New policy at Tuscola touches off student dissent

In the 1970s, blue jeans and boys with shaggy hair were as scandalous in Western North Carolina schools as miniskirts and pants sagging well below the waist are today.

Teenage fashion continues marching onward in its evolution, leaving school administrators constantly scrambling to modernize dress codes. Keeping up with the times while maintaining a distraction-free learning environment has become a delicate dance school leaders take up year after year.

That endless tug-of-war has prompted two Haywood County high schools to take strides in opposite directions this fall.

After an experimental year with a decidedly vague dress code, Tuscola High School in Waynesville is clamping down with strict, clear-cut guidelines. All students need to comply is a card — an ID card, a driver’s license, a debit or credit card — used to measure everything from the height of skirts above the knee cap to the width of tank top straps.

Meanwhile, Central Haywood High, an alternative school in Clyde, has created a more liberal dress code, no longer requiring its students to wear belts or tuck in their shirts.

Other area schools are sticking to their stricter-than-average policies. Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva requires all skirts and dresses to be knee length or longer, while Swain County High School prohibits all tank tops or sleeveless shirts of any sort.

“Knee-length is an easy measurement,” said Jay Grissom, principal at Smoky Mountain High. “There’s no extra steps involved.”

“When spring has sprung, we get a lot of cleavage,” said Regina Mathis, who recently left her post as principal of Swain County High. “Tops are too low, shorts are too short.”

No matter how strict or liberal, though, dress codes were brought up as the number one concern of teachers in at least three WNC schools last year.

The case for stricter codes

Parents found it hard to believe their eyes as they drove up Tuscola School Drive to drop off their kids last year.

Girls donning strapless shirts and scandalously short skirts, shorts and dresses. Guys wearing tank tops and pants that were practically falling off their bodies.

“There was a lot to be seen,” said Stephanie Goodwin, assistant principal at Tuscola.

“We get to lunch, and we got half-naked bodies it seems,” said Dale McDonald, Tuscola’s principal. “It’s fine if you’re going to Myrtle Beach.”

School leaders had just debuted a radical new dress code that simply barred anything that was “disruptive.” Teachers were charged with writing up students and sending them straight to the office.

While some teachers faithfully reported dress code violations, others turned a blind eye to inappropriate outfits. That inconsistency worked against students who didn’t know what to expect with each new class. It also worked in favor of students who argued to their fourth period teacher that there hadn’t been an issue with their short shorts during homeroom.

By the end of the 2009-2010 year, Tuscola administrators acknowledged the failure of their liberal policy and got to work coming up with a replacement.

They thoroughly researched dress codes in surrounding counties and came up with what they believed constituted the middle of the road.

The basics: Students cannot wear anything shorter than a card’s length above their knees. Their tops cannot be lower than a card’s length below their collarbones. Pants must be worn at the waist with no undergarments in view and no holes above the knee. Leggings worn underneath provide no excuse for any violations of the above.

A few of the schools Goodwin looked at had dress codes that prohibited facial piercing, mascara, flip-flops and hair dye — all of which are allowed on Tuscola’s campus.

“A girl here today, her hair was rainbow,” said Goodwin. “That’s fine. That’s her way of expressing something.”

At the same time, Goodwin sees the need to set clear boundaries for attire, whether or not students agree.

“They may be used to dressing that way,” said Goodwin. “At the same time, is it the time or is it the place? School is not a time to look like you’re at the beach.”

Students fuming

Most Tuscola students were angry, or apathetic at best, over the new policy. They often echoed each other in their reactions to the new dress code.

“I think it’s stupid,” said junior Alex Dotson. “We didn’t have a dress code last year. They’re so strict on us this year.”

Dotson is particularly displeased with the longer shorts requirement.

“You can’t find any cute shorts like that unless you cut off your jeans,” Dotson said.

Like a few of her fellow students, Dotson is outright opposed to a dress code on principle.

“I think they should just let us be who we want to be and wear what we want to wear,” Dotson said.

Other students see a need for a dress code, but say the latest one is too strict.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. It think they went overboard with it,” said sophomore Brooke Ferguson. “I like the fact of having a dress code, just not one like we have. Everyone’s talking about it.”

“It doesn’t really affect me, but I know tons of girls are furious about it,” said senior Joey Cutting. “It’s hard for a lot of people. They don’t want to go out and buy a whole new wardrobe.”

“I think that a Mormon church bought our school,” joked Arron Gibson, a 17-year-old senior.

Gibson said he knew many students who had to head back to the stores to replace their wardrobes.

Eli Haynes, 15, was one of them. Many of the shorts that she bought at the beginning of the summer were suddenly prohibited at school. Her mother, Leah Crisp, wasn’t thrilled when she received notice of the new dress code six weeks before the school year started.

Though she was able to afford new clothes for Eli, Crisp pointed that not all families were as fortunate.

“What about children who may not have a lot of money?” said Crisp. “If they had told us at the end of the school year, then we would have been prepared.”

Tuscola’s latest dress code seems stricter than the one Waynesville Middle School had when Eli was attending, according to Crisp.

Though she doesn’t agree with every aspect of the code, Crisp acknowledged it would help prepare students for a professional environment once they graduate.

Principal McDonald, too, emphasized that part of the school’s job is to teach character education.

“Integrity, confidence, self-respect, all those things play into that,” said McDonald.

Gibson remains unconvinced that the stricter dress code is necessary, however.

“They claim it’s because of distraction,” Gibson said. “Any time you have a coed school, there’s going to be distraction regardless.”

The flip side

Donna Parris, lead teacher at Central Haywood High, estimates that 30 percent of the students refused to comply with the dress code last year.

It was a source of nonstop disruption in classrooms. One student after another would be removed from class, and teachers had to sacrifice breaks to monitor students’ attire during lunch.

At the heart of the problem was that students were forced to tuck in their shirts and wear belts — rules that even teachers weren’t thrilled about enforcing.

“We did not feel passionate about keeping this up and letting it interfere with our school,” Parris said. “We want to teach the kids. We don’t want to be so concerned about how they dress, as long as they’re appropriate.”

“We were spending more time on the dress code than we was on the kid getting an education,” said Tara Leatherwood, secretary for Central Haywood.

Modernizing the dress code seemed like the best option moving forward.

“We know it’s the 21st century. It’s not the 1950s,” said Jeff Haney, Central Haywood’s new principal.  “We know they want to dress with style, but we also want to keep it modest.”

Many alternative schools see students only for a short stay before they return to their original schools. It isn’t uncommon for these schools to require uniforms for their temporary students. But most of the students at Central Haywood continue their education there until they graduate.

“We’re not a punishment place. We’re long-term,” said Parris. “The kids feel at home. They also wanted to feel comfortable.”

The school had required all students to wear collared shirts and khakis about six years ago. But dress requirements have been loosened ever since. Students still must wear collared shirts, but jeans, shorts and skirts in solid colors are now allowed.

