as a consultant.

But “Andy had always wanted to have a bike shop,” Cutler said.

So the couple could hardly believe their luck when they not only stumbled into the town of their dreams but found it lacked a bike store.

There are already two bike stores within 15 miles: Motion Makers in Sylva and the NOC bike shop in the Nantahala Gorge. But Cutler and Zivinsky think there is enough market share to go around.

“We don’t want to come in and step on anybody’s toes,” Cutler said.

Motion Makers in particular has a long-standing and loyal clientele. Cutler sees their Bryson City bike shop catering to a different type of customer, however, citing their emphasis on mountain bikes and bike rentals versus the more serious road biker.

The new bike shop owners want their store to fill a void for the greater Swain County biking community as a gathering place. They hope the shop will serve as a home base for bike riders new to the area looking for routes. The bike shop will have free trail maps and directions to trailheads, as well as a computer for riders to print out maps of their choosing.

“You can waste an awful lot of time trying to figure out where to ride and which direction to ride,” said Zivinsky

“Even people who have been coming here for years had no clue there was anywhere to ride other than Tsali.”

As jacks-of-all-trades when it comes to outdoor recreation, they know how hard it can be to stuff all your gear for a trip into one vehicle. Between kayaks and climbing gear and backpacks and tents and coolers, a bike rack thrown into the mix, especially for a whole family, can be the breaking point.

So the bike shop will rent bikes of all sorts, including all the gear from helmets to a repair bag.

“It is turnkey,” Zivinsky said. “You get everything you need.”

It will also be good for novice riders who might not think to travel with their bikes, but once here, would like to ride.

Swain backs down from hardline stance with Bryson City Fire Department

Swain County will continue contracting with the Bryson City Fire Department to provide county fire service, despite threatening to cut ties with the department after it asked the county for more money.

Earlier this year, the county balked at a request from the town fire department to up the amount of its contract from $40,000 to $70,000 per year for fire protection provided to county residents outside the town limits of Bryson City.

County Manager Kevin King countered that the county would not only not pay more, but would cancel the contract altogether and build two new fire stations of its own — all by July 1 of this year. It was an ambitious plan to choose a site and build the stations in just four months, especially since the county didn’t have any money set aside to do so.

Not surprisingly, the plan did not materialize quickly enough, causing the county to renew its contract with the town department for another year.

“West Swain is trying to develop a plan to do a satellite station in the outlying areas, but right now, it’s just not developed yet,” explained King. “We just needed an extension of time with the Bryson City Fire Department in order for them to do that, so they asked the town a few months ago if they’d be willing to entertain a year’s extension.”

The town fire department agreed, though it won’t be getting any of the additional money it had initially requested. Still, Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes said he was satisfied with the outcome. The town gets to retain its call volume and won’t loose county funding.

“I think it comes to a real good agreement, not just for us, but for the taxpayers and everybody,” said Hughes.

The contract also includes one important change — it provides the Bryson City department with more flexibility in how it spends county dollars. Before, the majority of the county’s money could only be spent on certain things: specifically, the maintenance of two trucks and half the cost of the building maintenance.

Now, “we just bill them quarterly and get our whole $40,000 that way,” Hughes said. “It’s giving us some more flexibility.” For instance, the town department can spend money on gear and radios rather than truck and building maintenance, if it determines one need is greater than the other.

“In a roundabout way, they did up the money,” by providing more flexibility, Hughes said.

However, the county has warned that the arrangement with the town won’t last longer than it has to. Instead, it’s just a stopgap to give the county more time to hammer out its plans to build new fire stations of its own.

“The county is looking at long-term fire planning for the entire county over the next five years,” King said. “Basically, we just passed the year’s contract to give us another 12 months to work on the long-range planning process.”

Hughes is skeptical that the county’s plan to build two new fire stations will work. He wonders how the county will get the money for the project, since there are already capital projects like the senior center that sit uncompleted.

“Already, they have a building they can’t finish, and now they’re applying to build another building,” Hughes mused.

Ellison came to WNC as a ‘Kephart pilgrim’

While George and Elizabeth Ellison are fixtures in Bryson City today — Elizabeth as a renowned artist and George as a writer and naturalist — their journey to the region 30 years ago was little more than happenstance.

The Ellisons rode in on the back-to-the-land movement, setting up house and raising a family in a rural cabin lacking running water or electricity. While it was ultimately a lifestyle that fit them perfectly, they landed here initially while on a quest of a different sort.

