Quintin Ellison

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There is a refinement to Catherine Carter’s poetry, a sense that each poem is finished, polished and complete, worked exactly the right amount and not a jot too much. There’s also in Carter’s poems an edge, a whiff of wild abandon lurking just beneath the placid surface.

This accomplished poet once published a romance novel under a pseudonym. And Carter remains fascinated by this often-maligned genre: She hopes one day to write another romance novel.

“It really was fun, and I would like to do it again,” Carter said. “I might have to try other genres first, though — it’s the generic conventions that make genre fiction most fascinating, the what-can-I-change and still have it be genre? Is it still romance if the big good-looking dominant guy is a villain? Still mystery if the detective’s kind of a goof who doesn’t solve the puzzle by intellect? Still a western if the hero talks about his feelings without being tied to a stake first, or isn’t white, or doesn’t like horses? The only way to find out is to write the book, unless someone else has already done it for you.”

These paradoxical crafted-with-care, you-better-watch-out qualities permeate Carter’s just released book of poems, The Swamp Monster at Home, just as they did her previously published book, The Memory of Gills. That book won the 2007 Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry.

Carter lives in Jackson County and teaches in Western Carolina University’s English department. She directs the English Education program. Carter is married to Brian Gastle, the English department’s head and a specialist in both medieval literature and professional writing.

Louisiana State University Press published The Swamp Monster at Home. The 68-page book was released Feb. 13.

Dive into Carter’s poems, and you know instantly that here is a person who takes form seriously, even — or most especially — when writing free verse. Carter writes knowing, respecting and honoring the rules of her craft, and she knows exactly when she should consider breaking them. The poems she writes are influenced by traditional poetic form.

That respect for craft shines through the selection of poems in The Swamp Monster at Home.

Carter sounded amused and bemused when talking about students who buck learning form because they fear doing so will “cramp” their style.

“Imagine a carpenter saying that learning to use a plane is going to ‘cramp’ his style,” Carter said, shaking her head in disbelief.

Carter’s poems generally begin as a solitary line that she hears in her mind’s ear.

“If I hear iambic pentameter, I know this is going to be a more formal poem. If it is loose, that tells me something else about the poem,” Carter said.

At age 44, Carter’s poetry is more reflective and perhaps more inwardly open and vulnerable than those pieces she’s published previously. And sense of place is strongly evident, whether Carter is writing about her tidewater home of Greensboro, Md., or about living here in Western North Carolina.

“The sense of place has been a preoccupation from the beginning, but it is a story I can’t seem to stop telling,” Carter said.

Take some of the imagery in the poem “Hydro Plant Accommodates Rafting Industry:”


“All the long drive upstream,

the rocks were knobby-dry,

the stream lay sullen, low and slow,

in broken symmetry.

Its mortal bones exposed.

Its quivering, glinting flesh

was gone to feed the power grid,

its slender nervous fish

cringing in too-warm pools ...

“The temporary flood

was short as autumn love,

with months of dust on either side

no torrent could remove,

but lit the day as love will.

Briefly the stream put on

its spangled flesh to resurrect

the shrunken skeleton.”


Carter grew up in a family that cared about literature. Her father was a biologist and her mother an English teacher. Both are now retired.

“My parents really rock, they are world-class parents,” said Carter.

Asking a writer who has influenced their work isn’t a very fair question, though it’s not unexpected in an interview. The truth is, of course, that everything a writer has ever read influences their subsequent work. That acknowledged, Carter in particular selected the work of Thomas Lux as shaping her later development as a poet. Lux is an internationally recognized writer who teaches at Georgia Tech.

“He has a dark and funny sensibility that really speaks to me,” said Carter, adding that one of her most productive and fulfilling periods as a writer occurred during a workshop/retreat led by Lux.

Carter also spoke with admiration about fellow Jackson County poets and writers Ron Rash and Kay Byer. She credits Byer for persuading LSU Press to seriously consider her first book of poems.

“That they even looked at it was because of Kay, and I owe that to her,” Carter said.

Carter to read at City Lights

Catherine Carter will read from The Swamp Monster at Home at 7 p.m. Friday, March 9, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.


A sampling

That Time Again

While I wake in the black

Early morning, the morning

star is Saturn, burning

yellow and steady in the window’s

icewater square like a warning

flare. You lumber toward the shower

and returning day, while in the winter

night Saturn and I

stare at each other, wary,

cold as two diamonds.

You have left your shirt

on the quilt, its warmth

turning thin in the chill.

After a while I lean

out stealthy and quick and catch

it under the cover by its collar,

hide it against my side

where Saturn won’t see.


November Evening, Splitting Firewood

A neighbor drones his leaves away

with a leafblower, another combs

his with a rasping rake, while in my leaves

I stand ankle-deep, braced to the slow

swing of the axe. The damp heavy logs

are splotched bright with fungal jelly

like orange marmalade, like flesh if flesh

were the color of goldfish. Witches’ butter:

in old stories it means a hex.

Maybe I’ll scoop it off the log.

Spread it on my neighbors’ toast,

act for the lost leaves.

Maybe there’ll be a golden quiver, an alien

taste, and then leaves

sifting over their quiet bodies,

slowly covering them under. But I

am the only witch here now,

writing dark thoughts

on the dry paper that whispers

under my soles, changing cold weight

and wood into heat, into light the color

of witches’ butter.


Promise Land

They’ve never seen it spelled,

I guess, only heard it said

in church: so when they write it down,

the Promised Land, heaven, becomes this other

thing, the Promise Land. Their heaven

is the land of promises, where

eternal checks are always in the mail

and every morning finds us in the gym.

Where those jeans, you swear, make me look small.

Where of course Monsanto doesn’t plot

to own each seed of every spear of corn.

Where your senators really read your mail. Where

we’ll see the beloved dead again, and never wish

we hadn’t. And it’s the land where you and I

can each admire and like and love the other

forever, forever, I promise, forever.


I unpacked my *euphonium recently — my first love was music; writing was a fallback position — and started fooling with it again. Despite not having held this horn more than just a few times in some two decades, I’m rediscovering deeply familiar patterns. I’ve also suddenly grasped that I’m less thinking and more instinctual than I might prefer to believe: Methods of doing and being have hardwired my brain.

I found myself holding and inserting the mouthpiece into the instrument in a particular manner — into the horn’s leadpipe, a quick turn to the right and click, the mouthpiece shank is locked safely into place. The euphonium I cradle in a certain way, a familiar, comforting feeling of completeness in my arms, like hugging a child or embracing a lover. The warm-up I used for so many years, too many years ago, I remember perfectly; though the sounds I’m producing are less than pleasing to my ear. I remember what a euphonium should sound like, and this isn’t it.

Patterns and habits dominate me much like my old cat has patterns and habits that dominate him. Edgar is physically beyond catching prey, but still he twitches into kill-it mode when birds land near his sunning spot on the porch. The grooves are deep. Say a Carolina wren lingers and Edgar hears the call of the wild, he forces himself up and starts a geriatric semblance of a stalk. Reality intervenes in the form of achy joints and molasses-like movements, and the old cat soon gives up the painful creeping in favor of comfortable snoozing.

Edgar can no more stop hunting prey than I can forget the warm-up I once sailed through as a mere introduction to hours and hours of daily practice. Today, the warm-up exhausts me, as the mere acts of twitching and attempting a stalk exhaust Edgar.

You could argue that Edgar’s response to birds is instinct and not habit, but I don’t think that is true, or at least not true in totality. I have another cat that “kills” socks. So I feel safe, sort of, in arguing that Edgar’s incessant bird stalking is in some part, at least, habit too.

Do something long enough, create an inner pattern, and it becomes part of you. For better or worse, we are what we do and do.  

Patterns are internal and external, of course. The word “patterns” speaks to habit, but more generally to repetition. Not surprisingly, once I started thinking about patterns, it seems as if I see them everywhere: patterns that drive my behavior and ones that occur in a much broader and more universal sense.

A week or so ago I was driving along the road paralleling the Tuckasegee River between Webster and Dillsboro. It was late afternoon. The sun backlit the trees and cast amazing shadows onto the blacktop. I found myself mesmerized and lost in those shadow trees, something incredibly beautiful that I normally would have driven over without appreciating.

Artists, I thought, notice such visual patterns as a matter of course. How wonderful that must be. I’m more likely to notice patterns in sound, both by ear and through the eye in my mind’s hearing, than I am visual repetition.

Spurred by the late author Frank Kermode’s wonderful book, Shakespeare’s Language, I recently reread “Hamlet” to enjoy the patterns our greatest playwright wrote. It was as if a whole new play with endlessly fascinating repetitions opened before me.

Kermode noted that Shakespeare played with hendiadys (hen-DYE-a-dees) throughout “Hamlet.” This is a literary device by which two words are linked by a conjunction to express a single idea. Or put another way, you express a single idea using two nouns instead of a noun and its qualifier. One modern example I found: “he came despite the rain and weather” rather than “he came despite the rainy weather.”

“The doubling devices give the verse its tune, or might perhaps be thought a sort of ground bass that sounds everywhere, sometimes faintly, and the few interruptions in it derive their power to surprise or amuse by the very absence of the now familiar tune,” Kermode wrote.

Examples from when Hamlet first sees the Ghost: “spirits of health, or goblin damn’d,” “airs from heaven, or blasts from hell,” “intents wicked, or charitable.”

Shakespeare was playing with his patterns. I suspect he did so with gleeful abandon (should I write, with glee and abandon?), caught in the endless possibilities of doubleness.

On a much more mundane, me-not-Shakespeare level, I found myself caught like that by those tree-shadow patterns. I just couldn’t quit seeing them after noticing them. And I haven’t quit thinking about them since.

*Euphonium: A member of the low brass family that is pitched the same as a cello or tenor voice. This is a lovely, versatile instrument that is sadly neglected in the U.S., with players relegated in this country to professional status only as members of military bands. At a certain point in my 20s, while busily auditioning for military bands in Washington, D.C., it dawned on me that perhaps I wasn’t well suited for the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy or Coast Guard … way too much telling on my part, as it were.

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


To hear Franklin Alderman Bob Scott tell it, fellow town leaders and tourism experts haven’t begun to adequately plan for and consider what an influx of some 4,000 bikers could mean to a small town of 3,500 residents.

Franklin will hold its first-ever town sanctioned motorcycle rally Aug. 17-19. The town plans to block off streets downtown for motorcycle-specific vendors to set up, plus have live bands providing entertainment during the day on Franklin’s town square at the gazebo. Also on tap is a beer garden to help slake the thirst of motorcyclists.

To say this is new for Franklin, a fairly staid mountain community in most respects, is to indulge in understatement. But, hard economic times have communities such as this one willing to experiment in the name of attracting additional dollars from tourist billfolds.

That’s not enough reason, in Scott’s book at least, to ignore possible planning-preventable pitfalls.

“Every other festival we have ever had in here has come to and worked with the town board,” Scott said. “This outfit has never come to the town board, despite this having the probability of being the biggest impact event we’ve ever had here.”

USRider News out of Georgia will be putting on and orchestrating the rally. It received a $14,000 grant from the Franklin Tourism Development Authority to market the event, using proceeds from the town’s 3-percent tax on overnight lodging.

Scott Cochran, publisher of USRider News, said Tuesday that they hope to talk to the Franklin Board of Aldermen next month.


A done deal?

Franklin Mayor Joe Collins said he believes the town simply won’t know if the motorcycle rally was a good move until it has happened.

“I am certain the event is being tendered and proffered in good faith and in the belief that it would be beneficial,” said Collins, who is a veteran attorney in Macon County.

The mayor said the modern motorcycle rally tends to be “a different breed of animal” than they once were. Motorcyclists, he noted, “have gone from the have nots to the haves,” and have the money and means that go with professional lifestyles.

“We’re obviously going to try it, then we will be able to gauge its value much more after we have one,” Collins said.

Scott, like Collins, emphasized that he, too, believes rallies have come a long way from their once scruffy, rowdy and hard-partying days.

“I’ve had three motorcycles myself,” Scott said. “But, this is something more than just a family reunion. Where are we going to put 4,000 people for three days? My feeling is that a biker rally just isn’t in keeping with what Franklin is. But, it looks like it’s a done deal.”

Maggie Valley, king of motorcycle rallies in WNC with five on its calendar this year, has grappled at times with the onslaught of bikes on the town’s roads. But while Maggie Valley and Cherokee, too, have long hosted motorcycle rallies, they generally are held in fields and outdoor festival venues rather than directly in downtowns.

Cochran, the promoter, said he believes Franklin will be happy with the results of its first motorcycle rally.

“There are always going to be some concerns we won’t be able to address until the event happens,” Cochran said Tuesday. “It’s just going to take the rally happening to see what we are saying is true.”


Merchants seem to favor rally

An informal survey of merchants and business employees on Main Street seemed to mainly reveal curiosity about what this could mean for Franklin, with the hope that cash registers will be working overtime.

“We’ve never had a problem with those motorcyclists who come through Franklin,” said Linda McKay of N.C. Mountain Made. “Their wives always want to shop.”

McKay said that the downtown closing will take place from Macon County’s Courthouse to Harrison Avenue, which means downtown businesses won’t suffer. That area is fairly limited in nature, to funeral homes, a restaurant and a few other places.

“Bob (Scott) is the only one I’ve heard about who is against it,” McKay said. “But anytime you have anything going on downtown, it helps the merchants.”

Rennie Davant, who volunteers at the Macon County Art Association’s Uptown Gallery, agreed with McKay. A recent downtown festival, she said, “brought people in, and it was fun.”

Davant noted that it was about 2 p.m. on a Saturday and that this reporter was only the fifth person to cross the store’s threshold. A little more customer action, she said, would be nice. Davant had been whiling away time talking by phone with her sister.

“We’re all for it,” Tony Hernandez hollered out emphatically from his place in the kitchen of Life’s Bounty Gift Shop and Bakery/ Café. Hernandez added that by then the store planned to be serving food in a banquet room downstairs and hoped to be offering beer and wine by then, too.

Betty Sapp, who works two days each week at Rosebud Cottage on Main Street, was slightly more reserved than Hernandez.

“If the motorcyclists are well behaved, I have no objections because it will bring business into town,” Sapp said. “If it is an unruly crowd, next year will be a different thing. But, our economy needs a shot of help.”


The Town of Sylva, in a quiet way, is busy setting a green example for its Western North Carolina neighbors.

First the fire department, and now the new police department, incorporate green, environmentally friendly components. Sylva’s police soon will take over the former library building on Main Street now that the library has moved to a new home on the hill alongside the historic courthouse.

There are a couple of common denominators in these two municipal green projects: town leaders who support these sorts of efforts and Sylva architect Odell Thompson.  

“If you can tap into that, you should,” Thompson said. “We do want to do the right thing.”

Police Chief Davis Woodard is a convert, too, adding it’s important “to go as green as possible.”

Green strategies packaged with renovations to the old library include solar cells to augment the electrical system and a solar setup to heat water for showers. Solar tubes, a form of sky lights, will provide additional natural lighting. Some of the retrofitting includes adding insulation along the brick walls inside the old library.

Town council members last week approved $786,500 to fund the renovation. Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said he believes the project will be ready to go out for bid next month.

The green elements are provided as alternatives in the bidding package, Thompson said.

“Up until the last possible second we can accept them or not,” he said.

If the cost comes in higher than the town wants to pay, it can opt to include the green features or trim them down.

The town’s new firehouse was completed a couple of years ago.

There are photovoltaic solar cells to convert the sun into electricity. To save on heating costs, hot water warmed by the sun’s rays flow through coils beneath the concrete slab in the garage bays where the trucks are parked, a form of passive, radiant heating. The slab retains heat because it has thermal mass, which helps keep temperatures warmer.

Up to eight sky lights, known these days as solar tubes, to bring in natural daylight. The building is south facing, and there’s an overhang to prevent heat buildup in summer and accept heat during the winter.

The men’s room has a waterless urinal to save on water use. Plus the building avoided the use of volatile organic compounds in the paints or carpet.


Architect wants ‘timeless’

Plans also call for a new look for the library façade on Sylva’s Main Street. The outside of the former public library is dated, even to the casual observer.

“Our goal is to make it look like a municipal building in a good sense,” Thompson said. “Secure, welcoming — not dated. This, now, is 1970s. We want something that is timeless.”

Architectural features from Sylva’s oldest building, the C.J. Harris building on Main Street that now houses Jackson General Store, provided ideas. The architect termed the creative borrowing as a way of “paying homage” to Sylva’s historic past. This includes a portico entrance, which as it sounds is a porch of sorts leading into the building, plus simplification of the roof canopy.

Inside, the police department will have women and men’s locker rooms, office space and a secure area for keeping evidence critical in criminal cases.

Outside and inside will be updated and modernized, Thompson said, adding that Chief Woodard brought a self-created lay-out for the interior space that worked with just some tweaking. Woodard said he collected ideas from visiting law enforcement facilities in Franklin, Maggie Valley and in Clay County. Plus, he said, his officers had ideas about what would make for an efficient workplace in the 6,400-square-foot building

For now, the 15-member town police, counting only fulltime employees, will continue to squeeze into the current police department on Allen Street next to town hall. The officers share just 1,000 square feet.

“We’ve been in that box too long,” Davis said.

Jackson County owned the old library building, but agreed to a property swap with the town last year. The county gave Sylva the old library building, and in exchange the town gave the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.

No jail cells will be built in the future police department. As takes place now, any prisoners detained by police will be taken to the county jail at the administration building.


Sylva police department expense breakdown

Architect and engineering: $36,000

Site work: $40,900

Construction: $561,120

Fixtures, furnishings and equipment: $76,800

Contingency: $71,680

Total: $786,500


Selling off a high-speed internet system of fiber optic lines in Sylva that belonged to the now-defunct Metrostat Communications is coming up short.

The 10-year-old company provided Sylva high-speed Internet and phone service until going under late last year. Metrostat had about $250,000 in outstanding economic development loans with Jackson County and town of Sylva.

Metrostat had put up its fiber optic lines as collateral. The county and town are in process of selling off those fiber lines — but it appears even if they manage to sell them they won’t recoup the full balance owed on the loan. Metrostat’s former system also includes towers that provide high-speed internet service via wireless signals to customers many miles away.

Frontier Communications Co. recently notified Sylva town leaders that the company isn’t interested in making an offer on Metrostat’s network after all. That would appear to leave BalsamWest FiberNET, a joint venture funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County businessman Phil Drake, as the most likely buyer of the defunct company’s assets.

BalsamWest has a 300-mile network of fiber optic lines in the far west designed to bring high-speed access not otherwise available in rural, remote counties. While BalsamWest provides a backbone, the cost of building the “last mile” to businesses wanting to hook on to the high-speed lines has proven a hurdle, and as a result the network hasn’t been tapped as well as it could.

Metrostat’s network of fiber through Sylva’s central business district and wireless towers reaching outlying areas could bring solve some of those “last mile” issues and bring new customers to BalsamWest’s table.

Ironically, Metrostat owners Robin and John Kevlin cited BalsamWest’s combination of grant-funded, public-private partnership that enabled the company to run high-speed fiber lines through rural mountain counties as a major reason for Metrostat’s demise. The large-scale nature of the telecom business made it difficult for small start-ups serving only hyper-local areas.

The county was hoping to unload the entire network, which also includes towers to deliver high-speed internet signals wirelessly to customers several miles away, but might reconsider.

“I’ve recommended we sell this entire enterprise rather than break it into components,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told Jackson County commissioners this week. “But, maybe it would be best to break out some parts.”

Cashiers Chalet Inn owner George Ware has asked commissioners to let him lease a tower on Kings Mountain that once beamed out high-speed wireless internet service so he could provide internet to his guests.


Jackson County, two failed attempts to the contrary, looks poised to once again hold hands with the county’s four towns when it comes to crafting a new economic development strategy.

How this will actually look and play out isn’t yet known. Six months were allotted to hammer out the best method of attracting and keeping jobs in this hard-knock economy.

County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam expressed impatience with efforts to date on the issue. He told leaders from Jackson County, Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills who gathered Monday night at his behest that time they might have used to undergird the local economy has been frittered away.

“We have everything in place and we need to decide where we want to go for a change instead of where we are going to be led,” Debnam said. “I feel like I’ve wasted my first year in office. I want to look back and say: ‘We got something accomplished.’”

Debnam, who ran and won in 2010 as an unaffiliated candidate, campaigned in part on promised future leadership for job retention and creation.

In name only Jackson County still has an Economic Development Commission. But County Manager Chuck Wooten indicated that it might be time even to change that.

“I try to avoid using E-D-C, it has a bad connotation or bad vibration to many people in this community,” he said. “But we are at a point that we need to decide what our next steps are. Do we wish to activate it, do we wish to activate it in some other form, or do we wish to dissolve it.”


The strategy

Jackson County is paying Ridgetop Associates, which is the husband-wife team of David and Betty Huskins, $3,500 a month for six months to help them develop a strategy. The Huskins are primarily known for work in the tourism industry through the regional entity Smoky Mountain Host, but they have extensive experience in local government and economic development issues, too. Betty Huskins is currently at work on N.C. Tomorrow, a state economic development effort by regions that she said would dovetail nicely with Jackson County’s current push into that arena.

Among other duties, the couple has been hired to conduct a county economy assessment, listing what exactly — positive and negative — the county has in terms of economic development potential.

Mayor Jim Wallace of the Village of Forest Hills said he believes that’s critical: “We need a good catalogue of what we’ve got before we can move ahead.”

County Commissioner Doug Cody said that in meetings with BalsamWest FiberNET he’d learned that Jackson County is on par “with the level of Silicon Valley, Atlanta, any major urban network” in terms of connectivity speed.

But, Cody warned, that competitive advantage would last just three to five years before other rural areas in the nation catch up or surpass Jackson County. Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Development Commission went even further, asserting that Jackson County has “the best rural (fiber) backbone in the world,” but noted that the use is limited. “Because what we don’t have is off-ramps to businesses,” Gibson said.

In other words, the network exists for amazing connectivity, but BalsamWest isn’t or can’t make the technology available to everyday business Joes because of the “last mile” challenge — the short but often costly run of fiber from the trunk line to an industry’s front door.

Still, Cody said, the capability is there, and it being there enables Jackson County to look beyond such polluting development dinosaurs as “smokestack industries.”

Time is critical, Commissioner Charles Elders said.

“It’s kind of like a drag race. We’ve got a short time to get there and we’ve got to move through the gears,” he said.


The plan

Debnam, typically freewheeling in his comments, urged the county’s two towns — Webster and Forest Hills — that limit commercial development in their zoning laws to get on board the now moving train of economic development.

“We’ve built our little silos when times were good. But times aren’t so good now,” Debnam said, adding that everyone “needs to get off their butts” and start working together on job creation and retention.

“You’ve got to take a good look at what you’re doing to help Jackson County move along,” Debnam said.

Mayor Larry Phillips of Webster verbally supported the economic development efforts, though he did not speak directly to whether his town might consider removing some of its commercial restrictions.

“I think it’s great what we have heard and I’m very excited,” Phillips said. “Let’s get going on this … I just see all kinds of potential for Jackson County.”

Debnam indicated he would meet with the mayors from each of the four towns in coming days. The plan is to develop a five-year strategy to tackle economic development. Wooten indicated the county would likely move toward hiring someone in-house to oversee economic development.


Same tune, different verse?

Technically Jackson County has an Economic Development Commission. It exists in name only, however.

About four years ago a joint EDC formed by Jackson County and the four towns imploded amidst bureaucratic turf wars. The director resigned; the board quit meeting; members resigned one by one and replacements by the county and towns weren’t forthcoming.

It actually marked the second EDC meltdown in Jackson. The prior EDC fell apart in 2005 amid controversy and allegations of financial mismanagement.

There’s still money in the pot, though, a total of $425,000, which includes a transfer of $335,000 from the 2005 failed EDC plus money from each entity involved. Jackson County and the four towns were contributing $1 for each resident.

Here’s what each Jackson entity, percentage-wise, has “bought” in terms of equity for their contributions to the EDC pocketbook:

• Jackson County: $382,064.84, or 89.79 percent.

• Dillsboro: $2,850.91, or .67 percent.

• Forest Hills: $4,042.34, or .95 percent.