With the more lenient dress code in place, Central Haywood teachers have already noticed a major improvement just a few days after school started this year.

“A couple of shorts too short, other than that, it’s been a pretty good deal,” said Parris. “The teachers are like, ‘Whew! This is so much better.’ We’re all happier.”

A few wrong turns on the way to paradise

I grabbed my guidebook and pen and wrapped my camera in a plastic grocery bag as it started to rain. Stuffing it all into my backpack, I headed down the ancient looking road, nothing but two narrow ruts overgrown by tall weeds. I wasn’t going back to Waynesville till I found waterfall 50.

I was approaching the last day of my internship, and I had less than four days to complete an online map identifying, describing and providing directions for waterfalls in our widespread Western North Carolina coverage area.

The road lead to a smaller path that headed straight for the creek, and I sloshed upstream in search of the trail on the other side. The path weaved from bank to bank, and it continued to rain.

I waded up the creek around a bend, and there it was — a 60-foot beauty known simply as the Upper Waterfall on Sols Creek.

Two months ago, with Kevin Adams’ waterfall map spread out on a Rubbermaid tub filled with back newspaper issues in the office, some coworkers and I decided which waterfalls to include in the map.

The list of potentials was daunting. More than 270 waterfalls fell in our four-county coverage area and neighboring parts of Transylvania County. With so little time, seeing them all would be impossible.

Since we don’t distribute papers in Transylvania, most of the county’s beautiful falls got axed from the list first, followed by those that involved bushwhacking or hiking more than two miles to access.

After having lived in Charlotte for 10 years and being the descendent of Midwestern farmers and Lutheran pastors, I didn’t want to do anything that would test my limited high-country outdoors experience beyond its limits.

With friends headed on vacations or tied up with summer jobs, my pool of hiking partners dwindled. And although I was afraid to venture out on my own, I had to reconcile myself to the fear of getting lost because if I didn’t get started soon on my own, I’d never finish.

About a month and a half later — and about 30 waterfalls into my journey — I set out to find Yellowstone Falls in Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway. My directions, in short, said to find a trail at the back of a couple of campsites and follow a path to the river.

I never found the path to the river. Instead I found a path that at first seemed like the right one, but eventually dwindled to nothing more than trodden grass, and beyond that a thick maze of tangled, impenetrable rhododendron bushes. When I tried to find my way back, I reached another dead end at a blackberry briar.

Had I not just come this way? A sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach overtook me. I was lost.

I retraced my steps back and forth a few more times, then started to rip out pages of my reporter’s notebook, leaving them on the tree branches I passed.

Making no progress, I sat down at a small campfire ring. Small grassy footpaths like the one I came in on spread out like a spiderweb from where I sat. I dug my phone out of my backpack and figured the worst thing I could do was panic. Thank God for cell phone towers — I had one bar.

I called my editor, Becky Johnson. She studied a trail map of the area on the other line, but I still couldn’t determine which direction was out. She gave me the number for the Forest Service, and I called them next.

A few hours later, I heard them yelling my name from the other side of a blackberry briar a couple hundred feet away. They stomped a path through the blackberry thicket. I was getting out and going home!

After loafing around my apartment the next Saturday, convincing myself I had better things to do than hike, I finally found the gumption to face Graveyard Fields again.

I didn’t try to find Yellowstone Falls but had to get Upper Falls crossed off the list. I found a few hikers eating blueberries and followed them to the waterfall.

Even having to face what scarred me most didn’t dull the obsession with the Western North Carolina landscape that brought me to a summer internship at The Smoky Mountain News.

I knew that if there was paradise on Earth, it had to be at the base of some of the region’s waterfalls. And I wanted to see them all, but I now know that’s impossible.

So as I pack my boxes and prepare for my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m left with the same sentiment most reporters feel when the deadline approaches for their big stories: I wish I had more time.

For now, 50 waterfalls will have to do.

— Elizabeth Jensen

The allure of falling water

Although most people are drawn to waterfalls, many pause before they can articulate why. For some, it’s the sound of the water tumbling over the rocks. For others, it’s the sheer beauty or tranquility.

“Everybody loves them, but nobody can tell you why,” said Kevin Adams, author of North Carolina Waterfalls, A Hiking and Photography Guide. “We’re just mesmerized by them.”

• View the interactive map of 50 selected waterfalls in WNC

• See also: A few wrong turns on the way to paradise 

Part of Adams’ love for waterfalls stems from his passion for photography.

Sometimes he’ll take ladders and ropes or swim with his camera to get the shot he wants. But he’s careful and has never hurt himself at a waterfall.

“I respect them. I know how dangerous they are,” Adams said. “I have a wife I love very much that I want to come home to.”

For a quarter of a century, Adams had been trying to shoot a picture of a moonbow, a rainbow caused by the light of the moon instead of the sun. And last winter, he got the shot after standing for 45 minutes in the freezing spray of Rainbow Falls on the Horsepasture River.

With eight inches of snow on the ground and temperatures dipping to 15 degrees, Adams’ camera, clothes and tripod were covered with a thin layer of ice. But he didn’t notice — not until he started heading back to his car.

Whatever the power of attraction may be, the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority knows the ability waterfalls have to draw visitors to the area.

“We understand that waterfalls are one of our greatest resources and attractions,” said Julie Spiro, tourism director in Jackson County.

Spiro has capitalized on being at the heart of waterfall country by creating a map of 19 waterfalls in or near Jackson County. They go through 50,000 of the brochures every year.

“We hand them out all the time,” Spiro said. “It is the most popular product we put out. It’s a wonderful relaxing thing to do that’s still free.”

Spiro has been to all the waterfalls on the map so she can give accurate instructions to visitors. If a tourist can only see one waterfall, she recommends Whitewater Falls, which at 411 feet is the highest waterfall on the East Coast.

“This is the one that will make the biggest impact on their memory,” she said.

Adams also has had great success with his guidebook and photography, so much so that he was able to quit his carpentry job about five years ago and follow his passion fulltime.

His parents always talked about writing a guidebook on North Carolina waterfalls after seeing Lineville, Whitewater and Looking Glass falls on vacation. But it wasn’t until the early 1990s that Adams took on the task.

In 1992, Adams made a cold call to the John F. Blair publishing house in Winston-Salem to see if the guidebook was a feasible idea. He got an answer he wasn’t expecting.

The publisher just happened to be looking for someone to write a book on waterfalls and invited Adams in for an interview. He landed the job. It took Adams a year to do the research and six months to write before the book went to press in 1994.

The waterfall gurus

Adams has seen more than 800 waterfalls — likely more than anyone else alive. But he remains humble about his expertise and willing to share his knowledge. When someone calls him a “guru” or refers to his book as a “waterfall Bible,” he chuckles.

