Quintin Ellison

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The former chief executive officer and general manager of the Old Edwards Inn and Spa in Highlands was recently convicted on federal charges of masterminding kickbacks and of illegally billing his company for an addition to his own home.

Mario Clotinho Gomes was convicted on two counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud by a jury in a federal court trial.

In addition to operating the inn, Old Edwards company had a development arm established to build town homes in Macon County, intended as affordable housing for employees. Gomes oversaw the creation of this employee village four miles from the inn. Thirty-five to forty-five houses were built in the village.

The indictment charging Gomes stated that from at least August 2005 through March 2008 Gomes and others involved in the development inflated invoices being billed to contractors and then shared in the illegal gains — all the while bilking Old Edwards for more than the work actually cost.

A company called Cornerstone Homes served as general contractor for work done by Old Edwards Inn and Spa. The man in charge, Greg Fuselier, was named in the indictment as a co-conspirator, as was George Mathis, chief engineer of Old Edwards Inn and Spa.

In addition to inflating invoices on the town homes, Gomes and Mathis had improvements made to their individual houses.

“Invoices for legitimate work were manipulated to include charges for work performed at Gomes’ and Mathis’ houses,” the indictment noted.

The two men traveled at least once from Macon County to Buncombe County to cash kickback checks from Cornerstone, the indictment states.

“Gomes and Mathis traveled … in order to avoid suspicion that might have been generated had they cashed Cornerstone’s checks in the small town of Highlands,” according to the indictment.

Gomes also would send approval for fraudulent payments from his office in Highlands to his co-conspirators’ homes in Duluth, Ga., according to the indictment.

He was convicted of wire fraud for transferring two payments, one on Jan. 14, 2008, for $182,398.02 and on Feb. 4, 2008, for $410,831.90.


The Community Table, Sylva’s nonprofit soup kitchen for the needy, is within weeks of moving its digs from its cramped existing facility to the town’s now-vacant senior center.

The county built a new senior center, freeing up space in the old one, which is owned by the town. The 4,000-square-foot building is located downtown adjacent to the town pool and playground.

The building had to be redone almost from the ground up. A new heating and cooling system costing $20,000 has been installed and all new electric, plumbing and insulation has been added — not to mention the addition of a drop ceiling and new paint and trim.

Volunteers are providing the bulk of the labor. Jackson County farmer and former general contractor John Beckman is heading up this volunteer labor force.

“We’ve gotten an awful lot of free services,” he said of the work.

This job has proven more costly than anticipated, however. It exceeded the original $43,000 estimate and instead now stands at about $68,000, said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table. The county chipped in $35,000, but the soup kitchen was forced to dip into its general operating funds to make up the balance of the bill.

“We really need to replenish that because that’s a little scary,” Grimes said. “But, we ran into all these surprises once we started work here.”

The drop ceiling, for instance, will lower the propane heating costs, which averaged $2,000 a month when housing the senior citizen center.

An $8,000 grant from Ag Options, a nonprofit revenue source supporting local farming efforts, helped pay for the drop ceiling and a commercial dishwasher. The Community Table hopes in turn to be able to allow farmers access to the kitchen, which will be certified by the health department. This would allow farmers, for example, to can some of their extra produce to sell, make jam from berries or sauce from tomatoes. The law requires farmers to do the food preparation in a certified kitchen if they want to sell value-added products.

There is discussion, too, about Sylva’s winter farmers market being housed here instead of at a local church.

Grimes said she also hopes, through the farmers market, the state Cooperative Extension Service and Western Carolina University, to see cooking and nutrition classes being offered to those using The Community Table.

“They are really interested in taking these classes,” she said.

The need for the new space is great. Since the economy soured, the mainly volunteer staff has been dishing out an average of more than 100 meals a night, up from 25 to 40. The current Community Table can only seat 30 people at a time at each of the four dinners served each week. Additionally, a food pantry is operated out of the small building the nonprofit now calls home.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of new people,” Grimes said.

Recent surveys of soup kitchen users revealed that many of those coming have been college educated. This represents a significant change from surveys taken in previous years.

In 2010, The Community Table dished out 10,000 meals and 835 food boxes; last year, the number jumped to 16,741 meals and 2,008 food boxes. The numbers are equally dramatic at the Jackson County Department of Social Services. Since 2008, when the economy tanked, the food and nutrition services program has increased from 1388 cases to 2849, a 105-percent increase.


Empty Bowl

The Community Table will hold its annual Empty Bowl event from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. April 27 at its current location at 227 Bartlett Street in Sylva. Area potters have donated handcrafted bowls that will be filled with choices of soup or chili. Bowls cost $20 each and include dinner, drinks and dessert. There will also be live entertainment by local musicians. The money raised supports the nonprofit.


The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is taking matters into its own hands in the tug-of-war over the best route to Cherokee.

A tribe-purchased billboard on Interstate 40, heading west of Asheville, will soon tout two possible routes to Cherokee. Official highway signs direct Cherokee-bound traffic through Maggie Valley, but both Cherokee and Jackson County leaders had asked the state highway department to change the sign, touching off a dispute between Maggie and Jackson County, both hoping to lay claim to passing tourists en route to Cherokee.

The DOT rejected the request to change the official signs, prompting the tribe to put up its own billboard noting that U.S. 74 is also a direct route to Cherokee. The billboard will target drivers coming from the east, according to Robert Jumper, head of Cherokee Travel and Tourism. The new billboard is in production now, and Jumper expected it to be on I-40 within the next week or so.

Jumper said the tribe hears multiple complaints from motorists at the Cherokee welcome center who have been surprised, and sometimes scared, by the winding two-lane route thru Maggie Valley and over Soco Gap. Some also complain of getting stuck behind slower vehicles because there are no passing lanes, Jumper said.

U.S. 74 through Jackson County, by contrast, is a four-lane highway.

“This is for the benefit of everybody,” Jumper said. “Cherokee is going to provide a billboard that provides the customer with a choice.”

The new billboard will list both options, reading “easy access to Cherokee via U.S. 74 or U.S. 19.”

Jumper said the billboard’s message would ultimately benefit Maggie Valley, too, because some motorists now are frustrated by the trip through the small town on U.S. 19, and that could potentially repel them from wanting to go that way next time. This way, Jumper said somewhat ingeniously, the tribe can redirect those visitors looking for a more “scenic route” on their return trip, and they’ll have a more positive impression of the small Haywood County town because they’ll know what to expect on the two-lane highway.

More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After receiving some poor tourism-related numbers last year, Jackson leaders went hunting for a method to entice more visitors to the county, hence the sign request.

Cherokee quickly jumped on the sign bandwagon, sending letters of support for a new sign from the chief and the tourism office.

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the state DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

DOT turned down the request for a new sign citing safety concerns, as in the possibility of more wrecks as motorists attempted to puzzle out a sign offering dueling routes. Cherokee’s billboard will be bigger than a standard highway sign, allowing the information to be read clearly, and will be placed on I-40, giving people plenty of time to decide which route to take rather than a highway sign giving only a split second of decision time before the exit.


The iconic black bear, the parkway’s winding scenic road and the Appalachian Trail’s solitary hiker have gotten a reprieve.

A bill will be introduced next month to allow a version of the full-color specialty plates. They’d been facing a death sentence under a law introduced last year that sought plate uniformity in North Carolina.

“This is encouraging news,” said Holly Demuth, director in North Carolina for Friends of the Smokies.

The specialty black bear plate has raised $2.5 million for Friends of the Smokies. One of the most popular, there is about 20,000 of the Smokies plates on North Carolina’s roads. There are 216 specialty plates total, running the gamut from an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to a coastal plate supporting, you guessed it, coastal protection.

Gutting the colorful specialty license plates had caused a hue and cry across the state.

Demuth wasn’t prepared to sing a victory song yet, however.

“It takes some undoing to undo a law,” she said. “We still have our work cut out for us. We need a hero. Quite bluntly, we need a Republican hero.”

That hero looks to be Rep. Phillip Frye, R-Mitchell, who said that he or fellow legislator Mitch Gillespie, R-McDowell, expect to introduce legislation that would allow the colorful plates to continue.

A new state law, passed last year at Gillespie’s behest, would have eliminated the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, starting in 2015 specialty plates would feature only tiny logos shoehorned into one small corner of the plate. Gillespie sought the stiffer restrictions because, as he said at the time, law enforcement officers could not easily see the license number and that presented safety issues.

That assertion was not backed up by anything but anecdotal evidence, prompting a safety study by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The study found that any possible visibility issues — colored backgrounds allegedly interfered with the legibility of numbers — could be solved if the license numbers were backed by a white background. The rest of the plate’s design could stay in tact.

That new design — a full color plate but with a white rectangle superimposed on top — is what Frye based his bill on.

The new law as proposed by Frye and approved recently by the Joint Transportation Oversight Committee would repeal the ban on the unique color background for specialty license plates. It was unanimously approved.

The proposed change follows a report issued Friday supporting the white block as a standardized format. The recommendation has the support of the state Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Safety, the state Highway Patrol, the N.C. Sheriffs Association and more.

“We feel like this is a workable situation,” Frye said of the new proposed rules. “It’s a good compromise, and everyone seems to be on board.”

Also good news, those with old plates will be grandfathered in. Under the original bill, owners of the old plates would have had to turn them in to the Department of Motor Vehicles and been issued a new one.

There are currently 91,311 full-color specialty license plates on the roads right now. The estimated cost of replacing all of these plates by July 1, 2015 was set at more than $164,000, according to the report, with each plate costing $1.75 to produce.

Other organizations that make money off the colorful specialty license plates, like the Friends of the Smokies, were breathing sighs of relief last week.

The specialty license plates cost motorists an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes directly to the groups involved.

“I think everyone sees the overall importance of the program and have been expressing that concern,” said Carolyn Ward, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “This is a fairly significant piece of revenue.”

With about 27,000 plates on the road the Parkway Foundation has raised more than $2.9 million since 2004.

During that same time, the foundation’s specialty plate has kicked in $1.7 million into state coffers, Ward noted. This is because $10 of the $20 fee goes into the state’s Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.

Here’s what that means in real numbers last year:

• $82,300 went to highway beautification.

• $54,318 went to the Department of Commerce for out-of-state tourism and industrial development promotion.

• $27,982 went to the Department of Health and Human Services to promote travel accessibility for disabled persons.


Large, walk-in beer coolers are ready and waiting to be stocked at Dwight and Jamie Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center, a gas station directly across the street from the entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on U.S. 441.

They’ve been there for eight years in anticipation that one day alcoholic beverages could be sold countywide in Jackson. The day of reckoning has finally come, with Jackson voters poised to decide on countywide alcohol sales in the May primary election.

And the financial stakes for the sale of alcoholic beverages by the Winchesters and others in the Gateway community along U.S. 441 just got a lot higher after Cherokee voters overwhelming decided this month to keep the reservation dry except for the casino.

Winchester’s gas station is literally the first and closest stop for potential beer buyers from Cherokee, literally a stone’s throw from the reservation boundary line.

Winchester is keenly positioned to capture the business of anyone in Cherokee looking for beer, saving them what would otherwise be 15-minute drive west to Bryson City or a bit more than that east to Sylva.

“We don’t have to have beer to be successful,” said Dwight Winchester, gesturing at his bustling store, mid-morning on a workday. “But we do, of course, want it.”

Winchester said there has been a lot of land speculation along U.S. 441 in anticipation of a “yes” vote to alcohol sales. Winchester said that he expects plenty of company in coming days, in the form of other businesses setting up to sell alcoholic beverages, if the vote indeed passes.

The Winchesters currently employee 42 people, and they expect to add two or three more workers if alcohol sales are allowed.

Winchester, though he clearly and unabashedly hopes the referendum does go through, is concerned about perceptions of his business on the nearby Cherokee Reservation when he begins selling alcoholic beverages.

“I have great respect for the folks and the pastors who feel so strongly against it,” said Winchester.

The Bryson City native added that he’s struggling with how exactly to broach the matter with those Cherokee residents who just voted “no” so clearly — more than 66 percent specifically voted against the sale of beer and wine at gas stations and grocery stores — firmly and unequivocally.

“But, the economic increase is going to outweigh any negative you can come up with,” Winchester said.

Winchester said the beer companies clearly believe the sale of alcoholic beverages will pass in Jackson County because they’ve frequently been in his store to discuss the matter. Those sellers’ guesses are as good as any: there’s barely been any discussion of the matter publicly, for or against, in Jackson County since commissioners first decided on the vote last year. That, however, certainly wasn’t the case in Cherokee.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, groups for and against the sale of alcoholic beverages on the reservation were busy mailing out flyers, putting up signs and giving speeches to bolster their cases.

A recent study by Martin and McGill found that the tribe conservatively would have received up to $3.8 million in revenue via an ABC retail store within five years. The tribe’s version of sales tax was projected to pump a total of $1.7 million into Cherokee’s general fund from the addition of alcohol sales.

Winchester’s Catamount Travel Center is a combination gas station and Huddle House. The Winchesters have an identical business in Cullowhee, too, another potential hotspot for the sale of alcoholic beverages with the captive Western Carolina University population. The Gateway business was built in 2004, the one in Cullowhee in 2001. When both were built large beer walk-in coolers were included in each.

To say they are now perfectly positioned to benefit financially from the sale of alcoholic beverages is to indulge somewhat in understatement.

If it passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in WNC with countywide alcohol sales. Henderson County is holding a referendum on countywide alcohol in May as well.

The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, at least according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

Jamie Winchester said she is uncertain how quickly the couple’s stores would be able to sell alcohol if the measure passes May 8. She has been undergoing a self-taught crash course in North Carolina alcohol sales to, in part, try to determine just that.

Dwight Winchester said if the vote is “no” that’s OK with the couple, too.

“We’re not going to go anywhere regardless,” he said.


I was fortunate enough this past weekend to be present when a mother goat gave birth to two babies, and even to assist her some, though truthfully I think she’d have performed just fine without me.

My friend and I had been to the farmers market earlier that day. The 40 or so hens are all laying and that makes for a lot of eggs to sell, hence the farmers market on Saturday mornings in downtown Sylva. We were returning after having unloaded a dozen or so eggs when we decided to stop at the barn to check on a very pregnant goat. We arrived to find one small hoof protruding in a very uncomfortable-looking manner from said goat’s backend.

My friend gave a tug or two but the baby wasn’t having any part of leaving that warm cocoon-like place for a brave and cold new world. I found some antiseptic lube, lathered up, and went fishing inside for the other hoof. Once I found it and had both hooves in my right hand, I grabbed hold of momma goat’s tail with my left hand. Then I gave a good strong tug while my friend hung on to the front of the now vastly unhappy goat. The poor momma was bleating in pain but she did finally manage to give a good hard push, squirting the baby out. Once the baby was on the ground we saw immediately what the problem had been with the birthing. It wasn’t complicated: This was simply a big baby goat, probably eight pounds compared to the usually six or so at birth, and the mother goat isn’t particularly large. The next baby came fairly quickly. It was, if anything, even slightly bigger than her sister.

This is the third nanny to birth here at Haven Hollow Farm this spring. And based on a swelling midsection it looks like another goat, one that we didn’t plan on having kids, is nearing a possible due date, too.

Meanwhile, the billy responsible for all this mayhem and gamboling about of baby goats is lounging his time away in the barnyard. He saunters around lackadaisically until feeding time, when he turns into demon goat and bullies the others and eats all their food. In this case it truly is good to be the king: all pleasure and absolutely no pain.


The birthing of goats are a rite of spring. It’s something I’ve grown comfortable with these last couple of years and the delight of newborn babies never wanes. What’s also fun each spring is showing off the goat babies to others.

Kelly and Anna, two young friends, came to visit a week or so ago. They were appropriately taken with the baby goats, as anyone should and would be, given that these little tykes are adorably all legs and fuzz.

We admired the babies for a while. Then I noticed the girls kept disappearing inside the main chicken pen. It turns out they were looking for eggs, which because of a wide assortment of hen types, come in a variety of colors: white, blue-green, brown and chocolate brown. Kelly and Anna’s mother later told me that the girls did like the goat babies but they most enjoyed collecting the hen eggs. It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, I suppose, in that you can never be quite sure what color you are going to find next.


While waiting for Kelly and Anna that day I planted three long rows of potatoes in my garden. This past weekend, in the other sections that are potato free, I applied generous amounts of lime to the soil.

Gardening, like seeing the goat babies being born, is an important part of spring to me. I’ve mentioned previously in this space that I had every intention of not gardening this year. I thought that I wanted to devote more time to other labors. But I realized that I simply can’t imagine going through a year without tending to a garden — at the risk of sounding flaky, gardening, tending animals and other farm chores grounds me. Whatever time farming takes is generally returned to me in terms of a freer spirit and more peaceful mind.  

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


The use of weed killer to temporarily denude an ancient Indian mound in Franklin has some critics accusing the town of cultural insensitivity.

Nikwasi Indian Mound, which is located within Franklin’s town limits and is tended to and maintained by town crews, is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.

“I think it is totally disrespectful and terrible for them to be so cheap that they won’t just cut the grass,” said Lamar Marshall, a local historian on Cherokee sites and places. “They are always bellyaching about having to mow the grass on it.”

It takes a town crew of four workers about half a day once each week during spring, summer and fall to take care of Nikwasi Mound. Or rather, it used take that amount of time — Town Manager Sam Greenwood explained the intent of last week’s herbicide application is to eventually replant Nikwasi Mound with “Eco-Grass.” Town Mayor Joe Collins defended his town manager’s decision to apply herbicide.

“We are looking at a way to basically be able to not mow it during grass-growing season,” Collins said. “It is very labor intensive and it keeps a lot of traffic on the mound.”

Collins said the new grass essentially stops growing at about six inches tall, removing the need to mow each week.

The mound is approximately 6,000-square-feet in size. The town does not have an exact cost yet on how much money it will pay for hydroseeding, but the cost of the Eco-Grass comes to $32 per 1,000 square feet, Greenwood said.

The town manager said the herbicide application was a one-time thing to kill off existing grass and weeds to pave the way for planting the Eco-grass. In two weeks, crews will rough up the mound using rakes and the Eco-Grass seed will be sprayed onto the mound, he said.

“It’s not very expensive or intrusive, and it will keep the mowers and the mowers’ smoke off the mound. It’s a very conservative approach, and once (the seed) gets applied, it will look very close to what it was,” the mayor said. “This is going to mean less traffic and reduce impact on the mound.”

Greenwood said the town also plans to institute a town law that would allow police officers to enforce rules keeping people off the mound, and an informational kiosk about it will be placed there to help visitors understand the significance of the site. Nikwasi Mound in 1980 was designated an archaeological site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Marshall, however, believes the herbicide was inappropriate despite the long-term goal of getting out of the mound-mowing business. Marshall pointed to the human and environmental risks of weed killers.

“The safe poisons today are banned tomorrow when there is enough time to research them,” Marshall said.

Marshall said the town does not fully appreciate the importance and heritage of Nikwasi Mound.

“It could be the centerpiece of the entire town,” Marshall said. “It’s a waste of a valuable local resource.”


The shell of a vacant four-story hotel sitting partially finished on Sylva’s main drag for three years is finally going somewhere.

Developers from Greensboro bought the vacant hotel along N.C. 107 for $850,000 and are promising to pump an additional $2 million into completing the project.

The hotel was partially constructed beginning in 2008 and has widely been considered an eyesore. It was supposed to become a Clarion Inn, but the original developers TJ Investments, the father and son team Thomas and John Dowden of Cashiers, went into bankruptcy. Alpharetta Community Bank of Georgia, which foreclosed after the men failed to payoff a $5-million loan, owned the hotel. The newly formed Sylva Hotel Group recently bought the property for $850,000.

Developer Stephen Austin said he and his two partners in the project have settled on a national hotel chain to brand the 78-room hotel, which includes a convention room and space for a restaurant, but added that they aren’t ready to disclose which one.

He said the bargain-basement purchase price made the deal a good venture.

“Sylva is not an extremely deep hotel market,” he said. “We’re going to do our very best to have a hotel that is worthy of our business.”

Austin said that the men’s pre-purchase market studies indicated that Sylva hotel occupancy rates run at about 50 percent, lower than the national average of more than 60 percent. Even after figuring that higher vacancy rate into the business plan, Austin said the getting-in price made it a sound investment.

“If you are going to build a new hotel, it helps to get in at a good price,” he said. “We’ll have a total of about $3 million in the project. We’re also excited to be able to take a piece of property and produce something of value, create an asset for the community.”

Austin said he and his partners are hoping to start construction soon and open the new hotel this year.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lives near the hotel, said he is excited that it sold and is going to be finished and used.

Five years ago, the town OK’d an exemption to its building height restrictions, allowing the proposed Clarion Inn to have four stories instead of three. The developers at the time claimed they needed a 75-foot maximum height instead of just 45 feet as mandated by town regulations.

Hensley said he believed the purchase was indicative that the local economy is starting to shake off the recessionary blues.

“I don’t know much about the details, but to me, it’s excellent news that this can move forward and progress,” Hensley said.

Paige Roberson, assistant to the town manager and director of the town’s Main Street program, echoed Hensley’s optimism. She said that at least two other vacant stores in town have seen movement recently. Cope’s Superette, a downtown newsstand that closed in December, is being reopened as an antique store; the crematorium of Moody’s Funeral Home is being repurposed as a doctor’s office.


A class action complaint aims to hold the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians responsible for money lost when the stock market crashed in 2008 and eroded the personal accounts of Cherokee youth held in trust by the tribe.

All 14,000 members of the tribe share in profits from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel. For those under the age of 18, the tribe holds the money in trust, not only adding the annual casino payments to it but also investing it to help it grow until they reach adulthood and can cash out.

The suit claims 138 youth each lost about $22,000 when their cut of casino earnings were invested in risky, unapproved ventures.

To safeguard against losses in the stock market, the funds of 17-year olds are supposed to be transferred to a safe and stable “pre-payout” account to protect it from market volatility. The holding account guards against erosion of the principle in the year just before payout.