• Sylva: $29,743.10, or 6.99 percent.

• Webster: $6,808.15 or 1.60 percent.


There’s a meeting this week to determine the future of “The Liar’s Bench.” This is a two-year-old throwback of sorts to the old-timey variety show, a gathering of local talent for the enjoyment, amusement and, on occasion, the edification of audiences.

The Liar’s Bench showcases authentic Southern Appalachian culture. None of your hee-haw tricks are found and exploited on this stage. Just good music, interesting and funny stories, and dramatic renderings of life as it really once was, and often is today, here in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Lack of money, however, that too-frequent destroyer of art, music, literature and dreams, is threatening to bring The Liar’s Bench to an end. Performances featuring some of the region’s best entertainers will continue through March and maybe into April at the Mountain Heritage Center on the campus of Western Carolina University and elsewhere in the region.

But after that? Well, the situation isn’t pretty.

“Finances might kill The Liar’s Bench,” founder Gary Carden said. “It has to be able to sustain itself. I’ve depended on the good will of people — really, taken advantage of them — for far too long. We hope we’ll do this again, but it’s not certain. Our future is none too secure.”

A show from The Liar’s Bench this past October was featured on the syndicated television program “Life in the Carolinas.” That’s hitting the big-time for any local talent venue. But, no matter how gratifying to those involved, even Carolinas-wide recognition doesn’t pay the bills.

Carden said the musicians and other performers need compensation to, in turn, sustain themselves and their families financially. He remains hopeful that a plan can be formulated to accomplish both those goals: saving The Liar’s Bench and paying the performers. But exactly what form that plan might take, and who precisely will develop this save-the-day plan, remain unsolved mysteries.


Crowd shrinks with ticket sales

The stage at the Mountain Heritage Center is small and intimate. The performance hall seems a perfect venue for this type of show, which generally features one entertainer at a time. The acoustics are good, the lighting well placed, the performers nicely rehearsed.

A couple of regulars for The Liar’s Bench weren’t here on this night, poet and musician Barbara Duncan and musician Eric Young. But Carden, Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach, claw-hammer guitar specialist Paul Iarussi and vocalist/musician William Ritter (the “boy genius” as Carden dubs this exceptional talent) were ready to take the stage. So were guitarist and singer Ken Beck, vocalist/musician Karen Barnes and dramatic monologist Tom Dewees, who would perform Carden’s dramatic work, “Coy.”

On this night, un-typically, admission of $10 per person was collected at the door as part of an attempt to try to stem the tide of financial insolvency. Admission was charged at a show earlier in February, too. Usually the show is free; the crowd tonight was considerably smaller than usual.

Carden, as ringmaster, was nattily attired in a white dress shirt and black pants and black vest. This was Carden in his native element, in full throat and happily on stage even when down in the audience hugging those he knew and shaking hands with those he didn’t.

Carden said he originally conceived of The Liar’s Bench as an opportunity to tell stories.

SEE ALSO: Sylva’s Gary Carden a true Southern Appalachian original

“When local musicians and poets agreed to perform, I realized that perhaps The Liar’s Bench was an opportunity to do more than merely entertain the audience,” he said. “Gradually, the show has become a means of showcasing Appalachian culture and presenting it with integrity and authenticity.”

If the show goes under another project now in the works could be lost, too:  The Liar’s Bench and the Mountain Heritage Center have been developing a series of programs called “The Balsam Chronicles.” The project is based on the history and folklore of the region.


A future training venue

Arneach is one of the most notable performers participating in The Liar’s Bench. On this night he told two stories, one Cherokee in origin and the other about a veteran of military service. Arneach is an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and he served in the Vietnam War.

A tall, barrel-chested man, Arneach quickly captivated the audience with his booming, yet seductive, storytelling voice. His stories are relatively short, maybe 10 minutes in length tops, with defined beginnings, middles and ends. The applause when he finished was sustained and appreciative.

Arneach, in turn, is grateful to this venue and the additional people it allows him and the other entertainers involved to reach. He said that the growth of The Liar’s Bench in popularity over the past two years has been phenomenal to participate in and to watch.

“To get to see this type of diverse talent in one setting is unique to this area,” Arneach said.

He recalled the early shows at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. The Liar’s Bench rapidly outgrew the small room available there and moved through other venues before landing in its current home here at the Mountain Heritage Center. Until this month and the two attempts to fund the show by charging admission, the audience had been standing room-only, Arneach said.

The Cherokee storyteller considers The Liar’s Bench, if the performance venue can survive this financial crisis, as a potential training ground for young talent in WNC. He talked of the need to train future Cherokee storytellers because the youngest of the current group, which of course includes Arneach, is a woman in her 50s. Arneach worries the ancient stories could be lost without direct encouragement of younger Cherokee to take them up.

The Liar’s Bench could serve as a place for teaching this next generation of entertainers how to work with an audience, how to read an audience and general stagecraft tips “that I had to learn the hard-knock way,” Arneach said. “This would give them an opportunity to work on stage and learn what it’s like.”


Gary Carden didn’t realize he had an audience. He was coaching Lara Chew through a rehearsal of “Mother Jones,” a play he wrote three years ago about the famous American labor and community organizer. “Mother Jones” will be on stage for audiences in April.

Carden was seated in the front row of a small performance hall at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University.

Chew attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Macon County, as does Carden, at least when he feels able to drive over the Cowee mountain range. Chew has spent many insomnia-ridden nights memorizing this more than hour-long dramatic monologue. For the most part, with only an occasional stumble, Chew’s rendition of Carden’s work sounded smooth and true. He mostly listened in silence.

Finally Carden interrupted.

“Drag that out right there,” he urged her. “Because that’s your theme.”

Chew nodded in understanding. She repeated the section again with more emphasis. Carden smiled appreciatively, apparently pleased with the result and the responsiveness to his suggestion.

Chew later discussed working with Carden, a Sylva native who has established himself as one of this region’s most-recognizable, best-known and best-loved wordsmiths through his storytelling, plays and short stories.

At the same time, Carden has earned a reputation for being, well, mercurial.

“He speaks his mind, and I appreciate that,” Chew said. “He wrote ‘Mother Jones,’ so he knows how it’s supposed to go. Yes, he’s easy to work with.”

Carden responded, “No, I’m not. I admit that readily.”

Then Carden added a self-assessment that he can “become irrational” if something blocks what he’s trying to accomplish artistically.

“Yeah, I reluctantly admit that I am a pain in the ass. I have been called a curmudgeon, a damned old geezer, ‘Gary Contrary,’ and a waitress in a local cafe calls me ‘Mr. Grumpy.’ I wish everybody loved me, and as one of my best friends tells me, ‘Gary, you are digging your grave with your tongue.’ But so be it. If you passionately love something and want to accomplish something meaningful, you are going to have to be a pain in the ass,” he said.

Carden is nothing if not complex. He’s a mix of a man, one who can be difficult but is equally capable of great love, generosity and tenderness; and of seemingly endless patience, as on this day with Chew.


Forever abandoned

How does a man become what and who he is? Carden has spent almost a lifetime, 77 years now, trying to answer that question through written and spoken words. He has told his story, in one form or another, a million times. The characters change, the context changes, the task remains unchanged: Who am I?

The facts that make up Carden’s life history aren’t easy. His father was murdered. His mother left for Knoxville, Tenn., ostensibly for “business school,” Carden said he was told.  

“I grew up thinking that Knoxville was some magic place where my mother lived and I ran away several times, at the ages of 3 and 4, going to Knoxville,” he said. “On one occasion, I was taken to Knoxville. I now think my grandparents intended to leave me … but something miscarried, and they brought me back home with no explanation.”  

Later, Carden learned that his mother had married a man she’d met in Sylva who had told her that if she came to Knoxville — without the boy — they would get married.  

“My grandmother used to discipline me by taking me out on the front porch and pointing to a worn place near the banisters,” Carden said. “‘There is where she left you,’ she would say. ‘Now, I took you when nobody wanted you and you owe me.’”

These experiences profoundly shaped the future writer.

SEE ALSO: Shortage of dollars threatens to kill popular local show, ‘The Liar’s Bench’

“Even when you are 77 you are still an abandoned child,” Carden said.

Dot Jackson is a longtime friend of Carden’s and an unabashed fan of his work. A former reporter who was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes for work at The Charlotte Observer and at The Greenville News, Jackson has authored several nonfiction books. Her novel Refuge was published in 2006.

“Gary has made the most of a painful early childhood,” Jackson said. “As did Pat Conroy with his quick-fisted daddy, Gary has trademarked the imperfect lot of the orphaned toddler. Fact is, he’s done it with such alternating heart, pathos and comedy that like most everything else he does, it’s pretty much a work of genius. And unforgettable.

“I remember realizing, as I read more of the stuff he was writing, that he was exceptionally good. Not the kind of  ‘good’ that was learned, but the kind that is once-in-a-blue-moon born.”

Jackson remembers a young Carden expressing a possible desire to work in newspapers, where she spent most of her writing career. The South Carolina resident said being a reporter ensured her a decent living and the ability to write.

“But there was, involved in it, the business of give and take, learning to get all heated up about the fire at the trash dump, or ‘The Sewer Commission met on Thursday and took no action’ … This was not Gary’s world, and mercy kept him out of it,” she said. “He lived in a colorful, sweet-and-sour world of imagination. There were rainbows and clucking chickens and Cherokee bad words and sanctimonious uncles, and the stench of tanning hides that would have wrinkled a late-night editor’s brow — though the world would probably have loved it. Would have, and does.”


Wherefore ability?

Creative ability is a mysterious gift to comprehend anytime, why some people have it and others don’t. So how to decipher the wellsprings of Carden’s vast talent? That mystery is even more unfathomable in his case than others. Because Carden’s family was not what you’d describe as the artistic set, with the possibility, perhaps, of his father.

“He was exceptionally gifted as a musician and was reported to be able to play any musical instrument and often composed melodies off the top of his head, a talent that both awed and disturbed my grandfather. He would sometimes ask him to repeat a melody that he had just played and my father would reply, ‘I can’t, Daddy. It’s gone,’” Carden said.

The remainder of his family Carden described as “the salt of the earth.” Which means not visibly artistic, or interested in the arts, or interested in helping Carden explore his growing passion for literature.  

“No one read except my grandmother, who read Mary Rinehart novels and went to the movies each year to see ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley,’” Carden said. “There was a single bookcase in the house and it was filled with religious tracts, songbooks and They Were Expendable, a book about World War II.”

Carden was a lonely child. He had few playmates. When pressed, he’ll admit to being an outcast within his own family. Like countless isolated children have done before and since, Carden found what solace and comfort he could in books.

“I went to the barn and read and read and read,” Carden said.

When not reading, Carden listened to a small radio his uncle gave him, tuning into radio shows broadcast from the big city of Chicago straight into little Sylva. He memorized songs. He enjoyed comic books.

Eventually, and critically important to his development as a writer and storyteller, Carden discovered the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He felt in his bones the music of the Asheville writer’s “poetic language.” Carden remains as passionate today about Wolfe’s work as when he first read the novelist.

In his book Mason Jars in the Flood, Carden through one character noted that Wolfe wrote “about loneliness and loss,” the great contrapuntal themes that sound in Carden’s own life. The language, he wrote, was beautiful: “the words booming like the organ at First Methodist. I found myself responding to the sound rather than the meaning. ‘Lost! Lost!’”

Carden taught about Wolfe at one time to elderhostel students. Carden quit because, he said, it upset him when they repeated all of the “hackneyed criticisms” of Wolfe, such as “he over-wrote.”


Working on impulse

You can thank Sylva’s Fire Department for Carden’s writing career. He started writing in the ninth grade when the fire department sponsored a contest.

“I won it by counting all the matches in a box and estimated the damage I could do with them,” Carden said. “I got a trophy that immediately turned green. The next event was another contest. I won six tickets to the first production of ‘Unto These Hills,’ and had no one to give them to since my family was uninterested.”

His first stories, as Carden tells it to audiences, were relayed to “my grandfather’s chickens in a dark chicken house when I was 6 years old. My audience wasn’t attentive and tended to get hysterical during the dramatic parts.”  

Carden had polio and sclerosis. This worked to his advantage when it came time for college: He attended WCU on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship.

“There is no way I would have been able to go otherwise,” Carden said.

Carden graduated with a degree to teach English, which he did for 15 years in Georgia and North Carolina before returning to WCU for his masters in English and drama. The university later awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Carden then wrote grants for 15 years for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“It was easy to do and the money rolled in,” Carden said. “I’m not bragging because Washington was eager to fund Native Americans.”

Then Carden went deaf. He continued on with Cherokee until, Carden said, “it became embarrassing.”

“I had problems because I misunderstood what was said by contacts in Washington. Once, I remember that a consultant said, ‘How do you justify Mead?’ That is what I heard. I said I didn’t see what Mead had to do with anything, Mead being the paper plant in Sylva that was a major polluter at the time. We ended up yelling at each other until I realized that he had said, ‘How do you justify need?’ That is just a tiny example of what became a daily problem,” Carden said.

His deafness propelled him directly into fulltime storytelling.

“I was fine as long as I got to do all of the talking,” Carden said. “Then I started teaching elderhostel and most of the elderhostel sponsors were tolerant of my deafness.”

When talking or listening to people, Carden described his attempt to turn up the volume by turning his two hearing aids on full blast. Even then, catching what was said was multiple choices and simply guessing, Carden said.

“Sometimes I’d guess right, sometimes wrong,” he said.

A girlfriend of old paid three years ago for a cochlear implant despite, Carden admitted, an inability of the two to “talk for 30 minutes without shouting at each other.”

The gift transformed his life. Able to hear, his ability to function creatively exploded again into full bloom.

Writers work in different ways, some methodically and others more impulsively. Carden is in the latter camp. He often writes starting at 3 a.m., taking advantage of insomnia to do work more or less “on impulse.”

“Sometimes ideas bother me for months and even years before I finally break down and write about it,” Carden said.

Carden said he started out writing poetry, which he described without elaboration as “a terrible mistake.”

“I did a few inept short stories and finally gave it up until I wrote Mason Jars in the Flood,” he said.

Carden has written eight plays. Asked why has found drama so satisfying a form to work in, Carden explained there is something fundamental about being on stage that helps fill the hole of loneliness.

“When you are on there, people pay attention to you,” Carden said. “You get on that stage and people look at you, and you’re understood until the next day. In my mind it disproved my suspicion that I was worthless ... I was proving that I was ‘worth something.’ The problem is, this quick fix does not last. Within a day or so, the sense of being worth something fades, and you have to start looking for an opportunity to do it again.”  

Carden has in the past decade started receiving long-due recognition. Awards and general accolades for his lifetime of work have started flowing in, pleasing those who have watched him labor for so many years. Among them is Joyce Moore, the retired owner of the popular City Lights Bookstore in Sylva. She was at a recent production of Carden’s “The Liar’s Bench” with husband, Allen.

“I’m glad Gary finally seems to be hitting the big time after all the years,” Moore said. “He’s an incredibly talented person.”

Mason Jars in the Flood won the Book of the Year Award in 2001 from the Appalachian Writers Association. Two of Carden’s dramatic monologues, “Prince of Dark Corners” and “Nance Dude” have been filmed and appeared on PBS and the Discover Channel. He’s a 2006 winner of a Brown-Hudson Award in Folklore.

Carden has become a speaker at various literary events, including an upcoming appearance April 13-14 at the Carolina Literary Festival in Wadesville, where he’ll talk about storytelling becoming drama.


Works by Gary Carden

• “The Uktena,” a Cherokee “mime” play.

• A series of Cherokee plays based on the Nunnihi, street chiefs, old myths.

• “The Raindrop Waltz,” an autobiographical play that has received national exposure.

• “Mason Jars in the Flood,” an award-winning book of short stories.

• “Land’s End,” three monologues presented as a complete play.

• “Belled Buzzards, Hucksters and Grieving Specters,” a play written with Nina Anderson.

• “Papa’s Angels,” written with Colin Wilcox. Made into a movie.

• “Nance Dude,” filmed with Elizabeth Westall.

• “Prince of Dark Corners” made into a movie for PBS and Discovery Channel.

• “The Bright Forever,” a play.

• “A Sunday Evening in Webster,” a monologue.

• “Signs and Wonders,” a play. Premiered in Highlands last year.

• “Coy,” a play that was originally a part of the trilogy “Land’s End.”

• “Mother Jones,” a monologue.

• “Outlander,” a full-length play about Horace Kephart and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It will have a full musical score and will be performed this June at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville.


Even after laboring for some two decades at various news publications I can’t say that I ever particularly considered myself “a writer.” A reporter, an investigative reporter, an editor, a newspaper administrator: those were some of the labels that fit comfortably, but not writer.

It seemed, I don’t know, too literary, sensitive and highbrow for the sort of work I was doing. Covering car wrecks one day, county meetings the next, the latest political scandal the day after that.

Frankly, many of the people I worked for at those newspapers didn’t particularly value good writing, anyway. They valued fast, accurate and clean reporting, preferably delivered on deadline without any lip. I became fairly adept at that style of journalism, and often revert to straight-up and stripped-down news writing when pressured or tired. Traditional news writing is a nice method of delivering information. But that’s all it does — deliver information.

There is much more that can be done than that. Writers tell stories. Writers, including those at newspapers, can use literary devices such as foreshadowing, scene setting and character development. Writers place facts into context. Writers give readers pleasure or enrage them, but they always keep them feeling and thinking.

Fortunately, The Smoky Mountain News allows, even encourages and demands, experimentation. And since experiments generally fail more than they succeed, that can be a risky proposition for those on high. It’s much easier and safer to squelch any little writerly tendencies reporters might show. Before long, and I speak from experience, reporters simply quit trying to make their news copy interesting. The result is a boring publication that delivers information and nothing else, certainly not reader enjoyment.

The Smoky Mountain News is truly unique in being a publication that so emphatically values writers and writing. In addition to letting on-staff writers such as myself experiment, the newspaper places a strong emphasis on highlighting “literary” writers and their works. Some of the region’s best write columns and book reviews for The Smoky Mountain News, bringing their writing directly into these pages for the benefit of us all.

Because of this emphasis on good writing, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is getting to talk to and interview some of these writers. This isn’t exactly The Paris Review’s Writers at Work interview series, but within this publication’s format regional authors are encouraged to discuss their life and art at length.

There is simply no other publication I know in Western North Carolina providing this level of writer and reader service. A great example is this week’s cover story on writer, storyteller and all-around regional personality Gary Carden.

I’ve known Gary since I was 5 or 6 years old. When I was a few years older than that, say 9 or 10, I clearly remember him setting up for plays in the old school located at Mark Watson Park in Sylva. I don’t know why we were there; my parents didn’t act in plays. But my Dad wrote and Gary wrote and that made for commonalities.

What impressed me most while at that old school-turned-playhouse was stumbling across a box full of classical music cassettes. I assume they were Gary’s.

I was crazy for classical music. It was, as you might imagine, in short supply in my hometown of Bryson City. A box containing classical music recordings was, to me, better than a box full of chocolates, gold, or whatever delights you personally care to conjure up. Here I tell on myself: I stole one of Gary’s cassettes, Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and listened to it rapturously for years.

I was thinking about that tape, and what it meant to me, while interviewing him for this week’s article. He’s 77 now, I’m 45 — a bit of water has passed under the bridge for both of us.

For most writers, the opportunity to talk about writing is a delight. The shared love of writing and literature transcends everything and can bring two otherwise unlike people together more quickly than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced. Although it felt a little odd at first to interview a giant of my childhood, the time spent with Gary quickly evolved into a lovely conversation between two writers.

I enjoyed quizzing Gary on how he works, why he works and where his work emanates from. I always ask writers who has influenced their writing style the most profoundly. Gary talked about Thomas Wolfe. His eyes lit up and he had the look and sound of a true convert — I knew exactly how he felt.

Debussy had that kind of influence on me musically. And what trains the ear trains the eye, too — thanks, Gary, for that lovely tape of music, and I’m only sorry it was theft on my part and not a gift on yours.

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


A review of rules in Jackson County that guide development along the roughly five-mile stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation is steaming along but possible changes can’t come fast enough for some business owners and residents.

A petition with just fewer than 200 names protesting the current land-use ordinance landed in county commissioners’ laps this month.

David Brooks, a general contractor in the area and one of those who believes the regulations are stifling potential work opportunities, gathered the names contained in the petition. Brooks said this week that doing so was easy — he just drove along the corridor, told people what he was doing and had just one individual opt not to sign her name.

“I started at one end and came to the other,” Brooks said. “The people want it lifted.”

The petition calls on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners “to immediately repeal” the U.S. 441 corridor ordinance adopted in August 2009.

That’s unlikely to happen, however, County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

A task force was appointed last fall to review the development guidelines. It will recommend any changes to planning board, which in turn will recommend changes to county commissioners. The task force has not finished with its review, let alone kicked suggestions up to the planning board yet.

“We are at the very beginning of the review process,” Wooten said.

The development regulations were intended to prevent unsightly or out-of-character sprawl. The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. It instead lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure any development that does occur will be attractive. It also limits billboards and overly large signs, which was a source of contention when it passed.

But property owners believe their options are being limited.

“We believe that the ordinance was adopted with little input from the affected property owners, and that the ordinance causes undue hardship on property owners with the district,” the petition states. “The appearance standards, landscaping rules, and five-acre minimum lot sizes place a burden on property owners and serves to reduce property values for the citizens in this part of Jackson County.”


Pre-made decision?

The Gateway land-use plan was a landmark event when passed five years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by a county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot zoning.

Commissioner Joe Cowan, who served on the board when the ordinance passed, defended the rules recently as having been developed by people who lived in that community. The Whittier/Gateway community in a series of hearings developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway.

But, Brooks said in response, “a lot of people think the decision was made before they ever had those public meetings.”

County Planner Gerald Green last fall initiated a planning board based review of the rules. A task force of people who live and work in the corridor are involved in the examination. Green said he believes the group will have recommendations ready for the planning board this spring. Revised regulations likely will make their way for commissioner consideration in the summer.

“We’re moving forward,” Green said, adding that he does not believe goals of protecting the corridor’s character and allowing development are exclusive ones.

Currently, some older motels, a consignment shop, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor. A couple of art galleries and craft shops are at the nicer end of the spectrum. Businesses catering to tourists are few and far between, but many see the corridor, which has water and sewer, as primed for growth.

Green explained in a previous interview that he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better instead of allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip. Sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.

Monday, Green said the U.S. 441 subcommittee has indeed identified some potential “nodes.”

Also being reviewed were:

• The section of the rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. Green also was concerned that the ordinance failed to stipulate that developers couldn’t just “flip” their new businesses around, with the parking lot facing the highway anyway.

• The possibility of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor. Green has said that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.

“It was designed for flat lands, not the mountains,” Brooks said of the ordinance.

In May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441.

“Growth will come, sooner or later, and I do think we need some regulations,” Brooks said, adding that he believes the ones now in place, however, are too restrictive.


The battle of the Joneses is about to commence in Jackson County.

County Commissioner Mark Jones will appear on the ballot alongside challenger Marty Jones in November. Mark Jones is a Democrat, Marty Jones a Republican.

The Joneses will fight for the right to represent the Cashiers area.

Marty Jones and Mark Jones were on the opposite side of a heated countywide debate five years ago over mountain development regulations. Commissioner Mark Jones was part of the board that ushered in progressive regulations aimed at protecting the beauty and quality of life in the mountains.

Marty Jones, a real estate broker/owner, was a vocal opponent of the regulations, claiming they were too restrictive and deterimental to the economy.

He formed the Property Owners of Jackson County, a private-property rights advocacy group.

“Everything we predicted came true,” Marty Jones said Tuesday shortly after filing as a candidate. “I am running because I want Jackson County to get back to work.”

He said he’d help ensure that by working with the sector most flattened, such as builders and real estate agents plus the county planning department.

Democrat incumbent Mark Jones first ran and won election in 2006 and again in 2008, defeating Republican challengers each time.

But that was then and this is now. During the last election, following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

A phone message left for Mark Jones went unreturned by press time.


Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman once again has landed squarely in the crosshairs of a group devoted to protecting that legally mandated chasm between state and church.