“I realize I know more about North Carolina waterfalls than anyone else on the planet, but I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “Nobody will ever come close to seeing all of them.”

Like Adams, visiting waterfalls is a part of both Jordan Mitchell’s family heritage and publishing success. But Mitchell has gone the online route, posting his information about waterfalls online at

The website draws 150,000 unique visitors every month during the summer.

“I have this dueling interest between the outdoors and computers,” he said. “This allows them to come together.”

Between his fulltime job as a software developer and as a new father, Mitchell only makes it to waterfalls a few times a month — still more than most people do in a year, but not enough by Mitchell’s standards.

His daughter, Harper, was only 5 months old when he took her to her first waterfall — also one of the first waterfalls he had ever been to, Douglas Falls in Buncombe County. At the base of the falls, the chronically fussy baby simply stared at the water in silence.

“She was more thrilled than I could imagine she’d be,” he said. “She was mesmerized.”

Why the rush?

Bryson City writer and naturalist George Ellison said he thinks part of the reason people are fascinated with waterfalls is that they activate all five senses, likening the experience of standing at the base of a waterfall to walking into a bakery.

But there may be an even stronger scientific reason behind people’s fascination with waterfalls and for the euphoric feeling many have at the base of a waterfall.

Rushing water in waterfalls releases negatively charged ions. Once they’re breathed in and begin to circulate in the blood, negative ions trigger biochemical reactions that increase the production of a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which can reduce stress, lift the mood and increase energy, according to “Negative Ions Create Positive Vibes” written by WebMD reporter Denise Mann and reviewed by Dr. Brunilda Nazario. They also increase the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain.

“The air circulating in the mountains and the beach is said to contain tens of thousands of negative ions — much more than the average home or office building, which contains dozens or hundreds, and many register a flat zero,” Mann wrote.

But  some scientists remain skeptical of the claim. And many waterfall goers feel the escape the scenery offers is enough to lift their spirits.

“I enjoy taking the day off from work and getting away from it all,” said Tom Mendenhall after hiking with his brother and friend to reach Wardens Falls in Panthertown earlier this month.

Wayne Joyce, Mendenhall’s friend with a vacation home in Cashiers, said he plans most of his hikes around waterfalls, often eating lunch at the base. Wardens Falls is one of his favorites.

“We hiked five miles to get here so we must like it,” he said.

That same day, Dawn Lavers came to Wardens Falls with her friends and family, who recently moved to Lake Toxaway from Florida.

“We only come when we really don’t have to be anywhere,” she said. “You don’t ever want to be rushed to leave.”

Lavers said that there’s beauty in every waterfall, but that each one is beautiful for a different reason. Some are powerful and dangerous; whereas, others are tranquil and secluded or make for great swimming holes.

The beauty of the region’s waterfalls was enough to lure Rich Stevenson, founder and developer of, to move to the mountains from Raleigh.

While he was working at Federal Express, Stevenson visited friends in the mountains who took him on a tour of the chain of falls on the Horsepasture River, including Turtleback and Rainbow Falls.

“I used to be a big beach person, but after that I kept coming back to the mountains,” he said.

Stevenson quit the two jobs he had in the Triangle and moved to Western North Carolina. Since then, he estimates he’s seen 400 to 500 falls. Some of the falls he heard about from locals he worked with at his manufacturing job in Candler — locals who’ve spent their entire lives exploring and fly-fishing in the backcountry.

“Once they realize I wasn’t a city wacko, they’ve turned me on to some places,” he said.

In 1999, Stevenson began posting his waterfall finds online. And in 2001, he launched, one of the most comprehensive online indexes of North Carolina waterfalls.

“At first I thought I was the only fool out there looking for waterfalls,” Stevenson said.

But Stevenson was wrong. The site has grown to include about 280 waterfalls and receives between 1,000 and 2,000 unique visitors a day.

Waterfall hunters

Stevenson soon learned there was a circle of waterfall hunters like himself, those who will strike out along a creek coursing over steep terrain, sometimes bushwhacking and sometimes wading their way down the mountain hoping to discover a previously unknown waterfall.

Stevenson’s swing shift job keeps him from exploring new falls as often as he’d like. Usually, his friend Bernie Boyer, a retired man in his seventies, will study topographic maps, discover a new falls and take Stevenson to it on his next trip.

But sometimes Stevenson finds time to hop in a creek bed and head upstream in hopes of discovering something himself.

“Usually the first thing is that you hear the sound,” he said. “You feel your heart pounding a little bit. There’s a real excitement knowing there’s something around the corner.”

But when it comes to the relatively undiscovered falls, Stevenson and Adams use discretion before making directions available to the public.

Although some of sights they discover are spectacular, the environment at the base of the falls is fragile, covered in rare plant and animal species. A plethora of hikers would destroy the falls’ unique inhabitants.

“You go there and you see that it looks like nobody’s been there for 100 years,” Stevenson said.

Some of the most unique species located at waterfalls are rare ferns, typically found only in the tropics. Because these species of ferns in North Carolina don’t grow to their adult form, they don’t look like a typical fern. They are usually only a small leaf.

The species grow in low light and moist, cool environments, the conditions found behind a waterfall.

“You have a small area with a lot of diversity in a microclimate,” said Anya E. Hinkle, Highlands Biological Station associate director. “Even if it’s hot, a waterfall really cools things off quickly.”

Figuring out how the species took root at North Carolina waterfalls can solve mysteries related to plant migration or provide geographical clues about how the areas were once located closer together before the continents shifted to their present positions.

Naturalist George Ellison often leads flora tours to waterfalls to view the unique plants. He’s seen many of the area’s falls, but some of his fondest memories come from Little Creek Falls, a small-flow, nearly vertical cascade in a lesser known area of the Great Smoky National Park outside Bryson City.

He would take his children to the falls decades ago before the public property in front park entrance came under the ownership of a trout farm.

“People are naturally attracted to the larger ones like Whitewater Falls,” Ellison said. “But those aren’t the ones that mean the most to people around here.”

It’s one of those smaller waterfalls that Kevin Adams holds a particular fondness for. Although he doesn’t usually name the falls he discovers, he named one in the Nantahala National Forest Loretta Falls after his mom.

“She instilled the love of waterfalls in me,” he said. “I knew she would absolutely love it.”

The falls is the tall freefall of a small creek. At the base of the falls, there’s no pool, only thick moss and ferns and some tall hemlock trees.

“It’s a really nice feeling to walk up to a waterfall that you’ve never seen before,” Adams said. “I got to tell you that’s one hell of a feeling, standing there in front of it.”

Who’s visiting the Smokies?

While conducting a research study a few years ago, tourism official David Huskins came across an Atlanta resident who thought the Blue Ridge Parkway meandered its way through Kentucky.

