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Quintin Ellison

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Tired of watching a source of possible town revenue end up in the state’s coffers, Sylva wants to start collecting parking fees at the town hall.

Last week, commissioners tweaked the language of the proposed parking ordinance, clarifying that only certified town police officers could issue citations. There had been some thought that it might be wise to empower any town employee to issue civil citations, but commissioners Chris Matheson and Harold Hensley nixed that idea.

“It ought to read they strictly are police certified,” Hensley said, concurring with Matheson’s objections to having non-police employees given that responsibility.

The primary payment area for people cited parking illegally in Sylva will be Town Hall. Police Chief Davis Woodard, however, said he’d like for people to be able to pay at the police department as a “secondary option,” such as during holidays when Town Hall is closed.

Parking in an unauthorized parking zone in Sylva will cost violators $10 for each violation. All loading and unloading in designated zones is limited to 30 minutes, with a $10 violation penalty for those taking up space for longer than the time permitted.

It costs $150 for parking in a handicapped space illegally, and $50 for a fire lane violation.

Comment

The Cashiers Recreation Center is back on track following a unanimous vote this week by Jackson County commissioners to move forward with the $8 million project.

Commissioners voted to use money from the county’s fund balance instead of taking out a loan, and to hire a professional cost estimator to figure out the bottom-line price tag.

Current estimates are based on blueprints that have been on the shelf since 2006. If anything, given the crash of the construction market since then, Jackson County can anticipate a probable improvement on the original guesstimates.

The county already has spent about $3 million on the project in the past five years getting a site ready. County Manager Chuck Wooten said a fire-pump station is still needed to ensure future sprinklers have the water to operate. But otherwise, he said, the county is about ready to go through a punch (or to-do list) for that part of the project.

Cashiers’ recreation center has been a sore point for that community, which is isolated by virtue of geography. The residents in that area shoulder the bulk of Jackson County’s tax base, but often complain of seeing little return for their dollars.

The project hit environmental snags (the site is in the protected headwaters of the Chatooga River), which triggered correspondingly higher costs. The county had to pay an additional $900,000 for site work between 2006 and 2008 to comply with the regulatory demands.

The project almost hit another potential roadblock when Chairman Jack Debnam shied at designating the fund balance as the source of funding. He said he wanted more time to study whether the county might be better off taking out a loan. With Wooten saying commissioners couldn’t move forward at this time without detailing where they’d get the money from, and a motion from Commissioner Mark Jones, a resident of Cashiers, already on the table, Debnam voted “yes,” too.

Comment

Jackson County commissioners this week voted unanimously to keep Chuck Wooten on for at least another year as county manager. Wooten will receive an annual base salary of $120,747.96, plus benefits.

County commissioners asked Wooten in January to serve as interim manager for six months or so. He retired Jan. 1 from Western Carolina University after three decades as vice chancellor for administration and finance. He once worked as county manager for Iredell County.

Since coming on as county manager, Wooten has successfully guided a new board of commissioners — three of the five members were elected last November — through a budget, among other tasks.

Wooten indicated he doesn’t plan to make a second career as manager, though Chairman Jack Debnam joked about persuading Wooten to stay on for four more years. The contract is open-ended, which County Attorney Jay Coward said was standard for this type of agreement. Wooten serves at the pleasure of the board. For his part, Wooten is obligated to give 30-days notice if he opts to resign.

Kenneth Westmoreland was Jackson County’s manager until Wooten came aboard. Westmoreland was either pressured to leave (his version) or left of his own volition, but in the end the result was the same: the three newest commissioners, Debnam, Charles Elders and Doug Cody, wanted a change, and Westmoreland was soon gone after the election.

Westmoreland had served as Jackson County manager for almost a decade. His actions as the county’s top leader became a campaign issue, particularly the implementation of a new pay-scale system that was targeted as too generous to long-time employees like himself.

Comment

No actual decision was made, but County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week that they have $95,176 set aside in the budget if they want to give the money, as requested, to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad.

The money would go toward fixing up a steam engine the railroad bought that is currently sitting in Maine. In February, the privately owned business asked for $817,176 in the form of a loan and a grant from Jackson County. A few weeks later, the railroad amended that request to ask for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan.

Now the loan part is gone, and the railroad just wants cold, hard cash from Jackson County.

That’s because if the railroad did get a loan from the county, it might well be forced to immediately pay back another federal loan because of an agreed upon debt-equity ratio, Wooten said.

Businessman Al Harper owns the railroad. Until 2008, Dillsboro served as the headquarters of the railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train moved its administrative office and main depot to Bryson City. Dillsboro languished in the wake of that decision. Last year, and even more this year, the railroad did begin limited, seasonal excursions out of Dillsboro again.

With the steam engine, Harper is promising to run service out of Dillsboro two to three days per week in June, July and August, and three to four days out of the week in October.

Additionally, the railroad promises during November and December for the popular Polar Express to originate out of the tourism-dependent town.

“If there is sufficient passenger demand then (the) number of days could be increased,” Wooten noted. “There will also be trips on the steam engine originating out of Bryson City with a stopover in Dillsboro.”

Swain County and the Swain County Travel and Tourism Authority each have already kicked in $25,000, for a total of $50,000, to the railroad.

A decision by commissioners in Jackson County won’t be made until the steam engine is physically located in Western North Carolina from Maine, Wooten said.

Comment

Set high on a mountaintop above Sylva, the historic courthouse has long been a focal point in this Jackson County town, attracting droves of visitors and professional and amateur photographers alike.

And with a just-finished retooling and addition of a new, 22,000-square-foot library annex to the original courthouse, many here believe this stately structure will play an increasingly important role in Jackson County’s economic future.

“It’s going to be huge, a huge draw,” said Mary Otto Selzer, a former investment banker who helped lead a drive by the Friends of the Jackson County Main Library to raise $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. “It is going to be a destination.”

Selzer said tourists, even before the opening, have been showing up and asking questions.

“The (courthouse/library annex) has tremendous presence in Sylva,” Selzer said of the moths-to-the-flame pattern visitors are already displaying. “Location, location, location.”

The $8.6 million facility opened Tuesday, with the grand opening set for Saturday, June 11.

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‘Such a draw’

Down at the base of the mountain from the courthouse/library annex is the Hooper House, another renovated structure in Sylva. Interestingly, in 1999, during one of the many attempts to figure out how to accommodate the county’s need for a new library, county leaders decide to tear down the historic house down. They were trying to find room for expanding the old library next door, but opposition to the destruction prevailed. The Jackson County Chamber of Commerce now has its home in the Hooper House.

On this day, Linda Worley is manning the chamber desk. She is unabashedly excited about the renovations to the county’s historic courthouse, visible through the window over her shoulder as she talked.

“I tell every tourist who comes in here about it,” said Worley, a Kentucky native who married a local boy and ended up in his hometown via a protracted spell in Florida. Like Selzer, she believes the economic potential of the renovated courthouse and addition of a library annex for Jackson County will prove significant.

“It is just magnificent — such a draw,” Worley said, turning as she spoke to admire the building towering above.

Great attention was paid architecturally to the restoration and design of the old courthouse.

Macmillan, Pazdan & Smith, the architectural firm hired to oversee the project, used historic records to return the Jackson County Courthouse to near its original state. The building was gutted during a renovation in the 1970s, and almost no original features remained. The Madison County Courthouse, which by contrast retained its original character, served as a model.

C.J. Harris, a prominent industrialist and wealthy Sylva businessman, bankrolled the $50,000 project in 1914 in return for the county seat being moved from Webster to Sylva. He also used the Madison County Courthouse as his inspiration.

Newly returned to its former glory, the Jackson County courthouse is devoted to providing space for the community, and includes an approximately 2,500-square-foot courtroom available for almost any type of function or meeting. Office space for the county’s arts council and genealogical society also are provided in the old building.

A giant addition built to the rear houses the new library. A glass atrium connects the two, serving as the entrance to the complex. The children’s section alone is larger than the entire old library it replaces.

The importance of community continues being melded into the new structure as well. Along with a continuity of design — which Selzer accurately describes as virtually “seamless” — endless efforts are being taken to weave ties to residents. June Smith, president of the Friends of the Library group, is in charge of one of those initiatives: “Jackson County Collects,” exhibits of the community, will be prominently highlighted in a built-in display area. For the opening, Jackson County resident Dot Conner’s apron collection has garnered the coveted spot.

 

Planning and leadership

The Friends’ successful fundraising campaign caught the attention of other groups in the region looking for methods of raising money during these tough economic times. Betty Screven, who is in charge of publicity for the group, said the keys were planning and leadership.

“This was a professionally run campaign, even though none of us had (significant) fundraising experiences,” Screven said.

Originally, commissioners asked for $1.5 million to be raised. Then the number went to $1.6 million. Ultimately, as previously mentioned, the group brought in $1.8 million. Money left over will go toward a library endowment fund to help pay for future needs.

To Screven, the most important contributions were in many ways the smallest gestures made  — she chokes up as she remembers the day she was working at the Friends of the Library’s used bookstore on Main Street, and a little girl came in, accompanied by her father, clutching a $1 bill.

“This was her allowance for the week — she came in, and said she wanted to give her $1, because someone else would then give a match of $1, too,” Screven said. “This library is truly for everybody in the county.”

That match was critical to the success of the campaign, and came about as the result of a $250,000 State Employees’ Credit Union matching grant.

“It was very inspirational to people,” Screven said, adding the grant came with the condition the building had to be 90 percent completed, which helped add concrete deadlines to the project.

A core group of about five people saw the project through, with endless help from others, said Screven, a former public-relations employee for two decades for a national bank. The official fundraising effort began in May 2008.

“It has been practically a full-time job for the core people,” said Screven, who after questioning by her sister estimated she was putting about 35 hours a week into the project.

The Friends group used the services of professional fundraisers for a few months to get the feel and structure in place, then took over without them.

“We put the right people in the right jobs,” Screven said.

 

What people are saying

“The past and the future of our county are visible on the hill.”

— Sue Ellen Bridgers, Jackson County resident and writer, the state’s former poet laureate


“It represents the history of Jackson County. It represents the glory and beauty of learning. It represents the literary heritage of the world. The other thing it represents is the absolute freedom to anyone who wants to come and enjoy what has become theirs.”

— Dr. John Bunn, Co-chairman of the Friends of the Library Fundraising Committee


“The public library was one of my reasons for choosing Sylva as my home in 1986. Our local area is filled with people I like to call ‘frequent readers’ because their wallets include a card for each unique library system. All of us frequent readers are eager to use the new Jackson County Public Library as a research source, a place to browse quality novels, attend community events, learn about regional history, and enjoy the revitalized courthouse complex. The public library has come such a long way. My hat’s off to all the library staff and friends.”

— Dianne Lindgren, library director, Holt Library at Southwestern Community College


“I think it’s an inspirational project that’s kind of taken on even more meaning as the project has proceeded. It’s a great example of what can happen when a community gets behind a project like that.”

— William Shelton, farmer and former Jackson County commissioner, who played a critical role in keeping the library downtown


“I was so happy when the county commissioners decided to renovate the courthouse and build an addition for the library. I knew it would be a huge asset to the town of Sylva, since the courthouse is such an icon for the town. But it also showed a lot of foresight for Jackson County, which will be elevated by the addition of not just a new library (which would raise the quality of county services a notch no matter where they located it), but one that is so unique and special in nature. The combination of modern library amenities with the historic preservation of the old county courthouse shows a local commitment to education, culture, history, and community. I feel so fortunate to live in a community that can embrace the unique, rather than shy away from it. Jackson County is special that way, even though we sometimes struggle.”

— Sarah Graham, former Town of Sylva commissioner, now employed by the Southwestern Development Commission


“‘Going to the library’ always meant an event to me, starting back when I was a toddler. It was even more exciting when the event came to us on wheels as the bookmobile. As an adult I learned that the library could be a meeting place for special events and programs ... and, on ARF days, you could even go home with furry little four-legged reading companions. But now, taking in all the splendor of the courthouse complex, I think going to the library will be a cultural experience, as well as a literary experience.”

— Rose Garrett, former staff writer at The Sylva Herald and now public information officer for Southwestern Community College


“The courthouse is for me the symbol of Jackson County. It defines Sylva now as it did when I was growing up (and when I was born in the old hospital located only a few hundred yards up the hill from the courthouse). It has gone through changes, from red brick to white, from a line of trees in front to a landscaped hillside, but it is still “the courthouse.” Whenever I see someone standing in (literally “in”) Main Street of Sylva trying to frame the building and, as one architectural guide noted, that cascade of steps, I’m reminded of how special it is.”

— George Frizzell, university archivist for Western Carolina University


“My mother, who’s the reason I’m a librarian, is hugging herself somewhere.”

— Jackson County Librarian Dotty Brunette

Comment

Sylva leaders are looking to tighten the town’s noise ordinance on the heels of complaints by one of their own.

Commissioner Harold Hensley, who lives in the N.C. 107 area of Sylva, said he took calls a few weeks ago from neighbors about the loudness of music from a nearby restaurant. Hensley said he believes people should be able to sit outside their own homes if they want and enjoy a cookout without being bothered by loud music.

“You can’t contain all noise,” the town’s attorney, Eric Ridenour, told Hensley, adding that “loud” is in the ear of the beholder, as it were.

“A noise ordinance should be applied when you are disturbing people. I don’t care what time of the day or night,” Hensley said. “If I can’t talk (and be heard), I say it’s unreasonable.”

Hensley emphasized he is not against music; that he just objects to excessive noise: “If it’s so loud when I sit on my deck and I can’t talk to the person next to me, it’s too loud,” he said.

The town’s current noise ordinance carries the key words “reasonably prudent;” as in what an average person would consider to be excessively loud noises taking place between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

The new language would read: “The playing of any musical instrument or electronic sound amplification equipment outdoors or from a motor vehicle, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., that can be heard from an adjoining property or at distance of greater than 20 feet from the sound source.”