The suit claims the investment committee for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Minors Trust Fund failed to transfer funds into the safe holding account in 2008, and the 17 year olds that year “suffered significant monetary losses as a direct and proximate result of the decision to not transfer funds to the pre-payout sub-account.”

In other words, the stock market tanked and money was lost because it wasn’t in safekeeping. The youth that year received approximately $65,186 instead of the $88,000 that they should have accrued by turning 18. Minors can cash out when they turn 18 if high school diploma or GED. Otherwise, they have to wait until they are 21.

The suit names each of the five members of the investment committee and Principal Chief Michell Hicks, both individually and in their official capacities.

“They played the stock market and they lost,” said Attorney Russell McLean of Waynesville, who represents the plaintiffs. “They gambled and invested it in funds that were not protected.”

The investment committee and Hicks had not as of last week filed a response to the civil suit.

The suit claims the tribe should reimburse the youth for their losses. The tribe, in fact, previously pledged to do just that in the face of angry backlash over losses in the Minors Trust Fund.

In an tribal-wide update on the Minors Fund status in April 2009, Chief Hicks. stated the tribe “stands good for the principal balance of our children’s investments by tribal law,” according to the suit. The proclamation said that the Eastern Band would make up the difference “if a minor leaves the fund and their balance is below the principal amount contributed.” Despite the promise, the tribe did not follow through on its commitment and did not reimburse the children involved, the suit alleges.

McLean said that he expects to file a second, larger class action suit on behalf of Eastern Band children ages birth through 17.

“We’ll see if an entire group of children on the reservation should be protected by the courts,” he said.

McLean said the next step in the current class action suit is to identify and notify each of the children involved. They’ll need to each decide whether they want to proceed as part of a class action suit or if they prefer to file their own individual lawsuits. He said the notification would take about two months to complete.


One thing is for certain. Whichever of two Democrats Jackson County voters pick in the May 8 primary will be bringing a lot of governmental experience to the table in their bid for a seat on the Board of Commissioners. Stacy Buchanan is a former commissioner and board chairman; Vicki Greene recently retired as assistant director for Southwestern Commission. They are running for the seat currently held by Joe Cowan, who decided not to seek re-election.

The two might face competition in the general election, despite no candidates formally signing up to run during the official filing period. Local builder Cliff Gregg, who plans to run as an unaffiliated candidate, has until June to collect the signatures of 4 percent, or roughly 1,400 names, of Jackson County voters. If Gregg succeeds, he will compete with whichever Democrat clears the primary hurdle.


Vicki Greene, 61, retired assistant director Southwestern Commission

Greene has one son and noted that it’s important to some people in Jackson County that she’s Maude Bryson’s daughter. Her mother worked at the old A&P grocery store, Greene said, and functioned “as a one-woman Chamber of Commerce.” Greene attended the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as a Reynolds Scholar. She holds a master’s in public administration program from UNC, a certificate in county administration from the School of Government at UNC and has taken a variety of courses in economic development and financing.

Where do you stand on land-use planning?

Greene said that she favors land-use planning and that she spoke in favor of and still supports Jackson County’s mountain hillside ordinance and its subdivision regulations.

“The board is looking at fine-tuning the subdivision regulations as far as having a hierarchy of standards for roads based on the number of lots in a development,” she said. “And, I think that’s a positive thing to do.”

Greene said she believes the conservative-dominated board is appropriately responding by evaluating the existing regulations. She emphasized her belief in the need to continue planning efforts in the Whittier and Cashiers areas and said she also thinks that the county needs to become directly involved in community planning in the Cullowhee area. Cullowhee, she pointed out, is the fastest-growing township in Jackson County, growth that most believe will increase more rapidly if an alcohol referendum passes during the primary.

“It would be an exciting time to have an entity such as the county to take a leadership role in developing a plan,” Greene said.

What are your plans for economic development?

“I think Jackson County has been unique in southwestern North Carolina in terms of having no or an ineffective economic development effort,” Greene said.

Jackson County’s economic development commission came under fire and was ultimately dissolved, during her opponent’s tenure on the board amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid business loans and generally questionable lending practices. The economic development arm back then was an independent body outside the county’s direct control.

Greene said that Jackson County needed to follow the lead of neighboring counties like Haywood and Macon and hire an experienced economic development director.

“A lot boils down to having a director with the connections who can put Jackson County at the forefront” for when the recession ends, Greene said, adding that the county needs to work on a comprehensive strategy that considers health care, training, tourism and building the necessary infrastructure.

She’s running because…

“I have a commitment to make this the best possible Jackson County that it can be,” Greene said.

Greene noted that she has served for more than three decades as a technical resource for local governments on retreats, grant applications, workforce development funding and more.

“I’ve worked with Democrat and Republican boards for 36 years and have developed strong lines of communications with them all,” Greene said, adding that Mountain Mediations one year named her peacemaker of the year.


Stacy Buchanan, 49, district vice president America’s Home Place

Buchanan is married and has two children. He has a bachelor’s in business administration, two associate’s degrees in personnel administration and recreation administration, a master’s in public administration and certification in business and marketing education. He is an Air Force veteran who taught in the Jackson County Schools and who served from 1998-2005 on the Board of Commissioners, including as chairman. Buchanan resigned in the middle of his term in March 2005. Buchanan, at the time, cited his acceptance of a position as assistant head football coach and co-offensive coordinator at Smoky Mountain High School and an inability to split time between his school and public service career.

Where do you stand on land-use planning?

“I’m very much pro-land planning,” Buchanan said. “I support the ordinances we have in place, and I’m glad to see those were adopted.”

He said he does not oppose the revisiting of those ordinances now taking place under the new Board of Commissioners.

“I’m never opposed to seeing change; they constantly need to be updated,” Buchanan said. “You need to see the impacts they had positive or negative, and whether you need to tweak them. I see tweaking as making the language easier to understand and easier to follow.”

Buchanan said tweaking does not, in his book, mean diluting or watering down the ordinances, however.

“We need to protect the beautiful natural resources that God has given us. We need to be good stewards of the land,” he said.

What are your plans for economic development?

Buchanan noted he’d been part of developing a 15-year strategic plan for Jackson County that emphasized facility development. He said that he’d take the same approach to economic development and help construct a 15-year plan “that people will buy into” to guide the county’s efforts.

“I don’t think we’re being proactive enough going after companies that are looking to come back to the U.S. that went overseas,” Buchanan said, adding that Jackson needs to understand and market its assets. “We need to be able to ask these companies, ‘Why not Jackson County?’ I’ll match Jackson County up with any county.”

Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted in the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly because of lack of results. At the time, the economic development arm was not under the county’s direct oversight or accountability. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about unpaid business loans and generally questionable lending practices.

“I believe in an EDC but not the way that we had it,” he said, advocating for a “paid professional” with a proven track record to head economic development efforts for Jackson County. And that professional, Buchanan said, needs to be “backed up by a board with experience.”

He’s running because…

Buchanan emphasized again that he believes Jackson County needs to develop a strategic plan for the next 15 years, and he said that he’s the man who can help the county reach that goal.

“To know where you’re going you’ve got to understand where you’ve been,” Buchanan said, pointing to the facilities plan developed under his prior tenure as where he’s been. “It’s coming to fruition now,” he said, adding that the facilities plan laid a critical groundwork for Jackson County’s economic future.

“Now we need a plan going forward so that we don’t miss opportunities,” Buchanan said.


Three of the five seats on the Macon County Board of Commissioners are up for election this year, and all have a primary race that needs deciding for either one party or the other. Democrats will be asked to narrow down the field in one race, while Republicans will have two races on the ballots.

Last week, in an effort to help voters hear from the candidates firsthand, the Macon County League of Women Voters hosted a forum for those men running for commissioner. Five of the six involved in the primary election participated.

The primary issues in these races were addressed at the forum: issues about what role, if any, land planning should play in Macon County; and how to jumpstart an economy struggling through a recession.


Republican primary for district two (Franklin): Pick one

(The primary winner wins the seat for keeps, as there is no Democratic challenger for this seat in the general election.)

Kevin Corbin, 50, insurance business owner

How would you help the local economy?

Corbin said that the recession hit Macon County particularly hard because of its heavy dependence on the construction market and tourism.

“What can we do? Government needs to stay out of the way. Small business creates business. Government does not create business.”

Corbin spoke about current efforts of the Economic Development Commission. He noted that the Board of Commissioners had identified the EDC as its top priority and taken measures to bolster it with the addition of a fulltime executive director as opposed to the previous position of an “economic development coordinator.”

“We hold them accountable,” he said, noting that the board gets a direct report once each month.

Where do you stand on land planning?

“I don’t have all the answers, and we’re learning as we go,” Corbin said of Macon County’s strident conversations about land planning. “It’s been very frustrating to me … when these things get emotional and people start arguing back and forth, it’s not helpful to anyone.”

Corbin said that he believes the recent move to define the planning board as clearly advisory in nature has helped, “and things will move forward in a positive way.”

What’s important to you to address?

Education, Corbin said, “is near and dear to my heart. Educating kids has got to be a top priority. If you don’t care about that, then you don’t care about our future.”

He said that the technology needs of the schools must be tackled. In 2000, he said Macon County went from 80th to 11th in state rankings on technology, but now the rotation of computers has gone from five years to nine and almost 10 years. Corbin said that some of the county’s healthy fund balance (it stands at 33 percent) should be allocated to the schools for the technology program.

“It just makes sense to take care of our kids.”


Vic Drummond, 68, retired owner of his own computer consulting and software development services business

How would you help the local economy?

While politicians might not be able to directly create jobs, “you can promote policies that attract businesses,” Drummond said, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a low tax rate and the continued development of a great school system and of necessary housing. “Those are the things that will attract people to come to the area,” Drummond said, adding that he does not support tax incentives for new business.

He did echo the sentiment that small business is the true future of Macon County and spoke of the need to have a trained workforce and adequate infrastructure.

Where do you stand on land planning?

“I believe that development is the lifeblood of any community. I’m against planning … that’s going to tell me where I can live, what size yard I can have or that will infringe on my rights to use my property as I see fit.”

Drummond did not totally exclude the use of regulations to fix development problems, but he did emphasize that “I’m against regulations simply for regulations sake.”

What’s important to you to address?

Drummond proposed a 9-percent property tax reduction. Macon County’s tax rate is currently the lowest in the state at 27.9 percent, it’s fund balance stands at 33 percent, more than double many counties.

Drummond said that millions would be returned to tax payers’ pockets under his plan, which would include holding the line on a 9-percent reduction until the fund balance stands at 25 percent.


Democratic primary for district 3 (Cowee to Nantahala): pick one

(The winner of that race will face Republican Paul Higdon in the general election.)

Bobby Kuppers, 58, Franklin High School teacher

How would you help the local economy?

The civics teacher emphasized three steps in his economic development ladder: keeping what’s there already by being an “entrepreneur-friendly community,” providing workforce training and ensuring there is adequate infrastructure.

“You can’t let your schools slip,” Kuppers said, adding that was equally true for the Macon County Airport facility and the recreation parks. Such things as good schools and recreation parks, Kuppers said, could prove “a big part of getting a company to come here.”

Where do you stand on land planning?

“I think there’s a misconception that there’s an equivalent between planning and regulations,” Kuppers said, adding that “tough economic times demand planning.”

Kuppers said that he believes the county needs to adhere to the Macon County Comprehensive Plan, a document commissioned in January 2009 that created a guide for policy decisions concerning the county’s growth.

He said going forward on proposals for governmental regulations on land planning people can expect to hear him ask, “How does that fit into the comprehensive plan?”

What’s important to you to address?

Kuppers said the challenge of coming out of a recession is that holding the line spending wise in Macon County has come at a cost.

“After awhile what you have is no longer what you need,” he said, referring to infrastructure as “the challenge” now facing the county.

“We’ve got to have a plan,” Kupper said, pointing out that computers in the schools, for instance, are now on a nine-year instead of five-year rotation.

Kuppers said the county’s recreation park, once Macon’s “crown jewel,” is showing impacts of reduced spending and attention.

“Our kids, grandkids, they only get one childhood.”


ick Snyder, 56, property manager

How would you help the local economy?

“I believe the county needs to explore every opportunity to make Macon County small-business friendly.”

Snyder indicated that he believes the county needs to consider making some financing available to companies that are looking to settle or expand in Macon County. Snyder emphasized that he’d want to see any such dollars extended tied directly to job creation.

Where do you stand on land planning?

Snyder, saying he wasn’t much of a talker, simply said that Macon County does need to review its existing ordinances to ensure they are not unduly burdensome.

“It’s making it hard on developers.”

What’s important to you to address?

Snyder briefly emphasized the importance of tourism.

“We need to make Macon County a destination, not a pass through.”

Snyder also said that he believes attention needs to be placed on providing affordable housing and affordable day care.


Republican primary for District one: pick one (Highlands)

The other candidate, Steve Higdon, did not participate in the forum or return a phone message seeking an interview.

(The primary winner wins the seat for keeps, as there is no Democratic challenger for this seat in the general election.)


Jimmy Tate, 40, landscape business owner

How would you help the local economy?

“I think we need to promote our county and be ready for (economic development) when it does get here. Promote, be ready and hold what we have.”

Tate said the table has been set in Macon County through work of the Economic Development Commission. He said that it is important that Macon County build and maintain excellent schools and keep a thriving medical community and hospital as incentives for new businesses.

“We need to outshine everybody else,” Tate said, adding that he, too, believes it’s important that the county keep property taxes low.

Where do you stand on land planning?

Tate has served as a member of both the Highlands planning board and on the Macon County Planning Board. He was recently appointed the liaison to the planning board for commissioners.

“As a county commissioner and as a resident, I will always be a good steward of this county,” he said, adding that he has also, as a small business owner, experienced burdensome government regulation before. “We need balance and commonsense regulations.”

What’s important to you to address?

Tate noted he’s “a rookie” at being a county commissioner. He said that if re-elected he has a simple goal of helping ensure government is efficient. Tate also wants to maintain good schools and ensure communities have adequate law enforcement protection.


Finnegans Wake took James Joyce 17 years to write, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel consumed four years of Michelangelo’s time and Beethoven needed about five years to complete his Fifth Symphony.

But artists participating in one of Waynesville’s most popular art events, Quick Draw, will get just an hour to create and complete their works of art.

Now in its 11th year, Quick Draw challenges regional artists to create a finished piece, ready for sale, in under one hour. Some 40 artists say they are up to the challenge, though it’s just the two-dimensional artists who are actually under the time gun. Metal, fiber and clay artists bring a pre-completed work to be auctioned off, in addition to  the timed works, at the end of Quick Draw to support arts education in Haywood County.

“Every year I say, ‘Never again,’” said oil painter Sarah Sneedon who travels to Waynesville to participate each year from the Caesars Head area in Upstate South Carolina. “It’s a lot of pressure. You sweat it, and you worry about it, and you try to plan down to the brush strokes and colors.”

Sneedon said she grew up in a family that was not artistic, one in which her father regarded those who were artists “as bums.” That background has made Sneedon all the more eager to support art education in the schools.

“I don’t have a lot of money to give, but I can torture myself once each year,” she said.

Some artists prepare for the competition racing the clock using kitchen timers. The practice — seeing how long their envisioned works will take them — can stave off the unfortunate problem of not quite being done when the bell goes off. That doesn’t always work, however. Real life can throw some real curves even at the most prepared of artists.

Last year, Sneedon remembered, she made the mistake of picking a technically challenging composition — two girls building a sand castle by the ocean.

“We got to five minutes to go and I didn’t have an arm on one of the girls,” she said, adding that she was forced to simply paint an arm in “fast.”

This year, Sneedon plans to paint sunflowers in the mountains. She’s yet to paint a trial run of the composition in the hour slotted for Quick Draw, but Sneedon expressed confidence that when the adrenaline kicks in she’d be able to complete the painting in the time required.

Artistic travails aside, QuickDraw has gotten so popular among area artists that the event — it’s not technically a competition — is now invitation only, said organizer Faye Wagoner.

“We have been blessed in that now we have such a following among artists and attendees we have more artists who are interested than who can actually participate,” Wagoner said.

This is the only event of its kind in the region, Wagoner said. There is a Quick Draw in the Highlands area, but that one allows artists a three-hour window instead of just 60 minutes.

Wagoner described Quick Draw in Waynesville as “an exhilarating evening. It’s just a terrific evening of fun.”

Some artists, like watercolorist Ann Vasilick, enjoys the challenge and competition of working beside other artists. She has selected a landscape in the Waynesville area to paint, which is out of this well-known artist’s bailiwick. Vasilick’s is best known for her buildings and street scenes, including those of Waynesville, and they are considered highly collectible.

She said she drove around the town until finding the particular view that attracted her, used photographic elements and did thumbnail sketches on the spot. Vasilick then returned to the studio to render a full-sized sketch of the painting. When this artist is unable to sleep, she would mentally paint the scene dozens of times.

Vasilick might be painting a landscape that is a little different than her best-known works but she plans on using the techniques that got her to the party: the meticulous and loving use of light and dark, volume and texture.

“I’ll use all the same elements I always use,” Vasilick said.

Complicating the task for Vasilick is the medium, watercolors, that she works in. She must be aware of the wetness of the painting and the necessity for it to dry within the required time. Many artists have blow-driers at the ready to hasten the process.

Oil artist Joyce Schlapkohl of Waynesville is looking forward to the competition with, perhaps, a bit of dread, too.

“I love it,” Schlapkohl said. “It’s stressful but exciting. When it’s over, it is nice.”

Schlapkohl, who has participated every year in Quick Draw, said she keeps trying to prepare a bit more each time.

“That hour really zips by,” she said in explanation, adding that she no longer says “hello” to spectators or friends milling past during the event. “I just try to stay focused.”

Schlapkohl said she believes all the artists involved are painting increasingly difficult paintings for Quick Draw. When the event started, she said, it was so new and unfamiliar everyone simply ensured they had a composition that could be completed within the required hour.

Schlapkohl’s technique is to break her anticipated painting down to basics.

“And I try to pick something I’m familiar with and that I feel that I can do in an hour,” she said.

Schlapkohl said she’s had people tell her before they actually enjoy her Quick Draw paintings more than her standard work, because it’s fresher. The artist also believes there is a value, beyond the important goal of supporting arts education, to the competition: “Anytime you push yourself as an artist that’s probably useful,” Schlapkohl said.


Art comes to life at annual Quick Draw in the Mountains

WHEN: 4:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 28  

WHERE: Laurel Ridge Country Club, 788 Eagle Nest Rd., Waynesville

HOW MUCH: $50 in advance

MORE INFO: www.wncquickdraw.com


Just in time for its 30th anniversary, the Western North Carolina Alliance one of the region’s most august environmental organizations is promising to reassert itself as a highly visible and prominent force in communities outside of Asheville.

To help fulfill that promise of renewed commitment the WNC Alliance will re-staff its offices in Franklin and Boone. In recent years the group has relied almost solely on volunteers to serve as its visible presence west and north of its Asheville headquarters. This is not to say WNC Alliance hasn’t been present at all in these communities; just less so than in the group’s glory days in the 1980s and 1990s.

WNC Alliance’s beginnings, in fact, are rooted in Macon County. The environmental group was the brainchild of Esther Cunningham, a Franklin resident who became incensed at the proposition that companies might be allowed to mine the national forests for oil and gas.

“She wrote letters, she organized, she spoke at hearings, she learned Forest Service appeal procedure,” said Bill Crawford of Macon County, who was one of the group’s earliest members.


An issue-driven organization

Out of Cunningham’s efforts the WNC Alliance began in 1982. Crawford said the idea of mining the national forests for oil and gas waned after companies realized that even if there were deposits here it would be too expensive and labor intensive to extract them.

“That issue didn’t really last much more than a year or so,” Crawford said.

The group, however, was born from those efforts. WNC Alliance went on from those beginnings to help defeat a proposed nuclear waste site in Buncombe County in 1984.

It then started a campaign to stop clear cutting in the national forests. That issue caught the hearts and imagination of a large segment of people in the mountains and helped raised the profile of the environmental group.

“People were really passionate about the clear cutting,” said longtime member Cynthia Strain of Highlands, who has been involved with WNC Alliance for 25 years.

Strain, who served for five years on the group’s steering committee, remembers standing in front of the Highlands post office asking people to sign petitions against clear cutting.

“People just couldn’t sign fast enough,” she said, remembering the group collected 16,000 signatures or so regionwide. The group assembled the names onto a scroll of sorts, Strain said, and made a big show of unrolling them out for display.

While WNC Alliance has a long-history as a watchdog over the US. Forest Service — from the early days fighting clear cutting and mining to its current role monitoring logging that still goes on, albeit on a more limited scale, to make sure sensitive areas are protected — the U.S. Forest Service described the WNC Alliance as “among the Forest Service’s many valued partners” in Western North Carolina.

“The U.S. Forest Service has worked closely with the organization for many years and appreciates its work,” Forest Service spokesman Stevin Westcott said. “We congratulate the WNC Alliance on their anniversary, and we look forward to many more years of collaboration.”

Strain said the seemingly lowered visibility of WNC Alliance these days is, in large part, because there simply hasn’t been an issue such as clear cutting that has captured the public’s imagination.

Mapping old growth forests, for instance, while important and interesting “is not the kind of thing that galvanizes a region,” Strain said.

The discovery of previously undocumented stands of old growth forest thanks to the mapping project in turn gave environmental groups ammunition to lobby the forest service to make those places off limits to logging — a protection that otherwise would not have been afforded these last stands of old growth simply because they weren’t on the radar.

Along with the lack of a headline-grabbing issue, WNC Alliance seemed to lose prominence at the same time Western North Carolina gave rise to a growing number of environmental groups. While WNC Alliance remains one of the big player, it is not the only player by any means. These days, there are environmental advocacy groups of every flavor — from air quality to water quality to land conservation to forest protection.

Meanwhile, when the group moved its headquarters to Buncombe County, some of its force in the region seemed to dissipate accordingly.

“There’s been a tension between the large urban area and the outlying communities,” Crawford said. He added, however, that he also believes “Asheville has a large group of well-meaning activists who do a lot of good work.”

Crawford said he’s optimistic that much of the organization’s strength will return with the re-staffing of outlying offices.