Another focus group participant said all he knew about the Smokies was what he saw in the movie “Deliverance,” which doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of the region.

An African-American woman flipped through travel guides and said while Western North Carolina looked picturesque, she wouldn’t go.

“She said, ‘There’s no one in here that looks like me,’” said Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a travel promotion organization for the seven counties west of Asheville.

Researching tourists — both real and potential — sometimes amounts to a harsh reality check, according to Huskins. But it’s what he believes is necessary to greatly improve efforts to market Western North Carolina as a tourist destination.

“That’s the thing we’re lacking ... You want the research to drive your marketing decisions,” said Huskins. “Demographics, what people like, don’t like, we need to be doing that on an ongoing basis.”

Research can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, though, making it less feasible for tourism entities operating on tight budgets. The latest study on Western North Carolina scrutinized tourist demographics back in 2008.

Then, the average tourist to the North Carolina side of the Smokies was a 51-year-old Caucasian with a household income of $53,500.

Most visitors traveled without kids and came for the scenery, to relax and to hike. Predictably, the area was rated lowest by past visitors for “nightlife,” “cell phone reception” and “theme parks.”

Changing any of the latter three might assist in attracting younger visitors, but tourism officials are instead promoting ample opportunities to reconnect youth with the great outdoors.

With more and more kids glued to video games, the Internet and their iPods, fewer families are making their way to the Smokies for outdoor adventure.

Still, outdoor recreation and scenic beauty continue to drive millions of visitors to the region every summer and fall. The types of tourists attracted to WNC fluctuate in their numbers, but tourism remains a staple of the region’s economy.

A changing demographic

Decades ago, the bread and butter of summer tourism in WNC came from blue-collar workers employed at textile mills in North and South Carolina.

One factory after another would shut down for a week or two of summer vacation. Each week would bring a new batch of workers who had saved up all year for an annual vacation to the mountains with their families.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the Carolinas began losing much of their traditional industries, and the mills began closing their doors for good.

With that came a major shift in the kind of tourists who frequented WNC.

“We lost that segment, that blue-collar worker,” said Mary Jane Ferguson, director of marketing for Cherokee. “It’s like a new generation now and new people.”

Driven by nostalgia, some loyal visitors continued returning to the Smokies, along with their kids and grandkids.

For decades, WNC enjoyed a high rate of repeat visitors, which has been both advantageous and problematic.

As the baby boomers devoted to WNC grow older, the target market begins to die out, literally. The goal now is to bring in new visitors who then will restart the cycle.

Capturing the attention of youth is important in keeping visitors coming back for more as they grow old.

“You’re not going to see a 70-year-old rafting down the Nantahala,” Huskins pointed out.

Older visitors concerned about saving up for retirement are also less likely to spend than younger visitors.

“They’re not going to spend money frivolously,” said Ferguson.

Gen Xers have started showing up heavily in the region, and they’ve already distinguished themselves from their predecessors.

“They’re more active; whereas a lot of folks previously had come for natural beauty and the sightseeing, just to rest and relax,” said Lynn Collins, director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority.

Gen Xers come to the Smokies for all kinds of outdoor recreation, whether it’s hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking or rafting.

Karen Wilmot, director of the Swain County Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that she, too, was seeing more young, active tourists beginning to visit WNC.

According to Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association, many tourists there are outdoor enthusiasts, ranging from 25 to 45 in age. However, also in the mix are adventurous 50-somethings who come to hike, bike and tent camp.

Spiro said these older visitors are enjoying a renewal of their passion for the outdoors, something that had probably been put on hold as they juggled careers and kids.

Huskins agrees there are a sizeable number of middle-aged couples out mountain biking.

“What we are not seeing is kids on those trails, on those bicycles,” said Huskins.

Families heading elsewhere

Fewer families with young children are flocking to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for a chance to camp under the stars, according to Huskins.

Kids are not as attracted to the mountains, rivers, rocks and trees as their parents and grandparents were in their childhood.

It’s a trend that concerns Huskins and his colleagues.

“We are an outdoor mecca,” said Huskins. “We’re trying to market the region to get more families interested.”

Losing attractions like amusement park Ghost Town in the Sky and a zoo that had operated in Maggie Valley for decades also put a damper on family visitors.

Ghost Town brought in hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years. After filing for bankruptcy and being plagued by a landslide on top of that, the Western-theme amusement park remains closed for the time being.

“That eliminates a lot of families that would normally come here,” said Collins. “When you all of a sudden don’t have that available, it makes a huge difference in the mix of folks that do come into the area.”

Even if the park reopens, it must reinvent itself if it hopes to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors again, according to Huskins.

“If you’re in the tourism business, you have to reinvent yourself every day,” said Huskins. “It’s got to be more than a rollercoaster and a shoot-out on Main Street.”

Some areas are faring better than others in terms of family visitors, however.

Gem mining in Macon County and the Great Smoky Mountain Railroads in Swain both attract thousands of families to the region.

The Railroad opened a depot in Bryson City in the late 1980s, greatly stimulating the downtown area. Two years ago the railroad moved its administrative offices from Dillsboro to Bryson City and made that depot it headquarters, bringing even more traffic to the Swain County town. Wilmot, who grew up in Bryson City, recalls what the town looked like in the shoulder months before the railroad came along.

“Sidewalks were rolled up. We were gone until Memorial Day,” said Wilmot.

But with the specialty Polar Express train running each winter, Bryson City sees a total of 40,000 riders from November through December.

“That’s a great thing for our local economy in a time we previously had nothing,” said Wilmot.

Now, Bryson City businesses coordinate festivities to complement events at the Railroad. For example, the downtown trick or treat event, coordinated with the Great Pumpkin Patch Express train, draws 3,000 people in just three hours.

Tracking the trends

Changes in tourist demographics would likely seem minute to most lay people, but officials are maintaining watch and picking up on the trends.

Cherokee visitors tend to be more affluent than ever before. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is now marketing toward educated individuals with a household income of more than $75,000.

Cherokee is also focusing on promoting outdoor activities, which have always drawn tourists.

“We’ve always attracted people who enjoy the outdoors and a slower way of life, just being surrounded by beauty,” said Ferguson.

Meanwhile, Swain County has seen an influx of Horace Kephart scholars to visit the famous author’s grave. Bryson City has even come up with an annual celebration in honor of Kephart.

During tough economic times, Jackson County is especially highlighting its outdoor activities that don’t come with a charge.

The Jackson County Chamber is also promoting a free weekly concert series in Sylva this summer.

“Some of the best fun is free,” said Spiro.

With the recession limiting how far most people can afford to travel, Cashiers is seeing more families and young couples from the Atlanta area coming up for the weekend.

“People with money are not flying overseas,” said Sue Bumgarner, executive director of the Cashiers Area Chamber of Commerce. “They’re taking vacations closer to home.”