Like Ridenour, former Assistant District Attorney and current Commissioner Chris Matheson cautioned her fellow board members that noise ordinances are difficult to enforce. She recommended they consider an “objective test,” such as using a decibel reader, which many towns already use.

Matheson, however, bowed to the new language stipulating an actual 20-foot distance after Police Chief Davis Woodard said that had been his recommendation and remained his preference.

Tori Walters, co-owner of the Soul Infusion Tea House and Bistro, the restaurant on N.C. 107 that apparently sparked Hensley’s neighbors’ ire, said Monday the distance requirement would not “bother us at all.”

“We have worked diligently making sure that all the music played at our establishment is at reasonable decibel levels,” Walters said, adding that they ask musicians not to play after 10:30 p.m., a 30-minute cutoff prior to the town’s 11 p.m. requirement.

 

Noise ordinance public hearing

What: The town of Sylva is tightening its noise ordinance

When: July 7 at 5:30 p.m.

Where: Town Hall

Comment

Goats view a gate left open as a passageway to excitement. And it is exciting, too, for the goat keeper, when the entire herd escapes the barnyard. Lesson: When you open a closed gate, shut it behind you. This isn’t an original thought, but that doesn’t make the saying any less true.

•••

Honeybees are insects. They do not think or act like we do. But they seem to feel fear, or perhaps it’s anger. If you swat at them when they are buzzing around your head, they sting in response. Lesson: Don’t swat at honeybees, you’ll get stung. Retreat is the best course of action.

•••

Reading books about farming is fun and educational. But it doesn’t get the barnyard mucked, the animals fed or the garden weeded. Lesson: If you want time for lying in bed and reading, have fewer animals and buy your vegetables at the farmers market.

•••

Only a fool works honeybees without smoke. Honeybees know we are not their friends; we come to them as robbers and intruders. They defend themselves with righteous anger, even when we plan to bother them “only” for a few seconds. Lesson: Use a smoker.

•••

Only an even bigger fool works honeybees without the protection of a veil or other protective clothing. There is no such being as a “bee whisperer,” though I’ve met a few people new to beekeeping who seem to believe otherwise — for a while. Lesson: Learn from my sister; don’t work bees wearing flip-flops.

•••

Beware the middleman: If you want to support local farmers, buy directly from the farmer. Lesson: If you want to make money at farming, be the middleman — open a store selling the fruits of others’ labors.

•••

‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ might be true, but I’m terrible at building fences, and practice is not making perfect. Lesson: stock panels are the greatest invention of modern times. Yes, they are pricey, but what is lost in dollars is saved in time and frustration.

•••

Building barns and chicken houses and other structures is time consuming and expensive. Lesson: Bend stock panels in half-hoops between T-bars, then put tarps on top, and the result is fast, relatively inexpensive shelters for animals.

•••

If you do not have pastureland, do not buy animals such as sheep that rely on grass. Lesson One: Impulsive farming and homesteading decisions rarely work out very well. Lesson Two: Feeding sheep hay all summer is hideously expensive.

•••

Neglecting your honeybees is not organic, natural beekeeping, even if you aren’t using chemicals. It’s just bad husbandry. Lesson: At least be honest with yourself if you aren’t caring properly for your charges. Otherwise, learn and put into practice known, successful methods of natural, chemical-free beekeeping.

•••

Don’t adopt and bring home a kitten with the expectation it will grow up to only kill voles that are destroying the garden. Lesson: Cats kill whatever the hell they want to, including cute chipmunks, skinks and songbirds, which they dismember into bloody little pieces in the middle of the living-room carpet. And they view newly tilled gardens as convenient toilet areas.   

•••

Broody chickens don’t lay eggs, and they block the laying boxes so other hens can’t lay eggs. Lesson: Old wives tales often don’t work. Dunking hens in cold water doesn’t make them any less broody; it just leaves them — and you — wet and indignant.

•••

Using chemicals to kill mites that afflict honeybees does work, at least until the mites get resistant to the chemicals and your honeybees sicken from chemical “cures.” Lesson: Using an insecticide to destroy insects that are residing on insects is crazy; beekeepers themselves are more responsible for the honeybee disappearance than any mite, virus or mysterious plague.

•••

Letting all the female goats mate with the billy and have babies seems fun until the herd jumps from six to 15. Lesson: That’s way too many goats — don’t ever, ever do that again.

•••

Having dirt under one’s fingernails from farming doesn’t make a person inherently trustworthy. Lesson: Get to know the person you buy vegetables and other products from at the farmers market. Visit the farmer’s farm; ask about farming practices. If it doesn’t feel right, buy from someone else.

•••

Farming is physically hard; writing about farming or anything else is mentally hard. There’s nothing about farming, writing, or writing on farming that’s easy. Lesson: Too late now, but maybe you should have remained a classical musician. Oh, right, that was hard, too.

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

Comment

About two years ago, a sting was set to take place at a party in the Hickory Knoll area outside of Franklin. Inside the house, the Macon County Sheriff’s Department was told, there was a 47-year-old woman — the former wife of a doctor, with three children of her own — who was boozing it up, and maybe even getting high, with a group of underage kids.

The plan that night was twofold: enforce a judge’s order to remove the woman’s youngest daughter and hand her over to her father, Dr. Scott Petty; discover if there was evidence supporting allegations the woman, Elizabeth “Liz” Marie Mills, was having sex with one of the boys partying in the house.

His name, cops had been told, was Joseph (not his real name, which has been changed to protect his identity). Joseph was a Mexican-American either 14 or 15 years old, and a student at the local high school. Mills reportedly met the boy while working for Meridian Behavorial Health Services in Franklin, an agency tasked, among other things, with helping troubled youths and adults.

Although exactly what happened next is the subject of heated dispute, the outcome isn’t: the sting never came off. Instead, it fell apart after angry words were exchanged between a private investigator hired by Mill’s ex-husband and Macon County’s chief detective.

The girl was taken out as ordered. But any case against Mills involving sex with a minor, at least as far as the Macon County Sheriff’s Department was concerned, pretty much ended on that June night in 2009. Though, technically, the case remains open, because there is no statute of limitations in North Carolina on felonies. And having sex with an underage boy is a felony crime. Even though in this case, the young man was apparently a more-than-willing participant in whatever, exactly, was or was not taking place between the two.

Mills, contacted via cell phone in Florida this week, declined to comment.

 

The Sunny State intervenes

On March 23, Florida cops busted Mills, now 49, for unlawful sexual activity with a minor — having sex with Joseph. The boy’s aunt, after a fight with Mills, reportedly called the cops and told of an inappropriate relationship between her nephew and the North Carolina woman.

Mills, some time after the big party in Franklin that either did or did not take place, depending on whom you believe, hitched a horse trailer crammed with personal belongings behind her black 350-Chevy dually truck. She moved the 500 miles south to Florida. This move came after the boy went to the Hernando area to live with family members.

Joseph’s move to Florida seemed to coincide with one of his frequent brushes with juvenile law authorities.

Mills told her daughters (then ages 14, 17 and 20) she was leaving Franklin to attend massage therapy school in Florida. And she did, at least for a year or so. By September of last year, however — with Joseph’s mother’s permission — Mills had ensconced herself in a bedroom of the family’s house with the boy, police told Florida reporters.

Joseph’s mother, not identified here by name to further protect the boy’s identity, was arrested the same day as Mills for child neglect. It isn’t clear whether the mother was charged in connection with allowing Mills to move in with Joseph, or whether her arrest involved the other children living in the house. Joseph has a younger brother and two younger sisters.

Florida authorities told reporters that Mills admitted to having begun a “romantic relationship” with Joseph in March 2010, and of having had sex with the boy “several times,” according to published reports. Mills did not admit to having had sex with Joseph in North Carolina, though she told police they’d met “during a group therapy session in North Carolina in 2008 when he was 15.”

Chalk it up to the angry aunt, or to providence in general, but a case against the woman North Carolina authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, prosecute is now making its way through the Florida court system.

Prosecutors from Florida have contacted private investigator Danny Cheatham, the man hired by Mills’ ex-husband to look into her activities. Cheatham indicated Florida authorities might well ask him to come testify against Mills, something he said he’s willing — even eager — to do.

That is, if the case against Mills in Florida does actually make it to court. Investigator Russell Suess, who works for the prosecutor there, Brian Trehy, said he was limited in what he could say, but noted the case against Mills has not been formally filed. The prosecution, Suess said, is reviewing the facts.

What’s not clear is whether the delay in a formal filing is an unusual or routine procedure in that state. In North Carolina, such hesitation might indicate the prosecution had some concerns about whether the cops involved had fully dotted all the necessary i’s and carefully crossed each of the t’s.

In the meantime, Mills is out of jail on $5,000 bond. She’s forbidden by court order to see Joseph.

 

A promising future derails

Being a doctor’s wife comes with certain financial perks. After Mills and Petty moved to Macon County, Mills spent most of her time on their 92-acre spread tending to horses. Petty, her ex-husband, is a radiologist at Angel Medical Center in Franklin.

Petty and Mills met at a private high school in Charlotte, and began dating during college. They were both bright people, with what, at the time, must have seemed an array of possibilities before them. He was at Duke; Mills was at UNC Chapel Hill. When they turned 22, they got married.

Once the children were born, Petty and his wife battled about how to best raise them.

Petty played the part of disciplinarian; Mills, he said, was the children’s “friend.” In perhaps one of the few hints of the trouble that was to come, Petty described a woman who perhaps had difficulty with her role as an adult functioning in an adult world.

“She was unable to parent the children as they entered their teens, instead she treated them as friends and equals without normal boundaries and rules,” Petty said.

Mills’ possible confusion over, or dislike of being, an adult wasn’t helped, perhaps, by a petite stature — the Florida mug shot she glares out of, the muscles in her face tensed and hard, recorded her height as just 5 feet tall, and her weight as 100 pounds.

After Petty and she finally called a spade a spade and formally ended the marriage after 23 years, Mills dropped about 35 pounds, going from a comfortable weight for her height and build to very, very thin. She got tattoos.

And, Petty said, she found a new interest: Joseph.

 

Meridian tightlipped

Mills hadn’t needed to hold a job since living in Chapel Hill, where her husband, after finishing up at Duke, went to medical school and completed his medical residency. Mills, for a short time back then, had picked up some extra cash working at a local animal shelter.

When the couple split, Mills needed money. With barely any work history to boast of, she turned to her one and only employment asset: a psychology degree from those years at UNC. Mills applied for, and got, an entry-level position at Meridian Behavorial Health Services, a multi-county nonprofit mental-health provider.

Meridian’s Franklin office is housed in an inconspicuous, single-level building on Macon Avenue, within spitting distance of the county courthouse and a few blocks from Angel Medical Center, where Petty worked.

Mills’ job largely seemed to consist of ferrying kids about to various appointments.

Petty, passing Meridian on his way to work, would sometimes see Mills out front smoking cigarettes among a group of boys. In that group, though he couldn’t know it then, was Joseph. There was gossip at the hospital, too — Petty wasn’t the only one who was noticing that the doctor’s former wife seemed a bit too chummy with the group she was tasked with monitoring.

Joseph and some of the other kids from Meridian were soon “working” at Mills’ home, Petty said, cutting grass and painting walls. His daughters told him of parties, and he and his new wife, Meg, started witnessing the same behaviors firsthand.

The newly married couple was fixing up the “big” house he’d bought his former wife out of, while she moved down the mountain into a smaller farmhouse they’d also owned. Mills was busy making plans to build yet another house on the 20 acres of property she’d gotten in the divorce.

The situation had grown increasingly strange.

But who could say what exactly took place behind closed doors, when Joseph — the charge of Meridian Behavorial Health Services — and Mills, the agency’s employee, disappeared inside.

Meridian Executive Director Joe Ferrara did not return a voice-mail message seeking comment.

 

Building a case, or a fabrication?

Joseph, at least from a distance, looked like a big, tough adult guy, even when he and Mills first met and he was just 14 or 15 years old. Joseph had tattoos. He boxed at a local sports club. His language, even by the lowest of teen standards, was remarkably foul. Later, when deputies tried to interview the boy about whether he was a victim of sexual abuse — twice — his response was succinct each time: “Fuck you,” they reported him as replying.

The neighbors thought, for a while, that he was “just” a Mexican laborer helping Mills keep up the horse farm. At least they did until the touching between he and Mills grew excessive, Petty said. A neighbor, scandalized, told the doctor that Mills and Joseph would ride around together on an ATV, cuddling, even groping.

The neighbor complained he’d seen Mills in the yard “dry humping” the boy. Petty, who was becoming increasingly anxious about his youngest daughter, who was still in the farmhouse living with Mills, was spurred to action. He wanted full custody, and he’d do almost anything to get his daughter back.

On the advice of his attorney, Monty Beck, a former assistant district attorney, the doctor called private investigator Cheatham. Petty was very clear in his instructions. He wrote, according to the case file made available to The Smoky Mountain News:

“I am interested in knowing who has access to my children, particularly my 14-year-old. I want to know how long and what kind of relationship my ex has with this boy Joseph who she used to (or still does) work with through Meridian Health Services. Is it legal? Sexual? Immoral or inappropriate? Does it break laws or Meridian’s rules of conduct? Who are the other people we see at my ex’s house? Is my ex doing drugs? Drinking and driving? Exposing my children to dangerous persons? Allowing or assisting my children or the children she ‘cares’ for professionally to break the law (drugs/alcohol/etc.)? My ex is destroying my children because of her lack of boundaries, rules and parental ethics. Who lives there?”

The answer to most of those questions, Cheatham said, was yes — Mills was having, at the very least, inappropriate relations with Joseph. She was providing underage kids beer and cigarettes, and he could prove it. Or, he could if local law enforcement would only get on board, and go inside that house with a search warrant and seize underwear, sheets, and other items. Then, Cheatham was sure, they’d find DNA evidence.

