Editor’s note: Here is The Smoky Mountain News’ annual Year in Review, but ours comes with a nod and a wink — and an award. News is serious and sometimes tragic, but in hindsight we can at least try to find a little humor in what the newsmakers endured and we all read about in 2010.
The Sisyphus award
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is sentenced for eternity to roll a rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top.
The mountain gods showed a similar attitude toward human inhabitants this year, showing a particular inclination to shut down major thoroughfares. At one point, the three primary routes through the southern mountains into Tennessee were blocked with rock slides: Interstate 40 in Haywood County, U.S. 64 between Murphy and Chattanooga, and U.S. 129 running from Robbinsville to Maryville, Tenn.
The only passage was U.S. 441 over Newfound Gap through the Smokies, and even that route was temporarily reduced to one lane following a rock slide of its own.
Mountains have been running amok on the residential side as well. The biggest and most high profile was in Maggie Valley below Ghost Town amusement park, but there were also slides in the Water Dance development in Jackson County and the Wildflower development in Macon County that destabilized road grades and took out lots, as well as a slide in Macon County that led to a man’s home being condemned.
The construction crew restoring the historic Jackson County Courthouse could have used more spinach before tackling the structure’s crowning cupola. The domed top had to be taken down for restoration in June. But when a crowd of onlookers gathered at the bottom of courthouse hill to watch the day it was scheduled to come off, repeated attempts failed. Crews ultimately had to bring in a stronger crane the following week.
The $7 million restoration of the historic courthouse and construction of a new library adjacent to it was supposed to be finished by year’s end, but has been pushed back.
When the U.S. Small Business Administration announced $1.4 million in loans for businesses hurt by the I-40 rock slide in Haywood County, business owners far and wide began hungrily licking their chops.
The October 2009 slide shut down the Interstate Haywood County for six months, choking off tourism traffic and commerce. Gas stations and hotels had to cut hours and even lay off workers as business dried up.
But of the 15 businesses that landed federal SBA loans, few were located in Haywood County. Among the more puzzling recipients: the Fun Depot in Asheville, an indoor kid’s amusement center; and an excavating company in Sevierville, Tenn., a business that hardly seems contingent on passersby on the interstate.
One local loan recipient was a bar in downtown Waynesville — a standard that would seemingly qualify every restaurant in the entire county.
Full House award
Despite a recession, Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino barreled ahead with a $630 million expansion. The casino rolled out a major addition to the gaming floor, debuted a 3,000-seat concert venue and topped off a 21-story hotel tower. A 16,000-square-foot spa in the works is a testimony to Harrah’s mission to transform itself beyond a casino to a full-service resort.
The casino’s two existing hotel towers are consistently full.
The casino hit another milestone this year when it began serving alcohol for the first time in its on-site restaurants and at a new bona fide bar and lounge on the gaming floor.
The expansion began in 2009 and is slated for final completion in 2012. A 400-seat Paula Deen Kitchen restaurant also opened at the casino this year.
Best Power Struggle award
Solar panels. That’s what Haywood Community College and the Haywood County commissioners spent the better part of a year at loggerheads over.
HCC wanted to include green features, from rainwater collection to solar hot water in the design of a new $10.2 million creative arts building that will house its famed craft programs like woodcarving, pottery and jewelry making. But Haywood County commissioners accused the eco-efforts of driving up the cost of the building, and as a result threatened to veto the project. The college spent months trying to convince commissioners the building as designed was both frugal and necessary, while commissioner played hardball in an attempt to send the college back to the drawing board. The biggest sticking point were proposed solar panels on the building, which the college claimed would pay for themselves while commissioners remained skeptical.
In the end, the college won its quest to build a sustainable flagship creative arts building.
Last Laugh Award
To Sylva business owner Dodie Allen, who fought back against being ticketed for parking a van outside her downtown auction under the town’s new law designed to free-up prime parking real estate for visitors and shoppers.