Cashiers promotes its outdoor offerings, but makes sure not to overwhelm potential visitors.

“We let them know you can come here and be as busy as you want or lazy as you want,” said Bumgarner.

Wilmot concurs, letting visitors know they can spend a lazy afternoon in Deep Creek or enjoy peaceful kayaking on Fontana Lake. If visitors would like to camp without the hassles, guides can do all the grunt work.

“You’re not dealing with a 50-pound pack and two small children,” said Wilmot. “They cook for you, clean up the site for you.”

WNC tourism trends


Maggie Valley business owners have seen an uptick in motorcycle enthusiasts with the opening of the Wheels through Time Museum.

Brenda O’Keefe, owner of Joey’s Pancake House, says many more motorcyclists are rushing to the Smokies to ride the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Dragon and other twisty roads.

More motorcycle rallies in Haywood have attracted bikers, but they’re not the kind of bikers most would expect.

O’Keefe said while convertibles were the go-to vehicle for the wealthy in the past, it’s now motorcycles that are the status symbols.

“We see doctors, lawyers, more upper-class people riding expensive bikes,” said David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism organization.

Moreover, motorcycles aren’t only for males. More females are riding their own bikes rather than taking a backseat.

Visitors who stay

With beautiful environs situated relatively close to major metropolitan areas, WNC has long attracted second- and third-homeowners from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and other Southeastern states.

Many of these part-time residents visit before buying. The second-home market especially spiked in the mid-1980s and continued to grow — until the recession stopped it in its tracks.

“This is the first recession that actually hit the luxury market,” said David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host, a regional tourism organization. “Previously, they’ve been immune to that.”

Karen Wilmot, Swain County Chamber of Commerce director, testified to a surge of second-home buyers there in the past five years. When folks in Atlanta realize they can get to WNC in three hours, the area shoots up in popularity.

But the Swain Chamber doesn’t deliberately advertise the area as an ideal place for a second residence.

“We don’t really push it as come and live. We push it as come and stay,” said Wilmot.

Word of mouth is the best marketing tool by far, according to Wilmot.


The Smokies have witnessed a noticeable rise in foreign visitors in the last decade. Favorable currency rates and concentrated international marketing have brought more Germans and Brits to the region than ever before.

Many international tourists are flying into Washington, D.C., picking up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, getting off in Cherokee, then flying back out from Atlanta.

More Scandinavian and Swedish tourists are beginning to join their German, English, Irish and Scottish counterparts in the Smokies.


After Maggie Valley and Waynesville were designated Mountain Heritage Trout Waters cities two years ago, more families are coming to the area to take kids fishing. The designation means anyone can pick up a three-day fishing license for just $5 and check out equipment at discounted prices.

Jackson County has also seen a rise in visitors after instituting a fly-fishing trail and ap two years ago. Visitors are coming from as far away as Texas and Montana for the first time.

Cherokee has also become a fly-fishing Mecca after opening catch-and-release sections on Raven Fork and the Oconaluftee River stocked with trophy trout.


Jackson County is seeing more tourists traveling with pets – so many that it has added a pet icon to its visitor guides to let tourists know which accommodations allow pets.

Julie Spiro, director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, said it may seem like a minor trend, but traveling with pets is becoming more important than ever to consumers.

Over in Macon County, the new Smoky Mountain Performing Arts Center in Franklin has led to a rise in traveling concert-goers. Visitors from outside WNC are now heading to Franklin to see their favorite musicians perform.

Summer poses challenge for feeding low-income kids

Thousands of poor and low-income children across Western North Carolina rely on schools to get least at one square meal a day, but with classes now out for summer, there’s no easy solution for keeping kids fed.

“This question has been asked many times, and we’re trying to come up with a solution for the problem,” said Beth Stahl, MANNA Food Bank youth programs coordinator. “It’s scary to know they don’t have nutrition on a regular basis. We’re trying to fill in the gaps, but it’s a slow process.”

Throughout North Carolina, about 700,000 children qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, but only 53,000 or about 8 percent get free meals during the summer, said Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Ervin said. “I believe we can do better than 8 percent.”

The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses approved programs $1.85 per breakfast, $3.25 per lunch and 76 cents per snack.

But nonprofits, schools or other programs have to be in charge of preparing the food and keeping up with the paperwork required for reimbursement.

“It’s definitely one of the most needed federal programs,” Ervin said. “But it is the most underutilized program.”

In Macon County, 66.6 percent of the 4,239 students enrolled in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But no programs are in place to ensure those 2,825 children get good nutrition during the summer.

“It’s because we don’t have organizations that are interested or aware of the program,” Ervin said. “They just haven’t stepped up to the plate.”

Jackson, Swain and Haywood counties all have free meal centers and programs to reach kids who need food. But the number of kids fed during the summer through these programs still falls well below the number eligible for free or reduced meals during the school year.

In all three counties, any child up to 18-years-old can simply go during the right time to an open meal site and get a free meal. Proof of lower-income status isn’t required in counties where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year.

In Jackson County, 52 percent or about 1,500 to 1,800 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year, said Jim Hill, director of child nutrition. But in summers past, free lunch and breakfast programs have served only about 250 meals a day.

This year, Hill anticipates that number will double, he said.

“There is a major effort in North Carolina to get the feeding numbers up, and we want to be a part of that,” Hill said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort to get a lot of people involved.”

Led by Jeffery Vickery, senior pastor at Cullowhee Baptist Church, volunteers are delivering lunch to children at four free meal sites in the Tuckasegee, Cullowhee and Canada communities every weekday this summer to expand the reach of the program to more remote areas.

“These kids are spread out in little pockets everywhere,” Hill said. “You want to take it right to their neighborhood, and that’s the tough part.”

Vickery met with school officials to determine which areas had the poorest children and estimated the number of meals to prepare based on how many kids get off at nearby school bus stops.

“This is filling a gap that no one else has,” Vickery said. “The children needed the food. We are just a conduit willing to do it.”

Staff at Smoky Mountain High School prepares lunches that meet strict government nutrition guidelines, and Vickery and his crew deliver them.

Last week — the first week the four satellite sites were open — Cullowhee Baptist Church distributed 151 meals, Vickery said. He anticipates the number will increase as more children learn about the sites, he said. On Fridays, the students also get bags of food to take home for the weekend.

“We said going in that if there were four or five kids who didn’t go hungry this summer, it would be a success,” Vickery said.

Even with the new meal sites, about two-thirds of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch during the school year aren’t taking advantage of summer feedings.

“The big challenge is that there’s other children we can’t get to,” Vickery said. “The difficulty is knowing we could feed twice as many if we had other people willing to host a site.”

Although Jackson County has seen a great improvement in the number of children getting lunch during the summer, Swain and Haywood counties only have one location where meals are served to the general student population.

In Swain County, 1,230 of 1,880 or 64 percent of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced price meals during the school year, said Diane Shuler, Swain County school food service director.