Cheatham is no fly-by-night, wished-he-had-a-badge-but-doesn’t private dick. He’s a former U.S. Marine and experienced cop. Born in Andrews, he grew up and later worked for two decades in Florida law enforcement agencies, including as a real live badged-up official detective. He came back to Western North Carolina to help care for his mother after his father died, and ended up getting licensed by the state as a private investigator.

It’s not easy being a freelancer. Cops and other duly sanctioned law-enforcement authorities are suspicious of people hired by clients to build cases, and mountain people, as a rule, don’t enjoy Floridians, even those with roots to this region, because they are suspicious — rightfully so, sometimes — that move-ins might just think they know how to do things better. And, the truth is, on occasion they do.

Cheatham, at least in this one meeting, was unassuming. But, if you are screwing around on your mate, or generally getting up to no good, he should scare the hell out of you.

This is the guy people in the western part of the state are calling when they want to build cases: custody cases, divorce cases, you name it. And it’s not just the disgruntled private Joes and Janes of WNC who are tapping Cheatham: The Cherokee tribe recently relied on the investigator to help investigate Swain County’s Department of Social Services after an Indian child they’d been notified to keep safe instead died.

Cheatham uses every trick in the book, and he does so legally under the auspices of the great state of North Carolina. GPS units on cars (“you’ll never spot us these days in your rear-view mirror”), videos shot using night-vision capabilities, undercover infiltrators armed with a camera that looks like a shirt button. For $45 to $150 an hour on average, you get what you pay for. And, sometimes, you pay a lot: before it was all said and done and Petty begged off because, he wrote, “we are absolutely broke,” the doctor shelled out more than $20,000 to investigate his former wife.

 

The case unfolds

The investigator and his staff went after the case hard — from May 18 through June 24 of 2009 they tracked, trailed and spied on Mills. One of their best vantage points proved to be Petty’s home on the hill above the farmhouse. But they also tracked Mills going into nearby Rabun County, Georgia, to pick up Joseph from his home, and followed the woman and boy around Clayton, Ga., and Franklin.

A few highlights from the case file Cheatham’s agency, DC Investigations, built for Petty:

“June 3, 8:41 p.m.: Investigator Winthrow observed and videotaped Ms. Petty’s (Mills) SUV parked in front of the Peking Gourmet restaurant in Clayton, Ga. Joseph and Ms. Petty were already in the restaurant eating when we got there.

“8:57 p.m.: Investigator Winthrow observed and videotaped Joseph and Ms. Petty exit the Peking Gourmet Restaurant. Joseph was eating an ice-cream cone. After he took a bite from it, he put the ice cream up to Ms. Petty’s mouth. Ms. Petty ate part of his ice cream while he held it.

“June 5, 10:20 p.m.: Subject and two small children arrived at subject’s vehicle. Subject started loading the children into vehicle. Approximately two minutes later, Joseph also arrived at vehicle and walked around to the passenger side where he met subject. The two of them engaged in a kiss on the mouth and then got into vehicle.”

A young female investigator working for Cheatham insinuated herself into the household. Identified as Investigator Medford in the case file, the woman showed up at Mills’ door May 23 pretending she’d had a fight with her boyfriend and that he’d put her out of his car.

She was convincing — after that, Joseph began texting the investigator, and eventually she’d be invited to his going-away party to Florida: the night the sting that was to be didn’t happen.

Cheatham met with the Macon County Sheriff’s Department on June 23.

“During the meeting, investigators … provided evidence they had acquired on subject, Elizabeth Petty. The plan for the sheriff’s department to raid the ‘going away’ party that subject was going to have for Joseph the next evening was also discussed, as well as, the plan during that same party, for subject’s daughter … to be taken from subject’s custody,” the file states.

The investigators and sheriff’s department investigators agreed to meet at 7 p.m. the next evening at the sheriff’s department.

The next night, when the private investigators showed up, Cheatham said the deputy on duty informed them Macon County Chief Investigator Brian Leopard wasn’t scheduled to work that evening. The private investigators, afraid according to Cheatham that young juvenile offenders going in and out of the sheriff’s department would spot them and blow their cover, left. They went to the parking lot of Smoky Mountain Hosts, a visitor’s center south of Franklin on U.S. 441, where they got a call from Leopard. The Macon County chief detective told the private investigators to meet him at the sheriff’s department, and, Cheatham said, Leopard told him angrily: “‘We’re going to meet when I say, how I say, or we’re not going to meet at all.’”

Cheatham called the meeting off.

 

So what happened?

Dr. Petty was stunned when he took the call from Cheatham and learned the sting wasn’t going to happen. Petty remembers Cheatham’s voice was shaking, and that the private investigator sounded upset and angry.

Still, there was that order from the judge for Petty’s youngest daughter to be removed from the house, and the doctor wanted her back. That, he said, was more important than anything else going on that night.

Petty met Brian Welch, the sheriff’s department’s attorney, at the sheriff’s offices to get his daughter. That part, at least, of the plan was executed without a hitch. Petty asked if anything was going to happen concerning his former wife, and Welch told him, he said, “we’re not going to do anything.”

“I was so mad, and so shocked. But then I needed to pay attention to my daughter — nothing else was done,” said Petty, who ended up getting full custody of his youngest child when Mills signed her over without protest.

Later, he said, he tried again to get deputies to do something, anything.

“We never got a straight answer from anybody,” Petty said.

Petty and his wife’s efforts haven’t been limited to deputies: Petty contacted District Attorney Mike Bonfoey, the Macon County Department of Social Services and the State Bureau of Investigation, sending detailed letters to each outlining his beliefs that his former wife was having sex with an underage boy.

“It wasn’t even investigated,” the doctor said, who eventually sent an open letter to various media outlets in the region, also to no avail.

So where has all this left him? In a word, angry. Actually, two words: very angry. And disillusioned with the system, and unbelieving that nothing, absolutely nothing, had been done.

Without answers, Petty and his new wife have been left to speculate, to formulate conclusions of their own:

• Perhaps the sheriff’s department was protecting one of its jailers, a young man then engaged to another of Petty’s daughters. Petty says the deputy was in the house on multiple occasions when, the doctor said, his ex-wife was partying with kids, and when Joseph was there.

• Maybe the investigators saw someone else on Cheatham’s surveillance videos, someone they wanted to protect — an undercover agent, or a kid from a prominent family.

• Perhaps in Macon County, nobody cares if boys might be sleeping with older women, particularly a foul-mouthed, punk kid who isn’t particularly appealing, frankly, in his role as a possible victim.

 

Explanations

Jane Kimsey, the director of the county Department of Social Services, is so constrained legally about what she can and cannot talk about, her interview with The Smoky Mountain News largely consisted of handing over copies of the law governing DSS, complete with yellow highlighting of the fact her agency can only investigate caretakers. Mills, we are left to extrapolate, wasn’t an actual caretaker of Joseph — any investigation on that front was up to law enforcement.

District Attorney Bonfoey made the point that what Mills has been charged with in Florida would not even be a crime in North Carolina, because the age of consent there is 18. In this state, it is 16.

But what about possible crimes committed in Macon County when Joseph was 14 or 15?

Bonfoey emphasized he and Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch, who is married to sheriff’s department Attorney Brian Welch, weren’t going to talk about this particular case, because it remains an open investigation.

“There may be information that comes out that allows us to investigate the matter here,” Bonfoey said.

Bonfoey, speaking generally, said law enforcement needs victims to cooperate, though of course his office has prosecuted sex cases without victims’ cooperation. Or, short of that, prosecutors require an eyewitness to the crimes willing to testify.

Welch has been the assistant district attorney in Macon County for six years. She has had 50 jury trials, losing only two, which Bonfoey said indicates defense attorneys underestimate her ability to put together cases and win them.

Welch wanted to know if there are insinuations that she didn’t take the situation seriously because it involved a possible male victim instead of a girl victim.

“A crime is a crime is a crime, when you are age 13, 14 or 15, you’re not mature enough to consent,” Welch said, adding that she was personally offended anyone would believe she might think otherwise.

 

Answers, or evasions?

At 44 and in his third term as the sheriff’s department’s leader, Macon County Sheriff Robert “Robby” Holland has grown comfortable in responding to questions from reporters. Affable, quick to build and maintain personal relationships with those tasked with covering him, he’s almost unflappable in an interview. Holland is difficult to put off stride and worm beneath the polish.

But if Holland has a weak spot, it’s for kids. Protecting children is a source of pride with him, forming the base of his successful political career.

The Republican sheriff is a former juvenile officer with experience in investigating sex crimes and other serious criminal charges. Like private investigator Cheatham, he grew up in Florida before coming to WNC. His family is from Macon County.

Holland was the lead investigator on a particularly horrific case in which a young Franklin woman killed her newborn in February 2000 and dumped the baby in a Dumpster (the baby’s body was subsequently compressed into a 8-inch by 6-inch bail of trash at the county landfill). Holland and wife, Marci, who worked then for the Macon County Department of Social Services, helped get state legislation passed so young mothers could safely surrender infants without fear of criminal charges.    

The ensuing publicity helped launch Holland’s political career. While there have been a few missteps along the way, Holland has largely spent the past nine years without serious taints on or questions about his administration.

In the interview with The Smoky Mountain News about this case, Holland includes Chief Deputy Andy Shields, Attorney Welch and Chief Investigator Leopard. The Macon County Sheriff’s Department has just sent out a news release announcing an arrest in a year-old homicide, and his cell phone occasionally buzzes as reporters call in, eager to get more information.

“I don’t want it to look in the paper like we didn’t care, and that we didn’t do our job — I am confident that my officers did what they should,” Holland said. “I, along with my chief investigator, chief deputy, staff attorney and members of the District Attorney’s Office, have reviewed this case, and I stand behind the decision not to file charges at this time due to the fact we continue to not have enough information to pursue a successful prosecution of this matter. This case remains open and any new information that is received will be investigated and, if appropriate, criminal charges will be pursued.”

Why didn’t you bust Mills?

“Because,” Holland replied, “nothing was ever substantiated.”

Why was nothing substantiated? Isn’t that law enforcement’s job?

Because this isn’t CSI: Crime Scene Investigation television, though the reply is more politely expressed than that. But, the sentiment of the exchange is accurate. Chief Investigator Leopard said five detectives were assigned to the case when he was initially notified of the allegations, but that subsequently, the facts as presented by Cheatham had proven not true.

Sheriff’s Attorney Welch added that prosecutors instructed the department to independently corroborate allegations in the case, and not to rely on the private investigator’s findings.

That’s because, Holland said, “Mr. Cheatham is a hired hand of Mr. Petty.” Cheatham was retained to build a case that would help win Petty custody of his daughter.

Chief Investigator Leopard added, the private investigator “wanted to run it. … He was concerned about getting her (Mills) charged with a felony, so that (Petty) wouldn’t have to pay so much alimony.”

The big party, the sheriff’s department leaders were asked?

“There was absolutely no big party going on,” Leopard said.

“Another outright lie,” Petty said later. “There was a party — they even setup a roadblock just down from the house and busted multiple people leaving the party, including Joseph for possession of drug paraphernalia and under-age drinking, and my daughter … who they let go with a warning.”

Leopard confirmed they stopped one of Petty’s daughters, but denied they picked up Joseph.

What about the young jailer engaged to Petty’s daughter? Why not interview him, and besides, why is he still an employee if he witnessed and failed to report possible crimes?

That’s not the situation as they understand it, Holland said. The jailer, newly hired if even at that point actually on the force, indeed came to his superior and reported a run in at his then future mother-in-law’s with a drunken juvenile. The jailer did nothing wrong.

Holland doesn’t mention the head of the jail is his brother, Capt. Tim Holland. Perhaps there’s no relevance.

Petty again disputed the sheriff department. There’s proof, he said, of the young jailer being involved more deeply in the situation than Holland acknowledged:

“I have pictures of (the jailer), Joseph, and my daughters lying on top of each other on Liz’s (his former wife’s) couch,” the doctor said. “He was there for most or all of the parties and he was there on a daily basis watching the relationship between Liz and Joseph unfold.”

Petty also said Leopard told him that he wouldn’t interrogate the young jailer involved because he “wouldn’t want to mess up his relationship with his future mother-in-law.”

Why did the sheriff’s department fail to meet Cheatham when agreed? Cheatham left the sheriff’s department for fear, he had said, of being spotted by young thugs reporting in to probation officers. The private investigators were supposed to meet their public counterparts, Macon County’s detectives, at the sheriff’s department.

Macon County’s top law enforcement officers, however, dispute even that point, noting that the probation officers are located in the administration building, a couple miles away in downtown Franklin. No juveniles were likely to be at the sheriff’s department that night.

It is possible that Cheatham, who lives in Waynesville, could simply not know where the probation officers in Franklin work. That doesn’t surface as a possibility during the interview with the sheriff and his employees, however.

Then, the situation that night between the sheriff’s department and the private investigator hired by Petty grew increasingly complex, Holland said.

After leaving the sheriff’s department, Cheatham moved over to the Smoky Mountain Visitor’s Center and called deputies to meet him there.

Holland said an undercover drug buy by the sheriff’s department, coincidentally, had just taken place at the visitor’s center in an unrelated case. That’s why the cops were late, and why they couldn’t meet there.

The sheriff said his chief detective did not share this explanation with the private investigator because it wasn’t Cheatham’s business, and doing so wouldn’t have been appropriate. And the sheriff’s department certainly wasn’t going to risk blowing that drug-buy operation, or risk the safety of undercover officers involved, on the orders of a private investigator telling them where to gather. Or follow his directions about how to conduct a raid, either.

“You have to have probable cause,” Holland said.

And Attorney Welch added, “We would have been sued for violating her (Mills’) constitutional rights if we’d gone in the way Mr. Cheatham wanted us to.”

In this situation, without Joseph’s cooperation, there was no case to be made, the sheriff said.

“Do we believe there was some inappropriate activity going on? Yes, we do. But we have to have more than our feelings,” Holland said.

“There was no case here, ever, based on the information we had,” Welch added.