George Ellison first set foot in Bryson City in 1976, partly on a writing assignment and partly on a personal pilgrimage to the old stomping grounds of Horace Kephart, a famed writer who immersed himself in the culture of backwoods mountaineers a century ago. Kephart’s writing chronicled the distinct mountain culture and dialect and described the wilderness landscape — a rich subject matter than catapulted him onto the national stage as an outdoors adventure writer.

Ellison was commissioned to research the life of Kephart and write an introduction for a reprint of Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders. While Ellison had long been enamored with Kephart’s writing, he landed the assignment somewhat by luck. Ellison was teaching at Mississippi State University in the mid-19070s when small talk at an English Association meeting arrived on the subject of Kephart.

A visiting scholar from the University of Tennessee Press was in the room, and like Ellison, was a Kephart follower. A reissue of Our Southern Highlanders had been percolating in the background, but hinged on finding someone to write an introduction that would set the stage for the new printing.

“We got to talking and he said, ‘Gosh, I found someone with an interest in Kephart. Can you do the introduction?’” Ellison recalled.

Ellison gladly, but skeptically, accepted. Kephart’s life had largely been an enigma. Little was known about the man before he abruptly appeared in Swain County and settled amongst the people there. Kephart had left few clues of his own.

“I thought it would be a situation where I couldn’t find enough to write an introduction. All I’d found before was a couple book reviews and a little sketch of his life,” Ellison said. “No one had done a coherent depiction of his life before he came here.”

Kephart was a major player in the movement to create the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so one of Ellison’s first moves was to seek out the park’s historian and archivist, Don DeFoe.

“I walked in and said ‘Does anyone here know anything about Horace Kephart?’ and his eyes lit up. It was like he’d been waiting for me for years,” Ellison said.

DeFoe led Ellison downstairs to the basement of park headquarters outside Gatlinburg, Tenn., and opened the door of a damp storage room.

“There were boxes of Kephart stuff molding away, all this stuff was sitting there rotting away,” Ellison said of the room, which had visible water leaks.

Along with boxes of Kephart’s prized journals, containing meticulous notes on everything from local dialect to plant uses, were many of Kephart’s personal items.

Ellison’s quest to piece together Kephart’s life soon led him to a host of closet Kephart fans, each eager to share what they could.

“I felt like a little Dutch boy running around sticking my finger in the dike,” Ellison said. “It was overwhelming, because I had a project where I didn’t know what I was going to write about and suddenly I had more than enough.”

Ellison’s research ultimately revealed the life and times of Kephart and postulates on the motives that precipitated his move to live among the mountaineers.

“No one knew his story until I put it together, not in that kind of detail and context,” Ellison said.

Ellison’s own writing career was launched on the coattails of Kephart. The introduction earned him instant recognition and esteem with exactly the audience that Ellison was suited for, an audience as enthralled with the mountain landscape and cultural history as Ellison was.

In recent years, Kephart has been transformed from a nearly forgotten historical figure to a folk hero of sorts.

Ellison helped facilitate a transfer of the national park’s Kephart materials to Western Carolina University, which provided a proper archival repository for the valuable historical collection both in the Hunter Library Special Collections and Mountain Heritage Center.

Ellison spent a lot of time in Bryson City researching Kephart, enough to realize the town could give him and his wife, Elizabeth, the lifestyle they were looking for.

“She wanted to paint full time and not be pigeon-holed as a professor’s wife. I always wanted to be a writer,” Ellison said. “I said ‘Bryson City is really a nice little town. Let’s give it a shot.’”

Ellison denies that he set out to be a modern-day Kephart.

“I didn’t come here because I fell in love with Kephart. I came here because I fell in love with the region,” Ellison said.

Swain leaders divided on contentious fire station plan

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

Two Swain County commissioners are having second thoughts about a move to end contracted fire service with the town of Bryson City after listening to the impassioned pleas of volunteer firefighters who shared their comments at a meeting last week.

Town officials had requested more money from the county to match the high number of calls firefighters were answering outside town limits. The county instead proposed ending the contract altogether and building two new stations of its own, leaving firefighters from the Bryson City Fire Department up in arms.

Commissioners Steve Moon and David Monteith were initially supportive of the proposal to build a new station at the industrial park and in the Ela community, but emerged from the meeting with changed minds after hearing a group of Bryson City firefighters air their concerns.