Swain County Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at the Swain Middle School cafeteria seven weeks during the summer, starting next week.

Last year, between 140 and 150 kids came to the middle school each day to get food. Most of those children attend summer camps. Few come in off the street, Shuler said.

Although Haywood County has several meal sites, only one — the Pigeon Community Center — is open to the general public. The rest serve students in specific summer day camps.

The Pigeon Community Center also offers a summer camp for eight or nine weeks each summer and usually enrolls between 37 and 47 children, program coordinator Lin Forney said.

Forney said the day camp focuses on children whose families can’t afford other summer camps. For the entire summer, the camp costs $200. But any child up to 18 years old can come in for breakfast or lunch, Forney said.

Besides a handful of children just down the street from the center, relatively few children come in for the meals, Forney said. She said she never sees children from other parts of the county like Canton, Clyde or Maggie Valley.

“The major issue is transportation,” Forney said. “Awareness is another factor.”

During the school year, 42 percent of enrolled students in Haywood County Schools are eligible for free lunch and another 9 percent can receive reduce priced lunch. Allison Francis, Haywood County director of child nutrition, said she is sure some children fall through the cracks, and other organizations are stepping up to try to fill the gaps.

In addition to meal sites this year, MANNA Food Bank is supplying food to Haywood Christian Ministries, which in turn will distribute it every Friday to eligible kids through a program called Summer Sacks.

The kids will receive between four and a half and five pounds of food, which may include pasta meals like Hamburger Helper, dried beans, rice, fruits, vegetables and a smaller bag of kids’ snacks, Stahl said.

“With what the family is already receiving from the food bank, I would say it would last about a week,” Stahl said.

Summer Sacks is a spin-off of a similar effort in Haywood County during the school year. School counselors identify students in need of extra food on weekends, and teachers stuff it in the kids’ backpacks on Fridays to get them through until Monday, Stahl said.

The last week of school, these same students got notes put in their backpacks to let their parents know they can pick up extra food bags at the Haywood Christian Ministries this summer.

Nobody knows how many kids will come for the summer backpacks, however, Stahl said.

The Summer Sack program started with a food drive led by Bonnie Williams with the Waynesville office of Keller Williams Realty. The company does regular service projects, and Williams raised the question in a planning meeting for their spring project.

“I said, ‘Does anybody know where these kids get their food in the summer?’” Williams said. “Over the summer there would be two months where they wouldn’t get food. So we decided to take it on.”

The realtors gathered food at four locations in Waynesville and collected more than 1,500 pounds of food on a single day in May. There was so much food, they couldn’t fit it into their cars to take to MANNA. Instead MANNA had to send a truck, Williams said.

“We didn’t know how much food it would take so we worked our butts off,” Williams said.


Summer meal sites for school kids

Jackson County

• Tuckasegee Baptist Church

• River Park Trailer Park (Cullowhee)

• Jackson County Recreation Complex

• Canada Community

Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Haywood County

• Pigeon Community Center

Breakfast 8:30 – 9:30 a.m.

Lunch 12:30 – 1:30 p.m.

Swain County

• Swain Middle School

Breakfast 7:30 – 8:30 a.m.

Lunch 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Macon County

• None


Wanting to help?

Organizations interested in sponsoring meal sites should contact Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Ervin begins recruiting new sponsors in the fall and visits potential organizations. Organizations must apply and be approved before they can get reimbursement, and volunteers must go through training.

There’s no minimum requirement for how many days or weeks an eligible organization serves meals during the summer or how many kids get fed through the site, Ervin said.

“We want them to do whatever they are capable of doing,” Ervin said.

WNC’s economic stimulus lies in tourism

By David Huskins • Guest Columnist

Much of the talk nationally, as well as locally, has been centered on how to get our economy moving again. Policy proposals and local budgets are being measured by whether they will create jobs and stimulate spending.

While a contentious debate about the right policy rages in Washington, D.C., there may be an answer that is much less controversial, easier to implement and, best of all, could yield better results right here in Western North Carolina.

I’m talking about investing in our travel and tourism economy.

Many people don’t realize it, but the travel and tourism industry is one of our most important economic drivers.

Nationally, travel and tourism is responsible for $704 billion in direct spending, 7.4 million direct jobs, $186 billion in payroll and $111 billion in tax revenue. There are few industries that can compete with this kind of output.

The story applies locally. Here in Western North Carolina alone, travel and tourism in 2008 was responsible for 27,100 jobs, $509 million in payroll, $2.4 billion in expenditures, $99.7 million in local tax receipts and $119.3 million in state tax receipts (N.C. Department of Commerce).

Simply put, when people travel either for leisure or business, the economy grows, jobs are created, and tax coffers filled.

So how can we in WNC invest in this precious resource and leverage it to bring our economy back?

Here are some ideas:

Promote meetings and events. Meetings and conferences are essential to business productivity. We need to support them. Corporate meetings are a major driver of local jobs and a boost to local spending. When these meetings dry up our communities’ small businesses and workers suffer. So we need to do what we can to support the meetings and events industry, and encourage more businesses and associations to bring their meetings to Western North Carolina. We have some of the nation’s finest resort and convention hotels right here in our backyard.

Promote WNC as a regional tourist destination. Our 23-county region has everything a leisure traveler wants. With the nation’s two most visited national park units — Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — and the the two highest recreation-user-day national forests (when snow skiing is excepted) — Pisgah and Nantahala — we’re an outdoor Mecca. Our natural resource base provides some of the most popular warm climate snow skiing, fishing, hunting, backcountry hiking and camping, bicycling and whitewater recreation areas in the nation.

We’re the home of the Cherokee, the most recognized Native American Indian Tribe in the world. Our craft, culture and heritage are significant, bringing us recognition by the U.S. Congress as the 23rd National Heritage Area — the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. And just last month, our Nantahala Gorge was chosen by the International Canoe Federation in Budapest, Hungary, as the site of the 2013 World Canoe Freelance Championship (the X Games of canoeing and kayaking). That event will attract 500 competitors from 50 countries and 100,000 spectators over 10 days, garnering WNC unparalleled international sports media coverage.

It’s time that we help our local tourism organizations understand the value of working more closely together and allocating some of their resources to promote collectively WNC as a true regional destination. It’s time that we help our local economic development organizations understand the value of the travel and tourism industry to our regional economy and how to engage it and support it in their various initiatives.

Attract international visitors. When people travel from other countries, they tend to stay longer and spend more when they are here — a windfall for our local retailers and other small businesses. A national communications and marketing program called the Travel Promotion Act was just passed by Congress, which will invest in marketing to these visitors. That is great news for us since tourism research studies indicate that European and Asian leisure travelers identify our Blue Ridge-Smoky Mountains-Cherokee region as their favored destination for a trip to America.