One additional note: After Joseph took off for Florida, Attorney Welch said the sheriff’s department called police there and asked them, apparently with no success, to try to get the boy to cooperate.

“We asked, would you interview him, because he refused to talk to us twice,” the attorney said.

The sheriff’s department’s leaders said they’ve called Florida authorities again following news of Mills’ arrest. They hadn’t heard back from their Florida counterparts as of the beginning of this week.

To describe Petty as being frustrated by the explanations offered falls somewhere short of the truth. In an email, Petty noted:

• “We presented video, audio, written and eyewitness evidence to the Macon County Sheriff’s Department that strongly supported our allegations. Our concerns were not based on alimony payments … but on a concern for my daughters, concern for Joseph and the other young males … and hoping to live in a place where sex between adults and children was not tolerated.”

• Petty also said there were other possible eyewitnesses involved: the neighbor, and the young jailer, “who had direct eyewitness knowledge.” Also, he said, personnel at Franklin High School had expressed concerns about the relationship between Joseph and Mills.  

• Petty and his wife firmly believe, claims to the contrary notwithstanding, that a double standard governed officers’ and prosecutors’ reactions.

“If Liz was a 47-year-old male, and Joseph was a 14- 15-year-old girl, the adult would already be tried and convicted,” Petty said. “‘A crime is a crime’ … actions speak far louder than words.

“Because of their inaction, Liz continued doing and enabling the same things that we alleged until she was arrested in Florida … the victim and his family should sue Macon County for failing to protect him, and green-lighting Liz to continue her sick and very destructive and abusive behaviors.”

Comment

Living in Cashiers has certain perks: There is a beautiful lake to play on, gorgeous homes to live in and lovely vistas to enjoy. There also are nice restaurants, great gift shops and even an upscale Ingles grocery store that is the envy of residents in the much larger town of Sylva, who are afforded considerably fewer shopping selections at their smaller, scaled-down version.

But there’s a price to pay for living in Cashiers, both literally — because of high land prices — and figuratively. You’ve got to drive “off the mountain,” as the locals here say, for most shopping and to enjoy other amenities — and to work out.

Unless, that is, you’re made of sterner stuff than most. Which Rebecca Smith must certainly be — because she tries to swim for exercise three times a week (during the warmer months) in nearby Lake Glenville.

Smith, however, said she’d welcome a recreation center, and hopes Jackson County commissioners follow through on building it. Not so much for her personal use, but for the kids who live in the community, and for the younger people here in general. Friday at 1:30 p.m., the commission board will hold a meeting at the Cashiers library to discuss the possibility. Smith noted down the time and place. She’s going to try to be there.

Smith is a member of the Glenville community club, and on this day, was volunteering at the group’s thrift shop alongside N.C. 107. Her husband is currently the club’s president.

During a recent meeting, Smith said, group members were discussing how best to keep the community’s young people from leaving the area. Take her own grandchildren for example, who went to nearby Blue Ridge School but then “couldn’t wait to get out of here,” she said.

“‘What’s here for us?’ they said. And, that’s true,” Smith conceded.

There are a few options for the recreationally minded when they don’t want to hike or swim in the lake. Cashiers residents can motor over to neighboring Highlands and use the fitness center there; they can drive down to the Jackson County Recreation Center in Cullowhee. Either way, though particularly if heading to Cullowhee, they are dealing with a windy, slow, two-lane road. Depending on where a person lives in Cashiers, it can easily take 30 minutes or more to get there.

There is one more option, and oddly enough, it was exactly what Zac and Jama Koenig were, just that morning, discussing the possibility of doing. The couple was picnicking Saturday in the Village Green with their daughter, Emma, and her friend, Addie. The Village Green is a community park paid for and built by people living in this community.

Even with the park, “unless you are a member of a club, there’s nowhere to do anything,” Jama Koenig said. “There’s nowhere to go to be fit.”

The solution this couple and many other Cashiers residents are forced to settle on? Buying a small “amenities” lot in the Country Club in Sapphire Valley, down around the Jackson-Transylvania county line, so that they can use the facilities.

The fitness club at Sapphire is 3,600 square feet, offering both cardio- and weight-training equipment. There are locker rooms and saunas, and places to play golf and tennis.

Zac Koenig, who runs the family owned Koenig Homebuilders, said the amenities lots generally are priced starting at $2,500. There’s reasons they can’t be built on — no septic, things like that, but buying a lot does allow people to buy their way in to the club.

And, many Cashiers residents are doing exactly that, Jama Koenig said.

Jama and Zac Koenig (he serves on the county’s planning board) represent, in many ways, both ends of a debate that is likely to take place over building a recreation center in Cashiers. A projected $5 million project to serve a selected few in the county, yes, but in a part of the county that is among the most isolated, and which pays the bulk of Jackson’s taxes.

“Our portion of the tax base is huge,” Jana Koenig said. She has no doubt the community needs and deserves a recreation center.

Her husband, however, isn’t so sure, though he’d enjoy having a recreation center nearby.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” Zac Koenig said. “Our area does pay most of the taxes, but in the winter, there’s not many people here.”

That’s because Cashiers’ population is dominated by seasonal residency. Many houses stand vacant during cold-weather months, and the numbers of people in the community plummet.

 

Plans for the Cashiers Recreation Center

• Approximately 2,500 square feet in size

• Gymnasium for basketball and volleyball

• Eight-foot wide indoor running/walking track

• Fitness equipment area

• Meeting space, kitchen, storage

• Aerobics and dance areas

Source: Jackson County

Comment

Six years ago, amid great fanfare, Joe Kimmel pledged $6.9-million dollars to Western Carolina University.

Based on that pledge, with payments expected to come in over an eight-year period, WCU went forward with a new school: the Joe W. Kimmel School of Construction Management, Engineering, and Technology.

Kimmel’s ability to pay WCU, however, abruptly ended in December 2009, when his company, Asheville-based Kimmel & Associates, went into bankruptcy. He stopped at $1.43 million — more than $5 million short of the original pledge to WCU.

The date of the last payment isn’t known. WCU would not release the payment schedule.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy afforded Kimmel and his wife, Cynthia, legal protection to try to reorganize their finances, both personally and for Kimmel & Associates. The company recently came out of bankruptcy proceedings. But it remains unclear whether Kimmel will, or even would be allowed under terms of his bankruptcy emergence, to fulfill the remainder of his promise to WCU.

The Kimmels said they had $7.2 million in personal assets and $15.8 million in liabilities. Kimmel & Associates listed $2.1 million in assets and $7.2 million in debts, according to federal bankruptcy filings.

Kimmel did not return a phone message seeking comment, with an employee at his company declining on his behalf.

 

Construction industry crashes

Kimmel & Associates is an executive head hunting search firm founded in 1981 that is focused on the construction industry. Kimmel & Associates could at one time — and did — boast of a national client base of more than 100 companies.

Pairing a construction-management school at a university seeking national prominence in the field with a construction head-hunting firm must have seemed a match made in heaven — particularly given Kimmel’s nearly $7 million dowry.

With an additional $3.5 million in matching state money secured as a result of Kimmel’s generous gesture, WCU promised to create a first-class educational program.

“We expect this pledge, combined with additional public and private support, will result in a school that will place Western on par with the nation’s finest institutions of higher education in preparing students for careers in construction management and related fields that are critical to the emerging economy of the state and the nation,” Chancellor John Bardo said in a press conference at the time.

Kimmel generosity didn’t stop with WCU. He and his company made contributions to numerous organizations in WNC, including the University of North Carolina at Asheville, Asheville Art Museum, Buncombe County Medical Society’s Project Access, Humane Society, Center for Diversity Education, Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministries, Meals on Wheels and the Fine Arts League of Asheville. Kimmel also established in 2004 a fund that provided $1,000 scholarships for students in construction fields.

“Giving and serving is the nucleus of the world, when the world is right,” Kimmel noted in a company newsletter as he reflected on his donation to WCU.

That was then; this is now. The world, at least the world according to Kimmel & Associates, soon wasn’t right.

Not even close: The housing boom, which seemed to promise ever-increasing profit margins to a construction industry left almost giddy by that prospect, instead crashed. Kimmel and his firm saw business dry up, virtually overnight, as builders were forced to put their measuring tapes up and hammers down.

In 2007, Kimmel & Associates was pulling in gross revenue of more than $19 million, bankruptcy documents show. That number dropped to $16.4 million in 2008, and by the following year, the company had dropped to $8.6 million.

Kimmel & Associate’s gross monthly income in 2009 still amounted to $625,000. But, with total monthly expenses coming to $626,047, Kimmel’s company was $1,047 a month in the red.

“Collapse of the construction industry” is the single reason given as a contributing factor in Kimmel & Associates fall into bankruptcy, according to documents.

 

School nuts & bolts

Today, the Kimmel School offers six degree programs in two departments: construction management and engineering and technology. There are state-of-the-art laboratory facilities; and about 300 students enrolled to take advantage of them.

The Kimmel contributions have gone toward endowments for distinguished professorships, student scholarships and program support for the construction management program, including allowing students and faculty to expand their participation in academic competitions, national conferences and industry meetings, said Bill Studenc, a WCU spokesman.

WCU landed a big-name, politically connected dean in March of 2008 when Robert K. “Bob” McMahan Jr. came on board. An astrophysicist, McMahan came to the university from his previous position as then North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley’s senior adviser for science and technology.

It wasn’t just WCU that Kimmel & Associates left in the lurch. UNC Asheville, where six of Joe and Cynthia Kimmel’s seven children attended school, built the Kimmel Arena — the health and wellness center was the result of a $2-million pledge from the couple. Last year, a UNCA official told the Asheville Citizen-Times that half that amount had been received.

 

WCU optimistic

A full assessment of the Kimmel School financial outlook is difficult to ascertain. When asked directly whether the school would be given a different name to more accurately reflect the true giving-picture, Clifton Metcalf, WCU vice president for advancement and external affairs, responded in a written statement:

“The university has taken a long-range view in our relationship with Kimmel & Associates,” he said. “We have been confident that Kimmel, one of the nation’s premier firms in recruiting executives for the construction industry, would rebound as economic conditions improved generally and as construction activity, specifically, accelerated. That appears to be happening now, and there is no intention to rename the school.”

Metcalf’s assessment of Kimmel & Associates’ ability to fulfill its pledge might be more hopeful than realistic.

The bankruptcy plan called for Kimmel and his wife to sell their $1.2 million in gold jewelry and 100 acres in Madison County, plus turn over to debtors the leases on two properties — the business itself on Page Avenue in Asheville, and a beach house in Folly Beach, S.C., used by customers and employees. Even leases on the company’s fleet of cars were up for grabs.

Comment

Most people snip flowers, drop them into a jam jar with some water, call it an arrangement and place them on a table or counter to bring some outside loveliness into our homes.

Experts in Japanese flower arrange identical flowers, but in a manner that enhances the perfection of each leaf and blossom. These practitioners of the ancient meditative art of ikebana seem, somehow, to improve upon nature — to make it more than it is. Or, perhaps, to show exactly what it is.

With a more than 500-year history, the basic principles of ikebana were rooted in Japan’s Muromachi period, with the oldest school being Ikenobo.

Ikebana, however, has branched out in many directions, and the people who practice this ancient art are involved for many different reasons, said Beverly Barbour, a Waynesville resident who is president of the Blue Ridge Chapter of Ikenobo Ikebana.

Barbour and her husband Jon were involved in Bonsai, and her transition to ikebana seemed a seamless and natural one, she said. Barbour first studied for about five years with an instructor in Atlanta, Mary Takahashi, and now works with Sensei (Instructor) Emiko Suzuki of Henderson County, who has practiced for 22 years.

Suzuki taught ikebana in Japan for 12 years, and is on her second year of teaching the art here in the U.S.

“In Japan sometimes I don’t have to teach a lot of things, because we can share the culture,” she said. In the U.S., by contrast, Suzuki often finds herself helping students learn about the loveliness of space itself within an arrangement.

Barbour said that regardless of how someone gets to Japanese flower arranging, “you can lose yourself in the serenity and beauty of practicing. All Japanese arts have a spiritual aspect to them.”

Western North Carolina members of Ikenobo Ikebana Society of America practice styles that represent distinct and different schools of thought and technique in the art of arranging flowers. Some of these styles include “rikka,” “shoka” and the modern “free style.”

In rikka, basic parts are arranged with many contrasting but complimentary materials to express the beauty of a natural landscape. Shoka features three main branches — shin, soe and tai — to form a unity which expresses life’s perpetual change and renewal. Free style, the most recent in Ikenobo’s ancient tradition, is a more personal expression suited to contemporary environments and tastes.

Ordinary folks plunge flowers upright into a vase of water. An ikebana practitioner, however, might put flowers in a tall container or one as tiny as a saucer. The flowers will go any direction, usually, but one: it is doubtful they will ever be sticking only straight up. And, in fact, the Ikenobo school considers a flower’s bud more beautiful than the flower — “for within the bud is the energy of life’s opening toward the future.”

Barbour currently is studying the shoka style.

“An arrangement in this style represents the way the plants come out of the earth and grow,” she said, adding that ikebana quickly leads those who get involved into a deeper understanding of plants and plant material.

“A lot of the appeal is that you can take very few flowers and plant materials and create such a simple, but fabulously beautiful, arrangement,” Barbour said.    


Want to join?

The Blue Ridge Chapter of Ikenobo Ikebana is made up of members from Western North Carolina. They particularly are interesting in attracting new members from Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood counties. For more information, visit www.blueridgeikebana.com. The chapter meets on the third Thursday of every month at 10 a.m. at St. John in the Wilderness Parish House in Flat Rock.

Comment

Last night, lying in bed on the screened porch reading before darkness fell, I looked up from my book and noticed a wasp crawling on the inside of a window screen.

I was reading “The Way of the Bodhisattva” by Shantideva, a translation of an ancient Tibetan text on cultivating compassion, generosity and patience. I noted the wasp — it was a small wasp, more black colored than brown, of a type unnoticed by me before — and returned to reading the book.  