Becoming a force again

That’s what Julie Mayfield, the executive director of WNC Alliance, also believes.

“We have an organization vision for where we want to go,” Mayfield said. “That’s to become a powerful force throughout the region in a way that we are not right now.”

Crawford attributed part of the pullback from the region to economics. And, in fact, when Mayfield took over a few years back the group had only a few months of money left to survive on.

“We went into the year thinking we were not going to make it,” she said.

Under Mayfield and the board’s leadership, however, the group not only survived it thrived: since then, WNC Alliance has doubled to 10 the number of full- and part-time staffers. The group’s operating budget has doubled as well. Mayfield attributed the success to solid planning and to rebuilding credible relationships by “doing what you say you will do.”

The group also has continued its work in the rural areas. WNC Alliance formed chapters in both Haywood and Jackson with the principle missions of encouraging residents pushing for steep slope regulations and development ordinance

Also WNC Alliance still conducts public-land advocacy in the national forests and serve as watchdogs of logging.

Mayfield is a big believer in maintaining a razor-like focus, and WNC Alliance works within three main platforms: forest advocacy, water and land use.

“We got very serious about our objectives,” the lawyer-by-training said.

One point that Mayfield took pains to make: work by the WNC Alliance in the outlying areas has not stopped. It’s just less visible than it once was. The alliance still works with the forest service on timber sales across the region.

“People don’t necessarily see that work,” Mayfield said.

These days, staff members handle most of the timber-sale negotiating and work. And over the years, much of the environmental group’s work has in fact transitioned from volunteers to paid employees.

“We’ve moved from volunteer driven to staff driven,” Mayfield said. “But we do have to have local people on the ground.”

In addition to adding staff to the two field offices, Mayfield said WNC Alliance has added a part-time position in communications and plans to move toward permanent staff for its land-use program.


High-water marks

• 1982: Formed to fight companies wanting to drill for oil and gas on national forest service lands.

• 1984: Helped defeat proposed nuclear waste dump in Buncombe County.

• 1984 or so: Launched campaign to stop clear cutting in the national forests.

• 1989: Helped develop successful rural recycling programs in Macon, Madison, Jackson and Yancey counties.

• 1990: Led a four-year campaign to stop the city of Asheville from clear cutting in the Asheville Watershed. The city later placed a conservation easement over 17,356 acres of the watershed.

• 1990: Fought the construction of Interstate 26 through the mountains and helped to create a new state-wide transportation reform group, the North Carolina Alliance for Transportation Reform, that still exists.

• 1994: Claimed victory in its decade-long campaign to stop clear cutting in the national forests when the forest service eliminated clear cutting as a management tool and reduced overall logging levels.

• 1995: Defeated efforts to prospect for copper in the national forests.

• 1996: Worked to expose the devastating impacts of chip mills on forests, leading North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt to initiate a three-year study of the issue.

• 1997: Helped defeat a U.S. Forest Service proposal to build eight miles of roads and sell 480 acres of timber on Bluff Mountain in Madison County.

• 1998: Campaigned to establish the Jocassee Gorges Park in Transylvania County.

• 2001: Launched the first annual Southern Environmental and Energy Expo.

• 2001: Helped form Citizens for the Preservation of Needmore to protect the Needmore Tract in the Little Tennessee River watershed.

• 2001: Organized local citizens to fight construction of the North Shore Road in Swain County into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

• 2002: Led a successful campaign in the North Carolina legislature to pass the Clean Smokestacks Act.

• 2002: Conducted a landmark, systematic survey to discover previously-undocumented old growth on national forest lands to protect the stands from logging.

• 2002: Helped develop Land for Tomorrow, a statewide land conservation funding initiative.

• 2003: Helped establish the Buncombe County land conservation program.

• 2004: Again successfully led citizen opposition to city council’s proposals to log in the Asheville Watershed.

• 2004: Initiated a program to protect native plants from non-native invasive species, with particular attention to the hemlock wooly adelgid.

• 2009: Secured a federal stimulus money contract to put 12 people, including 10 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to work on a five-year project to control invasive plants along nine miles of the Cheoah River.

• 2009: Launched Blue Ridge Blueprints, a community visioning and land planning program.

‘Renewing Our Roots’ WNC Alliance gathering

The Western North Carolina Alliance will hold a spring gathering April 14 to honor and celebrate the group’s founding in Macon County.

A wildflower hike, birding outing and canoe trip on the Little Tennessee River will be held during the day. A celebration from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. will include a barbecue dinner and live music at the Memorial United Methodist Church where the group’s founder, Esther Cunningham, was a member. There will be a presentation by Mars Hill history professor Kathy Newfont, author of Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina. The book features photos and a few chapters on the alliance’s founding and advocacy in its early days in Macon County.

RSVP to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 828.258.8737.


I heard a distinctive gobble gobble gobble one recent evening through the open windows and French doors of the cabin I call home. Down below the cabin is a large field. Peering through the trees that intervene I could just make out the unmistakable large round black shapes of a posse of turkeys. For a few minutes I thrilled to the sight and sound before returning to the mundane reality of sweeping the floor.

I see and hear a lot of wildlife here at the cabin. It is picturesquely situated in a stand of woods just outside of Sylva, down a ridgeline and neatly dovetailed into the side of a mountain. Not far from here is busy N.C. 107; there is a high school and an elementary school just down the road a mere hop, skip and a jump away. None of that human activity, however, prevents creatures of a wilder sort from living or from visiting for a time or simply passing by. It is a good reminder that there is more going on in this world than just my affairs. Seeing this wild menagerie jars me awake, for a short time at least, out of my human narcissism. Animals have their matters to attend to as well as we do; we momentarily share space in these moments that our lives intersect.

I’ve seen a fox on several occasions. The last time, a few weeks back, the sighting took place early one afternoon. The fox strolled past the cabin windows unfazed by my presence. I’m certain he was aware I was watching him by the furtive looks he threw in my direction.

At night I often hear coyotes raising hell with their distinctive high-pitched yipping. This sets all the dogs in the valleys far and wide to barking and baying, including the three who live here on the same mountain that I do. I acknowledge that I’m probably guilty of anthropomorphism, but I can’t help but suspect the coyotes of deliberate rabblerousing and delighting in taunting and calling out the neighborhood dogs. They yip until the dogs are absolutely hysterical in their anxiety. Then the coyotes slip away leaving the dogs to bark unhappily for several more hours while I lie there awake forced to listen.

Despite the presence of the fox and the coyotes there is a booming population of rabbits on the mountain. At night returning from work assignments or meetings I’ll freeze three or four in my car’s headlight beams at different points on my way up the long gravel drive. I am clearly interrupting important rabbit business and rabbit comings and goings with my driving by.

Most present in my life, however, is a colony of flying squirrels that co-habit the cabin. They are nocturnal creatures and their scrabbling in and out of some cranny above the roof distracts me at night as I read. Their entrance into the house’s siding is somewhere just a few feet from where my head rests on pillows. The sounds drive my cats to distraction and the two younger ones invariable rush to the window to try and see what is making such tantalizing scrabbling noises outside. This creates a traffic jam in the vicinity of my head and my book, prompting in response much cursing and fussing and pushing about of cats. I’ve used a flashlight before to try and see the squirrels, the cats quivering avidly by my side like two feline birddogs in point, but to no avail. I’ve yet to catch more than a glimpse of these resident flying squirrels.

I remember some years ago in another house and another life that bats decided to make a home behind the chimney. That was kind of neat except that, on occasion, one would slither somehow into the house through small cracks in the siding and paneling. That was cause for much alarm and panic. I learned the best way to handle bats was to scoop them up and carry them out of the house using a wide-mouthed canning jar, a tip I share with those of you currently co-residing with a bevy of bats.

In the same house my now geriatric 18-year-old or so cat, then a dapper young tom in his prime, would bring live prey inside via the cat door. Baby rabbits, birds, small snakes, all were hunted down by me and removed back outside on a regular basis. I was reminded of this recently when I returned home to find a foot-long snake inside the cabin. I’m rather impressed that one of the two younger cats brought in such a large specimen. They were frantic with chasing the poor creature around the small cabin by the time I got there, and I think everyone involved was relieved when I managed to scoot it back outdoors, not the least me.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


With its obvious Cuban influences — the combination of guava and cream cheese, or even mango and cream cheese  — Mindy’s Bakery in Sylva is clearly not your typical mountain bakery.

But that’s not all that sets this small bakery apart: the five family members directly involved have graduated from or are currently enrolled at Western Carolina University. This family, who lives in Waynesville, is literally working its way through school one pastry at a time.

Raul and Mindy Guillama are the patriarch and matriarch of this family. They have three sons, Raul, Andre and Sebastian, who jumpstarted the family’s WCU train.

Andre and Sebastian have both graduated from WCU with degrees in construction management and finance, respectively. Young Raul is getting a degree in marketing, his father is getting an accounting degree and his mother is getting one in psychology.

“The three of us were going, and they said ‘we have a lot of free time so we might as well go to school, too,’” young Raul said.

“And accounting is something you can use in any business,” his father added. “I can do my own accounting and taxes.”

Seventy-year-old Raul is an engineer by training.

“I’m doing my share of contributing to the social security working force,” Raul said, only partly in jest.

Mindy, 50, the mother, explained that both she and her husband were born in Cuba. She came to America on the first Freedom Flight from Cuba to Miami that brought exiles to this country. Her husband was already in America as a young student when Fidel Castro took over. His family joined him in the U.S. in flight from the ensuing oppression.

“He has a brother-in-law whose father was killed in his arms,” Mindy said. “We are a family that came to this country because we had to — it was either communism or freedom.”

That said, the family loves America and what it has given them in return, Mindy said. The Guillama family ended up in Western North Carolina about eight years ago following years of vacationing in this region.

These days, they live together, work together and go to school together.

Husband and wife are taking a psychology class together. Raul the older and Raul the younger are in calculus together. They both said that each is doing equally well, and they choose to sit side by side in the class.

Baking is in the family blood. Their daughter, Mindy, who lives in New York, is also a baker and worked with them in the past.

Mindy’s Bakery specializes in wedding and special occasion cakes, as well as tropical desserts such as flan, coconut cakes, and the Cuban “pastelito” pastries.

“I got the éclairs and took them to work one day and everybody just loved them,” said customer Diane Winstead who was at the bakery one morning this week picking up another order of éclairs for an office party. “It just all looks so fresh.”


If you believe in polls then North Carolina voters are likely to pass a constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages. But, opponents to such an amendment haven’t given up the fight yet and in fact cite other polls showing exact opposite outcomes.

A decision about whether to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriages will be decided in the May 8 primary.

Fifty-eight percent of likely voters support such an amendment to the state constitution, according to a SurveyUSA poll released late last month. The poll was commissioned by WRAL News and interviewed 1,001 North Carolinians. It found that 36 percent of respondents opposed the law while 6 percent were undecided. Civitas, a conservative North Carolina-based group, says its polls consistently show that more than six out of 10 North Carolina voters say they support a constitutional amendment that establishes marriage between one man and woman as the only recognized domestic legal union in the state.

Those findings run counter, however, to numbers reported in a survey conducted by Elon University earlier this month, which found that 54 percent of North Carolinians opposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.

Coming into the homestretch voters can expect more polls attempting to gauge public sentiment, and also to see the issue come sharply into focus: should North Carolina, the lone Southern state without such a constitutional prohibition, join its neighbors in a mandated ban?


Who defines a union?

Supporters argue that passing an amendment is critical: that by embedding the language into the constitution, North Carolina would be able to successfully block future court decisions that might otherwise allow gays and lesbians to marry. And that’s indeed a needed protection, according to many conservatives who fear extending such legal rights outside the strictures of the traditional man and woman configuration.

“The large majority of North Carolinians believes and stands behind marriage as the union of a man and a woman,” said Bill Brooks of the N.C. Family Policy Council, a group working to pass the constitutional amendment. “The strategy is to put that in the constitution and put it out of reach of the courts — it’s a simple idea to a simple problem.”

But, things aren’t so simple. The amendment would also ban civil unions between same-sex couples and domestic partnerships between couples of the opposite sex in addition to same-sex marriages.

A poll by Public Policy Polling revealed, on the face of it, similar numbers to what the conservative groups are polling: the amendment would pass with 58 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed. But when people realized civil unions would be banned, that support plummeted to 41 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed, with the amendment narrowly being defeated.

“These trends evidence what we see on the ground,” said Liz MacNeil, WNC regional field director for the Coalition to Protect All N.C. Families. “Once North Carolinians understand the harms of Amendment One, including those in Western North Carolina, opposition grows by the day.”


North Carolina stands out in South

Ralph Slaughter, head of the Jackson County Republican Party, supports a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions.

“We are the only one of 15 states that does not have this amendment in its state constitution and we need to have it,” Slaughter said.

Missouri in 2004 became the first U.S. state to pass a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. This took place on the heels of the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that its constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. Louisiana became the first Southern state to impose a constitutional ban, followed by Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas and more. By 2008, all Southern states except North Carolina had such an amendment.

Slaughter said the N.C. Family Policy Council now has leaders in each county, including Jackson, and that the conservative churches are being encouraged to speak out on the issue.

“Though some of the churches have said it is just too political and won’t take signs” to put out supporting the amendment, Slaughter said.

Kirk Callahan, a conservative in Haywood County, said North Carolina voters are facing an array of issues on the May primary, a fact that could prove confusing to those heading to the polls: there are contested races for the 11th Congressional District, the N.C. House 118th District on the GOP side, plus statewide contested primaries for governor and lieutenant governor.  Nationally, there is a GOP presidential primary.

“All of this presents a full plate for North Carolina voters,” Callahan wrote in an email. “Much evidence suggests that North Carolina is a center-right state, so I think it is safe to assume that voters are concerned about the subject of Amendment One. However, I would not be surprised if many people do not realize it will be on the primary ballot rather than on the General Election ballot. Furthermore, the fact that gay marriage would not be legal in the state even if the amendment fails may lessen some people’s concern.”


In the trenches

On the campaign trail, the issue hasn’t been front and center.

“Very seldom do I ever hear about it,” said former state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, who is challenging Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, for his old seat representing the 50th District. Davis said the same thing. Snow was a co-sponsor to an identical proposal banning same-sex marriages during his term in office.

Snow, a retired Superior Court judge, said he supports this Republican-generated amendment even thought state law currently bans such marriages anyway.

“There’s a larger statement to be made about it by making it a constitutional amendment,” Snow said, adding that then North Carolina would “speak definitely.”

Davis actually campaigned the first go-around when he defeated Snow on establishing just such an amendment.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, said while passing the amendment is obviously the decision of voters, a federal court decision to the contrary will trump the state constitution or state statute anyway.

“The supporters of this have invited so much attention to the issue I believe they will end up with a federal challenge,” Rapp said. “They may just come out on the short end of the stick because this almost ensures a federal challenge, and (the amendment if passed) could be thrown out.”

Mark Meadows, a Cashiers Republican who’s vying to represent the 11th Congressional District, for his part said he believes voters are truly galvanized by the issue.

“We’ve knocked on a little more than 9,000 doors, and we have talked about the amendment,” Meadows said. “Two-thirds of the people are strongly supporting it.”

Meadows noted that the results could be skewed some in that he’s targeting doors are Republicans, but the rough poll does include unaffiliated voters and some Democrats, he said.

Additionally, Meadows said, rallies on the issue have brought voters out in force. One recently held in Burke County resulted in 160 people showing up to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions.


What the amendment will mean

The wording of the proposed amendment appears simple, but the devil is in the details.

It reads: vote “for” or “against” a “constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in the state.”

Backers portray the constitutional amendment as a method of blocking any federal court rulings that could pave the way for same-sex marriages in North Carolina.

Meanwhile, opponents say the amendment’s language goes far beyond that and would not only keep the existing ban on gay marriages but also eradicate existing and future legal domestic partnerships between gay and straight couples.

Opponents also say a constitutional amendment isn’t needed if the sole intention is to ban same-sex marriages. That’s because current North Carolina law, enacted in 1996, says that marriage between individuals of the same sex is not valid in North Carolina. This amendment, however, would make that concept part of the North Carolina Constitution.

There is one truly unbiased reviewer of the amendment’s impact, the state’s Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission, which approved language for an official explanation of the proposed amendment earlier this year.

Here is the official explanation adopted by the commission: “If this amendment is passed by the voters, then under state law it can only be changed by another vote of the people.

The term “domestic legal union” used in the amendment is not defined in North Carolina law. There is debate among legal experts about how this proposed constitutional amendment may impact North Carolina law as it relates to unmarried couples of same or opposite sex and same sex couples legally married in another state, particularly in regard to employment-related benefits for domestic partners; domestic violence laws; child custody and visitation rights; and end-of-life arrangements. The courts will ultimately make those decisions.

The amendment also says that private parties may still enter into contracts creating rights enforceable against each other. This means that unmarried persons, businesses and other private parties may be able to enter into agreements establishing personal rights, responsibilities, or benefits as to each other. The courts will decide the extent to which such contracts can be enforced.”


A task force studying whether Jackson County should revamp its approach to luring tourists began laying the groundwork last week to merge its two separate tourism agencies into one.

In coming months, the task force will wrestle with the best make-up and structure for a single countywide tourism development authority, which will control roughly $440,000 generated by a 3-percent tax on overnight lodging.

Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources and is less effective.

Clifford Meads, manager of High Hampton Inn in Cashiers, suggested a makeup for the new entity that guarantees Cashiers a nearly equal number of seats on the board.

Meads tendered a proposal calling for an 11-member board, with five seats designated for tourism representatives from the Cashiers area. Specifically, he suggested six representatives from lodging businesses, three of which would hail from Cashiers; one tourism-related business representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; one chamber of commerce representative from Cashiers and one from Sylva; plus a county commissioner designee. A chair would be selected from within the group.

The proposal received nods of general agreement from other task force members, though the exact makeup is clearly a long way from being decided.

Robert Jumper, manager of Travel and Tourism for Cherokee and chairman of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, emphasized that he believes it critically important that the chamber directors be on the future tourism development authority board, too. They currently serve on the Cashiers and Jackson County boards that are in existence.

“From my perspective, I saw a huge value in having the executive directors there to give us the staff perspective,” Jumper said. “In some capacity there needs to be that input.”

For now, Jackson County most likely will temporarily merge its two tourism agencies into one. There is a sense of urgency following revelations that Jackson County is out of compliance with a state law mandating that a single entity oversee room tax expenditures. Moving forward with a temporary merger for now will give county leaders until next year to hammer out the specific makeup of a permanent, future tourism development authority for the county, County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said.

While a task force comprised primarily of lodging owners has been appointed to make recommendations, county commissioners ultimately have the final say. A vote on combining the two tourism boards into an interim tourism development authority is likely to take place at the county commissioners’ meeting Monday.

Attorney Jay Coward said, like Debnam, he believed that the county needed to come into compliance with state law quickly and continue hammering out actual details about the new board.

“I think what y’all are doing is exactly what you ought to be doing,” he assured task force members in their discussions at last week’s meeting.


Look to the east?

Having to balance competing geographic interests isn’t unique to Jackson County. Haywood County, for example, had an ongoing tug of war over tourism dollars between Waynesville and Maggie Valley for years. To resolve these differences, the tourism board there was expanded from nine to 12 members about four years ago.

The board is representative of various geographic areas in the county.

Additionally, a portion of tourism tax dollars are earmarked to individual communities to spend as they see fit, yet another effort aimed at ending the tug of war and turf battles over the room tax money. Of the county’s 4 percent room tax, 1 percent is earmarked for special tourism initiatives in the different geographic areas of the county.

The special pot of money is divvied up among the county’s five “zip code” communities based on where it was collected, said Lynn Collins, executive director of the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. The TDA collects and administers the money, but each community has a subcommittee that accepts and review applications for dollars. The subcommittees make recommendations to the full TDA, which pretty much rubberstamps them, Collins said

“It seems to be working well,” she said, adding that the communities have “flexibility” to spend on things they feel are important and can pinpoint “what’s most needed as is related to tourism. It’s kind of like a grant program,” Collins said in explanation.

Meads said he believes the mandate for a single tourism development authority could be a good thing for Jackson County because “it forces us to come to agreement” on various tourism-related issues.

“We can craft something for ourselves” and not be “pigeon-holed” with another county’s format, Meads added.

As in Haywood County, composition of the new board in Jackson County will be key.


How we got here from there

Jackson County for months has been struggling to sort out how best to spend its room tax dollars, and how to best balance competing geographic interests in the county.

Jackson County currently has one tourism agency representing the Cashiers area and one tourism agency representing Jackson County as a whole. The members oversee the annual 3 percent room tax money collected from the lodging industry. The amount isn’t small potatoes: each year about $440,000 is collected, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion.

Seventy-five percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area currently goes back to that community’s tourism group to spend on its own marketing. Supporters of that concept have argued Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with control of its own dollars — to cater to its own unique tourism needs. Opponents have argued that having two groups is a waste of money and resources.

Whether to merge the county’s two tourism groups into a single countywide entity has been a source of ongoing controversy since last year. The debate essentially ended earlier this month, however, when the county discovered that its current structure doesn’t comply with state law.

The county, by seeking an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year from the General Assembly, triggered the mandate to form a single tourism development authority. The state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase as Jackson did.


Two months after the domestic violence agency REACH of Jackson County abruptly shut its doors in February, services to domestic violence victims continue to be handled by nonprofits in neighboring counties.

Jackson County commissioners would like to see a local entity fill that void and are likely to begin reviewing their options soon, with a discussion of the issue slated for a county meeting next week.

REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors shut down the agency in February amid questions of financial solvency and internal financial irregularities. REACH failed to remit payroll taxes for three quarters in 2011 to the Internal Revenue Services. Additionally, the organization was hemorrhaging financially. The board of directors fired the agency’s executive director and finance officer, and the seven remaining employees were laidoff.

Commissioner Doug Cody said that he believes Jackson County must move toward having its own agency in place to combat domestic violence and help victims.

“I think we do need a local entity that does what REACH did for us,” Cody said. “Macon County is taking up the slack right now. It’s unfortunate things worked out the way they did.”