Allen protested the citation — and the $50 fine it carried — for 45 minutes at a town board meeting, saying it infringed on her rights and hampered her ability to make a living. Allen argued she was simply loading and unloading at her auction house on Main Street.
Ultimately, Allen won her battle when it was discovered a key paragraph, the one specifying business owners and their employees can’t park on Main and Mill streets, wasn’t included in the ordinance passed. The town was forced to hold another public hearing and vote again on the town law, this time with the correct language intact.
Extreme Makeover award
Haywood County social workers will soon enjoy new digs. They are trading in a decrepit former hospital dating back decades for an abandoned Wal-Mart store being retrofitted for offices. Their new stripmall-esque working quarters will be a vast improvement over their current accommodations: a four-story brick building that’s cramped and crumbling, with makeshift offices in storage closets, perpetual leaks and rusted window jambs.
The Wal-Mart makeover project will cost the county $12.5 million — about half that to purchase the building and the other half to convert it into an office complex. Critics decried the move as an unnecessary cost in bad times. But county commissioners said the poor state of the DSS building could no longer be ignored, and scoring a bargain price for the old Wal-Mart made it the most attractive solution.
In addition to the Department of Social Services, the renovated building will also house the county health department and the planning department.
Initial construction bids came in higher than expected, so the county trimmed elements of the project to get costs down and then went back out to bid.
Most Creative Accounting
When the public learned Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe was funneling money seized in drug busts to youth sports teams — and as it happened to teams his own kids played on — he claimed it was all for a good cause.
Drug bust money by law must go toward drug crime prevention and enforcement, and Ashe argued that supporting wholesome diversions for kids keeps them off drugs.
The justification gets a little hazier though when it came to other uses for narcotics money by Ashe, like $20,000 to replace carpet in the sheriff’s office or $400 to get himself listed on a national “Who’s Who” list.
Ashe enjoyed an unsupervised, free rein of how to spend the narcotics fund. He failed to get approval from the county on the expenditures, violating state statutes governing fiscal controls for local government. The state Local Government Commission made Ashe comply with new accounting procedures after media reports brought the issue to light.
Janet Jackson award
Haywood County nearly had its own version of the infamous wardrobe malfunction when a river rafter protesting pollution by the Canton paper mill threatened to pull down his pants and bare his buttocks during a public hearing. He was one of several Tennessee river guides at the hearing who claimed to have sores and skin cancers from being in contact with the Pigeon River tainted by chemicals from the mill, and was willing to prove it until the hearing moderator advised him against such public displays.
Evergreen Packaging is seeking a new water pollution permit for the Pigeon River. The state was forced to ratchet down pollution levels in the proposed permit following objections by the EPA. But it wasn’t enough to abate environmentalists, who have filed a lawsuit to impose even tougher limits.
Evergreen is also facing a class action lawsuit by a group of Haywood County landowners. Downstream landowners in Tennessee have won similar class action suits against the mill.
The paper mill sucks roughly 29 million gallons a day out of the river and uses it in myriad aspects of the paper making process — from cooling coal-fired boilers to flushing chemicals through wood pulp — and then dumps it back in the river again.
It was a dismal election year for Democrats, but U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, managed to hang on to his seat despite his conservative-leaning mountain district. He handily smashed Republican challenger Jeff Miller and advanced to the next round where he took on none other than House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. He went into the challenge with the intention of losing — or at least knowing he’d lose — because the loss gave him incredible national exposure.
What’s next for the former football player from Swain County? He’s not saying, but former communications director Andrew Whalen left a coveted job as executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party to rejoin Shuler’s staff. Something’s afoot with this fiscally-conservative Blue Dog Republican Democrat, that’s for dang sure.
The Mother of all Irony Award
To the Village of Forest Hills, which incorporated in 1997 for the express and unabashed purpose of keeping rowdy, drunken Western Carolina University students from taking over this residential community, is now considering annexing land at Chancellor John Bardo’s behest so that some unknown developer can build a town so students will keep going to Western Carolina University (there’s a little retention problem) because, finally, they won’t have to drive to Sylva to — is this for real? — get good and soused. They’ll instead drink beer and wine and shots of liquor within walking distance of campus as God intended for university students to do.