“If such a thing as ‘I’ exists indeed,

Then terrors, granted, will torment it.

But since no self or ‘I’ exists at all,

What is there left for fears to terrify?”  

I (or wait a minute, there is no I), or some part of me (if there is really a me) looked from the book and back up at the wasp to check on its progress. The wasp was still crawling about trying to find a way to the light outside.

I wondered: if I ignore the wasp, would it be there in the morning, still trying to find an escape. Or, more likely, would the wasp sting me during the night. Probably on my face, causing my eyes to swell shut for three or more days, which has happened before. Because, when you work with honeybees as I enjoy doing, you inevitably get stung. And, sometimes, you get stung in very tender places indeed — such as when angry honeybees crawl up your pants leg and make a beeline, as it were, for the “straddle area.” This is what a friend of mine used to call that place-he-would-not-name, even under the most dire circumstances, such as when he was dancing wildly about grabbing at himself (as delicately as one can under such circumstances) in the straddle area. One learns to tuck pants legs into boots, or to tape them shut.

It was getting darker outside. I returned to my book.  

“The agent of sensation has no real exis

tence,

Thus sensation, likewise, has no being.

What damage, therefore, can sensation do

to it —

This aggregate deprived of self?”  

Hmm, I thought wisely to myself. So if I do get stung, then who actually got stung? If sensation has no being, what then is a sting?

The problem with thoughts like these is they don’t really go anywhere. Or, at least, they don’t progress to any suitable conclusion when I’m the thinker involved. The truth is if the wasp did sting me, I believe it would hurt. A lot. And it would hurt me — if I really am, and whether I actually exist or not.

Finally, defeated by my own circular illogic, I got up and opened the window screen. Using “The Way of the Bodhisattva,” I shooed the wasp, unharmed, out into the fading light. It flew away without so much as a thank you.

There was a time, maybe even no more than a year ago, when I would have killed the wasp, probably using whatever book or magazine I was reading at the time. With no real malice, you understand, but with no actual thought, either, about the value of a life — even if it’s a wasp that is under consideration, and a particularly small one, at that. But one can’t very well grind the life out of a sentient being using a text that states:  

“With the wish to free all beings

I shall always go for refuge

To the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha,

Until I reach full enlightenment.

Enthused by wisdom and compassion

Today in the Buddha’s presence

I generate the mind for full awakening

For the benefit of all sentient beings.

As long as space remains,

As long as sentient beings remain,

Until then, may I too remain

and dispel the miseries of the world.  

After that, I went to sleep. No wiser about the world or even about my own life, I admit, but free of worry about getting stung during the night. And the wasp lives on, I hope, doing the things that wasps do, whatever those things might be.

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

Comment

The fate of the organization tasked with marketing and promoting downtown Sylva remains in flux, but it appears positioned to survive in a yet-to-be determined restructured form.

“We are working very cooperatively, jointly with the town board, to come up with what we think will be the best solution — at this point, we don’t know what that is,” Lucy Wofford, president of the Downtown Sylva Association, said this week.

Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower last week presented three options to town commissioners, telling them that the $15,000 contribution town leaders agreed to earlier might not be enough to keep the organization afloat. That amount represented a $3,000 increase over this year’s funding for the group.

DSA initially requested $25,000 from Sylva leaders, saying anything less would jeapordize the group’s solvency. Director Julie Sylvester told commissioners that to continue raising money directly from members, namely downtown businesses, was not financially sustainable. Wofford said she agreed with Sylvester’s assessment, saying it put the group into more of a merchants association’s role than that of a Main Street organization.

Being a state Main Street group opens the door to certain state grants and support. Under the program, however, DSA is required to have a paid director.

Isenhower said the first option available to commissioners would leave the DSA at $15,000. The second option would bring a DSA director in-house as a town employee at $18 dollars an hour, 20 hours a week (with no benefits) for a total salary of $20,150 a year. And the third option would also bring the director in-house, but would add duties as a town planner, which the town currently lacks, bringing the amount needed for a fulltime salary up to $44,800 ($30,000 salary plus benefits).

Commissioner Harold Hensley said this week that if DSA decided they did need more than the original $15,000, then for his part, the position of director would definitely need to move to being a town employee.

DSA Board Member Robin Kevlin said she sees no problem with the director of DSA becoming a paid employee of Sylva.

“Everything is up for discussion,” she said, adding that for DSA’s part, “we’re basically waiting to see what the town of Sylva is going to do, what their wishes are.”

Although DSA’s purpose, witnessed by its name, is nuturing a vibrant downtown, Hensley has repeatedly questioned pumping town tax dollars into a group that benefits only one commercial district of town.

Kevlin expressed sympathy for Hensley’s wish to see DSA’s focus expand beyond the downtown area — “if they are going to give the money, I understand what they are saying,” she said.

There might be a model nearby to do just that.

The Franklin Main Street Program is different from the Downtown Waynesville Association and the Downtown Sylva Association in that it’s not solely limited to the downtown business district.

While historic downtown Franklin is the only area that qualifies for the state’s program, locally they’ve expanded the vision to include the other commercial districts in the town limits.

Jackson County currently handles zoning enforcement for Sylva, with $5,000 in the town’s budget set aside for payment. That money, under the third option, could go toward a fulltime in-house town planner/DSA director.

The town manager was instructed by the board to get more financial numbers on DSA together for commissioners to consider. She plans on presenting those at the next town meeting, set to take place June 2 at 5:30 p.m. Isenhower said she hopes for a decision on DSA and a vote on the town’s overall budget at that same meeting.

Each of the three options, framed as a “new proposal using fund balance and/or capital reserve,” would see a police officer added to patrol downtown for $16,500, and gives the police chief and assistant police chief raises that total $7,520 (including benefits). A downtown officer was an important issue for Commissioner Danny Allen, a former police officer himself.

Comment

If you visit Macon County, keep your head down — there’s a war over property rights in progress.

In this community of 33,922 people that presses hard up against the Georgia border, a place with a long history of attracting hardliners, militants and people whose politics are unabashedly to the right of the mainstream Republican Party, development has led to two distinct groups of people battling about what’s best to do.

One of those groups would set some controls, put brakes on what, to date, has been virtually unchecked growth. The other group — a very organized set of people, unlike the first group, which is simply a loose affiliation of planning supporters — wants nothing remotely resembling rules or regulations passed.

The latest battle was fought last week over a proposed comprehensive plan, a set of recommendations for long-range land use to help guide future development. The Macon County Planning Board — a lightening rod for members of the Property Owners of America, which drummed up an opposition turnout for a public hearing on the recommendations — compiled the plan with assistance from numerous citizen subcommittees.

Much of the plan is not particularly controversial. There is one recommendation to support “a proactive Economic Development Commission.” There’s another that seeks to ensure law enforcement services grow proportionally with the population.

But there are also land-development recommendations, including one that might put the planning board to work on regulations for construction and development on slopes. And a suggestion the county consider developing a stormwater runoff ordinance.

“They will NOT stop!” an emailed flier sent out before the public hearing, by the Property Owners of America, proclaimed. “There are people in all levels of government who want to control you, me and everything we own and do! Even though the economy is strangling, they never stop trying to expand the size and scope of government and regulation. If you love your freedom – PLEASE attend!”

Loretta Newton, a member of the group, told commissioners at the hearing she opposes the recommendations because “plans can turn into policies.”

“Let me be clear,” she said. “I’m against all zoning and against all regulations of steep slopes and it is for a very fundamental reason. Our property rights are derived primarily from the Constitution, the Fifth Amendment. I encourage you to effectively accept the current regulations we already have in place.”

Bill Vernon echoed those thoughts, though he did so in the context of claiming general support for planning — certain kinds of planning, that is, but not this kind of planning.

“Planning for sewer and water (is) a smart thing to do. Planning to accommodate growth,  … I think we could have had a good plan here,” Vernon said. Then he argued that “land-use provisions” is really “just a new word for zoning.”

“And I came away thinking, this is just chock full of hidden agendas,” Vernon told commissioners. “The economy has tanked. The last thing we need is a bunch more regulations. Keep the regulations off our backs.”

The 164-page comprehensive plan took nearly two years to complete. There were community meetings, surveys and a multitude of subcommittees to the planning board involved. County commissioners have the ultimate say on whether the plan is adopted. The previous board of commissioners sanctioned the plan, directing the planning board to tackle it. Two of the five commissioners are new to the board since then.

They will hold a meeting at 6 p.m. May 31 to review and discuss the plan.

Supporters of the plan urged the five-member commission board, a 3-2 Republican to Democrat lineup, to move forward with planning for growth.

“This comprehensive plan is a moderate, thoughtful look at the future and is the work of hundreds of Macon County citizens over several years,” said Bill Crawford, a Macon County resident who represents WNC Alliance, a regional conservation group. “The alliance supports and commends the plan as an example of good government.”

And Kathy Tinsley, who grew up on a dairy farm in Macon County, also urged commissioners’ support.

“This shows such foresight and responsibility and just care for all of us that you’ve shown in the development of this document,” she said. “As elected leaders, I very much urge you to adopt this comprehensive plan — I am sure this is a step in the right direction.”

The same for and against crowd (about 70 people turned out last week) can be expected to assemble again as Macon County heads toward considering steep-slope rules. A steep-slope subcommittee late last week brought recommendations to the planning board, which is now considering whether to endorse the proposals.    


Guiding principle of Macon’s comprehensive plan

“Work together as Maconians to create a dynamic plan that will guide long-term growth and development within the county. Through taking the initiative to plan now, we insure the integrity of our mountain heritage will be preserved, welfare of the citizens will be maximized, our natural environment will continue to flourish, and the economic vitality of Macon County will be sustained, all in ways that benefit the current population as well as generations to come.”

Comment

At Macon Barber Shop, you can get a haircut for $10 and a shampoo for $5, but the talk is free for the asking.

In between snips of her scissors and reaching, on occasion, for the electric razor used to get that nicely topped-off look her clients have sported for more than four decades, Frankie Bowers tried to find the right words: About how it's really important that everyone, including communities such as Franklin, get the top medical care available. But also about how saddened many in the community feel about losing the local part of "local hospital."

Last week, in the latest of a handful of consolidations that have reshaped Western North Carolina's hospital industry this decade, Angel Medical Center agreed to move under the Asheville-based Mission Health System umbrella.

"It really does make me sad," Bowers said. "It's been a good hospital for Franklin, and the Franklin people have benefited from it. I have very mixed feelings — I'm not against it per se, but things just keep on changing."

George Hasara, a longtime-ago-move-in to Macon County, has a different take. Hard at working kneading dough at his Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub, he was friendly but direct in his assessment of the deal, which will see Mission take over management of Angel.

Mission is the sixth-largest health system in North Carolina. This means the community could benefit from more competitive bidding and pricing, more access to capital, and other perks that come with being a big guy in a medical world that is geared toward big guys with deep pockets.

"If it improves services and helps lower costs, it's a win-win for everyone," Hasara said, then hesitated and added that the "if" is an important element of his assessment.

Angel Medical Center had its inception in a clinic established by Dr. Furman Angel in 1923. The construction of the current facility, in large part, was made possible through community contributions. Angel was, in every sense of the word, a local hospital — formed by the community, built by the community and patronized largely by people living in that community.

Although Angel is a small hospital averaging just 16 inpatients a day, it is still a major economic player in the community. It has an operating budget of $800,000 a week. It employs 430 people, with salaries that are a cut above average wages for the county.

Angel leaders have stressed the agreement signed with Mission last week merely formalizes an already existing partnership.

"I don't think doctors, patients or employees will notice anything any different today over any other day," Angel CEO Tim Hubbs said.

But most people in Macon County believe the move defines a different path for the hospital, a place that has played a central role in so many people's lives here.

And, not just a central role for people native to the area — take Sue Dalgleish, owner of The Attic on Palmer Street, a place for bargain and antique hunters, who has been a Macon County resident for 17 years. She got here like so many in this community, by way of a lengthy stop in Florida. Dalgleish grew up in western Pennsylvania.

Her mother was pivotal in helping that community establish its own hospital, getting a business owner in Pittsburgh to donate the needed property. Dalgleish, like her mother before her, believes in the importance of community.

And, like Bowers, she's saddened by Angel's management agreement with Mission.

Angel, Dalgleish said, had really worked on its image, and the general perception in the community of the medical institution's services was positive.

"What I hate to see is the profit motive (driving decisions) in the entire health industry," she said.

And, Dalgleish is truly afraid Mission might mess up the food. Angel, remarkably, serves up hospital food the community raves about — it even caters, according to Dalgleish.

"You've never eaten there? You have to eat there," she said, adding that people go to the hospital not only for medical needs, but to eat breakfast or lunch — the trout is reputed to be out of this world, and the cheese biscuits are excellent, too.

Comment

Some of the scientists helping to identify every living species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are giving up rights to name their discoveries for an even bigger prize: raising money to ensure the continued survival of the Discover Life in America project.

The All Taxa Biological Inventory started 12 years ago as an attempt to document each of the estimated 60,000 species in the Smokies, a place long considered — and now proven to be — a biological hotspot. To date, 7,100 species not previously known to dwell in the park have been identified. Of those, 910 are completely new species, never before identified.

The cost to name one of Discover Life in America’s newly identified creatures cost buyers $2,500 to $10,000. In return, donors get a print photograph of their named organism, plus a copy of the scientific publication in which the species is first described.

For those donors not wanting to shell out the big bucks, something small — such as a newly discovered mite — often proves the winning ticket. Mites simply don’t have the cachet larger species have — a certain je ne sais quoi, as it were, that the public attaches to butterflies, salamanders and similar lovelies.

The selling-the-naming-rights effort has been under way for three or four years. Discover Life in America has successfully sold just about that many — three or four to date, said Todd Witcher, executive director of the group.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the scientific process, and the length of time it takes for the scientific community to approve a discovery, no information about who has bought what has ever been made public.