Commissioner Mark Jones echoed Cody, calling the demise of REACH a “great disappointment,” and said that he, too, wants something in place soon on a local level.

“I think it is very important,” Jones said. “Our population is too large not to have a facility for servicing victims in immediate need.”

Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said the situation with REACH serves as a warning to people who serve on volunteer boards that they need to be cognizant of what’s happening with the respective agencies. That said, he’s looking toward another agency in Jackson County, too, to help victims of domestic violence.

“I’d like to see REACH back in Jackson County,” Debnam said. “Eventually we’re going to have to set something up. I think it needs a little different structure than last time.”

All calls are currently being handled by REACH of Macon County, which has been provided office space in the Jackson County Department of Social Services building. Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County, said there has been a continuity of services. The group is even offering life-skills classes and programming in Jackson County.

“It’s going to take some time for Jackson County (to decide what to do),” she said. “It’s up to the community to see how they want the work to go forward.”

VanHarlingen said starting a new agency up takes 18 months to two years on average, according to state statistics.

State grant funding previously earmarked for REACH of Jackson County has now been made available to REACH of Macon County, said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. Since that agency is now providing the services to domestic violence victims, they can receive the funding previously allocated to REACH of Jackson, Wooten explained.

The root of the financial problems for REACH of Jackson County date to 2001 when REACH opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. The complex was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village could not actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

The REACH village went into foreclosure. Recently control of that housing complex shifted to Mountain Projects, a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties.


Facing a dire state budget outlook and a loss of one-time federal stimulus dollars, Macon County School’s leaders came hat in hand this week asking county commissioners for money.

The school system wants a budget increase of more $1.15 million from the county — both to offset cuts at the state and federal level and to make up for a maintenance backlog brought on by funding cuts in previous years.

The school system is seeking $6.9 million for fiscal year 2012-2013 — up from $6.7 million this fiscal year — plus $1.2 million in capital outlay funding to take care of building maintenance needs. The schools received $250,000 in capital outlay this year.

Macon County commissioners are now working through their own budget process and made no promises one way or another during the work session. County Chairman Kevin Corbin did emphasize that hard times made for hard budget choices, but the former longtime school board chairman also expressed the desire to financially support the schools.

“We’re committed to education,” Corbin said.

Macon County does not plan on instituting a property tax increase this year.

Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman forecast an expected $1.4 million cut in state funding. That amount could be offset, however, in the unlikely event that a Gov. Beverly Perdue proposed three-quarter cent sales tax increase passes the General Assembly, Brigman said. Revenue from the tax increase would be dedicated to schools. Macon County also has completely used up $1 million in federal stimulus money in a two-year allocation that was dedicated to school salaries.

“That money was a temporary patch,” Brigman said.

Macon County Schools since 2008 has eliminated through attrition 22.5 jobs, including a principal’s position, 6.5 teachers and 15 teacher assistants.

“The classrooms have been impacted,” Brigman told commissioners.

The biggest discussion point involved money for technology. Macon County Schools has fallen so far behind on replacing computers it’s now on a nine-year rotation schedule, which in the fast-moving world of technology renders the equipment virtually obsolete. Brigman requested $489,000 this upcoming budget year.

This, schools technology leader Tim Burrell said, would put Macon County Schools on a five-year rotation for equipment. It would then require $389,000 annually to keep the schools on that rotation.

School leaders said it would actually take more, $1.2 million, to completely catchup Macon Schools regarding current equipment replacement.

“So that would get you to the starting line,” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said of the $1.2 million, which is not contained in the actual request for fiscal year 2012-2013.

Kuppers is a teacher at Franklin High School.

One looming issue for Macon County Schools is that starting in 2013 students will be state-required to take and pass online assessments. Burrell said there are not enough computers available at this point for that to take place.

Commissioners asked for a breakdown on exactly what equipment is needed to bring the current system up to snuff plus prepare the schools for conducting online assessments of students.


The state is forcing Jackson County’s hand when it comes to forming a single entity to oversee how tourism tax dollars are spent.

Jackson County has two tourism agencies — one representing the Cashiers area and one for Jackson County as a whole — that oversee room tax money collected by the lodging industry. Whether to merge the two into a single countywide entity has been a source of controversy since last year, prompting the formation of a task force to study the issue.

That may be for naught, however, since the county recently learned its current structure is out of compliance with state law.

It seems the county inadvertently triggered the mandate when it sought an increase in its room tax rate from 3 to 6 percent last year. Doing so required a special bill in the General Assembly. That same bill also required Jackson County to form a single tourism development authority.

While the county has held off on enacting the room tax hike, the county nonetheless was obliged to follow through on changing the structure of its tourism boards, according to County Attorney Jay Coward.

Cashiers tourism leaders have resisted attempts to do away with their separate tourism arm, which gets 75 percent of the room tax generated in the Cashiers area to spend on its own marketing. They argue that Cashiers needs its own tourism agency — with its own funding stream — to cater to its own unique visitor demographic apart from the county as a whole.

Those who supported a merger believe it would be more effective, eliminating the duplication and competition that currently exists between the two entities and putting the money to wiser use under a single tourism strategy.

It would seem the argument is now moot.

County Commissioner Mark Jones, who represents the Cashiers area and voted against the original proposal, said he does not believe the community will resist a unified Tourism Development Authority after all.

“But it’s going to depend on what the state recommends and what the makeup would be,” Jones said. “(There must be) a fair representation from all over the county.”

A county-appointed advisory group made up primarily of lodging owners has been meeting every two weeks to discuss this very issue. Jones said they are within two meetings or so of returning to commissioners with recommendations about the formation of a new group.

“There’s no template,” Jones said about statewide tourism efforts. “We thought we’d find something out there to serve as a good template to guide us, but it’s not out there.”

Instead, Jones said, each county in North Carolina more or less creates how to best manage tourism-generated tax dollars.

That is precisely why the legislation triggered the formation of a new unified tourism board: the state has sought uniformity in how tourism boards operate, a requirement that is imposed whenever counties come to the state seeking a tax increase.

“I hope you don’t mind some friendly constructive criticism of the bill,” Coward wrote Trina Griffin this week, a staff attorney for the N.C. General Assembly. “I understand that the plan is to legislate on a case-by-case basis a consistent statewide system of tourism promotion. The obvious suggestion for a change to save other counties and towns from being confused by future bills would be to pass one statewide law.”

Coward, as of late Tuesday, had not received a reply from the state.

David Huskins, who heads a consulting group that is helping Jackson County develop an economic development plan and who’s worked with them on this issue, said there’s no question Jackson County must put a single tourism development authority in place.

Huskins said Asheville and Buncombe County were the first in the state to seek occupancy tax legislation from the state. By the mid 1980s, the trend of enacting a room tax had pushed into the western end of North Carolina. But oversight in some cases was loose because of the varying structures of different tourism boards overseeing the money that was raised.

“Over the years, some of the local governments were diverting funds outside of tourism – the tax was originally conceived for tourism promotion and marketing. But, a lot of local governments were saying if they needed a new ambulance, well tourists get hurt, too, and we have to provide services for them,” Huskins said.

That interpretation diluted the intent of the room tax — namely to provide a stream of revenue to further tourism — and created such an outcry from the tourism industry, the General Assembly by the mid 1990s moved to set up uniform guidelines.

“If you want an increase, you come under the new guidelines,” Huskins said flatly.

Commissioners did not decide on when exactly to form their new tourism development authority. Chairman Jack Debnam indicated a required public hearing could be held as soon as the April 16 meeting. The advisory committee meets this Thursday. Coward is expected to detail more of his findings regarding the state legislation.


Historically, ballot measures on alcohol sales in Western North Carolina have been bitterly fought affairs, with pro and con forces battling it out publicly via billboards, church pulpits and through newspaper and radio advertising.

But, that’s not been the case in Jackson County, where voters go to the polls next month to decide on whether to allow countywide alcohol sales. If the referendum passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in Western North Carolina with countywide alcohol sales, joining Buncombe and Clay. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on the issue in May.

In Jackson County both sides — if there are actually two sides — look set to head to the polls next month with nary a shot fired for or against the important vote.

“I think it’s a reflection of a different era and a different time,” said the Rev. Rich Peoples of Grace Community Church in Sylva.

Peoples said he believes that “churches frankly are fairly conflicted” on the issue. Most in this day and age, the preacher said, opt to leave the decisions about whether to drink alcoholic beverages — in moderation — to individual church members. And, the same is true concerning decisions about whether to vote for alcohol sales countywide, too, Peoples said.


Clear majority?

The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

“My guess is that people want economic development and that people are concerned that it will help businesses thrive,” said Becky Kornegay, a Jackson County resident who works in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.

Like Peoples, Kornegay attributed the lack of obvious opposition to “it being just a different time — surely that battle already has been fought. You can buy beer now in Sylva.”

Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of Western Carolina University’s department of political science and public affairs, also pointed to the economy as one driving force for why there seems to be little to no public opposition.

“There may be concern about the positive economic impact” of a yes vote to the alcohol referendum, Knotts said, saying the lingering recession might have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.

Knotts also pointed to Clay County as a possible bellwether of change to WNC’s traditionally fierce no-alcohol stance. Clay is one of the region’s smallest and most rural counties. Residents there in 2009 voted to allow alcohol sales countywide.

There is a possible wildcard in the May primary: Amendment One is also on the ballot. Knotts said that could skew the vote one way or another, depending on which camp — pro-same sex marriages or against-same sex marriages — succeeds in galvanizing voters. That’s presuming, of course, that those in favor of same sex marriages would be more liberal and therefore would vote in favor of countywide alcohol sales.


Some worry

Not everybody is pointblank in favor of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson County, however. Cullowhee business owner Robin Lang said she has heard opposition and added that she has mixed feelings about voting “yes” herself. That’s because, Lang said, she’s concerned there’s no overseeing body such as a planning board in Cullowhee to shepherd in the commercial growth that likely would follow such a vote.

While Cullowhee is not an official town, as home to WCU and the large student population, it is already Jackson County’s largest and fastest-growing community. Cullowhee grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district.

Former Chancellor John Bardo floated a novel idea in 2010 to try to bring alcohol to the community. Bardo approached the tiny town of Forest Hills next door to WCU and suggested it legalize alcohol sales and then annex the university and its surrounds into its town limits — possibly opening the door for bar-like establishments that seem part and parcel of a vibrant college atmosphere. That idea has dissipated with Bardo’s retirement last July and with the very real prospect of countywide sales by referendum vote.

“There are people a little afraid of the alcohol vote,” Lang said, however, counting herself among that number. “There is a bigger picture. I was originally for it, but I’m more confused now about which way to vote.”

Whittier and the Gateway area of Jackson, which serves as an entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is the other community most likely to experience growth if alcohol sales are voted in countywide. Mark Rose, owner of GSM Thrift and Gift is all for the economic boost he believes alcohol sales would bring. His business is located between two service stations; Rose said customers looking for beer are turned away every day.

“People stop here for beer and we have to send them on back up the road to Sylva,” he said. “I tell them, go to Exit 81. That man at Exit 81 must be rich. All our tax dollars go there, and we need to try to keep them here. Everybody is struggling for money.”


Alcohol exceptions

While Jackson County is dry, alcohol sales have been permitted in Sylva in some form since 1967. Most recently, Sylva voters approved the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants in 2006, giving it the full compliment of beer, wine and liquor sales, whether in restaurants or to take home. Dillsboro has allowed the purchase beer and wine only in restaurants since 2005.

In Cashiers, numerous loopholes in the state ABC law allow several bars and clubs there to legally sell alcoholic beverages in ostensibly “dry” Jackson County, either by qualifying as a “members-only” club or a sports club if its has an on-site golf course or tennis courts.


Franklin’s planned motorcycle rally hit a major roadblock this week when town leaders balked at shutting down a portion of Main Street for up to four days at the height of the tourist season.

The rally had been lauded by town leaders and tourism players for its potential economic boost, but organizers of the rally now want a larger section of Main Street closed and for more days than initially thought. The rally is scheduled for Aug. 17 to 19.

Promoter Scott Cochran appeared at a town meeting this week and asked the town to shutdown Main Street from Riverview to Harrison Avenue from the night of Thursday, Aug. 16, through Sunday, Aug. 19. Plus he requested the option of shutting down even more of the main thoroughfare if larger crowds dictated doing so.

Cochran has estimated up to 4,000 bikers could take part in the Smoky Mountain Rumble. Franklin’s population is 3,600. As the situation stands now, a bandstand is intended to be the focal point for rally entertainment and good times: It would be placed directly in front of a funeral home, prompting an additional tide of unhappy concerns and questions from town leaders.

Members of Franklin’s Tourism Development Authority, where the idea for a rally germinated, have talked up the event as a means of attracting dollars and visitors into downtown Franklin. The town’s tourism board awarded the rally a grant of nearly $15,000 to help promote the rally.

Town aldermen appeared reluctant to shut down Main Street for such a long stretch, however.

Additionally, Alderman Billy Mashburn flatly told Cochran that the discretion to close or not close more of Main Street would not be left to them, either, if he has his druthers.

“And I’m not willing to shutdown Main Street for this many days,” he added for good measure.

Alderman Bob Scott, who has been a vocal critic of what he’s characterized as a lack of planning regarding such a large rally, also protested such an extended shutdown. He then questioned why, in his view, the promoters had been so slow to come before the town board.

“This is not in the best interest in Franklin,” Scott said of the shutdown and the rally in general. “Why are you just now coming before this town board, right now, when this has the potential of disrupting this town for three days?”

Cochran apologized, talked of the constraints of running a small business, then acknowledged that he and his wife should have been on the agenda in January or so.

Planning for the rally has been underway for at least six months on the part of Franklin’s tourism agency.

Scott also raised questions about safety at the rally and about overtime costs for extra officers to police the event. Alderman Ferrell Jamison pointed out that if Main Street and side streets are shutdown to accommodate the bikers then town police would be out in force.

“These are one way streets and the city police would have to route traffic around,” Jamison said. “You’d have to have (officers) at every traffic light — that would be a nightmare.”

Jamison said that he wanted to see maps and a plan in place to handle emergency calls in the town in the event the streets are closed as requested.

Franklin lawyer Russell Bowling, who was in the audience at the town board meeting, also protested such an extended closing during the regular workweek. His office is located in the area being targeted for the rally.

The placement of the bandstand in front of the funeral home particularly concerned Mayor Joe Collins. The placement is desirable, according to the organizers, because then bikers could drink alcoholic beverages from the across-the-street Motor Company Grill. Collins said the odds were high that a visitation or a funeral would be taking place at least on one of those evenings. He did not seem reassured by the promoters’ promises to turn off the music and shut down the party while that possible event unfolded.

Alderman Sissy Pattillo defended the rally plans. She urged the board “to work together” for the good of Franklin to make the event successful.

“We’ll never know until we go through this one time,” Pattillo said. “If we go through this one time and it doesn’t work, that’s it.”  

Cochran was asked to return to the board again with more detailed plans. The promoter indicated he likely would scale down his request.

Scott publicly chastised his fellow town board members in an email sent following the meeting, basically saying he’d told them so — which, in fact, he had.

“For six or seven months I have been raising concerns about the biker rally and the operation of the Franklin TDA,” Scott wrote. “I have repeatedly brought these concerns to my fellow board members and the mayor and not a one of them has responded. Then, when it was obvious that the promoters of the Smoky Mountain Rumble and the TDA could not answer even basic questions about this rally … board members acted like they had never heard there might be problems.”


David Belcher, Western Carolina University’s 11th chancellor, warned a crowd of 200 on hand last week for the pomp and circumstance of his installment ceremony that the state of North Carolina must not dally in protecting its educational assets.

Other states are now raiding universities such as WCU and cherry picking the top faculty, staff and administration, he said. The assaults on the University of North Carolina system have been made easier because salary increases haven’t been given at some institutions, including WCU, in nearly four years.

WCU alone has experienced some $30 million in cumulative budget cuts during that same time period. This has resulted in few professors and larger classes than was once the case, and staff and administration have more duties because empty positions have been eliminated or gone unfilled.

“Some of our best and brightest, staff as well as faculty, are leaving Western and walking out of North Carolina,” Belcher said. “While hiring at the moment in this state is limited and our flexibility to retain talent virtually nonexistent, universities in other states are raiding us with abandon. It is not a pretty picture, and if North Carolina is serious about coming through this economic crisis with the competitive advantage to which it has grown accustomed, this situation must be addressed.”

The comments were made to a crowd that included many local and state politicians, plus UNC President Tom Ross and other members of the UNC system. Belcher, in a discussion with WCU’s Faculty Senate in the days leading up to his installment, promised to be “provocative” during the speech and to use the limelight as a bully pulpit for the university.

“We are certainly at a moment of fundamental change and challenge,” he said.

In additional remarks that prompted spontaneous applause from his faculty and staff members in the audience, Belcher promised to fight for pay raises for his WCU employees.

“The economic crisis has necessitated difficult situations for all — we get that,” he said. “But, inasmuch as North Carolina’s future prospects are directly tied to the strength of its public universities, we must address faculty and staff compensation issues. I pledge to you that Western Carolina and I will be squeaky wheels in search of grease.”

Belcher did not simply dwell on the negative, however. The new chancellor spoke of a bright future for the university he now heads, and of the regional role he believes that WCU plays.

“Western Carolina University will never be — nor should it ever be — the leader in meeting regional need. But it can and will be a leader in that endeavor,” Belcher said. “Western Carolina will partner with local communities, industries, nonprofit organizations, elected officials and civic leaders to meet individual needs throughout the region.”

Belcher emphasized that under his leadership WCU “will be a catalyst for regional thinking and regional competitiveness and regional cooperation and regional solutions,” saying  “the time of town versus town, county versus county, and city versus city competition is over.”

Regions compete with regions to attract business, industry, investment, tourism, talent, and the creative class, the chancellor said.

Erin McNelis, chair of the university’s faculty senate, said she believes that Belcher “embodies the spirit, the leadership and the excellence” inherent in WCU. She added that the chancellor has “reinvigorated” a sense of spirit at WCU and in the community with his honesty and transparency.

Others from the community liked what they heard, too. Mary Jo Cobb, a Tuckasegee resident who turned out to listen to and watch the installation, was appreciative.

“I’m certainly very interested in him being involved like this with the community,” Cobb said. “That’s my priority and he really seems to be reaching out.”

Former Forest Hills Mayor Irene Hooper also attended the installation. Her father attended the university when it was actually an academy. Hooper said she’s enjoyed Belcher’s visible presence in the community and that “Cullowhee would be nothing without WCU.”

“I just hope he’ll be able to accomplish all our dreams,” Hooper said.

WCU alum Betty Jo Allen drove in from Lincolnton to attend the ceremonies.

“I think people have really embraced him,” she said of Belcher, adding that former Chancellor John Bardo laid a “fantastic foundation” for the university.

“But now, this is Dr. Belcher’s season,” Allen said.


Five “guiding principles” for WCU:

• Commitment to access to education and student success.

• Commitment to meeting regional needs.

• A pledge to focus.

• An emphasis on excellence.

• A promise to take care of WCU’s employees.


David Belcher’s promises for WCU:

• To convene a consortium of WNC community college presidents, school superintendents and leaders from other education organizations such as the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in pursuit of real seamless education, kindergarten through college degree.

• To make the No. 1 philanthropic priority raising funds for endowed scholarships to make a university education accessible for capable students in perpetuity.

• To organize an annual, summer, regional tour for institutional leaders to ensure that the university stays in touch with the region it serves. Some administrators will be included but leaders more refers to faculty, staff and students.

• To initiate a leadership academy for faculty and staff. This professional development opportunity will not be designed to produce future administrators, though it may.

• To pursue development of its Millennial Campus as a national model for institutions serving rural regions. The university bought 344 acres to serve for private-public partnerships. Belcher has said that he anticipates the arrival of health clinics and doctors’ offices, where students could work and learn in a private-public set-up anchored by the new 160,000-square-foot, $46 million health and human sciences building.


Firmly resolute in my desire to set aside more time for my writing I decided not to have a garden this year. Typical of my fickle ways, I now have my largest garden plot ever. I’m terrible with guessing dimensions accurately, but I’d roughly estimate this new garden space is approaching a half-acre in size.

There is something intimidating about such a large blank canvas. I tremble much as Michelangelo must have when he first viewed the huge expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I am paralyzed by indecision about what to plant first. It is late in the season to be starting. Should I simply focus on traditional summer garden fare or try to sneak in some spring crops such as lettuce and peas?

This deer-in-headlights reaction to emptiness, newness and expectations freeze me as a writer and person, too. As a general rule I have a terrible time starting new work and making beginnings. I have an equally difficult time letting go and moving on. I tend to overwork things, whether it is a column, story or garden. And I never say goodbye easily.

But returning to beginnings:

If I could view a blank page or an empty garden as wonderful promises instead of dreadful challenges things might go more easily in my life. But all the little self-pep talks in the world won’t budge the reality of my reactions when faced with an empty expanse. It shuts me down until I finally make a start and get going with the task at hand.

I suspect I’ll need to do in this garden what I’m forced to do as a writer: I simply sit at the keyboard and begin. I would guess that more than half the time I have no idea what I’m going to write before I start. It’s not “free” writing in the sense that I let my feelings flow onto the page. Somewhere in my head I suspect there are some ideas about what I want to communicate; I do usually have a rough idea of the topics I want to cover. For instance, with this column I knew I wanted to write about my new garden and that I wanted to discuss the irony of my plans not to garden at all this year. But even knowing what I wanted to discuss didn’t make starting a jot less painful or laborious.

Once I’ve finally gotten something on the page it’s generally reworked and changed multiple times. Sometimes my changes are for the better and sometimes not. Often I will expend much time tweaking and tweaking only to find myself, in the end, more or less where I began.

The garden will probably prove no different. I suspect I’ll just have to go to the garden with a hoe and a bunch of seeds and commence to planting and growing, guided by some inner part of myself that is always there and available once tapped. Otherwise winter will find me still leaning on a metaphorical and literal fence staring at this vast garden, uncertain of what to plant first, trapped again at the beginning of a beginning.