Brigman sent a December email to his employees that included the line: “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope.”

And in a similar message posted on the schools’ website under “superintendent’s blog,” Brigman wrote: “And finally, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration as we have already received the ultimate gift and sacrifice that continues to present each of us with hope.”

Big no-nos, according the national group Freedom from Religion Foundation, which last year also censured Brigman after the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart served as a commencement speaker for tiny Nantahala School in the northwestern corner of Macon County.

Stewart offered prayers at the graduation and delivered a sermon that involved wrapping a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil. Brigman initially defended Stewart’s performance but later, under pressure, conceded that the vetting procedure by Macon County Schools for speakers had failed.

Rebecca Markert, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to the school system at that time after a local resident contacted the foundation expressing concerns about the commencement. Her letter asked that the school system take “immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” stay out of graduations in the future, which Brigman said it would do.

Markert, contacted following this more recent incident, said she was amazed that after such a recent go-round Brigman would again openly defy what the foundation considers a clear and unmistakable instance of violating the separation of church and state. A Macon County resident, as before, contacted the foundation with complaints.

“It just seems really surprising since we were in such recent contact that he’d make these overtly religious messages not only to the staff, but to the public,” Markert said from her office in Wisconsin. “I think he crossed the line and it was proselytizing.”

In her letter to Brigman this time, Markert wrote in part: “It is grossly inappropriate for you, as superintendent of Macon County Schools, to include religious references in any official public school email or blog posting, especially when those communications reach students. You, as a public school employee, have a duty to remain neutral towards religion.”

Markert noted that Brigman used a public school email account, which “cannot be used as a means of imposing your own personal religious beliefs.”

“As the ultimate educational role model for your district, it is incumbent upon you to not model unconstitutional communication lest it be emulated by principals and teachers who follow your lead,” she wrote.

For his part, Brigman said he is fully cognizant of the federal law mandating the separation of church and state.

“I am award of what can and can’t be done,” Brigman said. “I meant to wish (his staff) a Merry Christmas.”

Brigman said he planned to send Markert and the foundation a letter acknowledging their concerns.

Markert said there wouldn’t be additional fallout if Brigman did indeed follow through by doing that as promised.


In a time-wasting exercise, I was giving thought recently about my earliest memory, which is of getting my knee stuck in the balusters of a porch in my family’s house in Columbia, S.C.

We lived there briefly while my father attended graduate school at the University of South Carolina. My memory might not be particularly earth shattering, but it certainly has the virtue of earliness. I had been born but a short time before, maybe two or three years previously.

What I remember about the knee incident I pretty much spelled out in that first sentence. I can add that my mother or father rescued me. Never the sharpest knife in the drawer, I managed to get stuck several more times in the porch balusters. There apparently was enough room for me to slip my knee between but not enough, for some reason, to pull it out again.

Following the knee incident, my next vivid memory is getting locked with a friend in the bathroom of that same house in South Carolina. We couldn’t figure out how to turn the lock and free ourselves. I’m frankly unsure how this suspenseful incident resolved itself. Though it seems self evident that I was freed somehow since I’m not writing this some four decades later sitting in a bathroom of a residence in Columbia, S.C.

My trip down memory lane started after reading the highly enjoyable The Secret Life of James Thurber. Thurber was writing in response to the then just-published The Secret Life of Salvador Dali. Thurber, in his article, bemoans a lack of childhood romance and drama when compared with Dali, who recounted wild real and imagined happenings that he wrote took place when he was a young lad. Dali, of course, grew up to be a great artist. Thurber grew up to be a fantastic humorist.

Childhoods, I concluded, obviously count for something, so I thought I’d think about mine.

Dali recounted a youth peopled with glamorous and interesting adults. Thurber, an Ohio boy, made do with “mainly … 11 maternal great-aunts, all Methodists, who were staunch believers in physic, mustard plaster, and Scripture, and it was part of their dogma that artistic tendencies should be treated in the same way as hiccups or hysterics.”

I understand Thurber’s feeling of paucity, I truly do, and I feel the lack more and more the older I become. I didn’t, however, even have the great aunts he mentions. They were all well away in Virginia and North Carolina while I was undergoing my formative growth way down yonder in the Deep South.

Though in fairness, I do remember visiting my Great Aunt Tillie in Danville, Va. Tillie was short, don’t ask me why, for Lucille. Great Aunt Tillie was legally blind, but she could make out vague outlines. She was never one to let a little thing like terrible eyesight and possible visual misinterpretations blunt her acid tongue. She once heatedly accused me of biting my toenails though really my legs at the time were just propped up, where admittedly they shouldn’t have been, on the back of her sofa. But I certainly wasn’t biting my toenails, nor have I ever done such a thing — truly.

My personal story picks up steam ever so slightly when we moved from South Carolina to Starkville, Miss. We lived in a small brick ranch house in the suburbs of this fine college town. This was in 1970 I believe, and residents were still experiencing the upheavals of desegregation. But, I was too young to have much cognizance of that important historical event.

What I remember is trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. I remember learning to ride a real bicycle instead of a tricycle. That happened when my sister persuaded me to sit on a two-wheel bike. She gave it a little shove down what Mississippians and 4-year-olds on a bike for the very first time would consider a mountain — a very steep, long, scary mountain.

But of the Civil Rights movement that helped shape our great nation, I have no real memories at all. I do recollect that in first grade in the Mississippi elementary school I attended black and white children tended to sit separately, automatically and apparently voluntarily. On one occasion several black children were passing a blowpop sucker from hand to hand, sharing, but that blowpop wasn’t extended to me or the other white children. I desperately wanted a taste of the blowpop, it was cherry as I remember, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a taste, too.

Which is my recollection of the travails of desegregation in Mississippi. That’s hardly the makings of a good book, a good column or a good story, for that matter. But in the end, I accept that I am the sum of these small, rather lackluster memories, as Thurber accepted he was of his. They are what they are — we can’t all be Salvador Dali, after all. Some of us must just be ourselves.

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


Jackson County has been down this road before, but that isn’t stopping leaders from taking another look at forming a local economic development commission.

Or, to be more precise, reconstituting the county’s current Economic Development Commission.

“Because technically, there is an EDC in Jackson County,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

The county’s current EDC exists in name only, however. It has an office but no director. By-laws but no members. A mission statement but no budget.

The former EDC, which functioned as an independent entity outside county oversight, went defunct in 2005 amid controversy and allegations of financial mismanagement. Three years later, county commissioners formed a new EDC, this time under county control although representatives of each town had seats at the table.

The new attempt fell apart after less than a year, however. The director resigned. The board quit meeting. Members resigned one by one, and neither the county nor towns appointed replacements to fill their seats.

While the EDC technically exists on paper and could be restarted at any time by simply making fresh appointments to the board, Wooten believes that the county’s phantom EDC should probably be dissolved because of what he termed “bad connotations for people.” But, something needs to take its place to spur economic development in Jackson, the county manager said.

A joint meeting of county and town leaders is set for March 5 to discuss the topic. Sylva town board member Harold Hensley, for one, is happy that the county is initiating work again on the economic front.

“I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the EDC,” Hensley said. “But, I think that it could be a good thing if it is run right.”

Hensley emphasized that he’s uncertain in his own mind whether the same EDC structure used previously in Jackson County should be tried again, however.

Dillsboro Mayor Mike Fitzgerald also said he’s pleased county leaders are moving toward formal economic development efforts. But, like Hensley, he was unsure about the form he’d want to see such an effort take.

“But, it needs to be investigated,” Fitzgerald said.


Rough history for EDC

When it comes to EDC boards, Jackson County’s version is extremely unusual among counties in Western North Carolina. While most EDC’s are county-led entities, Jackson County has included town leaders in economic efforts with their own seats on the board. Wooten said he still believes that “you do need to have the municipalities at the table.”

When the EDC was thrust into turmoil in 2005 amid allegations of financial mismanagement and a lack of oversight, town representatives remained at the table even though the county pulled out. It limped along until the county opted to become re-involved.

When the board was reconstituted with a new set of bylaws, a power struggle played out between the county and the towns over who would hold the most authority. Even though the amounts of money being contributed by the county and town to the “joint” effort were disproportionate.

Jackson County kicked in $105,000 for economic development efforts. Each town put in just $1 for each resident, amounting to a few hundred for Dillsboro, Webster and Forest Hills, and $2,500 for Sylva.

The county’s new EDC director, Dorothea Megow-Dowling, resigned after less than a year, calling the entity dysfunctional. She said the county missed an opportunity by agreeing to reconstitute the board under the same structure rather than dissolving the EDC and creating a new one from scratch.

In response, the then-mayors of Sylva and Dillsboro accused the county of stripping the EDC board of its power and relegating it to a mere advisory role. Additionally, EDC ghosts from the not-so-distant past continued to haunt this newest reconstitution.

A watchdog group called Jackson County Citizens Action Group dogged the county and the members of the EDC, accusing them of financial cover-ups and a lack of diligence in safeguarding public funds.

It remains to be seen what exactly Jackson County and the four towns will do this time around.


It will be several more weeks at best before Sylva AM radio station WRGC gets back on the air, pending approval from the Federal Communications Commission to grant the station a license.

Word that the station would resume broadcasting around Valentine’s Day were rumors, said Roy Burnette, who is trying to revive the radio station. In addition to securing the license, Burnette is waiting on a final piece of funding in the form of a Jackson County economic development loan.

WRGC went dead last August, a victim of dwindling advertising dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., which currently operates radio stations in Franklin.

Burnette wants to buy the station and expand its reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County, which in theory also would expand advertising-revenue possibilities and make the station financially feasible.

Burnette, CEO of the new 540 Broadcasting Co., asked county leaders for a $289,000 loan to make his dreams come true. Jackson County commissioners have approved $179,000 of the loan outright and are poised to extend the remainder — if the county can figure out reasonable collateral to cover the loan if the radio station owner defaults. Efforts to protect the county by joining Burnette as a co-license holder on his FCC permit were rejected by the federal agency.

Of the total $289,000 loan, Burnette wanted $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 would provide $100,000 in his own dollars for working capital.

The county has agreed that payments on the loan would be deferred until May 2012 and then be paid during the next 10 years in 40 quarterly payments at an interest rate of 2 percent.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said that Jackson leaders “are still having to work through” possible collateral and that Burnette might be asked to pledge personal assets.

“He seems amenable,” Wooten said.

For his part, Burnette said he’s simply “waiting on the FCC to grant the license for a transfer.” That will also allow him on moving forward with building a new transmitter.

“Everything will be top quality — the signal and service,” Burnette said.


Macon County’s planning board lived to plan another day. Proposed retroactive term limits, which some considered punitive because they seemed to mainly target the most experienced, pro-planning of the board’s members, were rejected by commissioners.

Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland and longtime members Susan Ervin — very pro-planning — and Lamar Sprinkle — very much not pro-planning — can continue serving under this compromise.

“We have a wonderful planning board,” said Democratic Commissioner Ronnie Beale prior to the vote. “And you’ve been lampooned, laughed at — that’s not right.”

Beale and fellow Democratic Commissioner Bobby Kuppers flatly informed their Republican colleagues that they would not support retroactive term limits, setting the stage for a compromise proposal by two of the board’s three Republicans.

“This is the 500-pound gorilla in the room, so we might as well talk about it,” Kuppers said. “I believe that retroactivity — by making them retroactive — that is a thinly veiled effort … aimed at individuals.”

Many of those individuals were in fact present at the meeting. Some spoke earlier that same evening during a nearly two-hour public hearing on term limits for the planning board. Penland was not there.


Out of bounds?

The brouhaha over Macon County’s planning board ignited after Republican Commissioner Ron Haven sent a recent email expressing his concerns and misgivings about the planning board to fellow commissioners. It is unclear whether Haven understood that his email was by state law a public document. But it was, and the contents of his missive landed with the commotion of a pussycat being thrown into a dog party.

Haven, in his email bomb, accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Penland be ousted, thus targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations. Haven suggested the board possibly be abolished. He dubbed Penland a “dictator.”

Beale, who earlier that evening had drawn laughs and guffaws from the crowd at the expense of speaker and developer Michelle Masta because she doesn’t reside in Macon County, reprimanded Haven for what Beale considered unseemly behavior.

“To attack a volunteer is out of bounds,” Beale said. “To call them a dictator; that is out of bounds.”

Kuppers, too, proved eager to defend the planning board as a whole and Penland in particular. Kuppers is running for re-election. Corbin and Republican Jimmy Tate are running for their commission seats, too. Both Corbin and Tate were originally appointed, not elected, to the board.

“We don’t have to resort to accusations and ridicule,” Kuppers said.

Haven, for his part, acknowledged that he “brought the people tonight.” There was standing room only at the Macon County courtroom, which meant with overflow into the hall probably 150 to 200 people were there.

Clearly emotional and visibly red faced, Haven took a microphone in hand and stood in front of the jury box and addressed the crowd. The four other commissioners remained seated during their public comments.

“I’m not here cutting no one down,” Haven said, then accused some of “flying to conclusions.”

“‘Oh,’” Haven suddenly hollered into the microphone in an apparent imitation of those upset, “‘they are trying to throw us off the planning board.’”

“I done it out of fairness,” he told the crowd. “And this has nothing to do with politics. I want to be fair.”

A victim perhaps of his emotion, Haven never quite successfully elucidated what exactly he had intended to accomplish with the email and subsequent proposed term limits.


Macon speaks

Thirty-three people spoke during the public hearing on the term limits. Most appeared to support at least the concept of planning, which, in Macon County, should never be considered a given.

Former Planning Board Chairman Sue Waldroop defended the work done by volunteers on the board, calling it a “thankless, sometimes frustrating, undertaking.”

“Contrary to recently published charges that planning board members wish to dictate to their fellow citizens, no planning board … has that power,” she said.

Waldroop spoke against term limits, saying that it would “cripple” the board’s ability to conduct business.

Bill Crawford also spoke against the concept, saying it seemed an attempt “to remove some specific people. And that’s not right.”

But, several speakers called on commissioners to pass the term limits exactly as Haven had proposed.

“Requiring a turnover in planning board membership will lead to broader citizen participation,” said Vic Drummond. “I believe greater diversity would improve the board.”

Bruce Thorne said he believes a “new infusion” of thought via new board members was needed.

“We need new blood in the system,” Thorne said.

Planning Board Member Jimmy Goodman said he knows “plenty” of residents who want to serve but “can’t get on for political reasons.”

At times the debate went beyond term limits, as when Loretta Newton told commissioners that no one should be allowed to tell her what she can or cannot do on her private property, but that they do anyway.

“You can regulate my private use of my property. You can make it so I can’t even enjoy my property.”

Other Macon County residents called for a more “civil discourse,” as planning board member Larry Stenger put it, when discussions vital to the county surface as they surely will.


Term limits passed for planning board members

The Macon County Board of Commissioners agreed to term limits that start only after each of the planning board members completes another term in office. And, instead of the harsh three-year boot off the board before possible reappointment that was originally proposed, commissioners voted on a shortened one-year timeout.

Planning board terms of service will consist of two three-year terms, for a total of six years before the required one-year respite.

The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Ron Haven, who made the original proposal to enforce retroactive term limits, voting no. Commissioners Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers voted yes.


Not long ago Kristina and Bruce Oliver invited a local couple they’d met in nearby Franklin to come play cards with them at their newly constructed house in Diamond Falls Estates.

The phone rang about the time the visitors were expected to arrive at the subdivision, a 285-acre development in the Cartoogechaye area of Macon County bordered on three sides by the Nantahala National Forest.

The local couple apologized and said they’d misunderstood the Olivers’ directions. They had driven somewhere else by mistake. They were lost in a construction zone and weren’t sure where they were or which way to go next. Not to worry, Kristina assured them after getting a description of what the couple saw from their vehicle’s windows. Just keep going, Kristina said, that house on the hill a short distance ahead was indeed the Olivers’ new home.

Drive into Diamond Falls Estate, just out of sight of the entrance gate and the ubiquitous-to-every-mountain-development clubhouse, past the perfectly manicured expanse of lawns, and you might understand why that visiting couple was confused. The subdivision does indeed in places resemble a construction zone, even now some two years after buyers started handing over dollars for lots in what the developer touted as “North Carolina’s latest green community.”

“The primary issue is the roads. We were all told that they would be paved,” Oliver said. She and her husband paid $61,000 for their lot and built a two-story house that was completed last fall.

“We’ve put a good chunk of our retirement savings into this,” said Oliver, a former financial controller and vice president of finances for a specialty store chain.

On this rainy day the roads in Diamond Falls Estates were rough quagmires of gravel, red subsoil mud and pools of water. Without four-wheel drive, they would be impassible. The Olivers, who live fulltime in Birmingham, Ala., purchased a full-sized Nissan four-wheel drive pickup truck because, they said, of the poor condition of the subdivision’s roads.


‘A bill of goods?’

Michelle Masta and L.C. Jones of Franklin represent Diamond Falls Estates’ developer, Shirley Buafo. A message left with Buofo’s secretary at her workplace Monday in Macon, Ga., went unreturned as of press time.

To hear Masta tell it, Oliver is a bad apple spoiling an entire barrel of subdivision fun. Masta flat out accused Oliver of “telling lies” about the true situation in the subdivision. Masta said that there aren’t any issues with the roads in Diamond Falls Estates. At least, she said, on the part of the developer of Diamond Falls Estates. The real estate company that might have made promises buyers relied on? Well, that’s a different matter.

“I don’t appreciate Kristina Oliver making accusations that aren’t true,” Masta said. “We are doing everything we can out there. If a real estate agent told them something that was not true, we have no control over that – they need to go after the real estate company or report it to the N.C. Real Estate Commission.”

Masta said, not entirely accurately, that Oliver is the only one of 65 lot owners in Diamond Falls who “has a problem.” In fact, other homeowners besides Oliver are also concerned about the roads.

“We were sold a bill of goods,” lot owner Mark Moore of Atlanta said bluntly in a telephone interview.

But, Masta is correct in noting that not every lot owner is unhappy about the subdivision’s progress. Catherine Shea of Florida, who with her husband owns two lots in Diamond Falls Estates and is building on one of them next to Oliver, said she has found Masta and Jones responsive to issues and complaints.

“I’m not concerned yet; I’m really not,” Shea said.

Not that she’s A-OK with the condition of roads in the subdivision, either, however.

“The real culprit in planting a seed of negativity in Diamond Falls was the real estate company,” Shea said. “They out and out lied.”

That would be the group that marketed Diamond Falls on Oct. 4, 2010, when many of the lot owners first saw the Macon County subdivision.

“We’re not the bad guys,” Masta said of the development side of Diamond Falls Estates.


Expect tenacity

The chirpy advertising slogans that worked to attract buyers in 2010 sound so inviting: “indulge in an oasis away from the everyday;” “pure natural beauty preserved for the fortunate few.”

And there’s this paragraph in the online sales literature: “Have peace of mind knowing that protective, yet simple, building covenants will help maintain the overall beauty, theme and value at Diamond Falls Estates.”

Oliver finds it difficult to overlook the audacity of that sort of sales pitch. But, you are mistaken if you believe she’s angry. Oliver isn’t a woman who wastes much time on anger: a member of Mensa International, the high IQ society, she’s marshalling her facts and figures and laying out a strategy for moving forward. She and husband Bruce are members together in the society, a fact that was mentioned incidentally when the discussion turned to Western North Carolina’s own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, who blew up an abortion clinic in Birmingham. The Olivers, it turned out, were in Mensa with nurse Emily Lyons, who was disfigured in the explosion.

Moore said those involved have likely just crossed paths with one very intelligent woman who will work without respite to hold them accountable. Moore said he and some others in the development rely on Oliver to keep them abreast on what, for now, they claim is a lack of development in the development.


Few regs, big loopholes?

Some of the roads in the subdivision are an undeniable mess. But it could have been worse, Oliver told commissioners during a public hearing last week on planning issues (see accompanying article). That’s because the county’s subdivision ordinance will require the development company to pave the roads in at least a portion of Diamond Falls Estates, she said.

Development in Diamond Falls Estates was divided into two phases. The second phase, which included Oliver’s lot and house, was bonded, ensuring that the road will eventually be paved. This thanks to the subdivision ordinance, which was passed, enacted and amended by the time she and her husband bought a lot there last year.

A void in planning regulations is hampering development in Macon County, Oliver said. Not, as developers and anti-planning forces claim, the other way around.

“And there are a million regulations that are imposed by the developer on home owners,” Oliver said. “They just don’t want any imposed on them.”

Dan Kelley, another lot owner in Diamond Falls Estates, made a similar argument in an email sent to planning board member Al Slagle that was provided to Macon County commissioners.  

“I know of four other houses (in addition to his) that would currently be under construction if not for the lack of development in Diamond Falls,” Kelley wrote. “My position on this and others within Diamond Falls is the quickest way to stifle business is for the word to get out that promises are not being honored.”

That said, Kelley wrote a follow up the next day via an email. Masta provided Kelley’s follow up to The Smoky Mountain News. That second email noted: “I do expect promises to be kept but at the same time I believe that L.C. (Jones) has acted in good faith to comply with owners’ needs.”

Kelley noted that he believes “the main issue” involves the original real estate company “promising roads completion and then when people go to Diamond Falls and see that no roads have been asphalted that leads to suspicion and people drawing conclusions.”

For his part, however, Moore is refusing to build until there is clarity about whether the roads will or will not be paved in Diamond Falls Estates.

“I’ve always wanted to have a house back up in the mountains,” the Atlanta resident said by phone late last week. “This looked perfect, and I loved the lot.”

Moore planned on building a 2,700-square-foot house, initially to serve as a second home and ultimately to become a retirement destination. Moore has the architect’s design already in hand. He estimated that it would probably cost him a total of $700,000 to build, which isn’t chump change to local builders and contractors struggling to survive in a dour economy.

“But I’m just not going to spend that kind of money until the roads are done,” Moore said. “It’s crazy — those are four-wheel dirt tracks.”


An audit of REACH of Jackson County’s finances received by the nonprofit’s board last month show the money situation had become even more dicey than was previously made public.

The agency, which worked with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, shut down last week amid accusations of internal financial irregularities. Jackson County women and children seeking help from abusive situations are now reliant on other counties’ agencies to provide services and emergency shelter.

What primarily triggered the sudden closure was the nonpayment of payroll taxes for three quarters in 2011 to the Internal Revenue Services. The board last week fired the agency’s executive director and finance officer. The seven remaining employees were laid-off.

The audit, reviewed this week by The Smoky Mountain News, reportedly played a huge role in the board’s decision to pull the plug on the 33-year organization. Here were some of the findings of the financial review, which was dated Dec. 28 and prepared by the Waynesville firm of Gahagan, Black and Associates:

• The organization lost $128,216 in net assets for fiscal year 2010-2011.

• At the time of the financial review, REACH’s assets totaled just $58,104, but the agency had current liabilities of $200,863. That included long-term debt totaling $100,789 and unpaid payroll taxes of $76,752 (that number continued to climb, totaling about $81,000, including penalties, by the time the agency closed).

• The situation was so dire the amount of assets held by REACH couldn’t even cover its temporarily restricted obligations of $10,295. These are funds restricted in use, with dollars required to be spent in a certain timeframe or be spent for specific purposes only.

“These conditions make it uncertain as to whether the organization will be able to continue as a growing concern,” the auditors noted.


End was quick following audit release

In an interview last week, fired REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer said she waited to tell the board about the payroll tax issue until receiving the results of this audit. Roberts-Fer indicated she’d learned about the IRS problem in October. She said that she’d been in contact with the federal agency to try to work out a payment plan.

Roberts-Fer said her delay in relaying what was happening to the nonprofit’s overseeing board was justified because she wanted to give board members a complete picture of the situation, one that included solutions. Roberts-Fer said she had successfully worked out a compromise with the IRS that would have enable REACH to continue serving the community.

REACH’s board still hasn’t made any public comment except for the release of a small, prepared statement last week expressing their regrets over closing the agency.

But the auditor’s findings, coupled with the sudden appearance of an IRS agent who demanded personal financial information from board members, clearly influenced the decision to finally end the protracted death writhing of the virtually financially insolvent group.