There’s another reason for that, too: a bit of potential stigma exists for the scientists involved — not everyone in the scientific community approves of this fairly new, but increasingly utilized, fundraising method. Critics worry that with commercial value being attached to finds, people will “discover” new species solely for financial gains.

When it comes to the naming game, the Discover Life in America’s fundraising effort is frankly small potatoes. An auction to name 10 species of fish netted Conservation International $2 million in 2007. And, in 2005, the Wildlife Conservation Society raised $650,000 in an Internet auction of a Bolivian monkey.

“It is certainly a sign of the times,” said Witcher, adding the Discover Life in America, with an annual budget of $250,000, struggles to stay afloat financially.

The nonprofit doesn’t just cover administrative costs, staff salaries and such. The group actually extends grants to scientists to encourage study of certain taxa in the Smokies. Witcher said the competition is fierce to acquire the services, say, of one of just two scientists in the world with the ability to identify a particularly obscure species.

How many folks have you ever met have expertise in slime molds, for instance? A small grant sometimes helps persuade a scientist with sought-after taxonomy skills to work in the Smokies.

Why does it matter if we know about slime molds? There’s the sexy answer, that the cure for cancer might well lie in an undiscovered species, perhaps here in the Smokies. Less alluring, but also important, is the need for baseline data: you can’t know what’s being lost if you don’t first know what’s there.

One of the many difficulties, as Witcher alluded to, is the relatively small number of scientists with the credentials and the ability to take on the work — that is, of identifying species in the field. This also worries New Discover Life in America board member Laura Mahan, who with her husband, Hal, operates The Compleat Naturalist, a natural history store in Asheville.    

A trained biologist, Laura Mahan has an intense interest in science education. She said that’s one of the most fantastic parts of Discover Life in America — the pairing of nonscientists with scientists to actually conduct real science together.

And, hopefully, this will help lead to more interest among people in learning how to identify various species.

 

Make it yours

Want to name a new-to-science discovery in the Smokies? Call Discover Life in America at 865.430.4757 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Comment

I traveled over the Balsams this past weekend from Sylva to Lake Junaluska for a native plant sale, and I’m very glad that I set time aside to make the trip. Not only were there some nice specimens to be had, I was able to tour the Corneille Bryan Native Garden.

I did know the garden was there, though many folks in the region don’t realize this tiny labor of love exists in Haywood County. I used to run regularly at Lake Junaluska before going to work weekday mornings at a regional office for the Asheville Citizen-Times in Waynesville. I’d sometimes trot through the garden area, dropping off County Road through the garden on my way back to the lake, happy for a bit of trail under my feet instead of pavement. Or, for variety, I’d run up the hill from the lake area to the road, optimistically dubbing my crawling, gasping effort a “hill workout” in my running journal.

No matter how pathetic and slow the actual effort, running through a garden is not a mindful way to enjoy flowers. Most of my attention, frankly, was devoted to not falling flat on my face. So the opportunity to stroll leisurely through was a delight, heightened by chats beforehand with garden director Janet Manning and Linda McFarland. Linda, in 2003, helped Janet Lilley put together a book, “Seasons in a Wildflower Refuge,” on what one can enjoy there. Well-known regional botanist Dan Pitillo, now retired from Western Carolina University, wrote descriptions for the book of the garden’s plants.

The genesis of the garden dates to the summer of 1989, according to a brochure about the Lake Junaluska site. Tuscola Garden Club members had been discussing the need to encourage more native plantings on the Junaluska Assembly grounds. Maxilla Evans (who died in December 2007) expressed a desire for a place where her lifetime collection of wildflowers could be preserved; and the family of Corneille Downer Bryan was looking for a suitable memorial. Bryan was a nature lover, artist and member of the Tuscola Garden Club.

So began the Corneille Bryan Native Garden, now home to about 500 various trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants. These include shortia, which is native to only an extremely limited area, pinkshell azalea, and various trillums. An endowment through the Bryan family helps maintain the garden.

The garden’s “primary function is to serve as a place of respite and renewal for all who draw strength from the beauty and quiet of this place,” the writers of the brochure note.

I believe what interests me most is how well Manning and the others involved are using such limited space — limited in both terms of size and context. The garden, as noted earlier, is on a fairly steep hill in a ravine, with a mix of oaks, black walnut and locust overhead. The area had become a dump for trash before the garden was created, with new steps, paths and bridges built, and a variety of habitats created.

Manning said the group is working to complete a bog section now. This is only one of many habitats featuring a variety of shade-loving and sun-loving native plants. (Much of the ravine is shaded, but a small area (euphemistically dubbed the “sunny meadow”) gets light. There you can find asters, penstemon, columbine and more).

There is much to enjoy and learn from the Corneille Bryan Native Garden. If you take the time to stop and smell the roses, that is, and not run mindlessly through. If there were any roses … but you get the point, I’m sure.  

To get there, go to Lake Junaluska Assembly. You can get to the garden on Stuart Circle from Lakeshore Drive, or by turning off County Road onto Oxford Road or Ivey Lane. Go to www.lakejunaluska.com/facility-maps for even better directions — click on “grounds map.”

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

Comment

Jackson County Schools has hired Michael Murray, currently associate superintendent of Operations for McDowell County Schools, as its new superintendent. Murray will replace Sue Nations, who is retiring.

Murray has been with the McDowell County school system for the past six years, and prior to the position of associate superintendent, he served as the assistant superintendent of curriculum. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from Mars Hill College in 1984. He then obtained his Master of Arts in Education in 1988, the degree of Education Specialist in 2005 and completed his program with the degree of Doctor of Education in 2008, all from Western Carolina University.

The son of a Madison County pastor, Murray grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina and graduated from North Buncombe High School. His wife, Carmen, is a principal in Buncombe County. They have seven children ranging in age from 11 to 25.

Murray takes over as superintendent July 1. He will be paid $120,000.

 

Q: Why did you want to become superintendent of Jackson County Schools?

A: During the past 27 years I have been preparing for and looking forward to the opportunity to lead a school system in the mountains of Western North Carolina. I absolutely love the mountains and enjoy working with these wonderful people. I have long wanted to be superintendent because I believe that I can serve our children in a meaningful and positive manner.

I am ready to take this next step in my career and I was absolutely thrilled when the opportunity developed in this school system. It is impossible to replace a person such as Sue Nations who has done a wonderful job creating a solid and innovative school system. I will do my very best to build on what she has accomplished as superintendent and help lead this outstanding school system to the next level.

The opportunity for building relationships and establishing collaboration between community partners is another positive aspect of this position with Jackson County Schools. Having such wonderful resources such as Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College are a rare opportunity for a school system.

Jackson County Schools is an excellent match for my leadership style and personality. This county has consistently maintained a quality education system that has a long-standing tradition of excellence. My strong passion for education and my high standards in the areas of honesty, integrity, trust and respect mesh perfectly with the ideology of this school system. I am excited about bringing my skills and expertise to Jackson County Schools where I will continue to build on the level of excellence already found here.

 

Q: In the face of steep projected state budget cuts, how can schools best tackle the challenges of educating students?

A: Every school system is currently facing the same budget crisis. Each system will have to know and understand the local, state and federal resources available and then determine the best optimal usage of these funds. The current administration has been striving diligently to make the most of their budget by saving Jobs Bill money, not replacing some non-instructional positions, and minimizing the amount of cuts needed to meet possible budget shortfalls.

It is critical that we continue to do our best to protect the integrity of the classroom. Building relationships and sharing resources with other agencies will be more important than ever. When facing the challenges of budget cuts, our goal should be to impact actual classroom delivery of instruction as little as possible. As we work through these hard economic times I will continue the same philosophy of the current administration. They have been able to maintain a strong educational foundation despite the budget cuts that have occurred. And when the budget outlook improves we should be able to start expanding important programs again and continue to provide phenomenal services to our children.

 

Q: What are the most significant challenges you see facing Jackson County Schools?

A: The budget crisis will continue to be our system’s biggest challenge for the next couple of years.  Ensuring that we use transparent leadership and make decisions that utilize limited resources effectively and that align with the district vision will be top priorities under my administration. Public education has changed mission calls and will require leaders that can create a school district will adapt quickly to improve performance. One of the main challenges will be for the superintendent, and a supportive school board, to create these systems of change and to build powerful relationships that tap into the collective knowledge of all the members of the educational family. We will need to focus on the use of data, research-based effective practices, teamwork, and creating professional learning communities within our organization. The biggest challenge will be to generate a sense of urgency to ensure that every student in Jackson County graduate from high school with 21st century skills and be equipped with the confidence to compete globally. Our school system is ready for the challenges we face and I certainly look forward to leading the charge.

 

Q: Blue Ridge School is a combined k-12.  Do you support this model, or would you consider consolidating all or a portion of the school?

A: It is my understanding that Blue Ridge School is actually two separate schools now. Three years ago it was separated into a pre K-Six configuration school and a 7-13 virtual early college school. I intend to continue to support the current administration’s approach to the configuration because it is apparently working well. However, current state proposed budget cuts could possibly eliminate funding for virtual programs across the state, which could affect the final decision on this program. I will be listening intently to my current leadership teams and working directly with our school system’s finance officer to monitor this situation closely.

 

Q: The General Assembly is likely to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in North Carolina. There is already one such school in Jackson County. Do you believe charter schools pose a threat to the viability of public schools?

A: I am a very positive person and I try to maintain a good attitude regarding most subjects. Charter schools, private schools and other choices that are available should not be treated as a threat or talked about detrimentally. Obviously I strongly support public education and believe we should do everything in our ability to make it the best choice for parents.

I am aware of the proposal you have referenced; however, it is currently being debated heavily and has faced multiple changes from the original proposal. We should never be against good healthy competition or providing alternatives choices for our communities. Our responsibility in public education is to create and maintain a strong school system that creates future ready students for the 21st century. Maintaining rigorous and relevant core curriculum goals, using current technology as an effective tool to drive instruction, and providing highly qualified professional educators creates a situation that most parents should want to select for their children. These practices will eliminate the threat of not being selected when parents are given a choice.

All of my seven children have attended Western Carolina public schools.  I have been very pleased with the education they have received and are continuing to receive with this choice.  My goal will be to work diligently to provide the best choice, which will be Jackson County Public Schools.

Q: What are the strengths of Jackson County Schools?

A: In pursuing this position I did a great deal of research including pulling data on test scores, employee education/experience levels, school improvement plans, Race to the Top plans, Title I proposals and even the training level for each of our five board members.

Our greatest strength at Jackson County Schools is the people that make up the Jackson County School System. Beginning with our school board that have demonstrated strong commitment through the hard work of obtaining certificates of advanced training through the School Board Association. We have an outstanding central office staff that have proven what a wonderful resource they are and have shown their support for our schools every day.  Strong leadership is evidenced from our principals, administrators and leadership teams. Other departments work hard to provide safe transportation, clean and well maintained facilities, safe creative learning environments, financial checks and balances, clerical support and incredible student support. Quality instruction is provided by our teachers, teacher assistants, tutors, and the extremely important parent volunteers. Every member of Jackson County Public Schools educational family is committed to student success. What I found during my research that was consistently reinforced in countless ways was that dedicated people were making a major impact and this strength had combined to produce a tradition of quality education in Jackson County.

Strength is also apparent through the strong partnerships established with the community, particularly with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University. These wonderful resources provide an educational advantage to our school system. Throughout my research I found a common thread showing that Jackson County has a reputation as a “caring” school system. My personality and style of leadership is based on building relationships. This strength of established relationships and partnerships with the school district was a perfect match for my leadership skills and experiences.

This is a tough question because Jackson County Schools has too many strengths to list. I believe it is critical that a superintendent understands the essential beliefs of the community and then use that knowledge to make sure we have common goals for our children. It will be my pleasure to serve the children of this community and I look forward to meeting as many people as possible starting this summer. It is an honor to represent Jackson County Schools as we prepare our children for the future.

Comment

Macon County’s proposed budget manages to keep taxes at 27.9 cents per $100 valuation — the second-lowest rate in the state — yet give employees a 3 percent cost-of-living raise.

“They have worked hard to do their job without complaint as they continue to help us hold the line on spending while delivering essential county services,” Macon County Manager Jack Horton said in support of the proposal.

Commissioners have started a series of work sessions on the proposed $42.4 million budget, which Chairman Brian McClellan described as probably involving more “tweaks” than large adjustments.

He said he has not decided whether to endorse a pay raise, but is waiting to hear discussions on that possibility by the other four board members.

“It has been three years since there’s been a raise, but on the other hand, inflation hasn’t been very high, either,” said McClellan, who is a financial advisor in Highlands.

Commissioner Ronnie Beale said he would support a pay raise for employees if the numbers proposed hold up at the end of commissioners’ work sessions. Additionally, Beale said, he’d like to see Macon County’s deputies’ pay be brought up to the same level as their counterparts in the region.

Horton noted Macon County “finds itself in an enviable position compared to many counties in North Carolina. The county is in sound financial condition … our fund balance is stable and allows the county to have in reserve an amount equal to three months of operating expenditures. This provides a strong degree of confidence in terms of being prepared for unexpected emergencies or a shortfall in revenues due to circumstances beyond our control.”

Comment

A proposed compromise by Macon County commissioners on a historic bridge outside of Franklin isn’t sitting well with those who’ve fought for nearly a decade to save it.

Last week, the county board voted unanimously to ask the N.C. Department of Transportation to spare McCoy Bridge, one of the few truss bridges remaining in the state, which straddles the Little Tennessee River in the Oak Grove community. The state wants to replace the one-lane bridge with a new one — which would allow two vehicles to pass and hold more weight — for safety reasons. Residents who view the old bridge as emblematic of the community’s rural character have been locked in a decade-long battle with transportation officials over its fate.