One big motivator is that I actually do have a couple of peach baskets filled with seed just begging to be planted. These are leftovers from when I farmed for a living a few years back. Seed well cared for is like money in the bank, it really doesn’t ever go bad: the best place to keep seed is in a freezer. This seed, however, is a little more hit and miss than that. It’s been in and out of various storage areas in a mirror of the vagaries of my life these past couple of years. I’ll probably have to conduct rough germination tests to see what’s viable and what’s not. Or, more likely, I’ll just seed extra thickly in the garden and figure that I’ll get good germination that way, or good enough germination that way, anyhow.

That’s similar to how I write columns, stories and poems.

Jackson Pollock dripped or poured paint onto the canvas in a style of action painting; I throw a bunch of words at the blank screen and then try to swirl them around to create a form. This is a process similar to a kid spelling words in a bowl of alphabet soup. I find the process a bit demented, and frankly would prefer a more crafted approach, but I’m beginning after so many years to despair that I’ll ever make meaningful changes to my writing, gardening and life processes.

Sometimes you have to just accept who you are; beginnings, I know very well indeed, are difficult places for me. But to get anywhere you have to make a start: somehow you do have to begin.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


An artistic marriage of fine gardens and fine art is on display now at Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86, with “Gardens, Mountains and Streams: An Artist’s View of the Haywood County Garden Tour” showing through April 28.

This intertwining of what constitutes two of life’s great passions for many people is the brainchild of Susan Greb, a master gardener in Haywood County, and is the work of the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association. The two organizations spearheaded the effort to create this unique show.

“The call went out to different artists — in all different mediums — and it all came together,” said Greb, who serves as one of the event coordinators. “It’s a really fun kind of exhibit.”

The Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association selected the 12 exhibiting artists through a competitive process. Artists’ subject matter was focused on six private gardens to be featured on a June 23 garden tour in the county. The artists, working from photographs, were challenged to incorporate gardens, mountains and streams into their works.

“We were wondering how we could promote the garden tour,” said Cynthia Morris of the Haywood County Master Gardener Volunteer Association, explaining that artists were asked “to pick some facet of the gardens they really wanted to represent.”

Last year alone, more than 500 people participated in the Haywood County garden tour.

The art and gardens partnership includes a rain barrel project with the Haywood Waterways Association. That group is supplying rain barrels and the Blue Ridge Water Media Society and local high school students are painting them. Former arts council board member and volunteer Mary Alice Lodico is spearheading the rain barrel project.

This aspect of the show emphasizes the environmental component to gardening; the painted rain barrels will be available for purchase at $150 each during the Gallery 86 show and on the day of the garden tour. Sales benefit the Haywood Waterways Association and the Arts Council. Custom orders are also available.

The multi-partnership exhibition grew organically from a simple idea to the work of many people and groups.

“We’ve always looked for opportunities to partner with other organizations,” said Kay Miller, executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council. “And I thought this was a great idea.”

Miller described the exhibit as a true showcase of artists.

“We have a wide range of skills of the folks involved in the show,” Miller said. “And everybody has done a great job.”


Hearing from the artists

For the artists, the project brought some special challenges. Metalworker Teresa Sizemore created an 18-inch tall exquisitely designed and rendered butterfly resting on black-eyed susans.

Sizemore is mainly self-taught but has taken a number of courses at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown.

The photograph she worked from did not include the blue butterfly — that she envisioned herself and added to complete the metal sculpture “and make more of a scene,” she said.

Sizemore hand-painted the butterfly’s body; the metal is recycled from a scrap metal shop in Asheville.

“I try to use as much recycled material as I can,” Sizemore said.

She first sketched out a blueprint of sorts and then used either metal shears or a plasma cutter to complete her work.

Sizemore described metal as “forgiving.”

“I really like working in metal because you can do anything you want,” she said, adding that you can cut out, grind out or add to metal as needed.

Susan Livengood, who studied art in college but took a bit of a detour for a time raising a family, worked in acrylics. She’s more used to working in oils, but time constraints solidified her decision to work in a slightly different medium. The artists picked their photographs in December. That didn’t leave a lot of time for the artists to actually compose and paint or work in whatever medium they are accustomed to working in.

“There just really wasn’t time for oils,” said Livengood, who has studio and gallery space in the old Fines Creek School.

Livengood, who has painted many flowers and botanical works, was lucky enough to have first choice of the photographs because she happened to be in town visiting on the day they were made available. One of her pieces is a close up of red flowers, the other is a more abstract composition of a stream with a Hindu-like statue at the top.

“I was more trying to catch the peacefulness of the water,” Livengood said. “It was kind of a Zen spot.”

Livengood’s pieces underscore her devotion to working in color: both pieces are vibrant expressions of garden scenes and are distinctly personal.


The artists involved

Nancy Blevins, silk dye painting, watercolor, mixed media; Scott Bradley, painting; Barbara Brook, painting; Rebecca Hellman, fused glass; Ansie Holman, clay; Suzanne Leclaire, painting; Susan Livengood, painting; Cheryl Megivern, painting; Lycia Murray, painting; Teresa Sizemore, metalwork; Mary Elizabeth Stith, painting; Kaaren Stoner, clay.


Want to go?

Who: Haywood County Arts Council

What: Gallery 86 exhibit entitled “Gardens, Mountains & Streams: An Artist’s View of the Haywood County Garden Tour.”

When: Wednesday, April 4 through Saturday, April 28. An artist’s reception will be held Friday, April 13 from 6-8 p.m.

Where: Haywood County Arts Council’s Gallery 86 at 86 North Main Street in Waynesville.

Admission: Free

For more information about the garden tour call the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service center at 828.456.3575. Garden tour tickets are available at the Arts Council’s Gallery 86 and other outlets.


Responding to missing or injured hikers this time of year is expected in Macon County, where the Appalachian Trail winds through the mountains and the Nantahala National Forest makes up another substantial portion.

“Some years, at the peak (of thru-hiking) on the Appalachian Trail, we’ll get as many as three or so calls in a month from early spring for three or four months,” said David Key, director of Macon County Emergency Services.

Key said that it is easier to get lost, even on a well-marked trail such as the famous AT, than many people might believe.

“People say, ‘How in the world do you get lost?’ But it really depends on the signage. It’s hard to find your way around when you get disoriented,” Key said.

True, the trails are blazed with painted spots on tree trunks every few hundred yards along the trail. The AT is blazed with white paint spots, and the side trails in blue. But without signs of trail names, simply seeing the blazes isn’t much help.

“It’s like going into a town and all the street names are the same,” Key said. “Off the AT, all is blue, and that’s all you know. Everything is blue.”

Warren Cabe, Franklin’s fire chief, held Key’s position for many years. He too described responding to lost hiker calls, mainly involving the AT, as routine in nature. The cost, he said, isn’t easy to calculate.

SEE ALSO: Anatomy of a Smokies search

“The biggest thing is time,” Cabe said. “But the real intangible thing in Macon County is the volunteer help. It’s not a tangible cost. You’re talking time away from families and time away from jobs.”

Cabe said that fortunately most searches in Macon County that he oversaw did not last more than one, or at most two, operational periods, meaning that county staff was on the job anyway without running into overtime pay issues.

“It seems they’d almost always come in or we’d find them at about dark,” Cabe said.

The most disturbing case of a missing person on national forest lands in Macon County that Cabe remembered didn’t even involve an actual hiker.

It was a man with Alzheimer’s disease who went missing one day in the Nantahala National Forest. Search parties later found his car, burned with the body inside, tucked away on a forest service road. Cabe believes the fire was from some sort of mechanical malfunction with the vehicle, though questions obviously still remain unanswered.

SEE ALSO: Motives of missing man remain a mystery

Additionally, he said, Macon County over the years has lost one or two hikers to hypothermia in the Highlands area, where the elevations can pose a problem, and quickly, for those unprepared for the weather challenges.


I’m sitting here writing this column in the company of Suki, a 13-year-old Golden Retriever mix. Suki is not actually my dog but has proven very good dog company for writing nonetheless. Dogs aren’t picky and demanding, you see. Unlike some kinds of animals that we won’t mention until we absolutely must a few paragraphs from now.

There is a reason the word “faithful” is so often associated with dogs. Even in mythology we find Argos, the dog that recognized Odysseus after a 20-year absence. Odysseus finally makes his way home to Ithaca and discovers that Argos, previously lithe and strong, is now an old dog asleep on a pile of cow manure. That faithful animal musters up enough strength to drop his ears and wag his tail. He then dies.

Suki might not be an Argos, but in her own way she’s equally faithful. Good dogs always are.

Writers need audiences; Suki, I’ve found, is gratifyingly appreciative of even the least notable of my labors. Dogs such as Suki are quick to lend a sympathetic ear when a writer like myself needs to work aloud a particularly thorny problem. Dogs also tend to stay at one’s feet dutifully and lovingly, as Suki is doing, while the writer tends to her craft. This is totally unlike — and here we mention that other kind of animal — cats; which, in contrast to dogs, seem hell-bent on destroying the creative process.

Before I get fully onto writing about cats I need to talk about my writing processes a bit so you won’t think I’m just being fussy.

I’ve written news stories sitting in cars. I’ve written during meetings when my attention is divided between the story taking place and the one I’m writing. I’ve written breaking news stories in noisy news bureaus and in newsrooms with police scanners blaring and phones ringing. So please bear in mind that I’m not asking for an entire room of my own like some more delicate writers insist upon. I need nothing nearly as grand as that. I merely request just a little room, the tiniest and smallest of spaces, to think.

But even a smidgen of room, I’ve discovered, is simply asking too much if cats own the writer and the writer’s writing space.

I’ve found that cats, unlike dogs, derail the writing process. It’s not just what cats do physically; it’s their obvious attitude of disdain toward the creative process. They have no respect for the writer. And keep in mind that I have three of these beasts; this means my troubles are tripled.

One of my cats is geriatric, which should mean he’s too old at 18 to be a bother. But that isn’t the case at all. Edgar’s sole goal is to find the warmest and most comfortable place in the house to sleep, and he’s absolutely convinced that place is my lap. The entire time I’m trying to write I’m using one hand to fend off Edgar from climbing up on me, with him all the while whining piteously as if I’m torturing the poor old beast. I am here to attest to you that it is virtually impossible to create great art one handed.

The other two, Agatha and Tuppence (if you notice a mystery novel theme here you would be correct), generally never miss a chance to sit on top of the computer keyboard when I get up for a drink of water. This adds hieroglyphics into the manuscript that confuse me until I figure out one of these cats has paid a visit. Even worse for me and happier for them they occasionally manage to delete hours of work with a mere touchdown of a cat butt.

Agatha is my most stomach-sensitive of the three. She once managed to puke out a hairball on the keyboard while I took care of a personal need in the bathroom. I was truly offended. I was left to interpret her gift as an indictment of my overall writing abilities and writing style, plus I had to clean the mess up and sanitize my keyboard.

On occasion Agatha and Tuppence decide to vie with Edgar for the right to sit on my lap. It is also extremely difficult to create art when three cats are hissing, swatting and caterwauling in the small space that we — me and these three demons — call home.

But as I write this column, ensconced today in someone else’s house, Suki the dog is sleeping serenely at my feet. She waits only to hear me speak her name to instantly bound up and hear me expound on the craft of writing. Her tail I know would wag appreciatively as I talked. And I can picture her big brown eyes intensely anticipating the likelihood I’ll say something of genius at any moment.

Anyone in the market for three cats?

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


Western Carolina University’s faculty senate took on the hot button statewide political issue last week of Amendment One, the proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and civil unions.

The faculty senate passed a resolution opposing the amendment, which will appear on the state ballot in May.

It wasn’t a unanimous vote: 18 faculty senate members voted for the resolution, four voted against and one abstained. The resolution stated that the faculty senate, which is the top leadership group for WCU faculty, believed Amendment One would constitute targeted discrimination against certain employees and students. Additionally, the resolution stated that the amendment would be antithetical to the university’s mandated policy of nondiscrimination.

North Carolina currently stands as the only southern state without a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Laura Wright, a professor in the English department and director of graduate studies, submitted the resolution. She termed Amendment One “prejudicial legislation,” and said that the decision to seek official Faculty Senate opposition was the outgrowth of a conversation on Facebook with three other faculty members.

Wright noted eight or so Student Government Associations in North Carolina have passed similar resolutions. The issue was to be debated by WCU’s Student Government Association this week.

Karen Starr, a professor in physical therapy, did not necessarily question the resolution’s content but did balk at passing something that purported to speak for all faculty.

“My question is, we are voting on something and we don’t know how they actually feel,” Starr said.

Wright did not object to changing the language specifically to “faculty senate” rather than “faculty.”

There was some discussion about whether to delay a vote, but Christopher Hoyt, a professor of philosophy and religion, said he believed “timing does matter ... if we want to weigh in before the vote and try to contribute to some momentum against this.”

Leigh Odom, a professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders, said she worried that the faculty senate was venturing into a “personal, philosophical and faith-based” matter where it didn’t belong. Odom added that she didn’t believe it was fair to make an “all-inclusive” vote on such a touchy subject.

“Why would this be any different, the majority carries the day. I don’t think it means every single person — there’s certainly room for dissension,” responded Libby McCrae, a professor in the department of history.

Erin McNelis, chair of the group, said in her view debating the resolution was the proper purview of the Faculty Senate. In the past, she said, Faculty Senate had, for instance, passed a resolution supporting the campus newspaper and free speech rights.

“Officially the faculty senate is the voice of the faculty,” McNelis said.

Odom added that the proposed constitutional amendment is “very deep and very personal — you are making a very strong statement.”

“Amendment One is very personal, too,” said Wes Stone, a professor in the department of engineering and technology.


The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center will not be buying and moving into Waynesville’s former Department of Social Services office building after all, leaving Haywood County back at Square One trying to unload the large, dated, four-story brick complex built decades ago as a hospital.

DSS had outgrown the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year. The center expressed an interest in buying the old office building earlier this month.

The agency had weighed uprooting its headquarters from Sylva and moving to Haywood County, taking with it 60 jobs. The primary motivation was finding a larger space to house an additional 100 jobs being added in the next two years as Smoky Mountain Center gears up to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

But, the proposal received strenuous political pushback from Jackson County and leaders in the far-western counties concerned about potential job losses in their neck of the woods.

Brian Ingraham, area director for Smoky Mountain Center, and Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs, emphasized that the agency merely had been exploring options when considering the old hospital in Haywood as a site for their expansion and new headquarters. But when that option was taken to Smoky Mountain Center’s board of directors last week, they ruled it out — to Haywood County’s obvious chagrin.

“Well, it is disappointing. But I do understand the situation,” said Bill Upton, a Smoky Mountain board member and Haywood County commissioner. “They were caught between a rock and a hard place. And there will be other opportunities for Haywood County.”

Haywood still stands to gain a slice of the new jobs Smoky Mountain Center will be adding, which could now be placed in several locations across its 15-county service area, Foreman said. Haywood could end up with a majority of those new jobs, while Jackson gets to keep its existing ones, Jackson County Commissioner Jack Debnam said.

The mental health agency is poised to morph into basically a public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid.

“The situation is fluid,” Ingraham said. “We have to adapt to that and plan for the best possible outcomes that we can.”

Ronnie Beale, a Smoky Mountain board member and Macon County commissioner, said “this wasn’t the time to be buying any property.”

Beale said the board vote was not unanimous, and that a strong argument was made that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, thereby increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs.

Beale said that he doesn’t buy arguments that it will be more difficult to recruit workers into the far western counties than into Haywood County, which is better poised to draw on the workforce pool in neighboring Asheville.

“That’s part of the stigma is that you can’t hire people out here,” Beale said. “I think we can.”

As for what to do with the old hospital in Haywood County, Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said the county would continue its marketing efforts.


For the first time perhaps in its 123-year history, faculty, staff and students at Western Carolina University are helping develop a priority list that will shape the coming year’s budget.

“This has been a first pass at a new, and hopefully more open and transparent, budget process,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher told members of the university’s faculty senate last week.

Groups of stakeholders in the process — the administration, faculty and students — have been meeting to discuss the next fiscal year budget. The amount of money WCU will get from the state won’t actually be known until this summer. Last year, it wasn’t clear until August. But, Belcher emphasized that he wanted to initiate the process when everyone was still actually present on campus and not wait until dorms and classrooms were empty.

During the past month, two large meetings were held in which a series of framing questions were asked to define the issues facing the university. Belcher described the responses as “fascinating,” adding that they included instructional capacity, research and potential engagement with the outside community.

Educational issues emerged as the No. 1 priority of all involved, Belcher said.

“I think it was a very good process. Personally it was enlightening,” he said, noting that the budget decisions made and the rationales behind those budget decisions would be posted for public review.

Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said for her part the clearest priority that emerged “was about students in the classroom and supporting the classroom.”

She asked if the meeting notes could be made available online, which the chancellor agreed to do.

Belcher did emphasize that the recommendations being reached by members of the administration, faculty and students aren’t necessarily “the gospel,” that WCU administration would have to work within the budget’s constraints. WCU in the past four years has experienced $30 million in cumulative budget cuts.

Phil Sanger, director of the WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization, emphasized that in his view “program prioritization” at WCU is key to good budgeting.

“We can’t make good decisions without knowing where to direct our efforts,” Sanger said.

Jason Lavigne, chair of WCU’s Staff Senate, said that in his 13 or so years at the university that this had proven the most enlightening budget process he’d experienced.


The $289,000 loan from Jackson County to the new owner of Sylva radio station WRGC has finally gotten the green light, meaning the popular local station could be back on the air early next week.

“I think everything is in place to move forward with this,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners earlier this week.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a souring economy. Sylva resident Roy Burnette hoped to buy the station and get it back on the air, but lacked the money or financing to do so.

540 Broadcasting Co., the business formed by Burnette, sought an economic development loan of $289,000 from the county. The deal has been in the works for months. Although commissioners OK’d the economic development loan in theory, it got hung up on issues of collateral. It was unclear what assets Burnette would put on the table to guarantee the loan.

Proper collateral, allowing the county to recoup its money should Burnette fail to make payments, is a touchy issue. The county’s track record for economic development loans has not been great in the past — finding itself in possession of the questionable collateral from underground fiber optic lines to 500 sewing machines — and it is trying to be a tad more judicious these days, explaining the hold up on the loan.

The issue of collateralization has now been resolved, County Attorney Jay Coward assured commissioners. Burnette will put up personal real estate “worth in excess of $175,000.” Additionally, an inventory of the radio station’s equipment shows that it, too, is worth in excess of $175,000, Coward said.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette needed $250,000 to purchase the actual radio license from Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. Some $39,000 was designated for acquiring the equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. Burnette is providing $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

Burnette plans to expand the radio station’s reach, previously limited to Sylva, from Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.


The fallout from Metrostat Communication’s going belly up keeps getting more complicated, with Jackson County commissioners learning this week that an Asheville company owns some of the defunct company’s fiber optic line.

Metrostat, a high-speed Internet and phone service company in Sylva, went under late last year still owing about $500,000 in outstanding economic development loans to Jackson County and town of Sylva. The county and town took possession of the fiber optic lines and other Metrostat assets, including a tower, which had been put down as collateral. But not, as leaders thought, all of the fiber optic line.

“Things continue to just pop up,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

It turns out ERC Broadband, a nonprofit, owns 12 of the 48 strands making up some of Metrostat’s fiber optic lines in Sylva along U.S. 23 and N.C. 107. ERC bought some of Metrostat’s fiber lines in 2006 for $147,000. ERC Broadband was a grant-funded initiative dating to the late 1990s to run a high-speed Internet backbone through rural mountain counties. ERC acted as Metrostat’s provider to link its own fiber lines to the greater Internet world, Wooten explained.

Jackson County and Sylva initially wanted to simply sell the entire system, fiber optic cable, the tower and other Metrostat equipment, to a single buyer at the highest price possible. Problem is, no buyers emerged — Frontier Communications Co. said it wasn’t interested, and then BalsamWest FiberNET made an offer then withdrew the proposal.

The only possibility left was Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware, who wanted only the tower on Kings Mountain, which once beamed out high-speed wireless Internet service, so that he could provide Internet to his guests. But, the county doesn’t want to sell Metrostat’s system piecemeal.

So the county and town have been left searching for Plan B. Use Metrostat’s assets as the base to provide all of Jackson County with wireless Internet service. The dream includes linking the various emergency towers across the county to provide this blanket coverage.

The county manager said that means there could be an advantage to ERC Broadband’s sudden appearance in the what-to-do-with-Mestrostat game: the focus of the nonprofit is to further economic development in Western North Carolina, which could fit like a hand in Jackson County’s wireless Internet glove.

ERC Broadband could bring the technical expertise to the table Jackson County needs to try and use Metrostat’s infrastructure to provide countywide wireless Internet, Wooten said. A meeting between county officials and company representatives is scheduled for Friday.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever get our money back, but we may end up with something that is an asset to this community,” Wooten said.


A huge former antique mall in Macon County will soon become the largest private gambling operation outside of Cherokee when Jokers Wild, a sweepstakes parlor featuring 65 video machines, opens next month.

And, there’s plenty of floor space left to double the number video terminals in the huge, rambling building, located just across the highway from the busy tourist hub Smoky Mountain Hosts.

Heading down the highway toward the Georgia state line, another operation with 30 of these Internet gambling machines will soon be rolled out. In all, there are about a dozen sweepstakes cafés — really, some of these are more like small casinos — operating in Macon County along the stretch of highway leading from Georgia.

Despite criticism that the sweepstakes cafes are simply out-and-out old-style gambling parlors, their popularity is undeniable.

“We’re adults; it’s our choice whether to play or not,” said Joe Donahue, a north Georgia resident who was at Deuces Wild on U.S. 441 one day last week with his wife. “It’s my money.”

By the looks of it, a lot of people feel the same way Donahue feels. This was early on a workday, and several customers were already inside playing. U.S. 441 regulars said that at night, the parking lots of these sweepstakes cafés are packed with cars. Many are reportedly coming in to play from Georgia, explaining the concentration of the sweepstakes parlor on the highway corridor just inside the North Carolina state line.