According to Roberts-Fer, fired Finance Director Janice Mason was working within a financial system long in place at the agency. Mason has declined to comment through her former boss.

The auditor noted the following “client response” to the issue of the nonpayment of IRS payroll taxes: “The client was unaware of how to classify expenses through the accounts payable function and wrote the checks to classify expenses.”


A crisis agency in crisis

REACH’s financial practices encompassed monkeying around with paying various bills because of an ongoing funding crisis that had threatened the agency’s survival for two years. The agency put off paying payroll taxes in hopes of catching up but instead fell more and more behind.

The root of the problem started before then, however. REACH in 2001 opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. It 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.

The IRS put a lien on the property in early February because of REACH’s nonpayment of taxes. That almost boogered up last week’s scheduled transfer to Mountain Projects. But, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which was one of the original loan makers to REACH) persuaded the IRS to knock the $81,000 down to $51,000. REACH has agreed to be responsible for that debt if Mountain Projects would go through with taking over the property title.

Additional questions surfaced this week about whether REACH would even have been able to apply for and receive federal and state grants anymore since the agency both defaulted on a government loan and failed to pay the IRS. An estimated 90 percent of the nonprofit’s funding base was dependent on grant money.


Macon bailing out Jackson

In the short term, which could mean at least a couple of years, REACH of Macon County will provide services in Jackson County, including key legal services for domestic violence victims. The agency has been given a temporary office and phone at Jackson County’s social services department.

“It has seemed fairly seamless at this point,” said Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County. “We realize that Jackson County and the people of Jackson County will devise a system by which they will take this project back over; we also realize this is a process, not an event.”

REACH of Macon County expects to move into more permanent office space in Sylva March 1. That nonprofit will provide three staff members to Jackson County to ensure a continuation of services, said Andrea Anderson, director of client services for REACH of Macon County.

“The debt of gratitude the people of Jackson County owes REACH of Macon County is quite large right now,” Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, told VanHarlingen and Anderson during Monday’s commission meeting.

For now, victims fleeing abusive homes will be housed in emergency shelters in Haywood, Macon or Swain counties. That could change, however. Bob Cochran, director of the Jackson County Department of Social Services, said Mountain Projects via Patsy Dowling has offered Jackson the free use of the old emergency shelter in the former REACH Village.

VanHarlingen told Jackson County commissioners that it requires 18 to 24 months to fully setup a nonprofit agency to serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Cochran said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News that “the dust needs to settle” before the community can chart its best course of action.

“It is still early in determining the status and the final outcome of the current REACH,” Cochran said. “We hope there will be some assets left that can be used toward a rebuilding process.”

Given the audit findings, that scenario seems increasingly unlikely.

In addition to not paying the IRS, REACH failed to pay several months rent for the space housing its thrift store. A lien seeking payment on back rent has been filed with the Jackson County Clerk of Court, and there is the possibility of more creditors seeking payment. Also, some of the employees of REACH are owed back pay.

Asked if Jackson County wouldn’t be better served by simply eliminating REACH and starting anew with a different name and no baggage, Cochran responded that he couldn’t answer that question yet.

“I don’t know. I think that conversation has yet to take place,” he said.


Reading Finnegans Wake on the best of days and in the easiest sections can challenge the most erudite of readers. The eight or so members of the James Joyce group certainly fall into that category. But this past weekend, meeting in a room at Sylva’s library, they found themselves flagging in a particularly dense thicket of Joysean obscurities.

“This one was good at manual arithmetic, for he knew from his cradle why his fingers were given him,” Barbara Bates Smith, a Haywood County resident, recited aloud. “He had names for this 10 fingers: first there came book, then wigworms, then tittlies, then cheekadeekchimple, then pickpocket, with pickpocketpumb, pickpocketpoint, pickpocketprod, pickpocketpromise, and upwithem. And he had names for his four love-tried cardinals: (1) his element curdinal numen, (2) his enement curdinal marrying, (3) his epulent curdinal weisswach, and (4) his eminent curdinal Kay O’Kay.”

When she finished, everyone sat silent for a moment, bemused or stunned or both. Michael Lodico said, breaking the silence, “I think it’s all so obvious.” Everyone laughed and got down to business.

And that business is understanding and discussing Joyce, one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Joyce challenges, provokes and mystifies. The Irish poet and writer requires an endless amount of both reader patience and reader work to untangle the literary concoction (some might say mishmash) of stream of consciousness techniques, literary allusions and free-dream associations. Not to overlook, either, the profusion of puns this native Dubliner loved to weave into his tapestry of words.

A frustrated reader and critic once described Finnegans Wake as “a 628-page collection of erudite gibberish indistinguishable to most people from the familiar word salad produced by hebephrenic patients on the back wards of any state hospital.”


Seven years on Ulysses

The James Joyce group meets for a couple hours at a time once each month, sometimes in Haywood and sometimes in Jackson counties. Members are from each of those communities. To describe the people involved as meticulous, well read and intelligent somehow falls short. They have spent about four years reading Finnegans Wake together. Saturday’s meeting began on page 282 of this more than 600-page book. The group labored happily for two hours, progressing through the middle of page 287.

Joyce, you see, isn’t a writer you rush: in his case, ripeness truly is all.

The group started reading Ulysses. That required a seven-year commitment. Ulysses is Joyce’s most important work, and stands as one of the most, if not the most, important modern novels of our time.

Jean Ellen Forrister, a retired English teacher from Jackson County, started with the group about when they began reading and studying Finnegans Wake.

She said she loves the complexities of Joyce’s work, “the weirdness,” and finds untangling his writing akin to solving a complicated crossword puzzle.

“You get it to fit all together, and there’s that sort of ah-ha moment,” Forrister said, adding that reading and studying Joyce keeps a person learning and living.

In one section of Finnegans Wake irrational numbers played a role. Forrister soon found herself researching irrational numbers — which is a real number that cannot be written as a simple fraction — and entering into discussions about them with a friend who is a math teacher.

Reading Joyce can take a person down unlikely avenues indeed.

You don’t want to walk unprepared into a James Joyce group meeting, though member Karl Nicholas, who retired from the English department at Western Carolina University, apologized for doing just that. He had just returned to Sylva from attending an event honoring the poet Robert Burns, and had been sidetracked the previous evening buying tickets for an upcoming trip overseas.

Members of the group usually prepare for meetings by reading the text, and they cross-study using A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake by mythologist Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, and Annotations to Finnegans Wake by Roland McHugh.

They also rely on knowledge and skills that members individually bring into the group. Nicholas attended Catholic school, so he helps with the Catholic references, Forrister said. Nicholas and Lodico both can aid others when there are Latin difficulties. Nan Watkins can untangle knotty musical references, and so on and so on. Talk to them individually and each demurs from special knowledge or contributions, of course: “The others are scholars; my contributions are ones of support and enthusiasm. I get by,” Bates Smith said modestly.

After Bates Smith’s rendering of the “he had names for this 10 fingers,” Forrister said,

“Here’s my question. OK, in this counting system that he has, is this something unique to the kids, some little weird thing a kid made up, or is this a tradition?”

An involved discussion about counting commenced. Counting in other lands, hand symbols for numbers used in the streets of other lands, cultural mistakes that can occur when people ill advisedly use their land’s hand signals in other people’s lands.

“The French of course include the toes when they are counting,” Sandy McKinney said, offering the fact as something well known by most people.

“We’re getting the trees, but what is the forest?” Dr. Steve Wall, a pediatrician, said finally as the conversation on counting wended onward. “What is this book about? We know naught.”

The next meeting of the James Joyce group takes place at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, March 24, at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.


I was recently among a group of friends who were discussing habits — what they are and why we have them. Something I noticed pretty quickly is how those of us participating in the conversation, me included, tended to justify those habits we want to keep no matter how destructive they are for our health or emotional wellbeing.

“I don’t do this, so I should be able to do this,” the line of reasoning generally went. Or, to bring the thought from the abstract to the concrete, the logic seemed to follow this pattern: I gave up smoking (substitute your favorite addiction) so I don’t worry about eating five gallons of ice cream a night. If that’s what it takes not to smoke, oh well, I earned that right.”

The problem with this sort of reasoning is that there’s no great scorekeeper in the sky keeping tabs on our giving-ups with our substitutings. Just because I quit smoking the two packs of cigarettes a day I once smoked doesn’t mean that devouring bowls of ice cream or eating entire packs of cookies won’t kill me, too.

I have what’s commonly referred to as an addictive personality, mixed with an attractive sprinkle of obsessiveness. Anything I like a little, I soon find myself overdoing and wallowing about in excess. This extends to the obvious habits: smoking, drinking, food. But I have to be wary of over-exercising when I’m exercising, or reading one book by an author only to find myself trapped in having to read every book ever written by that author.

Which brings me to a digression: If you have a personality similar to mine, do not, I warn you, make the mistake of  “sampling” Henry James. I fell into this trap because I long felt a certain need, an itch that needed to be scratched, of filling a James gap in my education. I’d read and enjoyed James’ The Portrait of a Lady in college, but that was about my only exposure to this great writer. That being the case, last summer I decided to read “a bit” of James. Four or five months later, and I’m trapped: James was horrendously long-lived and prolific, with three distinct writing periods that included some 20 novels and what seems an endless number of shorter works.

It took me — and I’m a fast reader — about eight weeks to wade through The Wings of the Dove. I’m still not sure I even liked the damned thing. I’ve been eyeballing The Golden Bowl, but haven’t yet been able to make the mental commitment to read it. But given my personality, this isn’t as much about choice as one might think and hope. This last James novel must, at some point, be read — and I might as well admit it and start.

Recent scientific studies show that some people literally might be hardwired for addiction.

The BBC last week reported on a study of addiction that recently finished up in the United Kingdom. The news service noted it long had been established that the brains of drug addicts have some differences to those of other people. But experts were unsure whether drugs changed the wiring of the brain or if drug addicts’ brains were wired differently in the first place. Researchers studied the brains of cocaine or crack addicts with brains of  “clean” brothers or sisters. They found abnormalities in both, suggesting, they said, that addiction is in part a “disorder of the brain.”

But the study, by revealing identical abnormalities in both the addicts and their “clean” siblings, indicates more than just hopeless acceptance in the face of addictions: self control plays a role, too. The non-addicted siblings had very different lives despite sharing the same susceptibilities.

Cocaine and crack use aside, where the application of these findings are obviously of the greatest import, the study I think contains hints about behavior for the rest of us.

It’s easy for a person like myself to simply give in to my wants. But like it or not, there is an element of self-control at play. I might want to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps, yes — but do I have to? Do I need to? Of course not. And nor have I “earned” the right to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps by not having done something else. Something to perhaps chew on the next time I get a late-night eating urge.

(Now if only I could reason my way to not reading that final, very long, James novel ... of course, maybe if I do read and finish it, I’ve earned the right to eat those gingersnaps after all …)

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


When it comes to fundraising, there are a lot of different methods employed to get attention and raise critical dollars for doing good deeds. The Macon County Community Foundation, however, stands out from a crowded field with its annual mystery dinner theater.

Because in this community, the nonprofit doesn’t just hire an acting group to come into town and put on the entertainment — here, and in the recent past in Swain County under the guidance of that community foundation, members of the Macon County group’s board put their dignities on the line and participate as actual actors.

This puts Franklin Mayor Joe Collins in the role, this year, of Jack in “The Grimm Tales of Mother Goose.” Jim Breedlove, a school board member, stars as the Big Bad Wolf. Louise Henry appears as Mother Goose, Michele Hubbs as Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Theresa Ramsey as the witch and Sue LeLievre is Jill.

LeLievre, the Franklin-based regional associate for the N.C. Community Foundation, said the dinner theater play, “The Grimm Tales of Mother Goose,” came with the warning “not for children.”

“It may be a little suggestive,” she said, “but it really is funny.”

The production pokes fun at the uptight “politically correct” atmosphere of the 1990s while standing the traditional nursery rhymes on their heads. Among the twists, Mother Goose is worn to a frazzle trying to fend off the “PC Police” and prevent her characters from ending up in the tabloids. The Old Woman in a Shoe appears as the original “gimme girl,” and the audience learns what Snow White was really doing with those seven little dwarfs.

“When we started these dinner theaters, people were nervous about being in them,” LeLievre said, adding that now, however, the various community members more-or-less eagerly seek out roles.

Breedlove, for instance, a particularly mild-mannered man, inevitably goes for “cad” characters.

“And it’s not a bit like him,” LeLievre said. “But, he really gets into the part.”

Breedlove said he enjoys participating in the plays, and if the audience has fun the actors have fun, too.

“We get to step outside our normal routines and act silly for a while,” Breedlove said.

Members of the cast throughout the performance enjoy adlibing lines. Which is terrifically funny, LeLievre said, except when you are waiting on a cue to start your part in the play.

“You really never know what’s going to happen,” she said.

The audience participates by solving a mystery included in the mystery theater performance. Macon County Planner Derek Roland is starring as the “detective” in charge of that part of the entertainment. He denied being nervous, saying it’s simply performing in front of the community where he grew up and that already knows him well.

“They already understand I’m an idiot anyway, so it’s not like I’ll be a bigger idiot,” Roland said. “It sounded like fun.”


Want to Go?

What: Mystery Dinner Theater

Where: Franklin, Fat Buddies BBQ

When: 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23; Friday, Feb. 24; and Saturday, Feb. 25

Cost: $35 per person; includes dinner

Reservations: 828.524.5200


Land planning, that perennial lightening-rod topic in Macon County, will likely shape if not outright dominate the upcoming campaign for three of the five county commissioner seats.

Up for election in Macon this year are Republicans Kevin Corbin, Jimmy Tate and Democrat Bobby Kuppers.

The current five-member board has been mired in debates about land regulation, with opponents vigorously attempting to block any county efforts toward regulations, and proponents equally intent on seeing something — anything — put on Macon County’s books.

Chairman Kevin Corbin, a Republican who will seek re-election, said the land planning debate certainly dominates discussion. But he said there’s more to conducting the county business than any single issue.

“I think it’s part of it, and it gets a lot of attention. But the truth is, the county commissioner’s role is so broad,” Corbin said. “It’s only a part of what we are doing.”

That might be true, but there’s also no doubt that Macon County’s ongoing battle to determine what role, if any, the county will play in shaping development is going to be at play in this election.

“I think it will, and it’s a discussion that needs to be had,” said Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who filed for re-election on Monday seeking a second four-year term in office. “I want us to have a good-spirited discussion.”

Kuppers is facing competition from a Democratic challenger, Rick Snyder, and said that he expects Republicans will vie for the seat, too.

“But I don’t know who that would be, but I’m sure that they will,” he said. “I’d be very surprised if there is not a Republican running.”

Snyder said that he was running because he thought there was “need for a new direction,” with an emphasis on job creation. Snyder manages properties in Macon County. He said land-planning issues, however, were not triggering or influencing his decision to run.

One of the current commissioners up for election, Republican Jimmy Tate, was previously a member of the planning board. He only recently was appointed to fill an empty seat on the board of commissioners. Tate, like most of the other candidates, said he does expect planning issues to heavily influence the upcoming election.

“I wish that weren’t true, but I think it will be,” the Highlands resident said.

Tate said he does believe in land planning, and that he believes there are ways for the county to move forward on the issue.


Musical chairs makes Macon election complicated

Macon County’s commission race is complicated to say the least.

Two of the three commissioners whose seats are up for election landed on the board of commissioners after being appointed — not elected — to fill vacancies left by outgoing commissioners in the middle of their terms.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate, who is from Highlands, has only been on the board for a couple of months. He was appointed to fill the seat of former Commissioner Brian McClellan, who resigned in November following his second DWI charge. Tate, if he indeed runs as expected, will be running to fill McClellan’s unexpired term: the seat will open again in 2014.

Kevin Corbin, in turn, was appointed to fill out the remainder of state Sen. Jim Davis’ term after the commissioner-turned-state-politician beat state Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, during the last election. Corbin, who filed for election Monday, is not like Tate filling an unexpired term; his would last for the standard four years.


News that Jackson County Commissioner Joe Cowan won’t run for re-election this year has set the stage for a high-profile Democratic primary showdown between two well-known Democrats, Vicki Greene and former board Chairman Stacy Buchanan.

Greene had let her intentions be clearly known months ago that she would pursue the seat. Buchanan was something of a surprise, however, when he showed up at the county election office Monday — at the same time as Greene no less — to file for the race on the opening day of candidate registration.

Complicating the race is a bid by local builder Cliff Gregg, who Monday started the petition process necessary for unaffiliated candidates in North Carolina.

To run in November, Gregg must get the signatures of 4 percent of Jackson County voters, or roughly 1,400 names.

A second Jackson commissioner’s seat is up for election this year as well, the seat held by Democrat Mark Jones, who is expected to seek re-election.

So far, no Republicans have stepped up to run for either of the two commission seats.

GOP Chair Ralph Slaughter said Monday that he is hunting for members of his party to challenge for both seats. Candidate registration began this week and runs through the end of the month.

“I’ve talked to two or three people, but I’ve not had anyone agree to file. Talking and filing are two separate things,” Slaughter said, adding that he believes there might — emphasis on might — be a GOP candidate to vie for Cowan’s seat.

He was even less optimistic about finding anyone in the GOP to challenge Jones.

“Everyone has encouraged me to run, but I’m too old,” the 72-year-old Cashiers resident said.

The absence of Republicans is somewhat surprising given their success in the 2010 election. Following 16 years of Democratic domination, Republicans Doug Cody and Charles Elders successfully won election. Chairman Jack Debnam, an unaffiliated candidate who received GOP backing and advertising support, also won against a Democrat incumbent.

Jones first ran and won election in 2006. Jones, a Democrat, defeated challenger Nathan Moss in the Democratic primary. He then beat Republican challenger Geoff Higginbotham to win his seat.

Greene, though new to active political campaigning, has been a visible figure in Jackson County and the region for years through her work as assistant director of the Southwestern Commission overseeing government initiatives in the six western counties, a position she recently retired from. Greene cited her nearly four decades of work with various local, state and federal agencies, saying she believed that her extensive experience would serve the county well.

Buchanan would like to pick back up where he left off six years ago.

“I wanted to be able to finish a lot of things that we started,” Buchanan said in explanation, such as helping work on infrastructure that would attract new businesses to Jackson County.

Buchanan resigned in the middle of a term in March 2005 after six years on the board of commissioners. 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. Buchanan now works for America’s Home Place, a turnkey homebuilding company.

Buchanan said he believes the county, through local and higher educational efforts, has prepared a great workforce but now more jobs must be created. He pointed to small startup companies that would support the work of larger companies based in nearby cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Spartanburg, S.C.

He emphasized on Monday that he believes Democrats on the board can work with Republicans. When Buchanan was a commissioner, Democrats ruled. That all changed in the last election when an Independent, Jack Debnam, won the chairman’s position and two Republicans took seats.

“I don’t see that there would be any problem working together,” Buchanan said of the conservative board members now in office. “I think we all have the best interests of Jackson County at heart.”

Like her rival, Greene pinpointed economic development as the primary issue in the race for commissioner, indicating water needs in the Cashiers area would be one area she’d want to work on improving. Other job creation efforts are also needed, she said.

Greene said that she does support current commissioners’ recent decision to hire outside consultants to help develop an economic plan.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Jackson County to reconvene an economic development board.

Interestingly, Buchanan was board chairman when a brouhaha erupted that ultimately resulted the county’s economic development commission being dissolved, partly due to lack of results. Just weeks before resigning, Buchanan called for a “restructuring” of that board, which had run afoul of commissioners amid questions about $1.2 million in unpaid loans and generally questionable lending practices.


Pity the poor visitors trying to find their ways to Cherokee if the N.C. Department of Transportation heeds requests of local leaders in Haywood and Jackson counties when it comes to directional signs.

First, Jackson County wanted a “This way Cherokee” sign added in Haywood County that would bring visitors past their own doorstep en route to Cherokee rather than through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19.

More recently, in what smacks of tongue-in-cheek retaliation — though Maggie Valley officials might be perfectly serious, given that small town’s current economic woes — Haywood County sent an official request that the DOT install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would helpfully inform travelers from the Atlanta area they can actually reach Cherokee by coming back through Waynesville and Maggie Valley.

Amusing, perhaps, but here’s the time-travel differences for motorists: Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes fewer than 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Possible? Yes. Circuitous? Definitely.

“That’s crazy,” said John Marsh of Decatur, Ga., after listening to a CliffsNotes version of the now three-month old sign squabble. Marsh was in Dillsboro this past weekend with a friend on one of his frequent visits to this area.

“That probably seems funny to everybody to talk about, but it isn’t if you don’t know this area and how to get around. It’s confusing,” he said.

Theresa Brady, visiting the area for the first time from her home in northern Virginia, said she relies on GPS information and highway directional signs to guide her travels.

Brady was at the Huddle House in Dillsboro with friends. They’d stopped to eat on their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I don’t know what all that’s about, but it doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Signs should tell you the safest and fastest” route.

Her traveling companion, Jane Langley, agreed, saying she’d found navigating Western North Carolina difficult enough without the potential added burden of directional sign games.

“It sounds ridiculous,” Langley said.


Dillsboro reacts  

Shop owners in Dillsboro seem sympathetic toward Maggie Valley’s economic struggle to survive following the latest round of death convulsions by the theme park Ghost Town in the Sky. Dillsboro experienced something similar when Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in 2008 moved its headquarters to Bryson City and cut train routes to the small town.

Interestingly or ironically or both, railroad owner Al Harper was heavily invested in the most recent failed attempt to revive Ghost Town. One could even say Harper broke the hearts of two small WNC towns.

Be that as it may, however, the Dillsboro shop owners didn’t particularly care for the potential confusion visitors to the region would experience if the DOT pandered to Haywood County and Maggie Valley’s for an alternative sign leading Cherokee travelers the long-way around.

“The whole thing sounds pretty silly,” said Travis Berning, a potter and co-owner of Tree House Pottery on Front Street in Dillsboro. “That’s kind of a long way around to go through Haywood — (the sign) needs to show the most direct route.”

That, however, is exactly the contention of Maggie Valley leaders when it comes to Jackson County’s request for a second sign on their turf. In Haywood, the route to Cherokee through Maggie is shorter than the one through Jackson County, prompting Maggie to rebuke Jackson’s sign request there.

But, Renae Spears, a Bryson City resident who has the Kitchen Shop on the main drag in Dillsboro, pointed out that the road to Cherokee through Maggie is curvy and narrow.

“Obviously, from Dillsboro to Cherokee it is four lanes, which is the quickest and safest way to get there,” Spears said. “And if I direct anyone to Cherokee, that’s exactly the way I send them.”

And while she was on the subject of which way to Cherokee, Spears added that when headed west from Asheville she prefers to use four-lane highway if going to the reservation. Not, she said, U.S. 19’s mainly two-lane route via Maggie Valley to Cherokee.

“It’s not as safe or direct,” Spears said in explanation.  

This raging sign dispute started simply enough, when Jackson County governmental and tourism leader were reviewing state data and discovered the county’s visitation numbers were below par when compared with neighboring communities. That led to a flurry of activity intended to pump up those visitation stats.

Not surprisingly, Jackson County decided it needed a cut of the 3.5 million visitors who make their way to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino each year. The tribe supports Jackson County’s request.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said last week he was astounded that what seemed such a simple request had snowballed into a multi-town, multi-county, even regional dispute.

“I had no idea it would cause such a stir,” Wooten said.

Wooten added he’d recently told Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown that if he had known about the ensuing uproar to come, he’d never have written to Waynesville Manager Lee Galloway asking for the town’s backing on a new directional sign. Wooten did not say, however, that the county would have backed one iota away from making the request directly to DOT.


A group tasked with helping Jackson County leaders decide whether to merge two separate tourism entities or possibly hike the room tax is dominated by people who work in the lodging industry.

Four out of the six members currently appointed to study the controversial issues are from within the lodging industry.

“We’ll be asking them for their opinions,” County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam responded when questioned on what, exactly, commissioners hope to gain from forming the subcommittee.

Merrily Teasley, owner of the Balsam Mountain Inn and one of the subcommittee members, noted that the group hasn’t met yet and so she wasn’t prepared to discuss specific issues. The lodging owner did emphasize, however, that she believes “tourism dollars are very important to Jackson County” in general.