On a final note, we need to make sure our local, state and federal elected officials understand the value of travel and tourism to our regional economy. And we need to make sure they are recognized when they go to bat for travel and tourism. Our regional economy is beginning to turn around, but we need to continue to invest in the recovery.

The week of May 8-16 is National Travel and Tourism Week. It’s a great opportunity to let our elected officials know that we support and appreciate everything they are doing to get people moving again.

(David Huskins is the managing director of Smoky Mountain Host of N.C., a regional travel and tourism promotion and development organization created in 1987 for the state’s Smoky Mountains region of Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

President and First Lady Obama get a taste of WNC’s locally-grown food scene

Just a month ago, no one here would believe that the President and First Lady of the United States would one day be savoring smoked trout from Sunburst Farm in Canton while on vacation. Or munching on fresh lettuce directly delivered from Jolley Farms, also in Canton.

The small Western North Carolina town has officially connected with the White House, and in more ways than one.

Denny Trantham served Barack and Michelle Obama at The Grove Park Inn, where he works as executive chef. Trantham, too, hails from Canton. It’s where he grew up, and where he held his first job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant in the late ‘80s.

Trantham is the reason those local products showed up on the menu in the first place. As the visionary responsible for crafting Grove Park’s menus months in advance, he has always placed a special focus on utilizing local products no matter what changes are made to restaurant offerings.

It’s the relationships he’s built with farmers over the years that has made the resort’s local farm-to-table program a hit.

“I’ve known these people a long time,” said Trantham. “If I need trout, I know where to go. If I need peppers, I know where to go.”

Grove Park consistently incorporates farm offerings produced within a 100-mile radius in the menus of its multiple restaurants, using bacon from Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview or goat cheese from Three Graces Dairy in Madison County, for example.

When the program began three years ago, only a handful of farms participated. It was a trial-and-error process, and some were overwhelmed with the quantity Grove Park demanded every day.

Trantham must be selective about how much local produce is offered at each of the inn’s restaurants since it is not available on a large scale.

“If I’m feeding 1,200 and I gotta have salad greens, that’s a challenge,” said Trantham.

But local farms have adapted over the years, including Jolley Farms in Canton, which built its own greenhouse to use during winter months and continue supplying the resort with produce.

“It’s as close as you can get to year-round,” Trantham said.

Trantham’s enthusiasm for local produce existed long before it became a ubiquitous trend.

He learned all he knows from his mother and grandmother, who kept up gardens with green beans, corn, squash and zucchini. They also made their own jam, jellies, preserves, relishes, and pickled vegetables, making sure to never waste a thing.

“The funny part today is that everyone’s crazy about farm-to-table, but I think it’s something we did all along,” said Trantham, who believes the local food movement is more than a passing fad. “This isn’t a trend by definition. This is going to be a way of life.”

Southern Appalachian culinary traditions have been another mainstay at the Grove Park Inn since Trantham joined the staff nine years ago, and he intends to keep it that way.

That dedication in particular helped bring traditional Southern cooking to the Obamas.

Though President Obama stopped by at the historic inn while on the campaign trail, the latest visit was a whole different ballgame.

As Obama fans watched his every move, Trantham and fellow chefs were simultaneously subject to scrutiny from security each time they prepared the president’s meal.

A few changes to the Sunset Terrace restaurant menu were made, though Trantham is barred from discussing much about the meal, like what was exactly served or even who sat at the table with the Obamas.

Trantham said the hardworking kitchen staff was experiencing an “ounce” more of stress during Obama’s visit. They not only had to prepare an impeccable dinner for the president and first lady, but also a quality dining experience for 300 guests in the other dining room at the same time.

Ten chefs worked busily in the kitchen that night, while usually six suffice.

“We survived,” said Trantham. “I feel like we learned how to once again survive under pressure.”

Trantham introduced the menu to the Obamas, who tried a taste of ramps and were especially interested in learning more about Grove Park’s farm-to-table program.

“They enjoyed everything about their meal, and the president and first lady were gracious enough to meet each and every one of our chefs,” said Trantham, who characterized the Obamas as “down-to-earth” and “hospitable.”

Obama shook each chef’s hand, and announced that it was a perfect photo opportunity. “That was our moment in the spotlight,” said Trantham. “It was a great surprise for all of us, but it’s one that we’ll never forget.”

Since then, Trantham says the resort has received dozens of inquiries from those piqued by Obama’s stay there. Trantham by no means believes he’s reached a peak in his career by working as executive chef at the luxury resort, and now, serving the President.

“A lot of people say you’ve made it,” said Trantham. “In my mind, I’ve not made it. I’m just starting ...You gotta keep moving, you gotta keep growing, you gotta keep inventing, you gotta stay ahead of the curve, all the time.”

Deadly fungus could annihilate even the most common bats

Nine bat species across the South are at risk from a deadly fungus decimating certain bat populations known as white-nose syndrome.

The disease has now been confirmed as close as Tennessee and Virginia. Susan Loeb, a leading bat expert with the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station, says it is just a matter of time before white-nose syndrome is detected in North Carolina where nine bat species are presumed at risk.

“Little-brown bats and Indiana bats are among the most threatened by white-nose syndrome — meaning their populations could either be seriously decimated or become extinct,” said Loeb. “Historically, little-brown bats were quite common, but the species appears to be especially susceptible to the fungus and is being hit hard in the states where WNS has taken hold.”

White nose syndrome affects bats that hibernate in caves and mines. The disease received its name because of the white fungus often seen on the noses, muzzles and wings of infected bats. More than a million bats have died as the result of white-nose syndrome.

So far, white nose syndrome is confirmed in 11 states from Massachusetts to Virginia. The first case of the disease in the United States was reported in New York in 2006. Some experts believe the disease originated in Europe.

Oversight of mental health foundation called into question

Western North Carolina’s mental health agency may be headed for a civil war with its partner foundation.

Smoky Mountain Center, a quasi-state body that oversees mental health in the region, hopes to wrest $20 million in assets away from its sister nonprofit, citing a lack of oversight for public funds.

For three decades, the Smoky Mountain Center has relied on its nonprofit foundation Evergreen to bolster mental health and substance abuse services in the region.

But the foundation has grown increasingly estranged from the agency it was intended to support, according to board members of Smoky Mountain Center.

“There has been a disconnect there,” said Ronnie Beale, a member of the Smoky Mountain Center board and Macon County commissioner.

Communication between the two entities is sparse to nonexistent. The center’s requests for financial assistance have repeatedly been turned down, and the foundation won’t even disclose how its funds are being spent, according to Brian Ingraham, the executive director of Smoky Mountain Center.

“It is not supposed to be some organization off on their own with no public oversight,” Ingraham said.

Ingraham and his board of directors have proposed a major overhaul of the foundation to bring it under the auspices of Smoky Mountain Center.