Legal machinations

More than 1,000 sweepstakes cafes are estimated to be operating statewide despite a ban by the General Assembly on video gambling. When sweepstakes machines appeared in the wake of the ban — looking for all the world like a reincarnation of the outlawed video gambling machines, despite owners’ claims to the contrary — operators of the machines and the General Assembly became locked in a game of cat and mouse, leading to a new state law that broadened the ban and, ultimately, lengthy legal challenges.

Continuing uncertainty about whether the state actually can prohibit these sweepstakes cafes, the state attorney general has recommended that law enforcement not shut them down for now.

A few weeks ago, a North Carolina Court of Appeals ruling, with one of three judges dissenting, found that the current state law prohibiting sweepstakes cafés is unconstitutional. This means these bigger sweepstakes cafes — maybe better termed sweepstakes cafeterias — could be just the beginning of what Macon County and other Western North Carolina communities can expect.

The N.C. attorney general’s office says it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.  

Sweepstakes cafés sell “time” to customers to gamble online or by cell phone. Customers, in return for whatever amount of money they care to risk, log on to their machine of choice and play for the allotted time purchased.

Sweepstakes café owners and managers argue that letting customers “find” cash and prizes via computers is simply buying and selling Internet or phone time — not real gambling, in other words.

Georgia launched a crackdown last year on certain “illegal” Internet cafes.

Under Georgia law, violators found to be operating illegally are typically charged with commercial gambling or for violating Georgia’s RICO Act for racketeering.

Some operators may have turned their sights to North Carolina.

Based on information gathered in the sweepstakes cafés and from names of permits on file with the Macon County Building Department, many of the gambling businesses in Macon County are, in fact, owned by Georgia residents.


Charge ‘em while you got ‘em

Towns across Western North Carolina have imposed steep business license fees on the sweepstakes parlors, hoping to make a little money off the lucrative enterprises operating within their borders.

Franklin recently increased its fees. Franklin charges $2,600 per Internet café establishment and $1,000 per machine. This is an increase from a flat $2,600 fee per business charged previously.

Town Planner Mike Grubermann said establishment owners are making enough money off the machines that even the new fees “are just a drop in the bucket.”

Grubermann said sweepstakes cafes in Macon County have become a major business enterprise.

“It seems like everybody has got to have sweepstakes machines now,” said Grubermann, adding that a dog grooming business in town recently added some “so that people can play while getting their dogs groomed.”

Unlike the town of Franklin, Macon County has no way to cash-in on these sweepstakes parlors, which mark almost the sole form of economic development taking place these days in WNC.

Maggie Valley and Canton currently both demand $2,500 for the first four machines and charge $750 for each subsequent machine. Maggie collects $8,250 a year, while Canton makes nearly $32,000 each year. Waynesville is looking to charge the same amounts.

Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway said the town’s attorney is preparing the necessary ordinance and that he wasn’t certain when the town’s aldermen would consider the law change. Galloway said a new ordinance might not take effect before July 1.

A sweepstakes poker café has opened on South Main in Waynesville with about 40 machines, but Galloway said at most, operations are still the three-or-four machine businesses located in service stations or similar establishments.

Not too long ago, however, two people came into Waynesville’s police department asking for permits to start operations with as many as 40 to 60 machines.

David Connell, who owns the building that has been rented outside Franklin for Jokers Wild, said he’s excited to finally have a renter onboard for the huge, former barn.

“It’s been sitting a year and a half empty. No one else could afford to rent it,” said Connell, adding that the owner of the future sweepstakes café expects to open sometime in April.

Jack Morgan, head of building inspections for Macon County, said the business owner would have to make the building handicap accessible and meet certain other requirements.


Hearing The Bascom being called a world-class facility might seem a stretch until you pay a firsthand visit to the six building, six-acre campus in Highlands. Then, however, the words seem entirely appropriate and scaled to reality.

The Bascom is a center for the visual arts created in 2009. The nonprofit doesn’t have a large private collection of works; the center instead focuses on providing top-notch exhibitions primarily garnered from across the Southeast. Six exhibitions were held last year. These included shows featuring glass artist Richard Ritter, painter and printmaker Frank Stella and ceramics maker Ben Owen.

The advantage to artists showing in this well-heeled, upscale Highlands market is huge: The Owen’s show, featuring the Seagrove potter’s signature pieces, almost completely sold out, The Bascom’s Ezra Gardiner said.

That kind of track record helps The Bascom lure a caliber of artists few other similar-sized facilities can boast of attracting.

Some of the highlights this year include an exhibition of paintings by Art Rosenbaum and the large-scale, kinetic sculpture of suspended ceramic discs that are mounted and hung from the ceiling by artist Tim Curtis. There also will be an exhibit titled “Her Impressions” featuring paintings by women during the Impressionism movement using works on loan from a number of Southeast museums and institutions.

There’s one important point about The Bascom that people working at the center are eager to make. The center takes great pride in putting what Executive Director Jane Jerry calls “The Bascom twist” on exhibits while they are displayed here.

“You can only do that with a small institution like this,” said Jerry, who has led The Bascom for about a year.

What does “The Bascom twist” entail? For his part, Gardiner described the twist as “putting a spin on it” by showing artists’ pieces in a manner that is unique and design rich — from the manner in which the pieces are placed and lighted for viewing to drawing on the attributes of the facility itself. Most of the shows are curated in-house by staff, and during the summertime are displayed for eight-week periods at a time. Big exhibitions are in the main gallery, smaller ones in a loft gallery upstairs from the primary viewing area.

Much of “The Bascom twist” is truly the setting of the facility itself: you enter the center through an 87-foot by 14-foot, 53-ton covered bridge transplanted to WNC from New Hampshire.

Once on campus, the main building is 27,500 square feet of museum-quality space made of hand-hewn, post-and-beam barn pieces accentuated with modern stone and glass. Even the floors are unstained white pine re-purposed from several historic barns. There also is a studio barn, a rebuilt rough-hewn barn complete with studio spaces for pottery and three-dimensional arts instruction.

So much of “the twist” is the fact that the paintings, ceramics, metal work and glass pieces are shown in a backdrop that is truly unique.


Understanding the community

Setting up and running The Bascom probably wouldn’t be possible in WNC outside of a venue such as Highlands, where the residents are affluent and visibly supportive of the arts. In addition to The Bascom, this is a community that can boast of the Highlands Playhouse, the Highlands Cashiers Chamber Music concerts, the American Museum of Cut and Engraved Glass and the Instant Theater Company, featuring improvisation.

“Highlands and the whole plateau area is different from other communities,” Jerry said. “I’m so new, it has taken me a while to understand the profile of donors and funding sources here.”

The Bascom, in becoming The Bascom, has successfully tapped more than 800 sources — corporations and foundations but mainly individual — in paying about $9 million of the $13 million in its construction campaign. Fundraising continues for this new facility, and for a separate educational and exhibitions program endowment.

Jerry said The Bascom, in comparison to most galleries and art centers featuring the caliber of artist being exhibited here, is so small “we just haven’t had a lot of government support — mainly individual.”

The Bascom has a mortgage on the property that the nonprofit is in process of paying off. And with a board of directors totally committed to offering free admission to the arts, fundraising is key to the facility’s current and future wellbeing.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat the idea that this isn’t an ongoing challenge. We are raising money all of the time,” said Jerry, adding that fundraising “is the job” for any manager of a nonprofit.

Jerry was most recently the project-planning director for Exploration Station, the Republic of Ireland’s first interactive science center. Prior to her stint in Ireland, Jerry was the president and CEO of Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in Nashville, Tenn. She’s no stranger to fundraising challenges: During her tenure at Cheekwood, Jerry led a capital campaign that resulted in an $18.5 million investment in the garden and facilities, and the Cheekwood Museum of Art attained accreditation by the American Association of Museums.

The Bascom has three main benefit events: a wine festival in May; a garden festival in July; and an art, design and craft show in October. It also has an extensive membership of 946 people, plus 300 or so volunteers who provide a veritable army of help to the 10 paid staff members.

Jerry said that she has spent this first year trying to be “a really good listener, and to understand The Bascom and its place in this community. And to work as hard as I can to begin to define a vision for the future that is a reflection of what this community wants.”

One thing the community clearly wants is a tangible connection with The Bascom. Outreach programs make that connection, plus appeal to donors, Jerry said. Among the upcoming programs this spring is a partnership with the Highlands Literacy Council’s after-school art program. This focuses on sea life and will result in an “Underwater” exhibit being installed in the fall.

The Bascom also partners with the local food pantry and with other groups as part of its outreach programs, plus provides scholarship money and free family memberships to the facility.


The Bascom history

The Bascom exists because of artist Watson Barratt, a part-time Highlands resident who died in 1962, who wanted to establish a permanent gallery in his seasonal home to display works by regional artists. His bequest made exhibition space at the Hudson Library in Highlands possible starting in 1983. The then Hudson Library building incorporated proceeds from the estate and included a dedicated space for the Bascom-Louise Gallery.

In 1999 the two entities separated. The art center attained nonprofit status, formed a board of directors, wrote bylaws and hired staff. In 2009, The Bascom moved to its new campus.

Source: The Bascom


At The Bascom

• “Chick’s: It’s All Gone to the Birds,” March 31-June 17.

• Alex Matisse: “Ometto,” May 12-Oct. 1.

• “Green Art:” May 17-July 8.

• “Her Impressions:” June 23-Sept. 16.

• “Bascom Members Challenge, Couples:” Aug. 18-Oct. 14.

• Art Rosenbaum: “Voices,” Sept. 1-Nov. 10.

• American Craft Today: Sept. 22-Dec. 29.

• “Giving Trees:” Nov. 17-Jan. 1.

www.thebascom.org for additional details. Admission is free.


Susan Sakna and her two dogs were far from their home in Massachusetts. But like many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Sakna discovered the perfect temporary respite for the night staying at a hotel in Franklin.

This was an opportunity to rest her weary feet — and the dogs’ weary paws — before tackling more of the nation’s most-famous hiking trail. Stopping in Franklin has become routine for AT hikers such as Sakna.

Franklin serves as a chance to get rid of equipment found to be useless and to stock up on items discovered to be essential. Most of the hikers taking breaks here are about one-week in to their six-month journey; Franklin is 100 miles from the trailhead in Springer Mountain, Ga. This means that Franklin serves as the first place to closely evaluate and correct gear needs and equipment problems.

The AT passes just 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap.

“It’s very pretty here,” Sakna said as she sat outside a Franklin hotel surveying the surrounding mountains with dogs Max and Shay. Sakna was waiting for a shuttle to arrive and transport her and the dogs back to the AT. “And it’s good to get away from the trail — in some ways, you really can’t even see the mountains when you’re on it because of all the rhododendrons around.”

As AT thru-hikers pour into Franklin at an ever-increasing rate each year, town officials and business owners seem to increasingly relish and appreciate their role as an AT trail destination. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, the hikers generally came and went with little notice or fanfare. No more: Franklin, these days, prides itself on having close ties to the AT. And, the town is gearing up for April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31, capitalizing on the town’s close proximity to the 2,181-mile long trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.


Franklin as hikers’ paradise

“We see the Appalachian Trail as one of our main economic drivers,” said Linda Schlott, Franklin Main Street Program executive director. “And Trail Days just continues to grow.”

Franklin started April Fool’s Trail Day’s four years ago. In March 2010, the town officially was designated an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the conservancy’s designation as an official trail community.

The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a relatively new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. For its part, Franklin showed its tie to the trail by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems and getting the county planning department to commit to considering the trail in its land use plans.

Franklin has bigger eyes than just mining the AT, however.

“We’re not only looking at AT hikers but to use this as a base for all hikers,” Schlott said of the town’s trail-friendly status.

Macon County, in addition to the famous AT, has a substantial portion of the Bartram Trail, plus easy access to hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the Nantahala National Forest.


Important economic boost

Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76 in downtown Franklin, said the gear-heavy store on Main Street gets a lot of AT thru-hiker traffic.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Gasbarro said. “And, Trail Days is a great opportunity to introduce locals to people doing the six-month pilgrimage.”

Down the street at the Life’s Bounty Gift Shop and Bakery and Café, co-owner Tony Hernandez has grown very fond, too, of the thru-hikers — they come in hungering for the carbohydrates, sweets and the breakfast specials offered there.

“Basically, most of my customers this morning all have been hikers,” Hernandez said one day last week. “And, they are wanting lots of carbs or breakfasts.”

Hernandez welcomes the hikers in, packs and all; just as Franklin these days is doing, too.


Franklin a do-or-die town for A.T. hikers

Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail — those who attempt an entire 2,181-mile trek from Georgia to Maine, from start to finish — are starting to show up in Western North Carolina.

To finish the trail before the New England winter sets in, hikers must set hit the trail in Georgia in March. Of the 2,000 or so who set out to thru-hike the trail, only 25 percent actually make it. Most drop out the first month. That makes the Nantahala and Smoky mountain ranges do-or-die for hikers — this is the stretch of trail where they decide to either pack it in or keep on packing.

Hikers who hop off the trail in Franklin to restock on provisions will find a little extra encouragement in their trying early weeks with the annual April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31. Here’s the lineup:

• Hiker bash at 6 p.m. both nights at the Sapphire Inn on East Main Street. A chance for hikers to connect and share stories and advice.

• Trail Days event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 31, with outdoor gear vendors, food, entertainment and more. There also will be workshops, a rock climbing wall, children’s activities. One of the day’s highlights will be the 2012 Go Outside and Play Road Show presented by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. This exhibit encourages participants to become more involved with their local outdoor community and to inspire spectators to be more active in the outdoors.

828.524.2516 or www.aprilfoolstraildays.com.


Spring weather like we’ve been experiencing makes clear that we live in a world essentially comprised of two kinds of people.

There are those who bask in the sun and who glory in the profusion of flower blooms; these are our don’t-plan-for-the-future grasshoppers. Then we have our ever-grimly marching ants, those that live among us who maintain a killing freeze is certain to blacken and decimate this world of beauty. The ants are joy killers.

I’ve been both a grasshopper and an ant during different life stages.

These days I’m much more likely to manifest as a grasshopper and to gleefully cut daffodils and forsythia branches for the vase on my kitchen table. I give little thought about anything except my enjoyment in the beauty of these flowers. But goodness knows I’ve been a little ant during certain periods of my life. Quintin the fun-destroyer going about muttering dark prophesies about the future and secretly hoping that the irritating grasshoppers in my life shortly discover the bottom side of a shoe — squish, that’ll teach ‘em to enjoy a beautiful spring!

What I’ve not succeeded in mastering is the middle way, of being what we’ll dub an anthopper. That’s what I truly aspire to be. But combining the best qualities of these two insects, the grasshopper and the ant to create the newly fabled anthopper, is difficult given my all or nothing approach to life.

An anthopper, I think, would enjoy the cut flowers, the sun, the profusion of bloom, but would ensure she has protective covering for the garden nearby. An anthopper wouldn’t get suckered by the garden centers into buying annuals this early … though I did just that this past weekend.

An anthopper wouldn’t ruin others’ enjoyment of this beauty with augurs of toil and trouble, strife and destruction, of certain impending looming horrible excruciating doom — either via a late freeze or upcoming summer discomfort. I’ve heard some of these ants assert, completely unscientifically and based on nothing except that it sounds terrible and frightening, that a warm spring foretells a blazingly hot summer. Which, even if these horrors are actually true, doesn’t change this moment’s reality: We are enjoying one of our most lovely springs in recent memory.


An anthopper story.

Once upon a time there was a grasshopper. The grasshopper fancied herself something of an operatic singer, and enjoyed singing, over and over, “Musetta’s Waltz” from Puccini’s “La Boheme.”

Meanwhile, an ant was hard at work collecting foodstuffs. The ant was certain the endtime was near, that an apocalyptic finale to the world was soon to come. She was equally sure that she’d be spared. So the ant spent a lot of time reading about self-sufficiency and practicing frugal ways.

It was very distracting to the ant to hear “Musetta’s Waltz” sung over and over again. Truth be told, the ant never had liked Puccini, and particularly detested “La Boheme,” and to top it off “Musetta’s Waltz” is unseemly and risqué and is an entirely inappropriate selection to be singing when everyone except that damned grasshopper knew perfectly well the world was going to hell.

So the grasshopper sang and the ant labored, hour after hour and day after day, under the beautiful sunlight of spring, summer and early fall. The ant’s hill, which was made up of dozens of tunnels leading to scores of storage rooms, was filled with dried and canned foods. The grasshopper barely even bothered with shelter — she simply went to sleep each night under a plant frond, something large enough to protect her from the dew, and ate the nectar from flowers during the day. Occasionally the grasshopper would consider putting back some food for the upcoming winter, but then she’d get caught up all over again in singing the waltz, and the thought would disappear like the morning fog when the sun rose.

The days grew noticeably shorter, and the night darkness rolled in earlier each evening. The ant was happy about this. ‘That’ll teach the grasshopper,’ she thought to herself grimly. ‘You just wait.’

One day the grasshopper awoke to a heavy killing frost. Her wings were stiff and cold. The grasshopper soon gave up attempts to sing. It felt like the words were frozen in her throat.

Meanwhile, the ant was watching. Her grand moment had come. The end of the world as the ant and grasshopper knew it had indeed arrived. The ant had six months worth of food to eat and a warm bed to lie in each night. As predicted, the grasshopper had nothing but death to anticipate.

But the ant felt a little uneasy — the grasshopper looked so sad, standing on a frosty grassblade rubbing her little hands together for warmth. And the world seemed so silent without the grasshopper’s trilling of “Musetta’s Waltz.”

Finally, almost against her will, the ant called out to the grasshopper and invited her into the shelter and to share her food. And thus was born the newly fabled anthopper, a being who can experience the middle way.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)


Jackson County’s planning board will continue weighing proposed changes to open-space regulations for a few more weeks before passing them on to commissioners for their thumbs up or thumbs down.

Jackson County is one of the few mountain counties with an open space rule, which requires developers to set aside a portion of new subdivisions as green space, natural areas and recreation. The open space rule has been in place for four years, but is being revisited for possible changes.

The planning board recently held a public hearing on the proposed changes. Members chose to hold off on a final decision about passing their recommendations along to county commissioners, who would have final say.

Planning Board Chairman Zachary Koenig and other board members, in delaying a vote, agreed they wanted time to consider what speakers had discussed and asked during the hearing.

The main concern expressed? Fear that the changes would hurt groundwater recharge. When the original open space rule was ushered in four years ago, along with a host of other steep slope and development regulations, groundwater recharge was central to the debate. Open space allowed rain water falling on the mountains to soak back into the soil and recharge the groundwater so many rely on for wells.

Some who spoke at the public hearing feared weaker open space requirements would negate what the previous board tried to accomplish.

Board members denied diluting the rules, however, saying they in fact consider the issue so critical they removed it from the open-space regulations to ensure separate consideration of the matter during the next few months. Multi-family and commercial development also will be addressed in these future groundwater recharge standards. The current open space standards address single-family residential development.

“That will be our next task as a board,” Koenig promised speakers. “We think highly enough of water recharge to put together an entirely new ordinance.”

A couple of speakers seemed unpersuaded by the planning board’s decision.

“I must say I’m a little taken aback at the idea of erosion, water recharge have essentially been pulled out of the open space” discussion, said former developer John Beckman, who works as a farmer these days in Jackson County. “How can you not discuss hydrology, and the impacts that would have on the environment? It is not like open space is totally distinct and different from water-related issues.”

Roger Clapp, executive director of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River, noted “on balance” the proposed changes “appears as a net positive for developers and a notable benefit for the environment and the future homeowners in news developments.”

Clapp did urge the planning board to set the document aside for a bit, as it did, though he requested “the issue of recharge … be addressed.”

The conservationist argued that the document turned the universally accepted definition of open space “on its ear. It never means built-up recreational areas such as tennis and basketball courts and golf courses, in my experiences.”

The changes include continuing to allow certain “hardscaping,” such as tennis courts, sidewalks and swimming pools, to count as open space in efforts to gain recreational space for the county’s residents, as the current ordinance does.

County Planner Gerald Green disagreed with Clapp, saying that including recreational space as “open space” is standard in planning circles. Planning board members also defended the use of recreational space.

Commissioner Doug Cody and Chairman Jack Debnam both attended the hearing. Cody said he hopes that residents “don’t have preconceived notions about what these revisiting of the ordinances are … I’m bothered that people think we are trying to destroy something. We’re not. We are trying to reach a balance.”


Other changes include:

• Currently, for subdivisions of eight or more lots, 25 percent of land must be placed in open space. Conservation design subdivisions open-space requirement would go to 20 percent open space of the land area. Green said that remains higher than in other counties. Twenty-five percent, he said before the hearing, in his opinion “increases the costs of homes for people who work and want to live here and does not effectively address the goals that have been identified by the county, which include promoting sustainable development.”

• Developers can opt now to pay a fee in lieu of providing open space. This fee would go to the Jackson County Recreation and Parks Department to help fund activities and spaces for residents. Developers also could offer other land for open space.


Groundwater recharge

Recharge is the process by which groundwater is replenished, and a recharge area is where water from precipitation moves downward to an aquifer. Groundwater is recharged naturally by rain and snow and by creeks, rivers and lakes. Recharge can be hampered by construction or other human activities such as logging.


Prospects that Rover might one day find himself banned from attending events and festivals in traditionally pooch-friendly Sylva has left some dog owners here feeling like they are on the end of an increasingly short leash.

Town commissioners recently considered following Waynesville’s lead and prohibiting canines, even when controlled on leashes, from street festivals and town-sponsored functions.

Commissioner Harold Hensley emphasized on Tuesday “I am not a dog hater,” but said that he’s heard a rising tide of complaints from citizens and from law enforcement officers about dog-people interactions at town events and festivals.

“There was a man, he spread out on the ground for a picnic, and a big dog came up and helped himself to a piece of chicken off that man’s plate,” said Hensley, adding that more and more towns are moving to prevent those and more serious sorts of interactions.

Sylva leaders ultimately decided to postpone the discussion for now because one of the town’s most storied events, Greening Up the Mountains, is just around the corner, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association.