Additionally, WCU suggests the Boca Raton, Fla.-reminiscent name of Forest Hills be lost in favor of the name Cullowhee. We can only assume the town sign painted in pastels on U.S. 107 will have to go, too, folks.
Only in Macon Could This Happen Award
Where else would a county board of commissioners appoint a man who openly doesn’t support land planning to the county’s planning board, except in Macon County?
In a move so audacious in its sheer lack of thought and concern for regulating unbridled development, we salute the Republican (and one rogue Democrat) commissioners in Macon County for the appointment of Tea Party member Jimmy Goodman to the planning board. Never mind that he’d not been reappointed to that same board for (allegedly and all that) obstructing the other members in, well, their efforts to plan, those rascally planning-board members.
We take our hats off to you, Macon County, and offer sincere thanks for being in our coverage area. You help us remember that we still can be surprised by what actually does take place sometimes on the local political level.
Cecil Groves, president of Southwestern Community College since 1997, retired this year and headed to Texas for a relaxing retirement close to the grandkids.
“As for everything and everyone, there is a season. My season has now come,” Groves said of his departure from SCC.
Three months later, Groves announced his return to the area to be the CEO of Balsam West, an entity that controls a 300-mile fiber broadband ring looping the six western counties. Groves helped create the fiber ring while at the helm of SCC and considered it one of his biggest accomplishments, but with few users, it is struggling to realize its potential.
The Garden City award
In Maggie Valley, the new mantra is call on the name of beauty and ye shall be saved. Residents and businesses alike buried thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs this fall in hopes that the bursts of coordinated color will swoop in this spring to help save the struggling city from economic depression and the gaping financial hole left by the death of Ghost Town.
The idea is being coupled with another aesthetic assault from the town government’s camp. In November, the Board of Aldermen voted unanimously to impose a set of design standards for renovations and new builds that follow a general design plan town planners call “mountain vernacular.”
Officials hope that the visual double whammy will spruce up the town’s face which, they seem to be admitting, is a less-than-pleasant sight to behold.
The Long and Winding Road award
“So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen …OK, I guess I’ll stay a little longer.” That’s the tune sung this year by Maggie Valley’s Dale Walksler, owner and curator of the renowned Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum.
After several years in its current location and several more bouts with local officials over the museum’s value to the town, Walksler threatened to pack up his collection and ship out to another, more friendly, but as yet unnamed, locale. This fall, however, he decided to make those empty threats and chose to keep the storied – and probably unrivaled – collection of American motorcycle memorabilia nestled snugly into its Soco Road home.
No word from local officials on how they’re reacting to the decision, but since sharing his thoughts with us in October, it’s been all quiet on the Walksler front. So maybe 2011 will see a happy ending to the animosity?
The Size Envy award
They say bigger isn’t always better, but Swain County’s Marianna Black Library isn’t so sure about that. After catching a glimpse of Macon and Jackson counties’ new, improved and enlarged library digs, they couldn’t help but want to gain some growth themselves.
So this October, the library system embarked on an exploratory campaign of their own, seeking input from local residents and guidance from the same consultants used by their neighboring counties. Patron suggestions ranged from expanded collections and more special events to requests for outdoor fire pits, presumably not to be stoked with the library’s contents.
Whether the county’s case of library envy has abated remains to be seen; the consultants won’t be back with final recommendations until the new year. But with Jackson County’s new facility opening up soon, it’s easy to hear cries of “but I want one, too,” on the not-too-distant horizon.
The Earmark to Nowhere award
To earmark, or not to earmark – that, of late, is the Congressional question. And for residents of Swain county, it’s the $52 million question. That’s how much they’ve been promised to repay the cash they laid out on the nonexistent North Shore Road over three decades. When the road was flooded for the war effort in 1943, the county took it on the chin, along with a pledge from the federal government that they’d put it back. But time went on, the county kept paying on the road loans and the promised new road was never to return.