“Those guys have been here a long time, and I think their wishes should be given full attention, and should even maybe take priority,” said Commissioner Steve Moon. “And I was all for building those substations before the meeting Monday night. I’ve changed my mind.”

Moon had qualms about the timing of the project, which will cost an estimated $600,000 to $700,000 to build the stations and buy two fire trucks.

“I don’t think it’s the right time with the state of the economy and our county, and the passion some of these firefighters feel for their fire department,” he said. “Maybe we should table it for a year.”

Monteith also was less sure of the proposal following the meeting.

“I went to that meeting feeling pretty good about what I wanted, but came out and there’s still some answers I need to get,” Monteith said.

Bryson City Fire Chief Joey Hughes, an outspoken opponent of the plan, said he felt commissioners learned something from the meeting.

“I’m not saying someone lied to them, but I think they had some misleading information, and I think we cleared that up and they listened,” he said.

The county’s plan to create new fire stations was largely spearheaded by County Manager Kevin King.

Hughes also questions the project’s timing.

“Maybe one day this might be the right thing to do, but right now it’s not with the economy the way it is,” he said.

Commissioner Chairman Glenn Jones, however, did not appear to waver in his support of the new fire stations. In fact, he didn’t realize others on the board no longer supported it.

“I think the consensus of the board is that we’re going to contract with West Swain, but we haven’t voted on it,” Jones said.

Under the proposal, the county would contract with the West Swain Fire Department. The station would be in charge of applying for loans to fund the new stations and two new trucks, as well as hiring someone to construct the stations.

Jones did not have reservations about the county’s ability to pay the estimated $600,000 to $700,000 the new stations and trucks would cost. The county will divert what it currently contributes to the Bryson and Qualla departments to make loan payments on the new stations, and would only kick in an extra $20,000 over what it pays now.

“I believe that we can handle that, yes,” he said.

The positions of Commissioner Genevieve Lindsay and Phillip Carson are not known.


More discussion likely

Moon said he saw a need for more town involvement in making a decision over county fire service. Hughes has bemoaned a lack of communication between the county and town.

For example, a state fire inspector met with county officials several months ago to provide his opinion on county fire service. The Bryson Fire Department was never informed, Hughes said.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Hughes said. “If they had wanted to improve something, why didn’t they include everybody in it?”

Moon urged more town input in the process, and was surprised there hadn’t been.

“I thought that they would be more involved, but they did seem caught off-guard, which is another reason to table it,” said Moon. “We need to work together, not as two separate entities.”

“We need some good old sit down coffee drinking meeting to hammer out everything,” Monteith agreed.

In the mean time, Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker said the town board is considering its options should the county decide to terminate its contract, which is worth $47,000 per year. If the county did so, the town fire department would lose about two-thirds of its call volume, and the number of volunteers needed would likely be reduced.

“We don’t know where we are going, but we have two options,” said Walker. “Either go with the new (county) entity, or make a smaller fire department.”

Walker said the town board will meet with the state fire marshal on March 16 to discuss options.

Meanwhile, the county is in no rush to make a decision. Initially, the county had wanted to get the first new station up and running by mid-summer, said County Manager Kevin King. But with both Moon and Monteith wanting to look into other options, that timeline will likely be pushed back.

“I think the public needs to know more about it,” Monteith said.

Moon said this is one of the biggest challenges commissioners have dealt with in a long while, and it’s keeping him up at night.

“Several nights I’ve laid awake,” Moon said. “I want to do the right thing, for our citizens and our people, and I pray about it. I pray for the Lord’s guidance.”


“If it ain’t broke...”

Hughes says he’s representing the wishes of his 34 volunteer firemen in speaking out against the project.

“I wouldn’t be trying to fix something that ain’t broke,” Hughes said.

Hughes also promised that his volunteers won’t leave the Bryson City Fire Department to join the ranks of firefighters at the new county stations, and expressed doubt about the county’s ability to staff the stations.

“The ones that are already in my department, they’re not leaving,” Hughes said.

Hughes says the county proposal would duplicate services. An Ela station would cover the same area the Qualla Fire Department already covers. A new station at the industrial park would also duplicate service that already exists, being “so close” to the Bryson City Fire Department, Hughes said.

If Hughes had his way, he would build additional stations in different locations than the county proposed. In order of importance, Hughes would place substations in Laurel Branch, on the west end of the Gorge, in Brushy Creek, and in Whittier.

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