The 3 percent room tax raised $440,000 in Jackson County in 2010. That money underwrites county tourism promotions. Tourism marketing efforts funded by the room tax are intended to bolster the entire tourism sector of the county, not just increase lodging.

John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Co. in Sylva and a member of the town’s Downtown Sylva Association, said there’s no doubt that most tourism dollars enter the county via hotels and motels. Still, excluding other business interests from such an important-to-everyone economic topic isn’t a good idea, he said.

“The opportunity for other voices” should have been entertained when forming a tourism subcommittee group, Bubacz said.

“I just think other industries should have the chance to be represented,” he said.


A tangled web of like interests

Two of the six committee members both work at the High Hampton Inn in Cashiers. One is Commissioner Mark Jones, and the other is his boss at the inn, Clifford Meads. Jones defended the makeup and membership of the tourism subcommittee, saying one “might just be surprised” by the objectivity of the lodging industry to, for instance, recommend if needed a higher room tax than is now levied.

The room tax is paid by tourists, not by the lodging entities themselves, but lodging entities have come out against an increase fearing it would deter tourists from staying in Jackson.

Asked about the criteria for picking committee members, Jones cited geographic location (an attempt to have all parts of the county represented) and marketing and promotion skills and experience.

Jones, in addition to working in the lodging industry, is chairman of Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association. As a result, Jones has found himself wearing two hats as the tourism debate has played out.

At county commissioner meetings, Jones would literally get up and leave his commissioners’ seat to address his colleagues at a central podium wearing his other hat as Cashiers’ tourism leader. Specifically, Jones has defended Cashiers amid discussions of whether a single tourism entity would serve the county better than two separate ones.

Not surprisingly, the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Association has vigorously resisted the idea of merging with the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Association. Cashiers’ tourism agency traditionally has isolated itself from larger tourism efforts in the county. That could change with the recent retirement of longtime director Sue Bumgarner, who drew criticism for not sharing marketing strategy or advertising campaigns.

Cashiers representatives sit on the board of the Jackson Travel and Tourism Association. No one from greater Jackson County, however, sits on the Cashiers board.


One county, one tourism board?

Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten have advocated for a single tourism entity, with both men saying that would allow for the development of a countywide strategic advertising plan and eliminate duplication of certain overhead.

Wooten said late last week that he plans on recommending the subcommittee designation take place with a little more formality and discussion than was the case during commissioners’ Feb. 6 meeting. Jones simply announced the people he had selected and did not identify them or their affiliations until queried by the news media following the meeting.

Wooten said he would suggest the matter be listed as an agenda item for the upcoming Feb. 20 commission board meeting.


Who’s been appointed?

A taskforce appointed by Jackson County commissioners are expected to examine whether county tourism efforts should be merged and possible look at a room-tax increase.

This new tourism subcommittee is made up of commissioners Jack Debnam and Mark Jones, plus Merrily Teasley, Balsam Mountain Inn; Clifford Meads, general manager of High Hampton Inn; Vic Patel, Best Western River Escape Inn And Suites; and Robert Jumper, tourism manager for Cherokee Travel and Promotion and chair of the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority. One more, as yet publicly unnamed member, will be asked to join, too, county officials said.


A domestic violence and sexual assault agency serving victims of abuse in Jackson County abruptly shut its doors last week after more than three decades in operation.

REACH of Jackson County has been plagued for two years by an on-going funding crisis, but the sudden closure came amid questions about internal accounting irregularities.

The director and finance director were fired and seven other employees put on furlough.

This leaves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Jackson County without a local agency to turn to. They now must rely on help from neighboring counties. 911 calls from victims are being rerouted to Macon County.

“No client will go unserved — none,” said Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County. “We are providing room in the shelter, court advocacy, whatever an individual or family from Jackson County needs, we will provide.”

The domestic violence agencies from neighboring Swain and Haywood counties have pledged help as well, including Swain/Qualla SAFE and REACH of Haywood County.

Lisa Barker, the director of SAFE in Swain County, cautioned, however, that Jackson County’s leaders must figure out some other means, long-term, of helping victims living in the community — these small nonprofits all have limited resources and shallow purses, the very crux of the problem that ultimately destroyed REACH of Jackson County.

“It is very important that each county have the services available in that county,” Barker said. She noted that it places additional hardships on victims, who are already in crisis, if they are forced to seek assistance instead of finding help readily available within their home communities.

Children are often caught in the middle of domestic violence. Four-dozen children were among those housed in 2010 in the domestic violence shelter run by REACH of Jackson County.


Shutdown came rapidly

Board members of REACH of Jackson County aren’t saying much. In fact, all they’ll say about the matter is contained in a written statement released early Monday by board Treasurer Tommy Dennison.

“Due to uncertainty regarding our financial issues, REACH of Jackson County had to close on Feb. 9,” it stated in part. “We are very saddened that this has occurred but it was the only way we could fully understand the situation. This was a very difficult decision for the board to make.”

The budget for REACH this fiscal year was approximately $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. Grants made up most of the budget, but the agency had other sources of revenue, too. Jackson County has been giving REACH $35,000 for operational expenses on an annual basis since 2007.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said he was informed that an auditor is reviewing REACH’s accounting records, and that board members had expressed confusion over the true situation of the agency’s finances.

Here’s what happened: On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 9, there was a REACH board meeting. Later, REACH Board President Rich Peoples came to the agency’s offices just off N.C. 107 and fired REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer and Finance Director Janice Mason. He furloughed the other employees.

In an extensive interview just after she was fired, Roberts-Fer detailed the events leading up to the terminations. While the agency has been through financial struggles, she said there were adequate funds to keep it running. At the time of the interview, it was not yet clear that the REACH board would totally shutdown the agency.

“I don’t see why, after all we have done, that they would give up now,” Roberts-Fer said. “With or without me, that’s not the point — there are too many women depending on them.”


Payroll tax problems

REACH eked out a day-to-day existence. The agency had no piggy bank, and no real bank that was willing to extend credit — REACH was turned down twice when it sought loans. The agency missed payroll at least twice and had its water cut off once for nonpayment of bills.

The financial straw breaking the camel’s back, however, seems to have come when board members learned that REACH owed $47,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. REACH had failed to pay three quarters worth of payroll taxes last year. The amount owed included fines and penalties as well.

Roberts-Fer said there was nothing sinister involved. Partly, the finance director, Janice Mason, didn’t realize she was supposed to remit payroll taxes regularly, according to Roberts-Fer. But, cash flow problems clearly played a major role.

“Her only goal was to keep the agency going. What she was doing was paying when she got the money. But, it kept getting further and further behind, and basically, she didn’t have the money,” Roberts-Fer said.

The IRS showed up. A deal was worked out. REACH would pay $700 to $1,000 a month, Roberts-Fer said, with the expectation that the fines and penalties probably would be waived once the taxes were paid.

“Once I got the information, I shared … with the board and let them know we were in contact with the IRS,” Roberts-Fer said, adding that she went without her own paychecks in November and December to try and help the agency recover financially.

This wasn’t the first accounting issue at REACH.

Mason also failed to properly deposit retirement plan contributions into two employees’ accounts on several occasions, Roberts-Fer said. When employees elect to have part of their take-home pay withheld and put into a retirement plan, the money is supposed to be deposited regularly.

That money was paid back, but the amount of interest involved remain points of contention with the employee and former employee involved, she said.

The motivation again seemed to be plugging cash-flow shortfalls to keep the agency going.

“(The finance director) had been for years charged with paying the bills with no money. She inherited a system; she worked within it,” Roberts-Fer said.

New guidelines were put in place to standardize and regularize the agency’s methods of doing business, she said.

“Everybody makes mistakes. For an organization, the question is, do you respond to the problem? We did,” Roberts-Fer said.


REACH’s financial problems longstanding

The financial woes of REACH of Jackson County weren’t a mystery. Exactly one year ago this week, Roberts-Fer warned that the financial situation was so bleak the nonprofit faced the possibility of shutting down.

Before Roberts-Fer took over three years ago, REACH had opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse back in 2001. It was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village, no matter how skillfully operated and managed, would never actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The only income to offset the expenses was rent from the tenants, and even if fully rented, it would not pay the mortgages and expenses. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

The REACH village went into foreclosure, and associated costs bled dollars from the agency. 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.

Roberts-Fer said REACH of Jackson County also had been overspending during those years, including dipping into, and ultimately depleting, emergency financial reserves.

Even the agency’s thrift shop had been barely breaking even.

Adding to the difficulties were sky-high insurance payments on the agency’s emergency shelter after Bonnie Woodring, who was seeking protection from an abusive husband, was gunned down by John Raymond “Woody” Woodring in September 2006. He shot her inside the shelter after muscling his way in. Woodring later killed himself.

Additional security measures at the shelter were added in the wake of the shooting, another expense for REACH.

But perhaps most critically, at least when it came to the agency’s financial wellbeing, grants and other funding streams REACH relied upon have virtually dried up. Macon County’s VanHarlingen said her agency also has faced increasing financial constraints because of the overall economic climate.

“It is difficult for everybody,” she said.

In response to the financial crisis, Roberts-Fer had cut the number of employees at the agency and streamlined programs to barebones levels: operating an emergency shelter, offering legal advocacy and maintaining a hotline.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten raised the possibility of combining some elements of the individual agencies in the region to offset costs. But, VanHarlingen cautioned that immediate shelter and help needed to be available in individual communities. At one time REACH of Macon County was an extension of the Jackson County agency.

“When we were the Macon outreach for Jackson County, that meant sometimes transporting a client over Cowee on a snowy night,” she said.

The need for help in Jackson County, REACH or no REACH, isn’t likely to disappear.

During fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.

Wooten described the need as critical and said he expects REACH’s demise to be a topic of discussion at the Feb. 20 Jackson County Board of Commissioners meeting.


Ron Rash’s novel, Serena, was birthed in an image: his mind’s eye pictured a woman on horseback. From the woman’s posture on that horse, her very way of being, Rash said he knew this would be a novel about a very singular human being indeed.

“I knew she was very strong,” said the writer, who teaches at Western Carolina University and lives near Sylva. “And that someone was looking at her with fear and love.”

This image of Serena, which Rash developed into the bestselling 2008-released novel, has now spurred a major motion picture. The film version of Serena is set for release in 2014.

Serena, the novel, is set in Haywood County.

Actor Bradley Cooper and actress Jennifer Lawrence, who recently played leading roles in the to-be-released David O. Russell movie, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” will team together again in the movie “Serena.” Lawrence was in North Carolina last year for filming of “The Hunger Games,” to be released next month.  

The location of filming for “Serena” has not been announced.

Rash’s Depression-era set novel relates the story of timber baron George Pemberton, who is married to Serena. The couple moves to Western North Carolina to create a business empire. When Serena discovers she cannot bear children, her anger becomes directed toward her husband’s illegitimate son. Cooper and Lawrence will portray George and Serena Pemberton.

Academy Award winner Susanne Bier will direct the movie for 2929 Productions. Bier recently finished work on an Italian drama with Pierce Brosnan titled “All You Need Is Love.” Her other films are “Things We Lost in the Fire” and “In a Better World.”

Rash said he will not be involved in the movie’s production, but that he’s “very pleased” that the novel will be produced in film form. Rash hasn’t seen the screenplay. He didn’t, however, seem particularly worried or concerned about how his novel might be tailored to fit the big screen. The movie and novel are two separate retellings, entirely different works of art, he indicated.

“It’s out of my hands,” Rash said.

These days, the novelist’s attention is much more focused on the upcoming release of his 10th work of fiction and his fifth novel, The Cove. It will be released April 10. The Cove is set in Western North Carolina during World War I.

Rash’s fiction include the short story collection “Burning Bright,” which garnered him the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for the short story literary form.

“He is Appalachia’s most accessible writer who not only treats our history and culture with integrity, but has gained an amazing audience,” said Gary Carden of Sylva, a storyteller and writer with deep family roots to WNC and a frequent book reviewer for The Smoky Mountain News. “(Rash) is, in every sense of the word, an advocate for the spirit of Appalachia.”


How the sausage is made

Writing is hard for everyone, even an experienced writer who so adeptly brings stories to life as Rash. It generally takes him about three years to put a single novel together — “that’s typical,” he said.

Rash locks himself in a room, at home on Locust Creek Road in Sylva or at his office at WCU, and works. And really works, for up to six hours at a time: no music, no noise and no interruptions.

“I must be by myself,” Rash said in explanation. “I need solitude. You have to get really deep into it and enter that world as a writer.”

The image is always the beginning for this writer, as it was in Serena, he said. But there are hours and days and weeks and months of historical research, too. Readers of Serena are usually struck by the painstakingly accurate historical detail, portrayals that ring true to those familiar with these mountains. And the fact is, Rash tries to be representative of what he’s portraying.

“On Serena I did a huge amount of research,” said Rash, a descendant of Southern Appalachian families who was raised in Boiling Springs.

He studied and read about the formation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and about the conflicts that arose between those conservation efforts and the timber interests, through books, newspapers and whatever he could get his hands on.

Rash doesn’t simply regurgitate research and fob it off as fiction: always there are those guiding images, those flashes of meaning and insight that characterize this novelist’s work.

The research confirmed the power wielded historically by these timber barons. The image, however, for Rash was discovered when, on a trip to Lake Logan in Haywood County, he observed a table made from a single piece of yellow poplar, a table forged from a large tree. The table struck the novelist as being a trophy. A trophy, that is, for the timber barons.

From such images Rash wove his novel, Serena.  

The Cove, Rash’s forthcoming novel, hasn’t been birthed easily. This experienced writer hit writing roadblocks he’d not experienced before.

“This last novel has been so difficult,” Rash said. “It seemed more difficult than the ones before. I just seemed to take a lot of wrong turns. After two years, I was ready to give up on it, but I didn’t because I’d put so much time into it by then.”

Ultimately, Rash worked out the problems. He described himself as satisfied and happy with The Cove.

Despite ever-increasing recognition as an accomplished and important fiction writer, Rash said he plans on staying and teaching at WCU.

“I love teaching,” he said. “And I enjoy my students. I think their enthusiasm is good for me — it helps keep me alive to the wonder of writing.”


A good friend of old came to stay last week. A great respecter of proper etiquette, she provided ample warning of her pending arrival, noting that she planned on getting in midweek and staying for the foreseeable future.

That bold presumption of welcome might seem strange unless I explain how close and intertwined we are as friends. This is someone that I truly can refuse nothing. We go a long way back — there are decades of intimate times and shared memories. This is a friend who has helped mark the passages of my life; we are so close as to be virtually one.

I don’t mean to imply that she’s overstayed her welcome, though between you and me I do keep dropping hints that perhaps it is time to call this visit to an end — there are things I want, even need, to do. A guest, no matter how inconspicuous in habits and unassuming in manners, still requires attention and care.

But I admit that she really isn’t a bad houseguest, as houseguests go. She is amazingly patient regarding the three cats, for example. I know they must keep her up some nights, with their chasing and romping and determination to curl up on top of any available lap, particularly a lap as ample as hers. She is a big woman, huge even. Despite her looming presence she takes up surprisingly little room in the tiny cabin that, these days, I call home. Her baggage, however, is something else again.

She’d emphasized that I wasn’t to go to ANY SPECIAL TROUBLE in an email I’d received about her impending visit (she likes a little drama, not too much but just enough to spice up situations, hence the capital letters). The futon downstairs would be FINE for her, and she’d SHOP FOR HERSELF and perhaps even COOK ME DINNERS in the evenings on those nights I didn’t have meetings. It would be FUN, she wrote, a lot of REALLY GOOD FUN to sit around and chat and reminisce.

She knows my ways of old, and asked if I believed still that chicken potpies are the proper diet of the gourmand. If so, she’d make some for me from scratch. She’d roll out the dough, use free-range chicken and organic vegetables, and generally do them up right. Perhaps, she wrote, they’d rival those I’d eaten with such relish years ago in Pennsylvania Dutch country, land of the greatest potpies on earth. Not many people, only this true friend in fact, know these sorts of details about me; or care to know them, for that matter. Who else would remember I’m a fool for chicken potpies made by the Amish in Lancaster County, Penn.?  

I could tell that she really wanted our visit to be special and unforgettable.

Reluctantly, I wrote back to let my friend know that I’d sworn off meat. Chicken potpies, unfortunately, were taboo to my dinner plate for now. I made sure to emphasize how generous her offer truly was, particularly the whole chicken-potpie-from-scratch-bit. But I suggested that this might not be such a good time to visit. I was really busy, I wrote, what with work and exercise and reading and trying to write beyond what was strictly required for the newspaper. I finally felt that there was some space in my life to get stuff done, those things that she knew I’d dreamt my entire adult life about doing: running trail races, hiking and camping, writing fiction, playing music again.

But she wouldn’t be deterred. She was absolutely, irrevocably determined that we spend some quality time together, one-on-one, catching up on all those good times we’d had and creating some new memories together. It had been too long, she wrote, for friends such as us to be parted.

I was to expect her. It was simply no good to argue. And she indeed arrived, with an immense amount of luggage, piles and piles of it. There was so much baggage I couldn’t conceive of where we’d store it in the cabin. There were perhaps six bags and two or three trunks. The bags and trunks seemed really heavy when I helped carry them in through the door.

“What in the world did you bring?” I asked her a bit nervously. “Oh,” she replied airily, “nothing you’ve not seen me in before. Though there are a couple of new things that I believe you’ll enjoy.”

I felt her presence in my life immediately. Even during those times without her at work, or while attending dinner parties or other social events that had been prescheduled before her arrival, I could, as of old, feel my good friend right there with me.

Perhaps, I thought, this is how twins feel. That even when apart, they are never really separate — it has been a familiar feeling, at times even slightly seductive, to once again experience such a truly intimate relationship. I haven’t experienced deep understanding like this in quite some time.

As I write this, my good friend remains in my cabin, with her bags and trunks stacked high. There is just enough room for me to walk and find my own space apart from her. Although the paths are narrow and hard to navigate, I’ve dealt with piles of her luggage before. I know that there are ways through the baggage. Perseverance counts in situations like these, a bit of grit and get-up-and-go, some faith, hope and confidence.

My friend, I’m happy to report, recently put nametags on her luggage, the only trouble being that she has always gone by so many different names: Melancholia, Gloom, Despair, Woe, and others. Now I know why she carries so much baggage.

At least, though, this leads me to believe that she might intend to take them up and depart sometime soon.

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


Whittier’s $5 million wastewater treatment plant could be facing eventual financial insolvency, saddled with too much overhead and too few customers to make operation viable.

The sewer plant, in hindsight, was overbuilt for growth and development that failed to materialize along the U.S. 441 corridor in Jackson County that leads to Cherokee. Ten years later, the plant with a capacity to treat 200,000 gallons is handling a mere 8,000 gallons with just 36 customers.

There’s only enough money to keep operating, as-is, for two more years. Then it’s decision time for the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority. TWSA, formed to oversee water and sewer needs for Jackson County’s residents, is the reluctant manager of Whittier’s treatment plant, a role the authority inherited. Stakeholders such as Jackson County and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also must make funding decisions when current payments and savings run dry. And, Jackson County would like to see Swain start helping out after learning that most of the customers are actually residents of that county.

“This could be a little touchy,” Joe Cline, executive director of TWSA, told Jackson commissioners recently. “But, the majority of this system lies in Swain County. And they’ve never been asked to participate.”

“Looks like we should be sending someone a bill,” Commissioner Doug Cody noted.

The plant was built with grant funding, including a nest egg to subsidize operations until the customer base grew. Jackson County and the tribe struck an agreement to pitch in during the initial start-up years.

Jackson County has kicked $300,000 into the plant. It relies on the facility to handle wastewater from nearby Smokey Mountain Elementary School.

The tribe originally bought into the plant concept, to the tune of $100,000 a year for three years, in hopes of using the facility to serve a recreation complex and golf course. Cherokee, which owes one remaining $100,000 payment, ended up taking care of its own wastewater needs from the complex and golf course, arguably getting little out of its investment but making good on its promise.

The Whittier Wastewater Treatment Plant has 25 residential and 11 commercial customers. It has added just a single three-bedroom house to the customer rolls since the plant came online just more than 10 years ago. The customers served by Whittier’s wastewater treatment plant chip-in a total of $20,000 a year to the cost of operating the plant, which comes to about $180,000 annually.

It processes so little sewer that its systems have trouble functioning at times.

“We have to haul sludge to the plant when school is out to keep it operating properly,” Cline said.

Before the sewer plant was built, projections showed 40 customers had an interest in tapping in to it. Of those, 10 or 15 weren’t close enough to tie on to the system after all. Another six or so had done something else while the plant was being built, such as put in individually owned septic systems.

“If the projections were correct, then at the end of two years, TWSA would have been able to take over and break even, debt free, with operating revenues to pay the costs of going forward. Problem is, the projections haven’t come true,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten told county commissioners recently.

Wooten emphasized that he would like to see TWSA retain its role with the plant, which is technically under the management of the Whittier Sanitary District. That group has been the target of sharp criticisms for lack of accurate recordkeeping and failures to submit timely audits to the state as required.

Still, Wooten maintained, the plant “is an asset, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just a waiting game, it’s waiting on the development. But the plant will allow the development to take place.”

As of this week, Jackson County had not officially contacted Swain County about helping to offset costs at the Whittier wastewater treatment plant.


Such a big plant to serve so few: how the Whittier Wastewater Plant came to be

Just more than 10 years ago, setting the table for economic growth around Whittier seemed something of a no-brainer — the casino in Cherokee was booming, and it seemed inevitable that businesses such as restaurants and hotels would clamor for space in the gateway area along the U.S. 441 corridor leading into Cherokee.

Meanwhile, residents in the unincorporated community were complaining about failing septic systems. Whittier lies along the Tuckasegee River, saddling the borders of Jackson and Swain counties. There were some reports of straight-piping sewage into the Tuckasegee River. The nearby Church of God’s Western North Carolina Assembly wanted to expand. The septic system at Smokey Mountain Elementary School, a few miles along U.S. 441 in Jackson County, no longer could serve the number of students required. And, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians was completing a recreation complex and was intent on building a golf course not far away, both eventually finished and now open. Under the guidance of the Southwestern Development Commission, these stakeholders came together and built the Whittier Wastewater Plant.


Western Carolina University has launched a pay study to determine whether male employees are paid more than their female counterparts when doing the same jobs.

The study is expected to take up to two years to complete. It has been some seven years since a formal task force studied salaries at WCU. That was a true labor market study, and not related to gender equity, according to university administrators.

“I think that this is important to do because this type of study has not been conducted in some years,” WCU Chancellor David Belcher wrote in an email to The Smoky Mountain News. “While one can point to there not having been salary increases in recent years as a reason for not pursuing such a study, I think that, nonetheless, it is important for us to understand our current status and situation, knowledge of which will be important context for us in making decisions when money for salary increases is made available.”

Cash-strapped North Carolina isn’t expected to dole out money for raises anytime soon, regardless of study results. WCU professors and staff last received an increase four years ago.

News of the pay review is triggering intense interest on campus, where many faculty and staff have long suspected, believed or oft speculated whether there are indeed salary gender inequities in play at WCU.

Psychology Professor Hal Herzog said that it is common practice at most universities such as WCU for faculty members with identical qualifications, experience and work loads to make vastly different salaries.

“The role that sex discrimination plays in these differences is complicated by the fact that faculty salaries are closely tied to the field people are in,” Herzog said.

For example, faculty members in accounting, finance, information systems, and economics — mostly men — make more money than those in the English department — mostly women, he said. A comprehensive analysis of sex differences in pay needs to take factors like these into account, Herzog said, adding that he remained “mystified” why it would take WCU two years to conduct such a study.

“After all, salaries of state employees are a matter of public information,” Herzog said. “This is not rocket science.”

Laura Wright, an associate professor in WCU’s English department and president of WCU’s chapter of the American Association of University Women’s Tarheel Branch, said the two-year block of time seems in line with a similar study proposal by the group. The national group focuses on such issues as gender equity, and local members wanted to formally examine WCU’s salaries.

“That’s not any different from our proposed timeline, so I am not comfortable saying that two years is too long,” Wright said. Wright added that she’d like it “put forth,” however, that she is an English professor and not a statistician.