Earlier this year, the county agreed to take a cash settlement from the government in lieu of a road they no longer needed, after laborious negotiations and a good bit of lobbying from Swain County native Rep. Heath Shuler.
But those dollars are in danger now that Congress is swooping in to slash earmarks. To some legislators, that’s just what the North Shore money is, an earmark designed to funnel federal money into local projects. But local proponents counter that it’s not just funding, it’s debt service paying off a 66-year-old IOU.
Whether the money will keep rolling into the county hasn’t been decided. But much rests on convincing Congress members that the settlement is an obligation, not an option.
Billy Graham Hall of Fame nominees
County leaders refused to stop praying in Jesus’ name during their public meetings, despite a federal court ruling that such overt prayers were tantamount to government endorsement of Christianity over other religions — and thus were unconstitutional.
A federal judge in Forsyth County found that specific references to Jesus Christ during prayers at county commissioner meetings “display a preference for Christianity over other religions by the government.”
But county commissioners in Macon and Swain counties were undaunted.
“If there was a law that said how I could pray, I think I would have to break it,” said Swain Commissioner Phillip Carson.
Or as Swain Commissioner David Monteith put it, “I guess they would just have to arrest me.”
Macon Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Christian prayers reflect the vast majority of his constituents.
In Haywood County, commissioners chose to drop references to Jesus and stick with more generic, and thus legal, references to Lord or God. Jackson County does not hold a prayer during its county meetings.
This is exactly where homeowners down slope of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley found themselves this year. A massive landslide screamed down Rich Cove mountain in February, uprooting yards and bumping into houses on its way. While some residents remain without a well for drinking water and one couple still has not been able to return to their home, they had been unable to hold anyone accountable to cover the damages so far.
But Ghost Town’s liability insurance was canceled a week before the landslide due to late payments, according to the insurance company. Court documents verify that Ghost Town received warnings to pay up to risk cancelation, and eventually received a cancellation notice.
Ghost Town has blamed the slide on a company hired to shore up the slipping mountainside with a series of retaining walls, but the contractors blame Ghost Town for a leaking water line buried behind the wall, according to court documents.
Most Formidable Opponent
As a multi-billion Fortune 500 Company, Duke Energy is used to getting its way. But when it went up against the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians this year and came under fire for desecrating the tribe’s equivalent of an ancestral holy site, it seemed the utility giant had met its match.
Duke Energy had embarked on a $79 million electrical substation on a knoll overlooking an idyllic farming valley in Swain County — a valley that happened to be the home of Kituwah mound, an ancient ceremonial site and political center for the Cherokee. The massive electrical substation threatened to mar the landscape, which Cherokee considered integral to the cultural integrity of the spiritual site.
Duke faced three-fold opposition. The tribe’s government leaders condemned Duke for picking the site and failing to consult with the tribe first. A grassroots activist group formed to challenge Duke before the state utility commission. And Swain County leaders also got mad that Duke had started construction without applying for county permits, and even passed a moratorium barring work on the substation from moving forward.
It didn’t take long for Duke to throw in the towel on the controversial site and instead bought another piece of property in the Swain County industrial park to locate the substation.
Attorney John Lewis may as well have worn a flashing neon sign when he tried to forge a judge’s name in Jackson County.
Lewis forged a court order in a parental custody case, but no sooner had he filed the fraudulent document with the clerk of court then he apparently thought better of it and asked for it back. The clerk — assuming it was a valid part of the case file — refused. But an agitated Lewis came back twice over the course of the day trying to retrieve the document. As a last resort, he came around the partition in the clerk’s office, snagged the file himself and put a Post-It note on the document declaring it void, arousing enough suspicion to launch an investigation.
The 31-year-old attorney had also faked the signatures on limited privilege driver’s licenses for at least three clients in Swain County who had their real licenses revoked.
Head in the Sand award
When a recession took hold of the country in 2008, most counties got to work cutting costs to head off impending budget shortfalls. But Swain County was nearly a year late to the party.