“The bottom line is the board thought these funds should be under public scrutiny,” Beale said. “We feel it is public money, and it should be under public oversight.”

A letter was sent to foundation board members this week asking for a meeting within 30 days to discuss the issue.

Tom McDevitt, the executive director of the Evergreen Foundation, has little to say for now.

“Until whatever meeting takes place between Smoky Mountain and whoever, we are not going to be able to comment,” McDevitt said.

Until recently, the foundation and Smoky Mountain Center shared the same director — McDevitt. But McDevitt resigned from Smoky Mountain Center under pressure in fall 2008. McDevitt had come under scrutiny for using his position for personal financial gain.

He managed to hang on to his position as director of the Evergreen Foundation, however, which had a different slate of board members.

McDevitt disagrees with the line of argument Smoky Mountain Center is presenting.

“I don’t feel there is any disconnect whatsoever,” McDevitt said.

McDevitt said he has met with the board of Smoky Mountain Center whenever he’s been asked. But when Smoky Mountain Center needed an emergency meeting over state budget cuts, Ingraham said it took weeks to get it arranged.

State budget cuts axed $10 million over two years from indigent care — a fund that covers mental health and substance abuse treatment for those who can’t afford it. The 20 percent cut means poor people who need therapy or treatment won’t be able to get it now.

Smoky Mountain Center asked the foundation for a $2 million grant to make up some of the difference.

“Wouldn’t this seem like exactly why the foundation was developed?” Ingraham said.

But the foundation granted them only $200,000. Smoky Mountain Center also asked the foundation to forgive their rent for the year.

Smoky Mountain Center pays $280,000 a year in rent to the foundation for office space and a mental health and substance abuse clinic called The Balsam Center.

The two buildings were bought and paid for with state money given to Smoky Mountain Center but were then passed along to the foundation, which manages the properties.

The foundation owns the buildings as a result. Ingraham said it is wrong that the foundation won’t cut Smoky Mountain Center a break on rent when they paid for the buildings in the first place, Ingraham said.

“We gave them the money, but now they say ‘We aren’t going to help you,’” Ingraham said. “That was the point where people realized there was nothing appropriate or correct about this any longer.”

But McDevitt said the foundation’s purpose is about more than helping Smoky Mountain Center. Its mission is to support people with mental health, substance abuse and developmental disabilities throughout the seven counties.

“That is the sole purpose of the Evergreen Foundation,” McDevitt said. “We have done a very good job of that over 33 years.”

That mission, he said, can include making grants to private practices that offer counseling and mental health treatment other than Smoky Mountain Center. McDevitt said that the foundation has given out $200,000 in grants to private mental health practices this fiscal year.

Ingraham said he has asked McDevitt to share what grants have been given out and how the foundation is spending money.

“We have asked for that information, and it has not been forthcoming,” Ingraham said.

McDevitt disagreed.

“They did know about them. Of course they knew about them,” McDevitt said of the other grants.

How it all started

When Evergreen Foundation was created in the late 1970s, it was out of necessity. State agencies couldn’t buy and resell property, and Smoky Mountain Center needed to amass an inventory of office buildings for mental health and substance abuse counselors to work out of throughout the seven western counties.

But the law has since changed, and state agencies can now act as their own property management arm.

While the foundation has always had its own board of directors, it was historically tightly controlled by Smoky Mountain Center. Early on, the Smoky Mountain Center appointed the foundation board, and many of the members sat on both boards.

But in 2001, when the state launched mental health reform, everything was on the table from privatizing mental health services to consolidating the regional agencies like Smoky Mountain Center.

In the ensuing turmoil, Smoky Mountain Center feared the state would attempt a money grab to seize the assets of the foundation. So it purposely built a firewall around the foundation. Bylaws were rewritten to make it a private entity, separate from Smoky Mountain Center.

“It was done to protect the assets for their intended purposes,” said Shelly Foreman, community director for Smoky Mountain Center.

At the time, no one envisioned that the foundation would one day end up with a completely separate director and board that had little interaction with Smoky Mountain Center, Foreman said.

“It was never the intention that Evergreen be disconnected from what the service needs and funding needs are in the community,” Foreman said.

Ingraham and his board hired an auditor to track all the money that had gone into the foundation since its creation in 1977. They determined $14.5 million in county and state tax dollars have flowed into the foundation’s coffers.

Nearly all of the money was for purchasing buildings in the seven western counties — from office space for mental health counselors to substance abuse clinics to the central headquarters for Smoky Mountain Center.

Smoky Mountain Center once operated its own teams of mental health counselors, therapists and psychologists throughout the region, housed in the office space owned by Evergreen but paid for initially with state funds.

The state has since privatized mental health, so most of that office space is now rented to private mental health practices — or in some cases to whoever is willing to rent the building whether the tennant was in the mental health field or not. The foundation keeps all the rent money.

Ingraham said the foundation is operating more like a property management and investment company than a nonprofit with a mission to fulfill.

“It is income that was generated from public money,” Ingraham said.

But McDevitt said the origin of the money isn’t relevant. It started out as public money, but was given to a private organization to carry out its mission.

“Where it goes to, it loses its identity as public funds,” McDevitt said.

The upshot

Smoky Mountain Center wants a new governing structure for the foundation. The proposal calls for the current foundation board to be dissolved. A new foundation would then be created under a new set of bylaws — stipulating that Smoky Mountain Center gets to appoint the board and hold a majority of the seats.

While the board of Smoky Mountain Center is a public body — meaning their meetings, financial records and actions are open to the public — the foundation meets in private and has no obligation to share its financial information other than its annual nonprofit tax filing.

The aim is to restore public oversight, Beale said.

The 30-member board of the Smoky Mountain Center voted unanimously for the proposal earlier this month.

To back-up the proposal, county commissioners from the seven western counties have been asked to pass similar resolutions over the next two weeks. Macon County commissioners were the first to do so this week.

Macon County’s resolution says if diplomatic efforts fail, legal routes may be necessary.

John Bouknight of Highlands, the president of the Evergreen Foundation board, would not comment in detail until after meeting with the Smoky Mountain Center board.

He said Evergreen’s mission goes far beyond just supporting the needs identified by Smoky Mountain Center.

“They aren’t everything,” Bouknight said. “I think we are following our mission statement. These are all very dedicated people.”

The foundation board only meets four times a year. Beale said he trusts that their primary interest is serving mental health and substance abuse needs, but he isn’t sure how informed they are.

“The only thing they know is what their director tells them,” Beale said. “I do have a lot of respect for some members on that board, and I think their heart is in the right place and will do the right thing.”

In the meantime, Smoky Mountain Center has alerted the state attorney general’s office of the unusual situation.

“We are talking about state funds that now exist within an organization that has no affiliation within Smoky Mountain Center and chooses to do whatever they want with it,” Ingraham said.

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