Wright said what does disturb her, on the face of it, is the disparity in the number of full professors and women in leadership positions at the Cullowhee university.

“I know that these discrepancies are not and cannot be the result of women doing less and inferior work,” she said. “They are the product of a university culture that has historically not fostered and supported women’s leadership and advancement.

“The fact that Chancellor Belcher has chosen to explore this issue seems like a good thing to me,” Wright said, adding that she fully supports his efforts to identify and rectify possible inequities.


If Macon County commissioners decide to impose term limits for the planning board, beleaguered planning members could become the only ones out of dozens serving on various county boards who are subject to limits on how many years they can serve.

Historically, Macon County commissioners lacked enough volunteers to fill the ranks of its various advisory groups, from the airport authority to solid waste committee to parks and recreation board. Members — especially caring ones dedicated to the particular issue — were welcome to keep serving as long as they were willing.

These days, however, some commissioners are suggesting term limits, at least for the controversial planning board. This follows months of pitched battles between pro-planning and anti-planning factions. A decision by commissioners is expected next week.

If term limits were retroactively imposed, the move would effectively eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the planning board.

“If you do have term limits it doesn’t mean you could never serve again,” Macon County Manager Jack Horton said. “It would give a break in service to give other people opportunities.”

No one quite knows how long some of the longest-serving volunteers have served on the planning board, even the volunteers themselves — Susan Ervin is the acknowledged winner with some two decades of service. Mark West has been on the board for many years, too, so many that, like Ervin, he doesn’t remember his appointment date. Chairman Lewis Penland likewise has years of planning-board work to his credit.

But, that type of service isn’t confined to Macon County’s planning board. Ed Shatley has been a member of the county’s Economic Development Commission for at least as long as Ervin has the planning board. He was chairman in the 1990s, Shatley remains chairman today. Horton remembered that the veteran volunteer — who brings an acknowledged and unquestioned wealth of understanding and history to his unpaid service — was serving on the EDC in 1972 when Horton did his first stint as the Macon County manager.  

But, there haven’t been calls among commissioners for new blood to the EDC via term limits. Nor have there been discussions about  “balance” being ensured by adding anti-economic forces to an economic development-charged group.

These discrepancies have led some in Macon County to openly speculate that this sudden push for term limits is simply anti-planning politics in action. Planning Board member Al Slagle last month told The Smoky Mountain News that he believed it likely the advisory group was being “loaded” with anti-planning members under the guise of creating “diversity.”


Nuts and Bolts

Macon County has some 50 boards, committees and advisory groups.

County administrators have identified 13 of Macon County’s volunteer groups as high priority, meaning there is a more stringent and outlined application process for membership. These include the planning board, airport authority, EDC and the tourism development groups for greater Macon County and Highlands.

But, most board and committee members labor in total anonymity in unglamorous-to-most, but critical, service: there’s the Nursing and Adult Home Community Advisory Committee, the Dangerous Dog Board, the Garden Committee.

“Some boards are more difficult to fill than others,” Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said in acknowledgement.


Regional perspective

The problem of finding an adequate pool of volunteers isn’t confined to Macon County.

“I think it’s fair to say that we have some challenges in identifying qualified persons to serve on committees,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in an email interview. “We put the word out to the public about submitting an application of interest as we were hoping to build a roster of folks who wanted to service on boards and committees, and to hopefully have some basic information about experience and background. Unfortunately, the response was very minimal.”

In contrast, Haywood County generally has an adequate number of applicants, County Manager Marty Stamey said. Seven people recently applied for two positions on the health board, for example.

The same is true in the town of Bryson City and in Swain County, according to administrators there.

Cindi Woodard, assistant to the Swain County commission board, said that volunteers in that county serve three, three-year terms, take a break for a year, and are eligible again — a similar proposal to what Macon County Commissioner Ron Haven made recently for that county’s planning board.

“Usually people whose terms expire, they would love to serve again,” Woodard said.

Lee Galloway, an 18-year veteran town manager for Waynesville, said there are no term limits on any of the boards and commissions there — and he cautioned in a roundabout way on the dangers of losing experience by instituting them.

“There are some boards that have members who have been on for the entire 18 years, and having that knowledge and expertise and history is fantastic,” Galloway said.


Street food vendors aren’t welcome everywhere in Western North Carolina, but Andy and Pamela Fife haven’t found that to be true in Franklin. They are now setup in this Macon County town as the only fulltime mobile food vendors west of Asheville.

The couple — Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. — parks an upscale food-service trailer in a vacant lot along East Main Street. When they open the windows on A&P Roadside Eats, Macon County residents know that it’s time to stop by for the couple’s hamburgers, steak and cheese hoagies, Italian sausage and more.

The Fifes have created quite a following at their mobile food unit since opening last June. The couple also delivers food to the work-bound and hungry in town, taking phone orders directly at A&P Roadside Eats.

“We love them being here,” said David Campbell of Franklin as he stopped by A&P Roadside Eats for lunch one day last week.

“It’s close to work, and they serve the best corndogs in town,” Campbell’s wife, Sabrina, added. “We come almost everyday.”

The Fifes are true entrepreneurs, a couple of hardworking people who spotted an opportunity and moved into an available and open business niche. They started A&P Roadside Eats when the owner of a business Andy Fife was working at died, and that business was forced to shutdown.   

“We do miss that regular paycheck,” Fife said.

But, they are enjoying meeting a regular stream of Macon County residents, some dating back as first-time customers to when the Fifes were setting up a booth at Pickin’ on the Square in Franklin. In addition to working that street festival, the couple also worked — and still does — events in Macon County such as gem shows and trail days.

Pamela and Andy are halfbacks, former residents of Naples, Fla. Andy is originally from Virginia, Pamela from Ohio. They live in Macon County fulltime.

“We got tired of hurricanes,” Pamela said.

Working a mobile food unit such as A&P Roadside Eats means meeting certain state and local regulations. The couple has a standard business license from the town of Franklin. They also, per health department requirements, have an association with an area restaurant, where they go for cleanup. They have a state license that allows them to setup anywhere in North Carolina.


Food on wheels

Mobile food vendors are part of a burgeoning national trend that has experienced rapid growth in recent years. Proponents cite street food as an inexpensive and low-risk outlet for budding entrepreneurs, and point to culinary benefits to American consumers who can sample a variety of ethnic and regional foods that might not be available otherwise.

Opponents of food trucks usually are established restaurateurs, who accuse mobile food vendors of riding on their business backs minus the high overhead of maintaining regular businesses.

The food truck issue, unlike in Franklin, has been openly contentious elsewhere in WNC. Waynesville bans the mobile units from the Downtown Waynesville District, though will allow them in certain areas of town if licensing requirements are met. Asheville restaurateurs and mobile unit proponents argued for months last year until city leaders finally passed an ordinance that lifted a 25-year ban. Several food trucks can now set up together in a mobile food court on Coxe Avenue in Asheville.


Jackson County commissioners this week formally attempted to put the kibosh on 83-year-old Marie Leatherwood’s pattern of outbursts, picketing and general garrulity during meetings.

During a meeting last month, Leatherwood was told she could no longer display signs during county board meetings, as she has done regularly over the past two years. She was instead ordered to hold them in the hall outside.

Monday, commissioners passed a resolution that backed off a total sign ban. They decided to allow Leatherwood and others, if they wish, to hold signs in the meeting room after all. But, only if they don’t hold them so as to create distractions. And, if they insist on standing in the manner Leatherwood seems to prefer, sign demonstrators must position themselves along a back wall rather than the front of the meeting room where arguably they pose a distraction to commissioners and the audience.

In return, Chairman Jack Debnam promised to try to encourage speakers to speak up and avail themselves of microphones. Leatherwood, along with others attending, have complained they couldn’t clearly hear county business as it’s being conducted.

“Every commissioner is committed to … making the decisions we believe are in the best interest of the county,” Debnam said. “At the same time, we acknowledge that there will be citizens who have a differing opinion on certain topics and wish to present their point of view. The fact that everyone can express their opinion without fear of retribution or intimidation is the foundation for our free speech.”

Leatherwood heeded neither Debnam’s fine oratory nor the sign and microphone concessions. She appeared more emboldened by the attention than not and was certainly neither subdued nor chastised. Instead of submitting meekly to the yoke of authority, Leatherwood for the remainder of the meeting challenged commissioners and county administrators to speak louder while they were attempting to speak. Leatherwood stood up during the meeting and distributed handwritten notes to members of the news media about free speech rights. She fussed through a laundry list of displeasures to County Manager Chuck Wooten and Attorney Jay Coward as commissioners attempted to transition from a public to a closed session.

Leatherwood, during her rightful three minutes at the podium given each citizen who desires that bully pulpit, sent Wooten meekly trotting after drinking water. Giving an ever-so-slight, discreet cough, Leatherwood explained to commissioners that her allergies were hindering her ability to speak. Wooten’s ministrations came in the form of a small bottle of water retrieved from an adjacent room. He visibly broke the bottle-cap seal in public before handing Leatherwood the water.

Revived by a sip, Leatherwood recovered from her allergy issues and devoted her three-minute address to the board vigorously defending her rights to hold signs in the boardroom.

“The burden of proof is on the board and Mr. Coward, who will prattle about a Louisiana Supreme Court case about holding up signs at meetings,” she said in part in a heated defense of her perceived free speech rights.


Three Tennessee residents are headed to prison for breaking into a slew of cars at trailheads in Haywood County during a several month period, hitting hiker’s vehicles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest.

The three stole credit and debit cards, and ran up charges on them, while the unsuspecting victims were off happily hiking … often for several days at a time. Other personal items were stolen, too, including a man’s billfold and, most brazenly, a U.S. government credit card from a U.S. Forest Service employee’s vehicle.

Their arrests and subsequent prosecutions have put renewed focus on what you should do, and not do, when parking a vehicle before taking a hike or backpacking trip.

The main thing is to “use common sense,” said avid hiker Cory McCall of Outdoor 76, an outfitter store in Franklin. “These trails do cross roads, and you often leave your car in vulnerable places.”

McCall is currently helping an Appalachian Trail thru hiker try to decide on a safe spot to leave her vehicle in Macon County for an extended period of time. That might not be completely possible, but there are steps hikers such as that can take, according to forest experts.

And here’s what the victims of the relatively recent break-ins didn’t do: they failed to take valuables out of their vehicles.

That meant when the Tennessee trio — Billy Chad Reese, 39, his wife, Christy Leann Reese and Jessica Hope Daniels — systematically smashed the passenger-side windows of cars at trailheads, they were amply rewarded for their criminal intentions. Specifically, they hit trailheads at Big Creek in the Smokies and Max Patch and Harmon Den in the Pisgah National Forest.

They would hit as many as five cars at the trailhead at one time. They would then go back into Cocke County, Tenn. and promptly use the cards to buy everything from cigarettes to jewelry.

When it comes to protecting visitors to the national forest lands and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, law enforcement officers with both agencies are taking a hold-no-prisoners stance.

And that focus is paying off: In the Smokies alone, more than 100 people in the past decade have been prosecuted for car break-ins, dubbed “car clouts,” at trail heads.

“That makes a big dent,” said Clay Jordan, chief ranger for the Park.

Sure does: The Smokies used to average about 100 car clouts per year. That number dropped to 37 incidents in 2010 and 14 in 2011.

“We have a cadre of rangers and special agents who are very attuned to it,” Jordan said of Park personnel’s attention to trail heads and visitor safety.

That’s true, too, of workers on the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests. Stevin Wescott, who oversees public relations for the U.S. Forest Service in this area, said extensive efforts are oriented toward educating hikers. But, still, the fact remains that “it is pretty clear that theft is probably the most reported crime” in the national forests.

“We are always trying to encourage people to be safe,” Wescott said. “It’s very sad when (theft) happens. Our officers feel terrible for the people.”

Echoing McCall from Outdoor 76, Wescott said that visitors “should try to leave their valuables at home. If they must leave them in their car, tuck them out of site. Bring only the bare essentials.”

That advice holds true on the trail, too, the U.S. Forest ranger said. Tent break-ins also occur.

Smokies Chief Ranger Jordan said law enforcement is able to successfully prosecute most offenders. The crime, which is a felony offense prosecuted in the federal court system, carries a prison term. On average, those found guilty typically receive a six- to 12-month sentence plus three years probation, Jordan said.

The Tennessee man, Reese, pleaded guilty in August and was recently sentenced to serve more than 10 years in prison by a U.S. district judge and pay $23,000 in restitution. Reese received such a stiff sentence because of prior burglary convictions. When arrested, Reese was unlawfully in possession of a handgun. This meant he received an “enhanced” sentence under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

His female accomplices are scheduled Feb. 27 for sentencing.


Trailhead-safety tips

• Remove valuables from vehicles.

• If you must leave valuables in vehicles, hide them out of sight in the glove compartment or trunk.

• Scan the trailhead to make sure no one suspicious is hanging about. If they are, consider moving to another trailhead.

• Do not leave a hiking itinerary on your dash. Leave it with friends, family or at a ranger station.

• Don’t back your car into a parking spot. This provides thieves cover to break into the trunk.


Sylva speeders beware: at downtown business owners’ requests, Sylva is tapping the full array of skills that newly hired downtown foot-patrol officer J.P. Gallardo brings to the job. As of last week, the retired state Highway Patrol trooper of 30 years is now spending a portion of his 20-hour work week nabbing speeders who whip about town.

And no, he’s not doing it on foot, as one town wag quipped — Gallardo, when functioning as a traffic cop, patrols in a regular Sylva police car with a real siren and standard blue lights that show up in that usual heartbreaking way in speeders’ rearview mirrors.

“The main enforcement is on Back Street,” said Gallardo, though in the early mornings he monitors Main Street, too. This time of day, after lunch on a workday when the street is more crowded, the problem isn’t noticeably an issue on Main Street.

“That’s because if the first one is moving at 20 miles per hour, they are all running 20 miles per hour,” the officer said in explanation.

But on Back Street, more properly known as Mill Street? Now that’s a problem any time of the day or night, according to Sylva Glass and Mirror owner Tom Keller. He recently beseeched town aldermen to work at slowing traffic down to the mandated 20 miles per hour.

“They’re going 60 through there sometimes,” he said.

In addition to nabbing speeders, citing illegal parking by motorists and walking the streets of Sylva with the aim of being generally present and noticeable, Gallardo also monitors the parking lots at Walmart, Lowe’s and similar places within the town’s limits.

Some of the aldermen are so happy with the results they want to increase Gallardo’s hours to 30 a week, Police Chief Davis Woodard said.


Macon County residents, indeed all local history buffs, are about to receive a great gift from Barbara McRae, editor of The Franklin Press.

Barbara is a noted regional historian with unmatched knowledge, in particular but not exclusively, of Macon County. Whether you’re discussing current events or those happenings that took place long ago, she is the eminent, go-to source.

Though journalists such as myself generally shy from making pronouncements such as “the very first” or “the most qualified” out of fears such bold assertions will prove incorrect, I am confident in asserting no one is more qualified to record Macon County’s history than Barbara McRae — and that she’s both the first word and the last word on this topic.

She has done an exemplary job of compilation in her soon-to-be-released Placenames of Macon County, N.C. Users of The North Carolina Gazetteer by Williams S. Powell will recognize his influence on the construction of Barbara’s book: a place name followed by description and history.

The title of Barbara’s book, though accurate, doesn’t begin to do justice to the quality of research and impressive, nowhere-else-to-be-found historical data. A tell-on-myself personal note is in order: readers would have had Placenames of Macon County, N.C. much sooner if I’d worked more quickly on proofreading the draft. Though woefully late in my delivery of the manuscript (try six months, I believe), I’m thrilled that I had the pleasure of finding an occasional point-size variance or a rare inconsistency in style usage. I beg Barbara’s forgiveness here, in print, for my shameful procrastination.

Barbara is an amazing historian who has, literally, spent years and years researching her topic. No fact is safe with Barbara on its trail. She has pored over old records at the Macon County courthouse, conducted interviews and gleaned what seems every old tale ever related about Macon County for the benefit of us, her readers.

A taste of what you can expect include this notation under “Peek,” a familiar place name and family name in Macon County. I’m distilling Barbara’s 10-column inch or so recording of all-things Peek to a few paragraphs to, I hope, provide the flavor of the book and her distinctively succinct, yet personal, writing style.

“Zachariah Peek (also spelled Peak and Peake) and his wife, Sarah Anne Moore, came to Macon County soon after the Cherokees ceded the area by treaty in 1819. He and his brother David were listed in Buncombe County in the 1820 census but apparently moved west the same year … Zachariah obtained several tracts of land, mostly on Ellijay, before his death in 1845. He had eight children, including William Comer “Panther Bill” Peek, who was born in Macon County in 1822.

“Panther Bill got his nickname after killing a panther in a remarkable way. His dogs had the cat penned under a overhanging rock; Bill threw his ax at the animal and killed it instantly, nearly severing its head …

“Peeks Creek took the national spotlight on Sept. 16, 2004, when the community along the creek suffered a disastrous landslide. Heavy rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ivan fell on soil already saturated from the Sept. 7 Hurricane Frances storm. The slide, or debris flow, claimed five lives and 15 homes and left its mark on the mountain.”

Another entry relates the origins of the name Wayah Gap, which the Cherokee called Atahita, “Where they shouted.”

“The name comes from the myth of a giant yellow jacket that once preyed on the Indian children,” Barbara notes. “Sentries posted at the Gap were the first to spot the marauding insect. They gave the shout that led other braves to the beast’s lair. This gap is one of a series of openings in the great wall of the Nantahalas. Historically, it provided the most convenient passage to the west. Tradition (again retold by (Margaret) Mrs. Siler) claimed that during a battle at the gap between Rutherford’s forces and the Cherokees in 1776, one of the slain warriors was found to be a woman.”

It occurs to me that in addition to Macon County residents and general aficionados of local history such as myself, those with family roots in Western North Carolina will find Barbara’s book invaluable. Particularly those living in Swain, Jackson and Cherokee counties I believe, because there seemed to be so much intermingling of people and families from that area. And I learned that salient fact by reading Placenames of Macon County, N.C.

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


Supporters of Jackson County’s revolving loan program describe the financial give-outs as a tool in the county’s economic toolbelt, a boost to deserving businesses that can’t receive critical, even lifesaving, financial help through banks.

But five defaults since 1993 when the loans started, out of a total of nine loans, raises serious questions about the program.

It’s been awfully easy — too easy, county leaders admit — for businesses in Jackson County to get loans without providing adequate collateral should the company go under.

Jackson has flat-out lost $525,000 since starting the program because of businesses folding. Another $420,000 is on the line, with the exact losses depending how much the county can recoup from selling off collateral.

“It is not just a gift or a grant,” said Jackson County Chairman Jack Debnam, who has strongly advocated for stiffer loan restrictions. “If it is a grant, call it a grant. If it’s a loan, certain criteria should be met.”

The revolving loan fund is nowhere close to being tapped out. Despite having $820,000 in outstanding loans, there is another $756,000 in the kitty.

Revolving loans are generally considered high risk, used to help start-ups or struggling businesses with an injection of capital when banks won’t. But those needing that help most are generally the least able to afford payback. That has certainly been Jackson County’s experience.

How loose has Jackson County’s definition of collateral been? The worst-case example involves QC Apparel. When the company recently went belly up after years of protracted sinking, Jackson County found itself the proud possessor of $5,000 worth of sewing machines.

Board minutes from August 2006 show the board of commissioners at the time agreed to let the textile manufacturer, which made such goods as pillowcases and bed-in-a-bag materials, off the hook. In a restructuring of the company’s loan, commissioners voted to release the house of QC’s owner Clemmy Queen as collateral in favor of the company’s equipment.

Now the county is about to sell these used machines at what will inevitably prove less — a lot less — than the money owed, according to Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten.

QC Apparel owes Jackson County a total of $426,000 in loan money and back rent for space at the now county-owned former Tuckasegee Mills building. Given the estimated $5,000 value of the sewing machines, the county is left with a large difference to write off.

The latest company to default on its revolving loan with the county is Metrostat, a small Internet service provider. The company announced it would close three months ago and could not pay back some $250,000 in outstanding loans it owed the county and town of Sylva.

Metrostat had put up fiber optic lines as collateral, and the county and town are in process of selling off those fiber lines— but they won’t recoup the full balance owed on the loan.

The county might also find itself in possession of equipment for making biodiesel due because of a default by Smoky Mountain Biofuels.

But the county hasn’t totally curbed its appetite for non-standard collateral. When making a $289,000 loan to an AM radio station last month, the county agreed in principle to accept the federal license of the radio frequency as the primary collateral backing the loan. Federal regulations prohibit frequencies from being put as collateral, however, so the county is working with the prospective station owner to find a substitute.


Another county, more revolving loans

Now another local government wants to get in the revolving loan business. Macon County is considering instituting a program of its own, ostensibly to boost the creation and staying power of local businesses. And, just as in Jackson County, leaders there are touting the system as a good method of igniting the engines of economic development. In this weedeater-like two-cylinder economy that once roared at a mighty 10 cylinders (think Ford F-250 pickup truck), any possible forward motion has moths-to-flame attraction for county leaders and business entrepreneurs alike.

“I’m thinking of a business person out there who might want to expand a business, and needs some money to get off the ground,” Macon County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin told fellow board members during a recent meeting. “Banks aren’t interested in such small loans.”

Macon County Attorney Chester Jones, who was ultimately asked to review possible mechanisms for such a county loan program and report back to the board, cautioned prudence.

“You’ve got to structure the deal so that at the end of the day, the deal will be beneficial to the public,” Jones said.

And that’s exactly what’s in question next door in Jackson County: With that outstanding bill to its revolving loan program of just more than $800,000, supporters are hard pressed to easily defend and explain exactly what the public benefit might be.

Commissioner Joe Cowan, the longest serving commissioner on the board, said he believes the issues date to how and why the revolving loan program was conceived: job creation at any price.

“The whole purpose was to create jobs,” Cowan said. “Whether you made money, you didn’t, or even if you lost a little.”

Over time, Cowan said, people involved in the loan program had different views, and proper collateralization fell by the wayside as job production became ever more emphasized. Loans were extended to businesses that were “fixtures in the county and to good people,” the commissioner said, “but somehow we (the county) just let them get money without sufficient collateral. The county bent over backwards to protect job growth.”

Despite the defaults, county taxpayers aren’t directly losing dollars because of the loans. Money to get the revolving loan fund started from grants. Although the revolving loan fund hasn’t been a drain on the county’s tax coffers, the question remains, however, whether it has done the job as promised: to help build and boost economic development in Jackson County.

Debnam touted Sequoyah Fund’s solid track record and methods of extending loans, which requires prior in-depth scrutiny of an applicant’s financial status, as a possible model for Jackson County. This Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ regional loan program has used casino dollars to help provide training and technical assistance to more than 1,000 individuals and extended more than 135 loans totaling almost $4.6 million since 2001.


Controversial history

The revolving loan situation in Jackson County verged on the bizarre in 2005. Commissioners’ relationship with the now defunct Economic Development Commission fractured amid questions about who was in charge of the revolving loan program. There were questions about whether favoritism played roles in some of the loan participants receiving unusually generous loan terms.

Ultimately, deputies were ordered to seize EDC financial records, and an auditor was brought in to review the group’s finances. The auditor eventually concluded the records were too spotty to perform a conclusive audit.

“The whole thing was ill-conceived from the beginning,” said Commissioner Doug Cody of the revolving loan program. “It wasn’t handled in a business-type manner.”

Today, there is no EDC in Jackson County, though there have been signs of resurrection by current commissioners — though probably in an entirely different form and unarguably under commissioners’ oversight and control.

The previous board of commissioners had likewise attempted to jumpstart the EDC, but had modeled the new entity, much like the old one, by sharing control with the towns. It wasn’t long before the newly hired EDC director resigned, claiming the entity was floundering because of a lack of clear structure and mission. The entire effort soon fell by the wayside.

Despite the loan program’s history of woes and current financial shortfalls, commissioners said that they support the concept of a county revolving loan program if the controls are tightened.

“I think it has its place,” said Cody, a fiscally conservative Republican.