Swain County continued with business as usual until summer 2009 when its fund balance dipped so low it was put on the watch list by the Local Government Commission, a state agency that monitors the fiscal solvency of counties.
Counties are supposed to have a savings account, known as a fund balance, that’s equivalent to 8 percent of their total annual budget. Swain’s dropped to only 6.67 percent. The county had to play catch-up to restore its fund balance by laying off workers and imposing furloughs, which amounted to pay cuts.
County Manager Kevin King failed to let the Local Government Commission know ahead of time that the county would dip below the safe threshold, but county commissioners said they didn’t know either until it had already happened.
The Life’s not Fair award
As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Haywood County nearly doubled its per capita recycling rate in two years under the leadership of a new solid waste director, Stephen King, who is passionate about recycling. The county will save money by saving landfill space in the long run, but in the short run, all those recyclables began to overwhelm the system. Faced with the need for more recycling staff, the county instead chose to simply shut down the recycling “pick line” and laid off workers who manually sorted recyclables before they were sold. Instead, the county started selling the recyclables in bulk without separating them first. They fetch a lower price, but allowed the county to save on salaries.
Biggest Loser(s) Award
The biggest election upset of the year was in Jackson County, where Democrats lost control of the board of commissioners for the first time in 16 years.
In a clean sweep, Democrats Brian McMahan, William Shelton and Tom Massie headed to the house, while the conservative ticket of Jack Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody took over their reins.
The new guys immediately started shuffling the deck. County Manager Ken Westmoreland, a target in the election because, among other reasons, he helped institute a pay raise that most benefited longtime employees such as himself, has gone to the house as well. Chuck Wooten, just retired from Western Carolina University, has stepped into his shoes temporarily until a new manager can be found.
Easy Money award
As a new form of video gambling proliferated across the state this year, several towns decided to get in on a piece of the action by imposing hefty business license fees for establishments sporting the machines.
The fees were hardly a deterrent given the lucrative nature of the video gambling machines. When the Canton town board voted to set the fee at $2,500, a business owner attending the evening meeting pulled out his checkbook on the spot. The town manager advised him to come back the next morning.
State lawmakers banned video poker, but the gambling industry came up with a reincarnated version called “video sweepstakes,” which wasn’t subject to the ban. State lawmakers followed suit by broadening the language of the ban, outlawing the sweepstakes machines as well, effective with the new year. But not before towns cashed in.
Maggie Valley and Franklin also cashed in on licensing fees.
Don’t Have to Win to be a Winner award
Sylva Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lost his seat in last year’s election, landed a spot back on the board anyway. When former town board member Sarah Graham moved outside the town limits and had to step down, it was up to the remaining board members to appoint someone to fill the vacancy. By a 3 to 1 vote, Hensley found himself back in his old seat, a move that shifted power from the progressive voting bloc to a new majority characterized by a more traditional philosophy.
This marked the second time in less than a year that Sylva’s board had to vote to appoint one of their own, the other being the seat of Maurice Moody who left his seat on the board empty after moving up to mayor.
Texas Hold ‘em award
After seven long years, Jackson County finally folded in its protracted and expensive battle against Duke Energy over, well, that’s where things get murky. What started as a noble fight by mountain people to get their due from a utility giant left most people scratching their heads and wondering why Jackson County was still anteing up, long before the game was eventually over.
To casual observers, the fight appeared nothing more than a tug-of-war over the Dillsboro Dam: Duke wanted to tear it down and the county wanted to save it. But the origin of the conflict was philosophical: how much does Duke owe Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams?
Duke proposed removing the Dillsboro dam and restoring a stretch of free flowing river as compensation for saddling the Tuck with a handful of dams, but county commissioners believed they were being short-changed and wanted more, including a trust fund based on a percentage of the hydropower revenues.
Jackson County commissioners hoped to bring Duke to the negotiating table, but Duke repeatedly called the county’s bluff. Instead of folding, Jackson kept throwing in for the next hand until finally calling it quits this year.