Greening Up, Sylva’s annual celebration of the arrival of spring when thousands converge on downtown for the biggest street festival of the year, takes place April 28.

The dog-ban issue hasn’t gone away, however, it simply has been postponed for additional debate until a later time. This frustrates dog owners in Sylva, who’ve been free to come and go with their animals as long as they abide by the town’s leash laws and clean up behind their animals when necessary.

“It kind of bugs me when people throw up blocks to bringing all God’s critters together,” said Annie Harlow, who is active in ARF, Jackson County’s humane society.

Harlow’s dog, P-Nut, is a rescue animal. Harlow said she hopes to bring P-Nut to Greening Up to help further socialize the terrier-mix dog.

Harlow emphasized that she’s in favor of some animal-oriented regulations, such as spay and neuter laws and animal-protection acts.

“But, we need to look at why we’re regulating and what it is accomplishing,” she said.



Waynesville long has banned dogs, even when on leashes, from downtown street festivals. That town’s ordinance dates to 2002.

“We’ve had situations over time with dogs being eye to eye with babies and strollers, and situations when folks have almost tripped over dogs’ leashes,” said Buffy Phillips, executive director of the Downtown Waynesville Association.

Phillips said the ordinance seemed particularly critical because the sidewalks in Waynesville are narrower than in many other Western North Carolina towns. This placed dogs and people in uncomfortably close proximity, she said.

The decade-old ordinance places dog bans on Waynesville’s parades, four festivals, a block party and street dances. Signs are stuck in sidewalk flower planters on the approach to Main Street announcing the law to festival-goers.

An attempt to provide babysitting services for people’s puppies petered out almost as soon as it began. Haywood Animal Welfare Association offered dog sitting at a festival the first year the ordinance was passed, fearing owners would leave their pets in potentially lethal hot cars while partaking in the street festivities. But, finding volunteers proved difficult, and people just weren’t comfortable leaving their animals with strangers, Phillips said.

Dogs receive their dues and welcomes at Waynesville’s annual Dog Walk, she said, an event sponsored by Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation designed to highlight animal adoption efforts.

Dogs being brought to events and festivals in Franklin and posing hazards to others simply hasn’t been an issue to date in that town, said Franklin Planner Mike Grubbermann. For whatever reason, bringing dogs out into Franklin isn’t a particularly popular pastime, he said.

Pat Thomas, who lives in Sylva and is co-owner of City Lights Café on East Jackson Street, said that she’d be extremely disappointed and even shocked if dogs were banned at Sylva-based events and festivals.

The restaurant has a “pet friendly” patio so that people’s pets can be with there while their owners’ dine.

“In this day and age where pets are considered a part of the family, I cannot imagine not being able to bring my pet dog to an outdoor festival,” Thomas said. “Many visitors that come to this area vacation with their pets. I feel the demographic we are speaking of, in the majority, are responsible pet owners, whether they are visiting, or they reside here. I can definitely say that if I knew an area wasn’t pet friendly, I’d be reluctant to vacation there and would also not suggest the area to any friends.”


If numbers truly tell the tale, then there are a lot of people living in Cullowhee who care a great deal about the future of that community. More than 100 of them turned out last week for a meeting at Cullowhee Valley School on how to handle the challenges and opportunities that speedy growth promises to bring.

Cullowhee, with Western Carolina University serving as its heartbeat, grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district to speak of.  

Speakers at the meeting emphasized that they do not expect Cullowhee’s growth rate to slow anytime soon, and that planning will be key to handling what’s sure to come.

Wanda Kidd, a retired Baptist campus minister at WCU, noted that Cullowhee’s struggle to identify itself was further weakened when the high school there closed in 1988.

“When schools are closing, you have to redefine your identity,” Kidd said, adding that communities can often find that spirit by rallying around other institutions such as volunteer fire departments.

“We need to find how to support that, and maybe find some other ways to hook into that identity,” Kidd said.

She also suggested, to the obvious approval of many in the large crowd, that signs be placed around Cullowhee to help cement the community’s presence.

“I love living in Cullowhee, and I want everybody else to get that sense of community,” Kidd said.

County Planner Gerald Green said that like Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher, he has no doubts that more growth in the Cullowhee township is inevitable.

“Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t call my office wanting to talk about new student housing,” Green said.

Clark Corwin, a Forest Hills town council member, said that he believes WCU needs to tie itself not just to younger students, but with older Cullowhee residents “who are vested” in the community: retired faculty and staff, students who stay after graduating, plus people who simply like Cullowhee and choose to make their homes there.

“There is an opportunity to provide services,” said Corwin, noting there could be cultural events targeting this hidden population plus learning opportunities through the university.

SEE ALSO: New chancellor makes inherited vision for Millennial Campus his own

Business owner Robin Lang raised the possibility of a planning board being formed to help guide the Cullowhee community. That received a thumbs down from at least one audience member, Jim Calderbank, who lives in Waynesville but has ties into the Cullowhee community. He called for “one overreaching group or individual” with “competency and experience in community development and redevelopment” rather than a board of people.

Belcher described future growth at WCU as “a foregone conclusion.” But the chancellor noted WCU, at least for now, lacks critical infrastructure such as housing and parking needed to support growth, meaning additional population increases probably will be incremental and not immediate.

This could provide leaders and community members with the necessary time lapse for critically needed planning.

Belcher said that WCU would likely tackle the parking issue by building a parking garage, noting congregating cars in one central location is friendlier to the environment than building several individual parking lots. Off-campus housing construction is sure to take place, too, the chancellor said.

WCU’s chancellor said that Cullowhee and WCU’s futures are inextricably linked.

“And I want Cullowhee to be that community that will help me attract the best and brightest students,” Belcher said, emphasizing that he is “committed … to bringing the university to the table,” and adding his personal willingness to “sit down and talk about these issues.”


How important is WCU to Jackson County?

• Recent WCU new construction: nearly $190 million

• Recent WCU building renovations: $50.3 million

• WCU future construction/renovations: $233 million

• Recent off-campus residential apartments: $23.6 million


The driver for growth at Western Carolina University and the Cullowhee could come via the Millennial Campus, but what to do with the 344-acre tract across the highway, and how to do it, remains elusive.

When the university bought the tract in 2005, doubling the doubling the size of WCU’s property holdings, some criticized the move as out-of-keeping with the university’s mission, unrealistic and wasteful of taxpayers’ dollars.

Former WCU Chancellor John Bardo had a sweeping vision for this Millennial Campus: He talked about melding academics, research, private industry, business and student housing into one vibrant entity.

New Chancellor David Belcher has inherited his predecessor’s blueprint, but has a tough job of actually making it happen during these hard-knock economic times. Belcher, however, indicated last week that he might be eyeing private enterprise to help jumpstart the project.

“That will be a great asset for the region, but that kind of development is going to have implications,” Belcher said. “You suddenly have a booming population … businesses will follow.”

The university has the right, under state law, to initiate the type of private development Belcher envisions on this Millennial Campus as long as WCU adheres to its academic mission. Belcher said that he anticipates the arrival of health clinics and doctors’ offices, where students could work and learn in a private-public set-up anchored by the new 160,000-square-foot, $46 million health and human sciences building.

He did not say whether WCU is now actively recruiting such private development.

SEE ALSO: Cullowhee emerges as Jackson's hotspot for growth

The intention is for the health and human sciences building to serve as the cornerstone of a retirement, aging and health “neighborhood.” It would be a place where students and faculty would study and teach alongside a mixed-use area with the Belcher-envisioned private health-care providers, medical-device companies and specialized clinics.

The health and human sciences building is scheduled to open for classes this fall.

Belcher has put together a taskforce to study and think strategically about the university’s Millennial Campus. The group has been meeting since January.


Big dreams, little substance: WCU’s Millennial Campus

Seven years ago, using $2.87 million in state bond money, Western Carolina University bought 344 acres of land across the highway. The idea was to build a Millennial Campus, a showcase of how academics, research, private business and housing could be combined to enhance education.

To date the potential of the Millennial Campus has gone largely untapped. The mostly flat tract is home to just a single building: the $46 million health and human sciences building, set to open for classes this fall.

A new education building was next on the list, but has been sidelined because of funding shortfalls in the state budget.

University officials have estimated that up to 75 percent of the land, extending from the property line of the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching past the Jackson County Airport and along Little Savannah Road, is suitable for building. The land is across N.C. 107 from WCU’s main campus.


During the past four years Western Carolina University has been hit with $30 million in cumulative budget cuts, a university lobotomy of sorts that has resulted in larger class sizes, consolidation of some academic programs and restructurings of certain departments.

Tuition this academic year increased by 9.9 percent, or $399. Fees, too, have gone up by some $151 per student this year.

This means one could easily and accurately argue that students at WCU are paying more for less.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why WCU student Andy Miller, who has taken an active role on campus highlighting what budget cuts there really mean, was less than thrilled to learn that his former chancellor is pulling down $280,000 this year for conducting research. John Bardo retired as WCU’s chancellor last summer but has continued to make his full salary.

“Let us say he is doing research, and even that it is great research. I still think it’s unjust and unfair to pay $280,000 for research,” Miller said.

In addition to the large salary, Bardo receives a fringe-benefits package that includes retirement and health insurance. The retired chancellor did have to give up the university-provided car and free house, however. Those perks transferred to new WCU’s new chancellor, David Belcher.


‘Demoralizing’ to faculty, staff

Bardo is not the only university chancellor in the state who was able to keep his salary for an additional year after retiring. Chancellors across the state have been entitled to the same benefits. The policy was revised, however, in 2010 by the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

Board members decided the policy, the one Bardo falls under, was overly generous and did not hold outgoing chancellors and presidents accountable for the money they were earning.

The new policy allows chancellors and presidents who are returning to the classroom six months pay at levels that are in-line with other faculty. It also specifies certain work requirements be met and stipulates that before and after reviews be conducted of any research done.

SEE ALSO: WCU's former chancellor makes $280,000 this year for project research

The change in 2010 only applied to incoming chancellors and presidents such as Belcher, not Bardo and a cadre of other UNC university chancellors and presidents. Specifically, the old policy states that Bardo and these other men and women are entitled to an extra year of salary, paid for by their respective institutions, for a year’s research leave if they meet a couple conditions: They must have served for at least five years and must agree to become a faculty member for a nine-month appointment after their 12 months of research is completed.

Bardo meets that litmus test. He served some 16 years at WCU. And, the longtime administrator said he would return to the classroom to teach as a member of the university’s faculty.

“I do not yet know what I will be teaching. Once that is set, I will begin to do specific work related to those classes,” Bardo wrote in an email interview.

The salary Bardo will receive for nine months as a WCU faculty member isn’t shabby: $168,000, or 60 percent of his chancellor’s salary of $280,000.

That’s more than double the average salary for WCU faculty of $74,215. None of these WCU employees have been given raises in four years, making the current payments to Bardo seem, to critics such as Miller at least, especially egregious in such fiscally austere times.

It’s not just a student finding the large sums of dollars being doled out a bit hard to swallow. Professor Daryl Hale, who teaches in the department of philosophy and religion, described the situation as “demoralizing.”

“But, it’s also demoralizing to hear about any number of football coaches who get in excess of $200,000 for losing seasons, or to be told by the UNC general administration that what really matters are continuing athletic programs, no matter what the exorbitant costs,” Hale said in an email. “And then, faculty are constantly given the lame response that all this comes from ‘different pots,’ which even if true, shows no compassion when it comes from those voting themselves huge salary increases … I guess the bigger question to ask (now I step into my role as a moral philosopher): Is this really the sort of university system or society we want to live in and hand on to our students and children?”

And, Professor Catherine Carter of WCU’s English department raised questions about accountability and what precisely the university can anticipate in return for the $280,000 Bardo is receiving.

“I hope WCU can expect some really amazing research, considering that I can’t get funded to visit Berkeley for a week to work with primary sources and live in a very Spartan dorm while I’m there,” Carter said. “And, I certainly hope that as WCU makes its terms with new faculty and administration, it’ll remember this and choose its priorities accordingly.”


Paying statewide

Bardo is part of an older echelon of chancellors who have cost North Carolina and will continue to cost North Carolina — of the UNC chancellors who have stepped down since 1994, six (including Bardo) were granted a one-year research leave under their chancellors’ salary. This money is “to retool before returning to the classroom,” said Joni Worthington, spokeswoman for the UNC Board of Governors.

Worthington said the cumulative total of these retired chancellors’ ending salaries was $1.27 million.   

But, there are more chancellors in the pipeline who fall under the old policy. Of the 17 UNC chancellors today, 12 will potentially have the option of drawing an additional year’s salary when they retire. Their current annual salaries are a combined total $1.9 million.

That said, as of this month, only seven of them have served as chancellor for five years or more, as required under the policy. Two more will cross that minimum service threshold later this year. The other three have another couple of years to reach the five-year mark to qualify.

According to the American Council on Education, the average tenure of presidents and chancellors at American universities is eight-and-a-half years. But even if chancellors and presidents qualify, that does not mean they’ll want to conduct research and then teach.

“It is highly unlikely, based on past experience, that all of these chancellors would exercise their retreat rights and return to the classroom after a one-year leave,” Worthington said.

Here’s the context: of the 17 men and women preceding this latest crop of chancellors, six resigned to accept positions at other institutions, one retired and chose not to return to the classroom; four resigned their administrative positions with fewer than five years of service and were granted leaves of six months or less. Only six opted to return to the classroom after a one-year leave.

Worthington said allowing senior administrators to take a faculty position (with a certain time period to “retool”) when they retire or otherwise step down has been an accepted practice for decades in American higher education.


Demanding accountability

In 2003, the board of governors required every university board of trustees to adopt a policy on administrative separation of presidents and chancellors. This was an effort to make UNC campuses more competitive and bring consistency to practices, according to Worthington. In 2005, a uniform statewide policy was instituted, the one now benefiting Bardo.

But following an examination of the policy in 2009, the system decided “that UNC’s policies overall might be slightly more generous than those of public universities elsewhere — both in the length of leaves permitted and their levels of pay — and modified the policy accordingly,” Worthington said.

The new policy isn’t as generous as the old. The leave is for six months, with the possibility of an additional six months if approved by the UNC president. The salary during the leave is to be “commensurate with salaries of faculty members” of comparable rank and experience.

The departed chancellors who take the leave promise they’ll return to classrooms must submit a work plan. This plan is required to include a description of expected outcomes. The plan undergoes review by both the UNC president and board of governors. When completed, the former chancellor is required to submit a “summary report” to the UNC system and the local board of trustees that is involved.


What would $280,000 get the university?

• At $12,551 apiece, WCU could pay for 22 instate, full-ride football scholarships each year to help bolster the struggling football program.

• At an average of $74,215 each, WCU could hire almost four faculty members.

• Administrators come at about $62,674, so WCU could hire at least four of them, too.

• Staff are much less expensive at merely $35,316 or so each; WCU could hire almost eight.


WCU’s top earners

David Belcher, Chancellor


Effective July 1, 2012

Robert Edwards, Vice chancellor for administration and finance


Effective July 1, 2011

Beth Lofquist, Interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs


Effective July 11, 2011

Sam Miller, Vice chancellor for student affairs


Effective Aug. 1, 2007

Clifton Metcalf, Vice chancellor for advancement and external affairs


Effective Jan. 15, 2001


John Bardo, former chancellor of Western Carolina University, is being paid $280,000 this year to retool for a return to the classroom and to conduct academic research.

Bardo wrote that his research concerns the relationships between higher education, the economy and community development. The theme is a familiar one that he often addressed and promoted during his time as WCU’s chancellor.

“This is a particularly important question given changes in the economy related to technology and globalization,” the former chancellor wrote in an email interview, adding that the work has required assembling a large-scale database on all 50 states.

“… that has allowed me to look at statistical predictors of unemployment, the demand for educated workers, median household income, and per capita state GDP,” Bardo wrote. “Also as a part of this work I have been able to identify statistical structural components of the state-level new economy; structural components of university activities; and structural components of enrollment characteristics of students. Using these components I have been able to successfully statistically predict differences among the states in the key economic variables described above.”

Bardo noted that he’s building a  “live database,” so that he can add variables as they become available, allowing him to extend the analysis.

SEE ALSO: Retired WCU chancellor still on the payroll

Bardo wrote that his research would help provide an in-depth look at the nature of universities and how they link to the needs of the states, regions, and communities. The former chancellor said that he’s at work on a book-length manuscript that would make specific recommendations on two fronts:

• Ways that states might re-structure their higher education institutions to align them more with changing external conditions.

• How these recommendations affect internal university operations.

“Obviously, this research could have implications for policy in North Carolina as well as nationally,” Bardo wrote in the email.

Additionally, the former chancellor said that he’s spending time relearning software for one of his primary academic areas, “the application of research methodology and applied statistics to understanding real world problems.”

“As you can imagine, in the decades during which I was in administration a great deal changed with regard to software that supports teaching and research,” Bardo wrote. “Part of my work has involved learning the new version of the key software that supports this area of teaching. It is very different than it was two decades ago.”


Well, it might not exactly live up to the name "Polar Plunge" given the current spate of warm weather, but the dive — no, make that wade — into Bear Lake next week will help go toward paying for and helping with a really good cause.

This is the second time the Polar Plunge has been held, and registration is set for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, March 17, at the boat launch. The plunge itself begins at 11:15 a.m.

The first Polar Plunge into Bear Lake took place about a year and-a-half ago, said organizer Abigail Clayton of the Jackson County Recreation/Parks Department.

The "donation" of $30 goes to benefit Special Olympics of N.C.

Music and food is scheduled from noon until 1:30 p.m.

Clayton said that actually, even this time of year when March seems fairly warm and balmy, the water is quite frigidly cold.

"I did the one that we had before, and it really takes your breath away," Clayton said. "Some people swim around in the lake. But I was just pretty happy to get out of the lake."

Last year, you could jump into Bear Lake. This year, the lake is lower.

"People will have to run in this year, it's kind of low," Clayton said. "They'll go out to their knees."

Among those participating will be Sue Evans of Sylva, who plunged last time around, too — or at least, she waded out up to her knees.

"Does that count? But, it was exciting," Evans said, adding that the event is a cause that's near and dear to my heart.

Her daughter has special needs, Evans said, and "this is a family affair for us."

In addition to Evans and her daughter, her husband, niece and grandson will join in the polar plunge, dressed appropriately for St. Paddy's Day.

"Plungers" receive Polar Plunge T-shirts. Prospective plungers can register at the Jackson County Recreation/Parks Department or at the event.

Bear Lake Road is off N.C. 281, 4.2 miles south of the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 281.


Thanks to work obligations that have put me in Franklin several days at a time these last few weeks, I've had the opportunity in recent days to run, walk and stagger along that town's greenway.

I know I've plucked on this harp, honked this horn and beat on this drum a few times before, but I'd like to replay an oh-so-familiar tune again: greenways are cool. Greenways are great. Greenways, in fact, are just about the best legacy I can imagine elected officials creating to mark their times served in office.

I write this in the fervent hope that Jackson County will continue in its pursuit of something similar to what Macon County has created. Because if any community could use a greenway, it would be this one: I live just outside Sylva, and I'm here to tell you that this is a hard place to walk and run safely about. Or at least, to do that anywhere enjoyable — running beside the four-lane highway in the bike lanes is not my idea, or many other people's idea, of particularly enjoyable.

Swain County, my home turf, is unusually blessed in that the community has easy access to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Go out to Deep Creek any morning and you'll find scores of local residents walking the 4.2-mile roundtrip loop. Those more intrepid souls easily can add harder terrain and distance — Indian Creek Falls, Noland Creek and more. When the lake is down, many residents opt to take their walks and runs along Fontana.

What Swain County lacks is an indoor recreation center. But that's a column for another day.

Haywood County has Lake Junaluska, a great gift to those in the community looking for somewhere safe and scenic to walk and run. Back when I worked everyday in Waynesville, I'd spend early morning hours working out at Lake Junaluska, adding distance and variety by trotting along the roads winding about within the Methodist community.

Sylva is much harder than these other communities for those seeking a place to exercise outside.

Occasionally I simply run and walk the roads in the community where I live. But one gets bored, or I get bored, with doing the same workout day in and day out.

There is a trail around Southwestern Community College. And though I appreciate its existence and on occasion avail myself of that trail, frankly SCC's path would challenge a mountain goat. Some days I'm just not up to that level of workout.

When there's time I drive to the end of Locust Creek Road, navigate through the trash pile at the bottom, and run those rough roads and paths for an hour or so. That's fairly enjoyable, but I do feel odd when I round turns and come face to face with pickup trucks and ATVs with local guys four-wheeling away the day. We just wave and go our respective ways, but I worry I'm in their way and that my presence adds a potential safety issue to their traditional mud-flinging fun.

Western Carolina University, I should certainly mention, is working on a five-mile long multi-use trail.

Keep in mind that volunteers are needed to help with trail construction there this spring and summer and with ongoing maintenance. To that end there's a trail-building workshop on campus Saturday, March 24. The workshop includes a required classroom session in The Cats Den in Brown Hall from 9 a.m. until noon led by a trail care crew from the International Mountain Bicycling Association, plus lunch and afternoon work on the trails. The training will prepare volunteers to build that five-mile trail at WCU for walkers, hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers this spring and summer.

I am concerned about mixing all users together. I used to run regularly at the region's most famous mountain bike destination, Tsali Recreation Area on the Swain-Graham county lines, which has four trails. The trails are open to hikers, bikers and riders on horseback, but on a strictly enforced rotating schedule. I would never have run on a trail with the mountain bikers on a heavy-use day — it would have been dangerous for them and me.

That said, I'm happy to see any trails being built in the area, and I'm sure WCU will work out any kinks in usage as problems, if any, play out.

But what I really hope is that Jackson County moves forward with acquiring the land needed to build a true greenway system. This community, of all of the communities in this region, could truly use one.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


Macon County Planner Derek Roland will leave his post to become the Town of Franklin's planner. Current Franklin town Planner Mike Grubermann will retire this month.

"Derek has been awesome," said Lewis Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board. "He had a hard job from day one, but he really hit the ground running. Derek really cares about this county and the future of this county."