Cody supported extending two recent loans made by the county, one to Jackson Paper for $250,000 (the Sequoyah Fund kicked in an additional $250,000) and $110,000 to local resident Roy Burnette who wants to get Sylva radio station WRGC back on the air. The station got an additional loan of $179,000 from the county’s separate economic development fund.

To qualify for the revolving loan fund, businesses must create a minimum of three jobs with a threshold of $10,000 for each job created. The economic development fund doesn’t have a specific job-creation threshold.

The loan to Jackson Paper was to rebuild the wood-fired boiler at the recycled paper manufacturing plant. The terms of the revolving loan was for 10 years at a 3.25 percent interest rate. The collateral is a second lien on 47 acres and buildings in downtown Sylva, which Wooten said last week should adequately cover the county’s financial exposure following any possible default.

The interest rate for Jackson Paper is the same rate as proposed by the Sequoyah Fund so that explains why it is higher, Wooten said.

“I suspect we would have loaned at a lower level if it had involved only Jackson County,” he said.

The county opted to give Burnette his loan at 2 percent interest, but the money isn’t being doled out until the county is satisfied with the collateral being offered. A move to put the county on the FCC license along with Burnette failed when the FCC flatly ruled out the idea. Wooten said he believes other collateral will prove satisfactory to the board, as did Cody.

Wooten knows his numbers: before becoming county manager, he worked for three decades as Western Carolina University’s finance officer. The revolving loan, he said, needs “to be a little more businesslike. This is not ‘angel’ funding.”

And when it comes to the collateral that underpins loans, the county really “does not want sewing machines,” Wooten said. “I do think we need to be conservative. But, it is something in our toolbox.”


Who got what and when? A history of  Jackson’s revolving loan recipients

• August 1993: Hensley-Dean, $28,090. Paid in full June 2001. Out of business.

• May 1995: Q.C. Apparel, $358,355; owes county $425,901. Loan terms renegotiated seven times. Out of business.

• December 1997: Clearwood LLC: $225,000; owes county $80,104. Out of business.

• June 1999: Southern Lumber: $218,000; paid in full July 2008. Out of business. County bought property and the owner used some of those proceeds to pay the loan off.

• May 2001: County Collections: $14,000; balance of $12,157 “written off” by commissioners. Out of business.

• August 2002: CMG, later Fraternal Composite Specialties: $325,000; owes county $82,452. They are current on payments though owing that money.

• November 2004: Metrostat Communications: $250,000; owes county $259,228. Out of business. Assets transferred to county and Town of Sylva to sell off, but likely won’t be enough to cover outstanding balance.

• August 2006: Smoky Mountain Biofuels: $148,000; owes county $160,357. Out of business. Assets and collateral still being determined.

• March 2011: Webster Enterprises: $70,000; owes county $71,158.26. Payments deferred until April 25, 2013.

• Current: A pending $110,000 loan to Roy Burnette in Sylva to get local WRGC back on the air. County still trying to determine appropriate collateral.

• Current: A pending $250,000 loan to Jackson Paper for repair work at the Sylva plant. That loan looks certain to move forward.


Where Jackson’s loan program started

Jackson County’s revolving loan has its genesis in a 1982 Community Development Block Grant for $750,000, a joint effort with the town of Bryson City. Tuckasegee Mills received $738,500 in a loan, and Jackson County received 50 percent of a payback — $553,973.

Another grant for Jackson County for $291,000 enabled a loan to a business for $285,500. Ultimately, the principal from the two grants totaled $654,750 — a nest egg for the revolving loan fund.


The three guiding principles for Jackson’s loan program

• Creation of new job opportunities and the retention of existing jobs … principally for people of low and moderate income.

• To further new business development or expansion within the county.

• To enable private business development that would not take place without loan assistance from the county.


It ain’t easy be green. Nor is it particularly easy for a full-grown man to position himself beside a busy highway and gyrate wildly for hours on end, day after day, in a Statue of Liberty costume.

Bryan Pixa is doing just that, serving both as a dancing human billboard for Liberty Tax Service in Sylva, located on Asheville Highway, and as a living testimony to those basic qualities that helped make America great: if you are going to do a job, do that job and treat your employer right. Earn that paycheck, son.

In the process of living up to America’s beloved work ethic, Pixa might be emerging as the best street entertainer Western North Carolina has ever seen. Surely he’s the most enthusiastic Statue of Liberty anyone in Sylva has ever seen, what with his leg kicks and wiggles, his hippity-hoppity get-down jiving and grinding, never-let-up-for-a-breath dance moves.

“He’s great,” Liberty Tax Service’s front-desk employee, Brittany Grillo, said of Pixa’s Lady Liberty. She is uniquely qualified to critique Pixa’s overall interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, theatrically and artistically speaking.

Grillo, you see, is a retired Sonic restaurant hotdog.

“I love the way he works,” the onetime hotdog said, who admitted she wasn’t as animated in her dramatic role as a life-sized hotdog.

And yes, those hotdogs and Lady Liberties, that human cow who not so long ago waved its hoof somewhat drearily to passing motorists on behalf of Ryan’s restaurant in Sylva — they most certainly do bring in business, Grillo said.

Does seeing a man in a green Statue of Liberty costume suddenly gyrate into view make drivers’ turn the wheel, pull in and get their taxes done? It works, Grillo insisted.

And it’s relatively inexpensive outdoor advertising. In these dour economic times, businesses such as Liberty Tax Service — a franchise within a national storefront tax preparation company — are pulling out the stops to attract new customers. Lady Liberty captures people’s attention and helps with branding.

This is really just basic old-fashioned advertising livened up for a modern audience. Because when you get right down to it, Pixa and his fellow human billboards are reinventions of the old-fashioned sandwich boards.

“I can’t afford it — I wish I could,” said Anita Stephens, who owns Sign Crafters a door or two away from Liberty Tax Service. “It seems to work, and it’s very entertaining. My customers stand at our door and say they could watch him all day.”

It’s not easy money. Passing motorists are generally supportive and appreciative of Pixa, but there is always the occasional jerk in those poor, tired, huddled masses stopped at the signal light before turning onto N.C 107.

“‘I thought it was Lady Liberty, not big fat Liberty,’” Pixa recounted one passerby as shouting.

Not that he can easily hear what’s being said, supportive or ugly. Under the historically accurate seven rays of his crown, hidden behind large dark sunglasses and heavy smears of green face paint, Pixa is sporting ear buds and rocking out to music. It makes the time pass, keeps him entertained and provides a beat to dance to.

Sometimes, when an emotional lift is in order, the music is undiluted reggae. More often he’s indulging a sudden and strong passion for the music of Ben Harper, who mixes blues, folk, soul, reggae and rock.

Pixa loves being a human billboard and he loves working for Liberty Tax Service. But he’s wearing a Statue of Liberty costume for a very serious reason: Pixa wanted to be in Sylva for the imminent birth of his child. His wife is from here, and Pixa had been living six or so hours away working a regular, successful, routine job in Virginia.

The couple lost their first child in 2008, just hours after the baby was born.

“It was a unique situation,” Pixa said. “I needed to do something to get back to Sylva.”

A newspaper help-wanted ad for the position of a living Statue of Liberty caught his attention.

“I thought, ‘I can do that,’” Pixa said.

Pixa is a musician and an oil painter, and sometimes plays harmonica for motorists while working as the Statue of Liberty. Pixa said he sometimes imagines passing mothers and fathers warning their children they’d better get an education or they’ll grow up to be a Statue of Liberty, just like him.

“But I’ve got an education,” Pixa said good-humouredly. “I just needed some steady income. And I’ve ended up with the best job in town.”


The fate of Macon County’s planning board and whether it will exist in a meaningful form will be decided at next week’s commissioners’ meeting.

At stake are the implementation of term limits, and whether those term limits should be retroactively applied to those currently serving. That could eliminate many of the staunchest pro-planners now on the board.

There’s also the question about whether the planning board should be diminished by commissioners from its current role as an ordinance-producing group to something like an “advisory” panel that generates suggestions.

An email last month from Commissioner Ron Haven to fellow county commissioners ignited the firestorm. He accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. Haven openly demanded Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland be ousted, targeting the planning board’s most vocal advocate for development regulations, and further suggested the board might could be abolished.

Haven’s email generated more subdued, controlled responses from fellow commissioners during their last meeting. But the iron hand is still in the velvet glove as far as pro-planners are concerned.

“What it really seems like is that they are trying to load the planning board with people who are anti-planning and who are diametrically opposed to planning, though there’s talk about diversity,” said Al Slagle, a member of that board.

The more recent appointments to the planning board — those made since a new Republican majority won control of the county commission a year ago  — have been people who are open about their desires for no, or extremely limited, land-development regulations.

This battle has been decades in the making. Macon County commissioners have long resisted instituting planning regulations sent to them for approval by their planning board.

“This kind of open opposition is new,” said Susan Ervin, the only woman on the planning board and the longest serving member. Ervin has emerged recently — after two decades of service — as a lightning rod for criticisms of that group.

“There have been bumps before, though,” Ervin said. “Maybe 11 or 12 years ago, we tried to introduce a land-use plan that didn’t go anywhere, either.”

Although the county has a subdivision ordinance, it has been stuck on passing a steep slope ordinance despite work on one being in the works for three years. The planning board finally scrapped the slope ordinance last summer and replaced it with more basic construction guidelines, but commissioners have not yet given them the thumbs up or down.

The term-limits idea being floated might not accomplish removing Penland, who declined to comment, or Ervin, if that is indeed the goal.

The county would need to go back and determine exactly when each planning board members was appointed, according to Mike Decker, deputy clerk to the commission board. Additionally, the March 1972 ordinance that formed the planning board underwent revision in 2004. It might prove necessary to start members’ terms from that date, he said.

Mark West, another longtime serving planning board member who is pro-planning but could be considered more moderate in his views than some on the board, expressed discomfort at the tone of the debate.

“We’ve always been able to disagree politely,” West said. “To respect each other and be able to shake hands. I see it turning into a more hostile environment, and one that doesn’t serve the county well.”

The bottom line for West is ensuring reasonable planning measures in Macon County that adequately ensure the public’s safety.

“If you can contain a slide on your property, I don’t have any personal concerns about that,” West said. “But I do think the county has an obligation when it becomes a down-slope hazard to others.”

The open battle over the planning board’s fate has not engulfed those county employees involved in the planning realm. Planner Derek Roland, to date, seems to have risen above the fray, as has veteran County Manager Jack Horton. That has not always proven the case in past county fracases. Learning to handle such situations is part of being a government employee, Horton said.

“Sometimes you just have conflicts to deal with,” he said. “And we are here to do a job and to give advice where advice is necessary. But the commissioners are the ones who are elected to make the decisions. As staff, we give all the facts about an issue that we can, and bring back to them the best information that we can on a particular subject.”

Horton pointed out that those commissioners also must face the repercussions “of praise or blame,” whatever that turns out to be.


“Why didn’t you tell me?” the woman — wild-eyed, disbelieving and somewhat hysterically — called over to where I was standing slightly hidden behind the next set of gas pumps.

Why, indeed? I asked myself before replying truthfully that I’d been afraid she’d resent my interference.

“I was being selfish,” I called back. “I feared you’d say something nasty in return.”

Lessons, when we’re open to them, can come in the strangest places. Even, I learned, at gasoline stations in Hazelwood.

I was making the trek from Sylva to Lake Junaluska one day last week when the light that indicates my car is low on fuel flashed red on the dash. I drove down the exit to Hazelwood and pulled into a gas pump at one of the service stations there.

I noticed the woman pumping gas in front of me almost immediately. She was worthy of notice — thin and harried looking, she was puffing, dragon-like, on a cigarette while fueling up her car.

‘Oh, gosh,’ I thought to myself.

(Actually, I thought ‘Oh, shit,’ but this is a family newspaper, after all. At least some sort of family, if not by any possible stretch of the imagination that traditional nuclear family editors and publishers are referring to when they stifle writers’ creativity and free speech rights with the ‘we’re a family newspaper’ warning. Even so, this publication certainly could be considered a newspaper for some strange dysfunctional family that really should be in therapy working on their weirdo issues … but I digress. And, I need my job, after all. But I do want it noted that I respected newspaper conventionality by writing “gosh” even though I’ve never used such a wimpy word in my life. But I’ve certainly said and thought “shit” on any number of occasions, so dear reader please mentally replace “gosh” with that Great Unmentionable curse word. Or you can mentally do the stupid newspaper bow of conventionality to those fictional sensitive traditional families editors and publishers worry about: ‘shxx.’)

So, I think to myself: ‘Jiminy Cricket, that woman is smoking a cigarette. What should I do? Tell her?’

Then Selfish Me surfaced. I thought, surely Harried Woman realized that she had a cigarette dangling from her lips. Periodically Harried Woman reached up with one hand to whip out said cigarette and wave it about, gesticulating like some mad orchestral conductor, in emphasis to some point or another she was making to an individual seated in the car.

Selfish Me next thought, ‘Holy Cow, Batman. Am I far enough away that if she blows herself up I’ll be safe? Will the ensuing fireball incinerate me in a horrible conflagration? What if I step behind my Mini Cooper — is it big enough to protect me? Why didn’t I buy an SUV, or a Humvee? No, the Cooper is too small. I’ll shelter behind the gasoline pumps.”

Even in the moment I realized that sheltering behind gasoline pumps from a possible fireball was stupid. But Selfish Me felt more protected there than not.

What was interesting, in retrospect, is how quickly I had forgotten the lessons of a parable I’d just read and thought deeply about. It’s Chinese or Japanese in origin, and is very old indeed. It goes something like this: A bunch of vine squashes one day started quarreling and fighting amongst themselves in the field. A priest, hearing them bicker, came out of his hut. He ordered them to quit harassing each other. The priest taught them meditation techniques. After a time, the squash grew calm and quiet. The priest then told them to reach up and feel the top of their heads. The squash did as they were told, and discovered the vine that connected them together. Realizing their interconnectedness, that they were really one, the squash after that got along with each other very well indeed and worked to resolve any differences.

I was contemplating interconnectedness on my way to Lake Junaluska when I stopped to buy gasoline. Somewhere deep inside I believe there was a small kernel of self-satisfaction regarding my obvious spiritual growth and unique ability to grasp ancient parables.

Harried Woman squashed that glow right into the ground.

It turns out that Harried Woman became harried because she had such difficulty getting gasoline. She was irritated by having to go inside the service station to pay first before pumping.

Harried Woman, I believe, learned a lesson that day, too: a bit of mindfulness goes a long way, and walking 30 feet extra doesn’t seem such a big deal when you almost blow yourself up because of mindlessness.

Selfish Me learned something, too: I’ve gotta long way to go.

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


In town and county governments there are those dedicated members of the public who speak out and stand up to help hold elected officials accountable … and then there are gadflies. Marie Leatherwood, with a history of flinging wild accusations of thievery and wrongdoing against Jackson County’s leaders, seems squarely in the latter camp.

Last week, Jackson County commissioners clearly had enough — at least enough of Leatherwood’s signs. The 83-year-old, who is less than 5-feet-tall and must rely on Jackson County Transit to get to meetings, was told that she could no longer bring signs into the boardroom. She can display them outside in the hall, however.

The dispute between Leatherwood and Jackson County’s elected officials appears a simple matter of free speech rights versus political leaders’ duties to conduct public business. But the situation isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.

Legal experts are divided on whether signs alone constitute disruptions. And then there’s the Leatherwood factor: her attacks are highly individual, even vile by most people’s standards. The accusations are at times untethered in reality. She uses an allotted three minutes of time, given to any member of the public who wishes to address the board at meetings, to abuse her chosen target’s character, personal integrity and ethics.

Leatherwood can weave a tapestry of conspiracy out of a single cat’s hair, with just about as much evidence to support her claims. She routinely exceeds her three minutes, requiring constant prodding by Commission Chairman Jack Debnam to finish talking so that others have an opportunity to speak. And under a different chairman and previous board of commissioners, Leatherwood once left the meeting room escorted by sheriff’s deputies.

About two years ago, Leatherwood began using props, holding up signs in the board room during meetings.


‘It’s a disruption’

Debnam’s decision to ban Leatherwood’s signs follow an initial decision made a few months ago to remove her from  “press row,” an area reserved for county employees and members of the news media. Seated then directly behind county administrators, Leatherwood chatted distractingly to anyone nearby while business was conducted.

Leatherwood had her signs then, too. Debnam said that he hoped to hinder her ability to distract by asking that she sit in the publicly designated area.

That certainly didn’t work, he noted. Leatherwood promptly took up a new post, standing in the aisle to one side of the board room, signs in hand, in an even more prominent position than before.

“I don’t have anything personal against Mrs. Leatherwood,” Debnam said Monday. “We give her the three minutes to do what she wants to do. I don’t care if she brings an 8-by-10 signboard and props it up while she speaks, but I don’t think it’s fair to allow her to stand in front of everybody during meetings and hold up a sign. I think that’s a disruption, and that it’s uncalled for.”

State law gives elected officials the right to conduct meetings without disruptions. Backed on his legal reasoning by County Attorney Jay Coward, Debnam pulled the plug on Leatherwood’s signs. Leatherwood, predictably but perhaps not entirely inaccurately, cried foul.

“It’s a violation of free speech,” Leatherwood said, adding that she had been shocked by Debnam’s action.  

Leatherwood’s signs are generally slightly larger than a desk calendar. They display points she wants emphasized and often excerpts the state’s general statutes. The content varies according to who serves as her latest target.


Violation of law?

There’s no doubt Leatherwood’s behavior is difficult, and that her accusations are hostile and, to date, mostly unfounded. But that’s not the issue, according to longtime N.C. Press Association Lawyer Amanda Martin.

Here’s the bottom line, as Martin framed it: would Leatherwood be allowed to hold her signs if she had a history of delivering verbal flowers, kisses and accolades to commissioners instead of flinging wild accusations?

“Is bringing a sign disruptive? I don’t think that simply having a sign is disruptive,” Martin said. “It could be because they don’t like it, that it’s just bugging the commissioners. And that’s not disruptive. I don’t think that’s a violation of the law.”

Debnam said in response that he doesn’t care what the signs say, whether they are in favor of him or against him or for fellow board members or against them.

“I don’t want her to hold anything up,” the Jackson County chairman said.

Leon “Chip” Killian, Haywood County’s lawyer since 1971, supported the neighboring county board’s decision to deem signs in the boardroom disruptive.

“I don’t think my board would look kindly upon someone holding up signs anymore than we would someone interrupting,” Killian said. “I think a sign is a major interference.”

But John Nowack of Sylva, who was an eyewitness to the events unfolding in Jackson County’s boardroom, said that he believed the county’s leaders fell short in understanding and compassion. And, Nowack said, of upholding the simple “human dignity” of an aging, elderly resident.

“I was surprised,” said Nowack, adding that this had been the first commission meeting he’d attended. “They really presented themselves poorly in the way they handled this.”


A difficult task

Longtime Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who previously served as chairman of that county’s board, said balancing free speech with the need to conduct business can prove a delicate undertaking.

“But that’s the privilege of being in America,” Beale said. “You don’t want people to disrupt, and there’s rules to cover that. But if they want to be a part, we welcome them in this community.”

Beale isn’t joking. During one commission meeting in Macon County, the then-board chairman had a speaker during public session flop down onto the floor, apparently making a point that escaped the reasoning of others present in the room.

“I tried to be cordial and respectful, but I said (name of flopper) ‘If you fall on that floor again, I’m going to call 911 and have you carried out of here,’” Beale recounted.

Problem solved, at least in that particular case, Beale said. After that, the flopper remained standing and spoke respectfully.

“It’s a lot how you handle things. If you are antagonistic, it’s not going to get any better,” he said.

That said, Beale heavily underscored the absolute need and right for boards to avoid disruptions by members of the public.

Sylva’s interim Town Manager Mike Morgan echoed Beale’s thoughts. He said that striking the correct balance is difficult. Many board regulars are simply grandstanding, Morgan said. He noted that when Buncombe County, which televises its meetings, opted to turn the cameras off during the public comment segment, the number of people angling to address that board plummeted.

When Haywood County was being inundated by public comment at its commissioners’ meetings two years ago — with the same line-up of speakers taking 90 minutes at the start of nearly every meeting — the county likewise contemplated taking the public comment period off the air to discourage grandstanding. Instead, the county began more strictly enforcing the three-minute time limit and quit answering questions posed by speakers at the podium, a practice that tended to lead to prolonged exchanges.

So far, Leatherwood has reserved her protests for the county, although last week she showed up at Sylva’s town board meeting with a sign in hand. The town has not taken any action to ban signs.

Morgan said that while serving as town manager of Weaverville he cautioned his former staff to listen closely to those who spoke to that town’s board, no matter how familiar and boring it might seem. Every once in a while, Morgan said, board gadflies knock the ball out of the park.

Or, in other words, the fool sometimes emerges the Shakespearean fool: wiser, that is, than the rest of us.


Western North Carolina occupiers “took possession” last week of the Federal Building in Bryson City where federal court is held to protest a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that declared corporations are people.

“I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” one protester’s sign proclaimed. About 50 people turned out for the Friday event, which took place in the parking lot outside the Federal Building at the corner of Veterans Boulevard and Main Street.

Swain County residents seemed generally supportive of protesters’ stance: many honked as they passed by, or called out in encouragement.

“I know a little about the case, and this seemed like a good way to educate myself,” said Jesse Fowler, a Western Carolina University student studying political science, who joined protesters in Bryson City. “This seemed like a really good time to learn more.”

MovetoAmend.org organized the nationwide protest. Most at the Federal Building in Bryson City were members of OccupyWNC, a homegrown group that meets in Sylva once a week to discuss political issues and strategy.

They gathered this day against the decision in Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission. The court case resulted in a ruling that the government had no right to limit or regulate the independent political contributions of corporations.

“I am here because I do not want to see corporations buying our presidents in the future,” said June Smith, a Jackson County resident.

Critics such as Smith believe the ruling encourages corruption.

“The court has basically usurped the constitution,” added June Smith’s husband, Newt.


A student club at Western Carolina University is defending its decision to pair a drag show featuring “kings” and “queens” from across the state with a get-out-the-vote drive aimed at defeating a proposed state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages.

“We could open up a shelter for puppies and those who hate us would still hate us; that’s no matter what we do, drag show or no drag show,” said Katlyn Williams, 19, a WCU student from Andrews.

The drag show is an exclamation point on a day filled with educational events about Amendment One. Gay-marriage supporters believe an anti-gay marriage amendment would constitutionalize state-abetted discrimination in North Carolina.

This is not the first drag show at WCU. A drag show held last April at the University Center at WCU attracted upwards of 450 spectators, according to members of the student group UNITY!

“We have not in the past few years had any issues with the community at any of our events,” said club leader Zachery Reedy, 22, a former WCU student from Chicago. Reedy isn’t enrolled this semester. He said that he plans to return to classes at the university to complete a degree.


Drag shows divisive among gays

UNITY! members described the drag shows at the University Center as popular among homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Audience members, they said, are from both on and off campus.

The shows feature men and women dressed as members of the opposite sex, usually with exaggerated personas, who dance, sing or lip-synch to music. Drag shows are becoming ever-more mainstream with the advent of performers such as RuPaul and the mind-bending, drag-queen imitating Lady Gaga.

But, drag shows historically have been a source of vehement disagreement within the gay and lesbian community. Some gays and lesbians believe the high energy, campy shows fuel stereotypes and further alienate many “straight” people from serious efforts to ensure equality for all. Drag show critics say that queens in particular underscore harmful stereotypes of women — similar to what blackface performances by white entertainers did to demean African Americans.

UNITY! club members reject that argument.

“The reason for the drag show is as an incentive to vote,” Reedy said. “Our goal for this day alone is to register 500 people to vote.”

Reedy and other UNITY! members said they do not believe coupling the drag show with the get-out-the-vote effort trivializes or dilutes the political importance of the event. Nor do they believe it might alienate more mainstream “straight” voters who are undecided about whether to vote against the same-sex marriage ban.

The event, coupled with educational efforts, “is a good opportunity to get all people to vote,” said Megan Bailey, 19, who is from Florida but more recently lived in Wilkesboro.