Trying to broker a compromise, Macon commissioners suggested building the new bridge, and transforming the truss bridge into a pedestrian/bike-only bridge. This saves the cost of tearing down, which then could be applied to improvements. Rose Creek resident and Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, who could not be reached for comment, crafted the compromise resolution.

“There’s undeniably a need for safe passage there, for ambulances and school buses,” Commission Chairman Brian McClellan said, describing the resolution as “a useful and reasonable compromise that satisfies everybody.”

Well, not exactly: “We’re deeply disappointed,” said Doug Woodward this week, a leading proponent to save McCoy Bridge, explaining most involved in the preservation battle are asking 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’ proposal had been considered, but discarded, as an option early on, with an engineering redesign submitted during a meeting with state transportation officials two years ago.

“That redesign was a workable compromise, would bring McCoy up to modern load-bearing standards, yet retain most of the historical character of the bridge — something many other Eastern states have made a priority,” he said.

Julia Merchant, spokesperson for the transportation department, said the commissioners’ resolution will result in the agency “taking another look to see if the existing McCoy Bridge can remain in place as a light-duty bicycle and pedestrian bridge that may better fit into the community vision for this area.  

“The department is also reviewing options for providing a new bridge that meets current standards for cars, trucks and emergency vehicles. This means we are looking at what sorts of additional studies need to be done, what coordination efforts will have to take place and where the funding will come from.”

The review will get under way after May 25, when the deadline closes for comments on the project.

Merchant said the current project schedule called for right-of-way acquisition to begin in 2013, with construction scheduled to start in 2015. Because of the new studies, “that schedule is subject to change,” she said. “It is not known at this time what a revised schedule may look like.”

Woodward said he’s not sure what bridge preservers will, or can, do next — he’s hanging some hope on a letter sent in late April to Gov. Beverly Perdue outlining the community’s desires to save McCoy bridge.

Comment

You’ve got to be just a little bit crazy, maybe, to do this trail race — crazy for an epic trail-running experience, that is.

The Smoky Mountain Relay, taking place this Friday and Saturday (May 13-14), is more than 200 miles of trail running for teams made up of 12 or six members. The race starts from the Pink Beds area in Pisgah Forest near Brevard, and finishes at the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City, traversing some of the most beautiful, but challenging, terrain in the Southeast.

Runners with 12-member teams will divvy the course up in 36 legs, with each runner completing three legs. The legs range from 2.5 miles to 10 miles, and from easy to very difficult indeed.

Why do it?

“Because I like to run for fun. And this sounds like fun,” said Melissa Pennscott, a marketing manager at Nantahala Outdoor Center who, since October, has been putting in about 20 miles a week on the trails as a runner. “It’s getting back to nature and enjoying the scenery.”

SEE ALSO: Map of the race

The Nantahala Outdoor Center put together a team that includes Pennscott to participate in the relay, which is modeled on the famous Hood to Coast relay in the Pacific Northwest. The race founder, Jim Brendle, lives in Medford, Ore., but has family connections to Swain County, which resulted in him staging the first relay here last year.

“We did it with a skeleton crew, 48 runners,” Brendle said, adding there are 120 runners signed up this year.

Teams use vans to shuttle each other to various places along the course, taking turns resting, eating and running. It will take 24 to 34 hours to complete the course.

“This is a total team experience,” he said. “Everybody hurts together, everybody stinks together.”

That’s one of the reasons Leigh Boike, manager of guest relations for Nantahala Outdoor Center, became interested in participating — and, of course, because the race is actually going to finish up where she works.

“It kind of snowballed from there,” Boike said, admitting she’s a little nervous about the upcoming race. “It is definitely going to be a challenge.”

Food, drinks and live music at the Pourover Pub at the Nantahala Outdoor Center will cap the race’s finish. Racers also will find amenities such as hot showers, on-site restaurants and lodging, and the opportunity for an ice-cold bathing experience in the Nantahala River.

Comment

Some years ago, confined to an office through work obligations but dreaming of farming, I spent more time than I should have surfing the Internet in search of agriculture and back-to-the-land related sites.

Amazingly, many of the same ones I visited regularly then are still up and running. Though these days, I find more pleasure in the actual doing than the reading, still sometimes I turn to old favorites for information or to recharge my batteries. Here’s some of the ones I’ve found most useful:

urbanhomestead.org — The Dervaes family lives in a sustainable fashion on a tiny (1/5th of an acre) lot in southern California, where they grow a garden, raise livestock and undertake interesting homesteading projects. The father, his grown son and two daughters (the wife and husband divorced many years ago) have developed a slick Website chronicling their journey. In fact, the site has gotten a little too slick and commercial for my taste, but maybe I’m just jealous of this family’s exceptional marketing abilities and beautiful urban homestead. There is a lot of good information here if you are willing to dig around, and this is a particularly useful site if you don’t have much room to create a sustainable lifestyle, but still are looking for ways to do just that.

www.homesteadingtoday.com — General homesteading forums that, subject wise, ranges far and wide. The forums are moderated, which helps keep people on-topic. Forums include general subjects such as “homesteading questions,” “countryside families” and so on, plus specialized areas on goats, bees, gardening, market gardening, sheep, rabbits, guard animals and more. Also includes a useful “preserving the harvest” forum and a recipes forum (need to know how to cook a possum? These are the folks who will likely know).

www.gardenweb.com — Skip all the junk and go directly to the gardening forums. These are terrific, and you’ll soon find your own favorites if you poke around long enough. Some of mine include “vegetable,” “tomatoes” and “organic gardening.” The search engine for the site is also quite good, allowing you to search within individual forums, so give it a shot next time you have a gardening question.

www.thecontraryfarmer.com — Writer Gene Logsdon’s site. This man writes and writes and writes, and yet still finds time to run an actual farm in Ohio. He has published more than 20 nonfiction titles, including his latest, “Holy Shit, Managing Manure to Save Mankind.” He also writes fiction, and these days, blogs on the Internet. Check him out, he’s funny and knowledgeable and agreeably opinionated (in that I agree with most of his opinions).

www.backwoodshome.com — If you can handle the survivalist paranoia that crops up here, then this is a good general source of homesteading and information on self-sufficiency. I subscribed to the magazine of the same name for a year or so, but didn’t renew because I couldn’t handle the rightwing Republinuts agenda. That said, the basic information offered here is sound, if you skip articles on storing up ammunition and the need to buy gold coins. Unless, of course, those are the sort of topics that interest you.

www.motherearthnews.com — So sad, so bad, but true: Mother Earth News is not what it once was. Still, ignore the yuppie, often shallow content and use the archives online, and you can tap right back into the original and best back-to-the-land magazine.

www.ces.ncsu.edu — At your fingertips, here is all the specialized agriculture-related information on North Carolina you could want. This site serves as a direct line to decades of state-funded research and work. On that same track, check out www.growingsmallfarms.org, a site built and maintained by Debbie Roos, an organic specialist for the state in Chatham County. Here you’ll find very specific information for organic and small farms in North Carolina, from marketing information to specific state regulations and laws.

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

Comment

Duke Energy has received a new 30-year permit to operate its five hydroelectric dams in Jackson County, which could pave the way for new economic and recreational opportunities along the Tuckasegee River.

Kayaking for several days a year on the upper reaches, for instance, with the power company agreeing to open up Lake Glenville Dam for water releases into the old streambed. New hiking on a future trail below Lake Glenville Dam down to the Paradise Falls area. Nine new river-access areas — including a portage — around Cullowhee Dam near Western Carolina University.

But don’t get too excited. The work could take years to complete, easily up to a decade or more.

“There’s tremendous work involved with the implementation of the license,” said Mark Singleton, a member of the stakeholder groups and executive director of American Whitewater, a national nonprofit headquartered in Sylva that promotes river conservation, access and safety.

Duke District Manager Fred Alexander also indicated the work isn’t over.

“We’re pleased to be at this stage, not the end, but the beginning of the end,” he said.

Duke must get new permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission every 30 or so years to operate the dams. The process, known as relicensing, spells out what mitigation Duke must conduct to offset the environmental impacts of the hydro network.

Debate raged for nearly 10 years over how much Duke owes Jackson County in exchange for harnessing the Tuckasegee River with numerous dams. And Ken Westmoreland, the former county manager who spearheaded the county’s long fight against Duke, said Jackson has gotten the short end of the stick.

“We felt Jackson County’s citizens were being shortchanged in the long run,” Westmoreland said. “We knew in comparable relicensing across the country, other jurisdictions received substantially more than Duke has offered, which is basically a pittance.”

Westmoreland led the county into a protracted and costly legal fight in hopes of exacting more from Duke. Since the centerpiece of Duke’s mitigation was tearing down the Dillsboro dam, that was what the fight centered on, but saving the dam wasn’t the county’s primary objective, Westmoreland said.

“It was trying to find a method to get Duke to ante up considerably more in funds over the long haul for multiple purposes — recreation, stream-bank restoration and other conservation endeavors the county was interested in,” Westmoreland said.

Duke prevailed in the end when Jackson gave up on its battle, and within weeks of that decision the power company took out the dam. Restoring free flowing river will help threatened aquatic species, improve river habitat and set the stage for a river shore park.

Enhanced recreation opportunities along the Tuckasegee could help the county’s economic big picture, too.

“Quality recreation opportunities drive economic opportunities,” Singleton said.

For instance, additional put-ins will cater more to the increasing driftboat fishing traffic being seen on sections of the Tuckasegee.

Re-licensing for dams on the Nantahala River area — these were for the Tuckasegee River watershed — are expected soon.

By Quintin Ellison & Becky Johnson

 

A Duke timeline

• 1964: A court case results in hydro projects in the U.S. being placed under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

• 1980-1981: The original 25-year licenses on the hydroelectric projects on the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers are issued to Nantahala Power and Light.

• 1988: Duke Energy purchases Nantahala Power and Light from Alcoa, a 1,729-square-mile service area, with 14 dams on five rivers serving 11 hydroelectric generating plants.

• 1999: Duke starts a public involvement process to develop a mitigation package as part of the next relicensing process. Two stakeholder teams were formed for the Tuckasegee and Nantahala, comprised of environmentalists, paddlers, fishermen and local government leaders.

• 2003: Stakeholders agreed, although not unanimously, to a mitigation package. The centerpiece is removing the Dillsboro Dam. Jackson County is among the parties who dissent. Macon County, the town of Franklin, and Dillsboro express dissatisfaction as well.

• 2004: Jackson County begins a legal fight against Duke, appealing various aspects of the relicensing at every step of the way.

• 2007: FERC sides with Duke in saying that removing the Dillsboro Dam, built in 1927, will suffice as mitigation by restoring a section of free-flowing river, reconnecting habitat and providing river recreation.

• January 2010: Jackson County concedes it has lost the battle against Duke.

• February 2010: The dam is removed, clearing the way for new licenses to be approved and promised mitigation to get under way.

• May 2011: FERC formally approves re-licensing agreements for Duke’s hydro projects on the Tuckasegee River.

Comment

A proposal to set up a special track for Western Carolina University’s crème de la crème — the honor students on campus — failed recently to win approval of a majority of the faculty’s leaders.

The thumbs down by the university’s Faculty Senate came amid concerns of elitism, questions about need, doubts the proposed program was rigorous enough, and fears of overcomplicating the system.

There were worries that, if the special liberal arts track was adopted by the Honors College, students in general might become confused about which classes exactly were needed for them to successfully graduate. Some faculty said they were afraid other colleges at the university would follow suit in setting up individual liberal studies programs, creating enormous bureaucratic difficulties for the university.

Additionally, some faculty leaders said they felt it was premature to propose a new honors path while the university is in the process of an overall review of its liberal studies curriculum.

The vote by Faculty Senate last month was two in favor, 24 against, with one abstention.

“There’s some really creative and great ideas here,” David McCord, professor and head of WCU’s department of psychology, told Honors College Dean Brian Railsback before he listed a litany of concerns. “I’d like all of our students, and not just honors students, to take benefit from this.”

McCord added, however, “the issue of multiple general education programs is deeply concerning to me,” describing the proposed changes as a possible Pandora’s box, making it “a completely impossible puzzle” for students to piece together what’s required for graduation.

“I respectfully disagree,” Railsback said. “I think it would work.”

Railsback, in material written to brief his fellow faculty on the proposal, noted that honors programs across the country vary. Among the least developed are colleges like WCU where honors students parallel the liberal studies program. Students are afforded some designated honors classes, extra interaction with professors, and even customized courses and degrees — yet are still confined by the university’s liberal arts requirements. Others fully substitute the university liberal studies program, such as the program at Portland State, Ore., for example.

Some universities create labor-intensive programs that replace the curriculum with studies customized between the student and advisor.

Railsback said that he believed WCU’s 13-year-old Honors College should move toward this “as a natural part of its evolution.”

“WCU Honors students are a distinct group of high-achievers who need a liberal studies curriculum tailored to their abilities,” Railsback said.

The genesis of the proposal dates to 2007-2008, when the Honors College Board of Directors (made up of honors students) and the Honors College Advisory Board (made up of professional outside of the university) met and agreed upon “learning outcomes” for the Honors College curriculum.

The groups were considering what exactly a WCU Honors student knows when they graduate from the Honors College, and what was needed to be competitive with graduates from elite private colleges.

The specialized track would have included required service learning; a study abroad option or required second language study; required undergraduate research; a required internship, co-op, or appropriate “capstone” experience.

Laura Wright, an associate professor in WCU’s English department and director of graduate studies, worried about the risk of removing honors students from the university’s classrooms with other students.

“I worry what happens to our non-honors students when they are not interacting with our best students,” she said.

Railsback said that he did not believe the specialized curriculum would stop honors students from continuing to be part of the general school population. He said that elitism has been an area of concern since the creation of the Honors College, and something WCU has carefully avoided.

 

The select few

There are between 1,300 and 1,400 honors students at Western Carolina University, or about 14 percent of the undergraduate residential population.

Those who entered the Honors College as first-term freshmen in 2008 averaged a 4.3 weighted cumulative high school GPA and scored 1803 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, compared to a 3.3 high school GPA and 1485 on the SAT for non-Honors students at WCU.