Roland, a Franklin native, joined the county in March 2009. Being Macon County's planner is not exactly a walk in the park — Macon is fiercely divided among pro-planning and anti-planning factions, with the planning board serving as the primary focus of all that ongoing angst.

Roland, however, managed to steer clear of potential hornets nests during his tenure. Despite standing room only public hearings in the county courtroom on planning matters during recent months, not once did Roland become a topic of discussion at any of those gatherings.

Roland on Monday described going to the town as "a good opportunity — not a better one, but a good one."

"I think going to the town is an opportunity for him," County Manager Jack Horton said.

Horton said he expects hiring a new planner will take some time. The county plans to start advertising the position next week. Until someone is hired, Jack Morgan, who oversees code and planning enforcement for Macon County, will cover Roland's duties. Horton said other county staff would be used, too, as needed.

He starts March 26. Roland said his first task would be to learn Franklin's Unified Development Ordinance, the town's primary planning document.


Lewis Penland doesn't attempt to deny he's a stubborn man, or soften the suggestion that he digs in the heels of his work boots ever deeper the more people try to push him around.

"The only people I care about are the ones I care about. And if I don't care for them, to hell with them," Penland said in a recent interview.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board, hasn't given one inch to anti-planning forces in the county who've painted him as a mad man run amok. A planning zealot, to hear them tell it, a rude and overbearing tyrant on a mission to corral and impede the God-given property rights of residents living in Macon County by saddling them with unnecessary and liberty-defiling rules.

That, however, is a difficult measuring tape to successfully use for sizing up Penland, given that this Macon County native is an actual, in-the-flesh land developer himself. And not a putt-putt sized mini developer, for that matter. Penland, who previously developed golf courses across the Southeast, now works for the commercial real estate arm of the Texas-based Keller Williams Realty as a golf course sales analyst. Penland's work these days is international in scope.

Penland is an unapologetic, flat-out believer in planning regulations. But Penland's reasons for supporting development guidelines might come as something of a surprise to his detractors: Yes, Penland wants to protect individual property owners, but additionally he fervently believes that the only way Macon County will ever attract the multimillion dollar housing developments is by offering protections to developers. And those, he said, come in the form of planning regulations.

"It all boils down to jobs," Penland said. "If regulations are so bad, why is there commerce going on in the other counties? Look east — Jackson, Haywood and Buncombe are starting to show signs of growth. And Jackson probably has the most stringent guidelines of anyone. Look west — they are as bad or worse than we are, and they also don't have regulations. Look at the numbers: Numbers don't have a dog in this fight. And I want jobs to come back to Franklin."

'Why bother?'

While planning detractors hoped to see him ousted, Penland last month was reappointed to his seat on the planning board by a 4-1 vote of the Macon County commissioners . Only Commissioner Ron Haven voted 'no' to Penland's reappointment.

Haven had pushed for term limits on the planning board, a move some saw as a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the long-serving Penland — a theory undergirded by an email Haven sent lambasting Penland.

While there are now term limits, they're not nearly as strict in nature as what Haven wanted. Under the newly approved term limit guidelines, given the thumbs up by the other four county commissioners, Penland can serve a three-year term, wait one year, and serve again. The limits were not retroactively applied so the limit to Penland's tenure starts now.

The planning board, and in particular Penland, emerged in the past year as a lightning rod for anti-planning factions in Macon County. An attempt by the planning board to craft a steep-slope ordinance crashed and burned after some two years work. It was replaced, under Penland's guidance and by his suggestion, with so-called "construction guidelines" that have yet, after some four months, received neither commissioners' approval nor disapproval. The guidelines, routine in nature by most counties' measures, mainly deal with how tall and steep cut and fill slopes can be and with basic road-compaction standards.

The email written by Haven about Penland led to high political drama, even by Macon County standards, and this is a community well rehearsed in dramatic showdowns over planning issues. In a bushwhack job of the English language and, more arguably, Penland's character, Haven wrote to his fellow commissioners a couple months ago: "So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way. It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board."

Early in February, in a public forum with up to 200 people present, Haven did not retract the content of his email but did openly assert that he believes Penland is "a good man."

And Penland, for his part, speaks with apparent real respect for Haven. The hotel owner turned elected political leader is someone who doesn't flinch under fire, Penland said.

"I admire Ron," Penland said. "He will stand there and he will stay the course. That's admirable."

Niceties aside, Penland still hasn't particularly enjoyed being a metaphorical marshmallow on a stick roasting over the planning-board campfire. Serving on the planning board, after all, is a volunteer job done as a form of civic duty.

"Some days, you wake up and wonder: 'Why did I even bother?'" he said, and then explained why he does: "I love the county and I do worry about the future of kids here."

Penland is married and has children. He grew up in east Franklin; Penland lives now west of town in the Cartoogechaye community.

The two sides

Sue Waldroop served as chairman of the Macon County Planning Board for six years. Though her job was tough enough, filling that role wasn't anything like what Penland has experienced.

"He's had a lot of sticks poked at him," Waldroop said.

Like Penland, this former planning board chairman is a native-born "Maconian," as the local newspaper likes to dub in print those who live in this county. Any dirt under Waldroop's nails, though, came from farming, not development.

Waldroop doesn't like what she's seeing and hearing these days in Macon County when it comes to passing what she, at least, considers reasonable, prudent safeguards on development.

"We're polarized by a group of naysayers," Waldroop said. "They've made a religion out of screaming about property rights. ... They have hindered, in particular, steep slope regulations that are so desperately needed."

If there's a Daddy Rabbit in the anti-planning faction in Macon County, that would be Don Swanson, a no apologies-sort of fellow when it comes to standing up and backing his political beliefs. Swanson calls it like he sees it, and the way he sees the situation, the planning board has long been an outright "source of agitation and embarrassment" to Macon County.

Swanson said there are too many members on the board (there are 12), and that most of those serving "are there for political reasons rather than any expertise they might offer."

"They have overreached in their efforts to regulate Macon County to the extent that our largest industry, construction, may never recover from the current economic slowdown," he said. "Land use planning at the expense of maintaining employment opportunities seems to be the aim of the board."

Swanson pointed to a recent code of conduct passed by commissioners to govern the planning board as reflecting a general "lack of civility that has been pervasive in their activities."

Those activities having taken place primarily under Penland's leadership as chairman of the planning board. One could argue that any lack of civility has been the fault, if fault it is, of both factions, and that Penland has simply been trying to ride herd, as it's said, on the equivalent of a bunch of cats.

Some of it might be unavoidable given the polarized positions. Ardent opponents of planning at the same table as advocates, expected to find common ground on a highly passionate issue, is a recipe for strife.

Decision time

Penland likes the makeup of the current board, pointing to the extremes of two current long-serving members as demonstrative of its overall balance: Susan Ervin, representing the pro-planning residents of Macon County, and Lamar Sprinkle, representing the other end of that spectrum.

"You don't need 'yes' people, and you wouldn't want all pro-planning or all the other way, either," he said.

But Penland does have concerns about future members that commissioners might opt to appoint to the planning board.

"I'm worried. You need planners who want to do planning," Penland said.

As to what exactly the planning board can accomplish at this point is unclear. They have no real direction as of yet.

"All of that's going to be up to our commissioners and to the people of this county," Penland said. "And if we really don't want planning, we need to just be done with it."


Sylva might not exactly be your classic college town — it's certainly not Chapel Hill or Boone. But efforts to bind this community with Western Carolina University have taken catamount-like bounds forward recently.

The evidence?

First, there's a "paint the towns purple" week running Monday, March 19, through Friday, March 23, with students and campus groups adorning storefronts in the official purple and gold colors of WCU. This decking out of Sylva, Dillsboro and the Cullowhee area foreshadows the official installation of new Chancellor David Belcher. He interviewed for the job just more than a year ago, and officially started last July, but the installation ceremony takes place Thursday, March 29.

Secondly, there's the fact that WCU's "First Couple," Chancellor Belcher and wife Susan, are on a first-name basis with many business owners in town. Previous sightings of top WCU administrators in town were as rare as spotting actual catamounts stalking Sylva's downtown district.

These days, though, there's a new top cat in town.

'Purple pride'

T.J. Eaves, president of WCU's Student Government Association, said that he believes the "paint the towns" purple event will help introduce more students to businesses off-campus, and help business owners in turn promote "purple pride."

"We're really looking forward to it," said Eaves, who added that "when students do get downtown, maybe they'll keep on going" after the event ends.

Randy Hooper and his wife, Debbie, own Bryson Farm Supply & Natural and Organic Food Store on N.C. 107 in Sylva. Hooper said that it's easy to underestimate the importance of WCU to the local economy, and to the financial wellbeing of his particular business as well.

"It would surprise you," Hooper said, explaining that in addition to selling food items to students and a complete inventory of food, garden and lawn items to faculty and staff, WCU's grounds crew buys much of the material for campus from Bryson Farm Supply.

"We get really good support from them," Hooper said, who wasn't sure yet what role his business might play in the paint the towns purple event.

Special deals will be offered all day March 26 by local merchants and restaurants to WCU students, faculty and staff who show their university identification cards.

Sylva town board member Lynda Sossamon, a WCU graduate and co-owner of Radio Shack, said in a prepared news release that the events are "a great reminder" of how important WCU is to Jackson County's communities.

"This is a great way to bring students, faculty and staff into Sylva and Dillsboro and to get members of the community, some of whom may have never set foot on campus, to go to campus," she said. "We truly are a part of WCU, and WCU is a part of Sylva and all of Jackson County."

Forging friendships

Dieter Kuhn, who with his wife, Sheryl Rudd, owns Heinzelmännchen Brewery, is at something of a loss to describe the first time he met the Belchers. Chancellor Belcher promptly engaged Kuhn in a lengthy intricate conversation — in the German language.

"He is totally fluent," said Kuhn, a transplant from Germany to the U.S., still clearly delighted with the unexpected language and cultural exchange with WCU's man at the helm.

Students under 21 can get birch beer and root beer at Heinzelmännchen Brewery; graduate students and faculty and staff can get the real stuff, and often do, Rudd said when asked about how important a role WCU plays at this back street in Sylva business.

Hannah Armstrong, who started as a WCU intern at Heinzelmännchen Brewery and now works for the business part time after graduating two years ago, said Sylva has a long way to go before becoming a true college town, however.

"The students are unaware in general that Sylva is even here," the Greensboro transplant said, adding that most WCU students tend to travel to Asheville for shopping and entertainment. Or they simply build bonfires in their yards and drink beer beside them there, Armstrong said.

Rudd hopes to see that indifference change. She was attired appropriately in a purple-colored shirt, and was working at the brewery on Saturday in part to adorn the business' front window in the school's colors. Rudd said that simply by being who they are — friendly and unassuming — the Belchers have begun changing the equation between the university and the community. And for the better, at least in her view.

"It has been wonderful to see them in downtown as customers," Rudd said. "They have actual conversations with you."

This was not what the town's business owners experienced in the past. Previous WCU administrators have had little to do with the local community, at least not in a direct fashion via business owners or other regular folks. In addition to the visibility of the Belchers, relations between WCU and Jackson County have seen additional improvement thanks to the rebirth of WCU's retired financial officer Chuck Wooten, who is now serving as Jackson County's manager.

Bernadette Peters' experience with this suddenly friendly WCU has been similar to that of Rudd's and Kuhn's: extremely positive. Peters is the owner of City Lights Café, located just off of Sylva's Main Street on East Jackson Street. The café's official color logo-wise is purple, giving Peters a head start on the paint the towns purple event.

The café is a frequent hangout for university types. Some of WCU's information technology crew meets there on occasion; several graduate students routinely study in the café.

Peters spoke warmly of David and Susan Belcher and the couple's visible presence in the community that is now their home.

"They call you by name," Peters said in a tone of some wonderment.

Special events

March 26 is being set aside as a day of special events in honor of the installation of David Belcher as chancellor of Western Carolina University. The day will be capped by a program at Sylva's Jackson County Public Library at 7 p.m. called "Reflections on Place: An Evening with Distinguished Storytellers" featuring Cherokee storyteller Jerry Wolfe; former N.C. Poet Laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer; and Ron Rash, WCU's Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture and author of The New York Times best-seller Serena. It will be followed by a reception.


A new strategic plan for Western Carolina University that will guide the institution's overall direction for the coming decade will be unveiled at a public forum next month.

WCU Chancellor David Belcher appointed a 36-member committee last fall to develop the plan. The group has regularly met since and is made up of representatives from within the university community and from the broader region. The planning process has included additional university and community members on various subcommittees.

The university's last strategic plan was implemented in 2008. This was prior to the economic downturn and before the state made massive cuts to its budget.

Belcher told members of WCU's board of trustees last week that he intends to bring them the plan for review in June.

But the public will get a first crack at the plan in a forum on Tuesday, April 17.

"We'll put the final draft of the plan out for consumption and invite final feedback from all quarters," said Melissa Wargo, an assistant vice chancellor in institutional research and effective planning who has led the strategic planning process.

Wargo said the planning group developed six strategic directions. These were:

• Fulfilling the educational needs of the state and region.

• Enriching the total student experience.

• Enhancing community partnerships.

• Investing in faculty and staff.

• Investing in core resources.

• Garnering support for this vision.

"These are the things that guide and inspire us, and as an institution in general," she said to the board of trustees.

Among the ideas for enhancing community partnerships is to assist in community revitalization efforts, identify and assist in economic development activities, and support local governments and schools.

"One of the things we heard strongly from the community ... was that we need to do a better job of enhancing our community partnership," Wargo said.

Paige Roberson is a member of that subcommittee. She works in planning for Jackson County and on downtown and economic development issues for Sylva. Roberson said the vision and desires of WCU to be inclusive are still much stronger than the reality. Roberson, a WCU graduate, said that she was the only Sylva community member on that community subcommittee. The others, she said, were affiliated with WCU.

"I am glad to see efforts taking place," Roberson said. "I did appreciate the interest and that they included me in it. But they need more people from the community involved if they really want community involvement."

Wargo said that one major difficulty for members of the community wanting to interact with WCU is an inability to easily communicate with the university.

"They often don't know what's going on here on campus," she said, suggesting that there might be a need for a single office with an executive level position "to support and coordinate community partnerships."

Also important, she said, is that WCU recognize and understand that "we are an arts and cultural resource for this region, and that we need to deliver on that promise."

Assumptions for WCU's strategic plan

• WCU will pursue strategically controlled enrollment growth.

• The quality of the student body will increase.

• The economic instability within the state will continue.

• The university's role in, and focus on, Western North Carolina will remain strong while its influence grows across the state and region.

• Fundraising and alternative revenue streams will become more important.

• State funding will be tied to performance.


The mental health agency Smoky Mountain Center is considering moving its headquarters from Sylva to Waynesville, taking with it some 60 jobs and the prospect of dozens more as the agency expands during the coming two years.

The prospect pleases Haywood County but disappoints Jackson County.

"It would be a huge economic development boost for the county from the influx of new jobs," Haywood County Manager Marty Stamey said. "We are looking for a win-win situation for the county."

It is anything but for Jackson County, however, which stands to lose a stable of white-collar jobs.

"This is a lose-lose for Jackson County," said Jackson Manager Chuck Wooten, terming it a potentially substantial blow to the local economy.

"People will shop where they work, get gasoline where they work," said Wooten in calculating the costs.

Smoky Mountain Center has expressed interest in the former Department of Social Services building in Waynesville. DSS outgrew the space and moved into new offices in a renovated Walmart earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Smoky Mountain Center has been on the hunt for new office space to house its growing mental health operation, which covers a 15-county area. The agency has not made a final decision, something that would fall to its board of directors. The board is meeting Thursday night and will discuss the options but may or may not vote.

"We are looking at a whole facilities development plan," said Shelly Foreman, who oversees planning and public affairs for Smoky Mountain Center.

Waynesville's old hospital is a mammoth brick building that occupies an entire block, with 125 rooms and 50,000 square feet of space. Haywood County's Department of Social Services moved out in January. A plan to convert the former hospital to low-income senior housing fell through last month, leaving the large, aging brick building in danger of standing permanently vacant unless another taker came along.

Stamey said he hopes that the building suits Smoky Mountain Center's needs.

Wooten said county officials are disappointed Smoky Mountain Center didn't contact it about the possible move sooner.

"We would have liked to know about this decision before the decision was made," Wooten said.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, said he felt Smoky Mountain Center had been less than honest and forthcoming in its dealings with the county.

"They didn't even give us a chance to talk about it," Debnam said. "They pretty much just told us it is a done deal."

While Jackson County officials believe the move is impending, Foreman said that is not the case.

"There is no decision until the board decides," said Foreman. The board includes local government officials and representatives from the 15-county area.

Foreman said several options are on the table as Smoky Mountain Center looks for new space to expand. The agency will add up to 100 jobs during the next couple of years as it begins to oversee a larger segment of mental health services.

Smoky Mountain Center will likely be adding some jobs at all three offices in its 15-county service area, which reaches as far as Boone and Lenoir. But, it is looking for a central office building where the bulk of new jobs would be based.

Smoky Mountain Center leases its current office building in Sylva. Stamey said the county has not received a formal offer from Smoky Mountain Center.

"Smoky still has to decide exactly what they want to do," Stamey said.

One reason cited for the possible move is that Waynesville is closer to Asheville, increasing the applicant pool the agency can draw from for jobs. The agency believes it will be challenging to recruit the positions it needs from Jackson County's workforce alone.

Debnam said he found that suggestion ludicrous on the face of it: Jackson County is home to Western Carolina University, the Southwestern Development Commission and Southwestern Community College and MedWest-Harris Hospital and functions as one of the region's local government hubs.

Smoky Mountain Center acts as a local management entity that oversees state funded mental health, intellectual and developmental disability, and substance abuse services. Starting this year, in addition to managing state funds, Smoky will be responsible for managing Medicaid funds for all behavioral health services in its area.

"For our 15-county area, we will become like the public health insurance company for anyone who receives mental health, developmental disability or substance abuse services through Medicaid," Foreman said.

— Writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story 


Borrow seeds in the spring, grow your garden in summer, give them back in the fall. That’s the premise of the Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library, the first seed-lending project in the region.

The concept of the seed-lending library is simple, but the possible ramifications of the project profound: Local growers will be able to check out open-pollinated or heirloom seeds in the spring and return some seed they’ve saved that next fall, in essence replacing the seed they used. Over time, project founder Jenny McPherson hopes a truly local bank of vegetable seed will be built, sustaining the community and protecting local plant diversity.

“Somebody told me that seed libraries do exist, and I got really excited about it,” said McPherson, who heads the Jackson County Farmers Market.

McPherson, who is getting her masters in library science at Western Carolina University, knew how to conduct the research necessary. She quickly discovered Richmond Grows, based in Richmond, Calif., and learned how this iconoclastic group established its seed-lending program. Richmond Grows is a nonprofit seed-lending library physically located in the public library in that city.

Jackson County ended up going another, slightly different route: Sylva Sprouts Seed is being physically located in a cabinet at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service, a home that seems to marry like interests and mutual focuses of the project and state agency.

“I really like the idea,” said Mary Ferrick, a faithful buyer at the Jackson County Farmers Market both during the winter indoors and, when the weather moderates, outdoors in downtown Sylva. “Because our seeds need to be preserved. We don’t want to be dependent on agribusiness.”

Jackie Hooper, who operates the diversified seven-acre Shared Blessings Farm in the Tuckasegee community and was selling meats, eggs, vegetables and more last Saturday morning, agreed. But Hooper also is excited about the project because she fears history could repeat itself: too few varieties of seed could spell trouble.

“I think my biggest interest is my concern that we are going to be tied in to just a few varieties of seed,” said Hooper, who recently retired from Jackson County Schools and is now devoting her attention to farming on a fulltime basis.

Take the Irish Potato Famine in Ireland between 1845 and 1849, also known as The Great Hunger. Potato blight struck, and because the Irish had only a limited variety of different potatoes, this staple crop was essentially wiped out.

In the 1970s, when the Southern corn leaf blight hit, it was this country’s turn to learn that lesson. Though three decades later many local growers fear it’s one we’ve forgotten. Fields that once produced many varieties of corn were planted with a single species because this hybrid variety had desirable, marketable qualities. The corn blight cut production by 15 percent and cost U.S. farmers and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Genetic diversity, you see, is food insurance for us all.

McPherson knows and believes this to be true, providing added impetus to get Jackson County’s project up and running as quickly as possible. It will take time to build a proper seed bank for the lending library, plus there’s a strong education component involved. Classes on seed saving will be offered, too, so that community members can participate fully in the library.

Saving some seed is easy enough. You simply let the plant do what it does naturally in the course of a season. You plant it, the plant grows, the plant goes to seed, you let the seed ripen, collect the seed, harvest the seed and store it safely. But some plants are more complicated to collect seed from, and you can quickly find yourself lost at sea when considering proper isolation distances to avoid genetic mingling and various seed-saving techniques.

That, McPherson said, is where the classes will come in. Those wheels were invented long ago, about as long as man has been saving and planting seed, in fact, and likely before the wheel itself was invented.

McPherson said six or so growers already have offered varieties of locally grown seed. The idea is that gardeners can “borrow” four or five seeds per plant that they want to grow, “and then they should bring back — and keep — some of the seeds” at the end of the season, she said.


New to Seed Saving?

Start with these ‘easy’ seeds. These seeds are great for beginners to save because they produce plants just like the ones originally planted:

basil • beans • beets • carrots • chard • eggplant • leeks • lettuce • onions • parsley • peas • peppers • spinach • sunflowers • tomatoes


Why Save Seeds?

Humans have been saving seeds for over 12,000 years. However, in our culture much of that knowledge has been lost over the last hundred years, along with significant biodiversity. When you grow and save your own seeds, you:

• Develop seed stock that is well suited to our climate.

Save money.

Mitigate our dependence on agri-business.

When you participate … you create a culture of sharing and abundance.

Learn More

Visit www.RichmondGrows.org.

Take seed-saving classes.

Join the seedsavers.org forum.

Read about seed saving at your local library.

Talk to experienced seed-saving gardeners.

Keep good garden records.

Source: Sylva Sprouts Seed Lending Library


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