Bailey is leading the voter-registration portion of WCU’s “Race to the Ballot.”


WCU backs students’ drag-show decision

UNITY! faculty advisor Laura Cruz supported students’ decision to hold a drag show in conjunction with a get-out-the-vote rally. She said her role with the group is to guide, not dictate.

“It is a student organization run for and by students,” said Cruz, who made her way to Western North Carolina from San Francisco. “If I think they are going in a wrong direction, I can steer them another way.”

In this case, however, Cruz said she didn’t perceive the decision to hold a drag show as troublesome. Though, she noted, “there is some controversy within the gay community itself about the meaning of drag.”

But UNITY! sponsors drag shows “all the time” at WCU, said Cruz, who is an associate professor of history. The events lined up for Jan. 27 met the club criteria “for support, social events and advocacy.”

Although the University Center is a building owned and managed by the university, its purpose is to serve as a venue for students.

Sam Miller, WCU vice chancellor for student affairs, said that he believes the get-out-the-vote event, coupled with a drag show, is an appropriate on-campus activity.

“I think the job of a public university is to provide both the intellectual framework for students to explore and learn, as well as the physical venues to do so,” Miller wrote in an email interview. “Learning happens in many surprising ways outside the classroom experience. It takes leadership, knowledge and organizational skills to pull off a successful event. The university has a responsibility to stand behind our students and facilitate their learning in their events and activities, as well as the classroom.”

Miller wrote that the University Center was built to help create and support a “broad range” of student-created programs. The University Center, residence halls and similar on-campus facilities are paid for through student fees, Miller noted.

Zero state or tuition dollars are used to pay for social or entertainment-focused student activities, though state funds are used to help support “unique learning opportunities” such as special lectures or other events created in support of curriculum, Miller wrote.


A compromise has emerged in a fight over the historic McCoy truss bridge, one that would keep the old bridge in place for foot traffic while building a newer, bigger bridge alongside it for vehicles. But Macon residents who have spent nearly 10 years fighting for the bridge still feel ignored.

N.C. Department of Transportation workers and county commissioners cooked up the deal independently of the community’s wishes, according to resident Doug Woodward, who has labored for years to see McCoy Bridge renovated and saved for all types of vehicular traffic.

The debate over the truss bridge has become a symbol for a larger clash in the region between development and a rural way of life. Residents claim a sentimental attachment to the truss bridge, and fear a bigger, newer bridge will pave the way for more people and more traffic in their valley.

Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who represents that area of Macon County, has said that he believes building a new bridge while saving McCoy Bridge is the best option available. Last May, the full five-member board of commissioners endorsed Kuppers’ proposal.

DOT officials are now indicating they’ll go along with the idea, including kicking in $126,000 toward renovating the truss structure. The DOT sent a letter to the county agreeing in concept. The money is contingent on Macon County assuming ownership of McCoy Bridge.

McCoy Bridge, which straddles the Little Tennessee River in the Oak Grove community, is one of a few truss bridges remaining in the state and the last in Macon County. DOT, which would have access to federal funds for much of the cost of a new bridge, wants to replace the one-lane crossing with a new one.

The DOT has cited safety as a factor. Engineers have deemed McCoy Bridge “functionally obsolete” and unable to handle future traffic demands. Its structural integrity is suspect, they say.

They’ve argued for a safe and historic working bridge: Not two bridges — one for motorists and the other for pedestrians and bike users — but a single, working bridge for everyone.

Woodward said the commissioners’ compromise had been considered, but discarded, as an option early on. Residents even submitted an engineering redesign of their own during a meeting with state transportation officials a few years ago.

Woodward said that the redesign was a workable compromise and that it would bring McCoy up to modern load-bearing standards, yet retain most of the historical character of the bridge.

Ralph Kennedy of the state Department of Transportation said will buy necessary right-of-way for the new bridge in 2014 with an estimated cost of $410,000. Construction is slated to begin in 2016, with a cost of about $2.5 million, he said.


It took just moments for this roomful of 60 people with their varying musical backgrounds and abilities to unite in song. But they did just that thanks to the guidance of shape-note teacher Anne Lough of Haywood County, who walked them through the basics of this historic musical method.

Lough is an instructor and performer, versed in traditional singing, storytelling, folklore, folk dance and the shape-note tradition. An enthusiastic and charismatic speaker — even on this day with the start of a bad cold — Lough is exceptionally skilled at persuading shy potential musicians to forget their hesitations and join in an old-fashioned sing-along like this one last week at Lake Junaluska. The “sing” was part of the monthly “Live and Learn” series, which features guest speakers and authors on an array of topics, from history to the environment, and in this case, heritage.

“This connects people with their heritage,” Lough said after the event. “This really is Americana — whether they are Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian.”

Shape notes are a musical notation in which symbols or “shapes” — diamonds, squares, upside-down triangles, right-side-up triangles and so on — match solfege syllables (think do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do). Shape notes allow singers to learn tunes easily and quickly than learning to read music — even the explanation takes longer and is more difficult to grasp than the actual shape-note system.

People who have encountered shape-note singing don’t soon forget the experience. Kate Thurber, a resident of Massachusetts who winters in Waynesville, first heard the unique singing at a Mountain Heritage Day event a couple years ago. She was at the traditional arts and crafts venue at Western Carolina University in the company of a friend.

“It was pouring the rain and we happened to go in a building and they happened to be doing shaped note singing. It was beautiful,” said Thurber, who welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the technique.

Culture and music, Lough told the crowd, go hand in hand: shape notes “are part of our Protestant hymn tradition here in America,” she said. “It’s very important to American musical history.”

And the Southern Appalachians have a particularly rich tradition in shape-note singing, one that lives on in “sings” today.

Initially in America, the pilgrims were strictly singers of psalms. They used the Ainsworth Psalter, published in Holland in 1612 and brought to these shores in 1620.

But culture and music do indeed go together, and as the decades passed and more secular folk arrived in America, purely religious singing gave way to more casual singing in the community.

Rote learning, the primary method of teaching and learning vocal pieces, was slow and cumbersome.

Enter shape-note singing, a means to help singing teachers help those wanting to sing. A three-shape system dominated pre-Civil War; after that, a seven-shape system came on the scene, too, not so much replacing the previous notations as supplementing them. But the system’s roots are much more ancient than America, Lough said.

Guido of Arezzo, a medieval monk, is believed to have created a method of teaching vocal songs that was dubbed the Guidonian Hand. In this system, each portion of the hand represented a specific note. While teaching, the music instructor would indicate which notes to sing by pointing at his hand.

From a simple hand grew entire musical-notation systems.

Lough, a native of Virginia, has lived in Western North Carolina with her husband, Rob, since the 1990s. She said the musical culture here has proven a wonderful experience for the couple: Rob Lough, like his wife, is a musician.

“I could never have imagined the richness, the interest in preservation” found here in WNC, Lough said, who added she doubted that there is anywhere else outside this region that would have allowed her to make her living as a musician. Lough plays the autoharp, guitar, hammered and mountain dulcimer.


Two of Western North Carolina’s most storied conservation groups, both based in Macon County, merged this month into a single entity.

The Little Tennessee Watershed Association has been absorbed into The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee and is being touted as a win-win for regional conservation efforts and as a means to financially help underpin regional conservation efforts.

The Land Trust name will be retained for now. The merged organization has the combined backing of more than 500 members.

The smaller of the two nonprofits, the watershed association, had just three employees. It has struggled to adequately tap spigots of grant funding. Those traditional nonprofit-geared pools of money are continuing to dry up in the face of the difficult economy.

The Land Trust, on the other hand, just completed its best fundraising year ever. A few years ago, anticipating stagnating grant opportunities, the larger eight-employee group deliberately and successfully began to diversify its revenue stream. The Land Trust now relies as much on individual, private support as on grant funding.

Such transformations haven’t proven possible, at least not to the same degree, for smaller nonprofits such as the watershed association. Also difficult for small groups is keeping and recruiting experienced board members, thereby ensuring stable governance.

Often small groups are almost totally reliant on the energy and charisma of a single leader, said Paul Carlson, who helped guide The Land Trust from a similar small nonprofit to, at least for this region, a large one.

“It’s in part a question of economy of scale,” Carlson said. “I think the toughest job I know is to be director of a small nonprofit, because you have to wear so many hats.”

Jenny Sanders, executive director of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association, revived the nonprofit five years ago, he said. Talks were actually under way then to perhaps merge the two groups, but that didn’t happen because, Carlson said, of the caliber of Sanders’ leadership.

Sanders opted not to take a new job with the Land Trust following the merger. The decision was personal, a desire on her part to pursue other interests, she said. Sanders supports the merger, saying it simply “makes sense” for both organizations.

“I believe for a lot of reasons this was absolutely a smart move,” she said. “And it will provide a unified front for conservation in the six westernmost counties.”


Ensuring the work goes on

The watershed association’s most recognizable project is ongoing aquatic monitoring conducted by a corps of volunteers and overseen by Bill McLarney of Macon County. The biologist has studied the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries for more than two decades. McLarney, via the watershed association, has assembled a body of data on what lives in the Little Tennessee waterways — from miniscule larvae to newly discovered fish species — that’s difficult to find duplicated elsewhere in the U.S. McLarney’s work helped the Little Tennessee earn a reputation as one of the most biologically intact rivers. The baseline of what species are supposed to live in the river serves a greater purpose, however. If a species turns up in fewer numbers or disappears, it would alert future researchers that trouble was brewing.

McLarney, an original founder of both organizations, described the merger as “a natural progression” for the nonprofits.

Ken Murphy, board chairman for the Land Trust, said timing of the merger couldn’t be better.

“We already had plans to broaden our scope, and the areas we touch,” Murphy said. “Land and water are almost inseparable.”

The Little Tennessee often touts its work of protecting land along the Little Tennessee corridor as protecting the river itself, based on the premise that saving surrounding land from development keeps the river ecosystem from being disturbed.

The now 10-employee Land Trust plans to expand its work further into the Tuckasegee and Hiawassee river basins, the board chair said.

There are no plans at this time to merge The Land Trust with additional conservation organizations, Carlson said.

Murphy emphasized that there is an important people component to that strategy of concentrating on both land and water — to connect all of us to the natural world.

The merger will move those plans forward exponentially, Murphy said, because it serves as an opportunity “to bring in-house real expertise on water issues” and combine that knowledge with those conservation tasks The Land Trust has long focused upon.

The Land Trust, established 15 years ago, has forged the very concept of private land protection in the state’s westernmost counties, plus successfully worked on habitat restoration and cultural landscape conservation. The latter includes farmland and historic preservation. The group’s crowning success was the preservation of the 4,500-acre Needmore Tract, which straddles Macon and Swain counties along the Little Tennessee River, and was the likely site of development.

The watershed association helped secure the Needmore tract, plus partnered with the Land Trust and Macon County’s Soil and Water Conservation District on stream-bank restoration.


Expanding focus

The watershed association has a history of open advocacy on conservation issues, particularly under the out-spoken Sanders, its most-recent and final executive director. By contrast, The Land Trust has been more low-key and behind-the-scenes in its approach, though there have been issues in which the board has elected to become openly involved.

“The Land Trust has tried hard to not get caught up in polarizing issues,” Carlson said, “and we will continue to lead on results-oriented work.”

Carlson and Murphy both said The Land Trust is considering a more pro-active stance when it comes to conservation protections. And the spunky, outspoken and out-front history of the watershed association should slide nicely into that new focus.

“In the past, we have taken public positions on issues that involve the environment and conservation in our area,” Murphy said of The Land Trust. “But we plan to be a little more public about our positions and views of things that are happening in the region.”


Conservation merger

• The Land Trust for the Little Tennessee works to conserve the waters, forests, farms, and heritage of the Upper Little Tennessee and Hiwassee River Valleys. The organization works in partnership with private landowners, public agencies, and others to conserve land.

• The Little Tennessee Watershed Association works to protect and restore the health of the Little Tennessee River and its tributaries through monitoring, education, habitat restoration and citizen action.


January is a time for new beginnings; nowhere is that more true than in the garden.

A difficult task for newcomers to Western North Carolina who want to garden, or for first-timers to gardening, is an absence of good information on what vegetables to begin planting when.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has when-to-begin lists on its website and at  local offices. Frankly, though useful as a baseline, the state’s lists aren’t in my experience particularly helpful. That’s because the agency isn’t daring in its recommended growing practices, doesn’t factor in the use of protective covering and compiled the lists with traditional growers in mind.

Nothing wrong with any of those things, but traditional WNC growers were and are more interested in summer produce: corn, tomatoes, okra and squash. There’s much more out there than that. And much more fun to be had during our lengthy growing season than in just planting traditional garden mainstays.

If you have a greenhouse, an indoor growlight setup or a sunny place near the window, you can get started with this year’s garden now. During my stint farming in Bryson City I compiled a seed-starting list. I thought I’d share the first few months of the year in this space, and perhaps the remainder of the list in upcoming columns. I do need to take the time to tweak the list based on later farming journals I kept. Some of the Asian vegetables I became interested in aren’t well represented.

A few caveats are in order. Bear in mind that I was growing for farmers markets, and that I was farming for a financial living. This meant I was aggressive with my start dates. I wanted to be the first into market, if possible, with various vegetables. Factor in that I was farming at about 2,000 feet in elevation on a southerly slope. The average last frost date in that location is May 10. If you live in higher elevations, adjust my starting dates by roughly two (or more) weeks.


Mid January

• First round cabbage, broccoli to plant later under row cover.


Last week January

• Second round cabbage, broccoli (can continue planting in greenhouse through February as needed).

• Peppers (can continue into February as needed, helps germination to start on a heating mat. Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers).

• Artichokes (you can “trick” artichokes into growing in WNC by introducing the plants to various temperatures in their first weeks of life. Perhaps I’ll write on that topic more fully at a later date).


First week February

• Leeks.

• Head lettuces.

• Chives, thyme, other herbs (continue planting through February, March as needed).


Second or third week February

• Parsley.

In garden toward end of February, first week of March weather permitting, (be prepared to cover transplants when temperatures threaten to drop lower than 20 degrees):

• Transplant lettuce, broccoli and cabbage into garden.

• Direct seed leaf lettuce, snow peas, English peas, carrots, boc choi, onion sets, spinach, radishes, beets (keep succession growing through late winter into spring).


First week March

• Start tomatoes in greenhouse (Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers in greenhouse).

• Start eggplant.


Second week March

• Plant potatoes in garden.

• Direct seed kohlrabi in the garden.

• In greenhouse, marigolds, zinnias, ageratum, if you enjoy cutting flowers.


Continue transplanting in greenhouse. Direct seed in garden:

• Beets, onion sets (for green onions), radishes.

• Direct seed cilantro, pole or bush beans, first planting of soybeans, and sweet corn when the soil warm (old-timers here in the mountains planted early corn when the dogwood blooms).


Early to mid May

• Plant leek transplants into garden.

• Direct seed okra into garden.

• Direct seed basil, can plant later, too, to have with ripe tomatoes.

Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, radishes.

• Direct seed summer squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkin.

• Transplant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as weather permits.

• Direct seed red noodle bean (an Asia bean I’m particularly fond of).


Mid to late May

• Direct seed winter squash, spaghetti and butternut squashes.

• Under row cover, grow succession plantings of summer ‘lettuce’ mix: mizuna, kale, collards, tatsoi, red giant mustard, arugula. Use as cut-and-come again, harvest immature for raw salads. Replant short row every two weeks or so for summer use.

• Plant sweet potato slips.

• Plant chard, if haven’t already, also Malabar spinach, dill.

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


While a proposed room-tax hike in Jackson County has been sidelined at least for now, the idea of merging the county’s two tourism entities has been tapped for further study.

Jackson County commissioners plan to appoint a task force to study forming a single tourism agency for the county. Currently, Cashiers has its own tourism agency in addition to the countywide tourism agency based in Sylva. Each are affiliated with the chambers of commerce offices, too — one based in Cashiers and one in Sylva.

There are simply too many players involved in county tourism efforts, to hear Commission Chairman Jack Debnam tell it. He says that a single entity would be more effective and reduce costly and unnecessary duplication.

“I do believe in one (tourism authority) myself, and maybe some advisory boards,” Debnam reiterated to fellow commissioners last week. “I’d like to see us finally act like we are one county. With the people coming off the board, it’s the time to look at restructuring.”

Recent news that the long-time director of the Cashiers chamber and tourism agency, Sue Bumgarner, would retire could make such a restructuring easier. Bumgarner’s retirement will be effective in July and comes following of heightened scrutiny on how Cashiers was spending its cut of the tourism funding pie.

“It seems like an opportune time if we do want to make changes,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

In addition to Bumgarner’s retirement, there are four vacancies coming up on the Jackson County tourism board and two vacancies on the Cashiers tourism board, Wooten said.

Cashiers TTA board member Mike Henry said the board doesn’t know yet whether it will hire a replacement for Bumgarner or wait to see what the task force recommends about a merger.

“We haven’t met yet to form a plan,” he said.

While commissioners haven’t yet appointed task force members, Debnam recommended Julie Spiro, head of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, and Commissioner Mark Jones, who doubles as chairman of the Cashiers TTA; along with himself.

Jones enthusiastically endorsed Debnam’s olive-branch proposal. Jones constituents in the Cashiers area haven’t been happy about the proposed merger of the Cashiers agency into a single countywide one.


Room tax hike sidelined

Meanwhile, Debnam squelched the recent push for a room tax hike from 3 percent to 6 percent, however, saying it had been ill-considered.

“I would like to continue to spend some more time on this, to learn more about the impact we may have and exactly how we want to structure this,” Debnam said. “We made an error; we moved a little too fast, we were not informed enough to make the decision we tried to make.”

Debnam and his fellow commissioners faced a phalanx of outraged lodging owners in Jackson County when they passed, 4-1 with Jones voting no, to increase the tax. Commissioners subsequently rescinded that vote because they failed to hold a required public hearing.

Regardless of mistakes made and future plans to be made, finding the correct answers are critical to Jackson County’s economic wellbeing, Commissioner Doug Cody said.

“The decision was made years ago … to hang Jackson County’s economic health on travel and tourism — kind of deemphasizing” other forms of economic development, he said. “If we’re going to hang our hat on tourism, we’re going to have to get out and fight for those tourism dollars. We’ve got to make Jackson County a destination for people, not a pass through for other counties.”

Wooten said that commissioners would need to make their appointments promptly to the tourism committee to enable it to report back to them sometime this summer.


Jackson leaders will likely pushback a countywide property revaluation from next year to 2016 following a strong recommendation by their tax man.

“Truthfully, if you want this thing done and you want it done right, we don’t have an adequate timeline,” Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan told commissioners last week. “The more time we have, the better quality our work is going to be.”

Commissioners had instructed McMahan and his staff to move forward with a revaluation in 2013, which was already one year later than originally planned.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes.

Several residents made a public appeal to commissioners earlier this month to delay the revaluation beyond 2013. Falling real estate prices for high-end homes means affluent property owners will see their taxes come down in a revaluation, and the burden would be redistributed to the county’s middle-class residents.

Most of the property tax burden is currently shouldered by property owners in Cashiers-Glenville area, dominated by high-end resorts and second- and third-homes. Delaying the revaluation means the county could continue could taxing these high-end properties at an inflated book value.

But that isn’t the reason the county is giving for the delay. McMahan said there simply is a lack of sales data — not enough homes and lots being bought and sold — for the county to know what the going rate is for property.

The drop in sales is staggering: there are 444 sales from the past three years that could be considered for the revaluation, noted Commissioner Mark Jones who is from the Cashiers-Glenville area. That, McMahan added, compares to nearly 8,000 property transactions during the last revaluation period.

“It just makes our position of trying to proceed less defensible,” Chairman Jack Debnam, a real estate agent in real life, said of the woeful sales numbers.

The lack of sales makes it difficult to set accurate values that Jackson County could defend in potentially costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level. Counties must be able to prove how they arrived at property values by using data from actual sales.

“Would you say the big driver is the lack of sales?” Commissioner Doug Cody asked in reiteration of the shifting county position about when exactly to conduct a revaluation.

“That data is the most important thing you have to have,” McMahan said in reply.

“If postponed, what portion of your work would be in vain? How much of that would still be used?” Commissioner Charles Elders asked McMahan.

“None of it is in vain,” the tax assessor said in response. “You never truly quit, never totally stop working on revaluation.”

“And to do the job you should do, you really need this (extra) time,” Elders said. “You don’t need guess work?”

“Right, you don’t need to guess,” McMahan said in reply.

Tax Assessor Richard Lightner in neighboring Macon County successfully encouraged commissioners there to delay until 2015, the legal eight-year span allowable since the county’s last revaluation in 2007. He, too, cited likely indefensible legal action in his recommendation.

Haywood County, unlike counties farther to the west, moved forward with a revaluation last year after postponing it by just one year. Property values on a whole remained flat, although there was variation between types of property and neighborhood. Haywood does not have nearly the same volume of high-end second homes, however.

Swain County did a revaluation two years ago but tossed the results out. It will conduct a revaluation in 2014.


Jackson County leaders have decided that tradition is overrated.

Six months after the new Jackson County library opened, commissioners have decided whose name to put on a plaque in the foyer — a spot that until now featured a cardboard placeholder.

The verdict?

The names of two different boards of commissioners will be listed on the commemorative plaque for the new library, not just the board of commissioners who took the political heat when it was built.

“Can we talk about the plagues?” Chairman Jack Debnam asked fellow board members during a daylong retreat last week, a reference to a typo on the agenda sheet that was supposed to read, “library plaques.”

County Manager Chuck Wooten added, also amused by the typo, “I have not taken any steps to order those plaques. And I just need some direction, and it will be a plague I can eliminate from my agenda.”

The tempest in a teacup first burbled to public notice last summer, when Jackson County in June celebrated the opening of its $8 million public library in Sylva, a project that included renovations to the historic courthouse.

Before new commissioners and a new county manager took office last fall, former County Manager Ken Westmoreland had submitted the design for a plaque with a typical inscription used on new-building plaques in Jackson County. The plaque was to list the names of the political leaders who were responsible for funding the library; the county manager’s name leading the effort; and the names of the architect and general contractor involved.

When three new commissioners took office, that plaque design was placed on hold.

Wooten told commissioners that on his own initiative he decided that giving sole credit to the former commissioners wasn’t fitting. The new commissioners were making a substantial investment in the new library by increasing its annual operating budget. Wooten felt the three new board members should be included, too. But Wooten decided not to include the name of the previous county manager’s name, or his as the current county manager. He did opt to keep the architect and general contractor.

“At that point in time, I said, ‘Well, maybe we should take a different approach to it,’” Wooten said in explanation.

Debnam, in typical fashion told fellow board members that he’d rather take yet a different approach, an even more radical one than that being offered by the county’s manager — Debnam questioned whether any commissioners at all should attempt to claim plaque acclaim.

“Well, I for one have an issue with self gratification,” Debnam said, adding that county buildings are “built by and for the people of Jackson County.”

“What did we do?” Debnam said as he expounded on his individual theory of plaque appropriateness. “It’s not our money we’re spending. I know there seems to be a history of doing this — somewhere it started, somewhere it needs to end.”

It didn’t end this time, though. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who in fact voted against building the new public library at the site of old historic courthouse, agreed that both boards should be included on the plaque. Cowan did not touch on his opposition to where the new library was sited, even though he has gone on record recently reminding people that he had been against the site when predictions of a parking shortage on courthouse hill came true.

But that was then, and before Jackson County residents posted record numbers in library attendance and the facility won a statewide award for general loveliness and excellence.

A plaque, Cowan said as he expounded on his own theory of plaque appropriateness, “identifies who was around, and maybe who had the guts to stand up and build the building, by golly — that you are willing to stand up and put your neck and maybe your next election on the line.”

Cowan said that he believed there’s no shame in credit being given where credit was due.

“I don’t have a problem whatsoever with both boards being on there. In some ways, it’s more reflective of what has happened,” Cowan said in summation, still minus mention that he opposed the new library being built as an add-on to Jackson County’s historic courthouse.

The plaque will cost between $1,100 and $1,900, based on whether it is aluminum or brass, Wooten said, after receiving enough of a consensus from the board to combat this ongoing plague.


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