Honors students at WCU average a first to second year retention of 84 percent, compared to 71 percent for non-Honors students. Honors students average a 3.51 cum WCU GPA, compared to a fall 2008 average for all non-Honors students of 2.51.

The Honors College has its own residence hall for those choosing to live on campus and its own yearbook.

A portion of their courses are designated as Honors courses, or they can work with professors to add extra components to regular courses. They can swap out required intro-level liberal studies coursework with more advanced courses. They can even create customized degrees, are eligible for undergraduate research grants and have access to pre-professional programs.

Source: Honors College Dean Brian Railsback, WCU Website

Comment

The future of the Downtown Sylva Association remains unclear despite a move by town leaders to increase public funding for the group.

The town board unanimously voted last week to increase funding from $12,000 to $15,000 a year, but that amount still falls short of the $25,000 the downtown association says it needs.

“It is very appreciated, but it still doesn’t get us where we need to be,” said DSA Executive Director Julie Sylvester minutes after town leaders made their decision.

DSA, the group charged with spotlighting and underpinning Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene, has stated it faces “solvency” dangers without the $25,000.  DSA wants to drop what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — raising money directly from merchants. The group hoped the town would make up the difference. It’s unclear whether the group will now continue soliciting extra funds from downtown businesses.

Mayor Maurice Moody told fellow town leaders that DSA’s total budget each year is in excess of $50,000.

“If you under-fund them, whether you intend it or not, there’s a chance they may go away,” Moody said.

Commissioner Harold Hensley said an article in The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago mischaracterized where he and fellow board members Danny Allen and Ray Lewis stood on the issue. He said they never intended to totally cut DSA off the town’s funding list. They simply felt that the $25,000 being requested is too much.

“I said we could leave it (at the same amount) … but we do have other things we have to look at,” Hensley said, saying he wanted to keep DSA at $12,000.

Hensley also said he wanted clarity that there is no “power struggle going on on this board. Everybody has their own ideas — but I don’t call it a power struggle.”

Allen said he agreed with Hensley.

“I don’t think there’s one board member that wants to cut DSA,” Allen said. “Fund as is … In the past, we’ve gotten that rap about not funding DSA, but we do want to fund DSA.”

Allen then qualified his support by noting that funding anything is difficult given the economic climate, saying, “we have to take a hard look at what we fund and what we don’t fund.”

Allen said town merchants he’s talked to want money put toward paying a policeman to work the downtown area.

Hensley also said if the town wanted to give DSA funding that approaches the $20,000 level, then he strongly believed that the director’s position ought to transition to a town staff position. Sylvester receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours a week. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.

North Carolina requires a paid director for towns to participate in the Main Street program. The program is important, among other reasons, because it opens the door to grants, which towns otherwise don’t qualify to receive.

Commissioner Chris Matheson told Hensley that bringing a new employee on board with the town entails much more than simply paying that person’s base salary, citing health benefits and so on.

Hensley said perhaps Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower or Town Clerk/Tax Collector Brandi King “could be the Main Street person.”

“If you are going to start appropriating that kind of money, you ought to have it in-house,” Hensley said.

Commissioner Stacy Knotts said Isenhower and King have fulltime jobs as it is, without taking on DSA duties.

Ultimately, the commissioners in a compromise decided on an additional $3,000 in the budget to DSA bringing their funding to $15,000, plus gave a Neighbors in Need help group just more than $1,000 at Allen’s request.

“I’d also like to say we need to keep in mind the policeman on Main Street,” Allen added.

Board members also discussed a flat raise for all town employees who make under $50,000 instead of an across the board cost-of-living increase.

Hensley said dividing up the proposed 2.5 percent increase would give $1,020.28 to those making below $50,000 though he asked not to be held strictly to his math.

“We’ve got some people that’s really low paid in this town,” he said.

The other commissioners indicated they agreed with Hensley’s proposal, but Matheson and Commissioner Stacy Knotts emphasized this was a one-time deal that they’d want to revisit next year.

Comment

The Jackson County Board of Education is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Michael L. Murray as the new Superintendent of Jackson County Schools.  The Board voted unanimously to offer the position to Dr. Murray who will begin work on July 1, 2011.  Dr. Murray will be succeeding retiring Superintendent Sue Nations.

The Board is confident that Dr. Murray will work well with the existing staff and administrative structure in Jackson County Schools.  “Dr. Murray’s leadership will be a valuable asset to our already exceptional staff,” says Ali Laird-Large, Vice Chair of the Board.  “I have confidence that he will continue our strong tradition of quality education in Jackson County.”

Dr. Murray is currently the Associate Superintendent of Operations for McDowell County Schools, where he has also served as Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction.  Prior to joining McDowell County Schools, Dr. Murray was a high school teacher for four years and a school administrator for sixteen years in Buncombe County.

As the Associate Superintendent of Operations for McDowell County Schools, Dr. Murray provides oversight for the day-to-day operations of the school district.  The Board of Education was excited to see his experience in the development of programs to reduce the dropout rate, since this has also been a major initiative in Jackson County.  Dr. Murray’s involvement with the implementation of a district wide reading program also compliments the work already in place in Jackson County Schools which focuses on a balanced literacy program.  Dr. Murray, as Associate Superintendent of McDowell County Schools, has demonstrated a strong commitment to establishing community relationships and looks forward to continuing the Jackson County School partnerships, particularly with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University.  His unique experiences and proven leadership skills will be valuable in his new position as Superintendent of Jackson County Schools.

The Board voted to grant Dr. Murray a four-year contract which includes $115,560 from state funds (includes advanced degree with doctorate) and $4,440 from local funds for a total of $120,000.   

The son of a Madison County minister, Dr. Murray is originally from Western North Carolina and graduated from North Buncombe High School.  He completed an undergraduate degree from Mars Hill College and then obtained a Master of Arts in Education degree in 1988, the Education Specialist degree in 2005, and completed his Doctorate in Education in 2008, all from Western Carolina University.  Dr. Murray’s wife, Carmen, is a school administrator and together they have seven children ranging in age from eleven to twenty-five.

The Board of Education performed an extensive search to find a superintendent with a strong educational background, an understanding of the operational aspect of a school system, and a proven record of leadership to continue to guide Jackson County Schools in their pursuit of academic excellence and commitment to students.  “The Board agreed unanimously,” said Board Chair, Ken Henke, “that Dr. Murray is the right person for the job.”

Comment

The U.S. Forest Service is warning hikers to stay back a good 50 feet or so from a towering poplar tree in Macon County that is now rotting and falling apart.

The Wasilik Poplar is the second-largest tree of its kind in the nation, but now — because of falling limbs and other debris — poses a potential danger. Lightening struck the tree more than two decades ago, and the poplar is long dead, though it remains an imposing sight and is a popular hiking objective for both locals and visitors to the area.

The Wasilik Poplar’s girth measures 26 feet in circumference. To put that into perspective, consider that a one-lane road is generally 10- or 11-feet wide.

“It’s amazing,” said Cindy Laninfa, who hiked the short but steep 1.4-mile Wasilik Poplar Trail near Standing Indian Campground one day last week with husband David to view the Macon County landmark. “You just stand here in awe — I’d like to have seen it when it was living.”

The poplar isn’t in good shape. In addition to lightening and storm damage, the tree has slowly been rotting away for years. There isn’t much bark left, and the tree’s lifespan probably wasn’t enhanced by some people’s need to carve their initials into the trunk. Bits of limbs are scattered about, visual evidence of why the Forest Service has warned people to stand safely back.

Signs have been prominently posted, at the trailhead and near the tree itself.

The Laninfas said they were happy the Forest Service hasn’t opted just to cut the tree down.

“I don’t think they should cut it,” Cindy Laninfa said. “Let it fall, naturally.”

The poplar tree was named for John Wasilik, a former ranger on the Wayah District for the Nantahala National Forest.

 

Want to go?

To reach Wasilik Poplar Trail from Franklin, travel west along U.S. 64, past Winding Stair Gap to the sign for Standing Indian Campground and the Appalachian Trail; turn left. Continue for about one mile to a sign for the campground, and turn right onto Forest Service Road 67. Travel one-half mile to Rock Gap and the trailhead, located on your left.

Comment

Just a few minutes into weedeating and I feel lobotomized. Perhaps the heady roar of the little engine that can obliterates my ability to discern what’s being whacked until I’m in full, lethal motion. Maybe it’s the power of wielding a mechanized cutting machine mixed with the angst of an uptight, obsessive personality that does me in.

Be that as it may, once launched with a weedeater in my hands, I sense a strong internal drive to cut everything the same height — somehow blind to the carnage I’m wreaking in my lust for a flawless, perfect, three-inch tall green expanse.

In a different life, I might have been an excellent builder of golf courses. Though in this life, I dislike golf and golf courses (environmentally poisonous cesspools built so a few people can tap little balls into holes using sticks). And I would add a dislike for those who play golf, but that’s not actually true. I don’t dislike people who play golf. But I don’t comprehend the fascination, and I don’t much care for those I inwardly suspect of ulterior motives for playing golf: the modern Silas Laphams of the world and their upwardly mobile climb to the top. (Though having advertised my snobbishness, I’m tempted to add qualifiers about how I know golf is a fun game (though I don’t really believe it’s fun), and how I’m sure people don’t really hit the golf course for networking reasons alone (though I know many, in fact, do just that)).

Whatever … I give up. I’m heading from this self-built sand trap back to safer ground: weedeating.

It seems I always destroy at least one irreplaceable and expensive flower, shrub or tree during a weedeating outing. This weekend, the sacrificial victim was a serviceberry tree. It’s a fact that our forests are filled with serviceberries. So, on first blush, the loss of one, tiny serviceberry doesn’t seem like much. But my friend, a few years ago, had carefully selected this tree from a nursery, ordered the serviceberry sapling and planted it. She had weeded and nurtured the serviceberry, openly admiring her excellent work mere days before I, with a single heedless pass of the weedeater, took said prized serviceberry from a height of three or so feet to a mere three or so inches.

I looked back, oops, too late to prevent the destruction, and there — stark evidence of my recklessness and need for perfection — was a tiny stump, the remnants of her beloved serviceberry tree.

“Well, if you had to cut something down, I’d rather it be that than, say, the plum tree,” my friend said bravely, as if she were in the Strait of Messina choosing between Scylla and Charybdis.

A few years ago, I ordered eight very expensive tea plants from a nursery in Chapel Hill. I planted them. Within a week, I had chopped down two. Innumerable flowers have given way to my weedeating, and even a fair number of vegetable plants — each time I mow the paths in the garden, I take out a broccoli here, a row of carrot tops there.

I’ve long toyed with the possibility of using a scythe rather than a weedeater. My biggest fear isn’t the physical labor involved — a weedeater beats the hell out of you, anyway — it’s sharpening the blade. I’m very bad at sharpening anything. I have ruined many a fine knife by trying to “fix” it, dulling the blades beyond the repair of the most skilled professional knife sharpener. These days, I use a serrated knife that never requires sharpening, and I resolutely squelch desires for chef-quality kitchen equipment. I know I’d just be throwing away my money if I bought nice knives.

This might prove the case with a scythe, too. There is something deeply satisfying, however, about the thought of using this finely crafted tool instead of a machine. No motor, no need to string; more time to think, some protection I hope for the plants. Additionally, my inner peasant finds a certain rustic appeal to the possibility of looking like I stepped out of a Bruegel painting. And that’s a feeling I certainly never get when using a weedeater.

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

Comment

Finding childcare, particularly for infants, has surfaced as a growing problem for the young professionals who make up much of Western Carolina University’s faculty and staff.

Take Elizabeth McRae, a professor of history at WCU, who when she gave birth to daughter Lucy, relied on an older neighbor to pass along the name of someone trustworthy to watch her newborn.

“Finding infant care is particularly difficult,” McRae said. “Beyond the few facilities that provide it, the best option is to find someone doing in-home care for infants. With that said, finding who those folks are seems mostly a function of word of mouth.”

McRae said she has since passed on the name of her care provider to fellow faculty in the history department, keeping the woman “well-supplied with infants for the past 10 years.”

A taskforce at WCU is tackling the issue, which has developed into something of a recruitment and retention problem. WCU provides up to 60 calendar days of paid leave for childbirth or adoption. Though, at the time McRae had her child, she was forced to take leave without pay.

Headed by A.J. Grube, the group hopes to make recommendations to the Faculty Senate by the end of this month. An informal email survey of WCU faculty and staff showed about 80 percent of those responding felt some sort of need for after-school or infant care.

Grube, department head of WCU’s business administration and law and sport management, and the mother of two young children (ages 6 and 3), understands the difficulties of finding childcare.

“I think it is a reflection of a larger problem in Jackson County and our region,” Grube said. “It is not easy to find childcare in this area.”

The situation doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions. In neighboring Macon County, lack of childcare has become such a critical issue, county leaders have designated the problem an economic-development issue. The county’s Economic Development Commission has made childcare a top goal of the group when trying to lure new businesses.

Grube said solving the lack of infant care might be beyond the university’s capabilities, particularly considering the massive budget shortfall. But, the group will probably continue to explore options, and certainly could assemble a database of sorts for faculty and staff searching for care providers, she said.

Also possible is offering training through the university’s educational outreach center for people interested in becoming professional childcare providers.

WCU has the Kneedler Child Development Center on campus, offering childcare for up to 70 children from ages one through five. The center is managed by Mountain Projects, and is integrated with the university through the Division of Student Affairs.

One need that has surfaced is after-school care for older children. Grube and other taskforce members believe that it might be possible to combine such a program with WCU’s College of Education, “and the idea has a good bit of traction,” she told Faculty Senate last week.

“The idea would be to benefit Western students,” Grube said, “not just provide babysitting.”

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, an assistant professor of geosciences and natural resources and vice-chairman of Faculty Senate, applauded the efforts of the childcare taskforce, echoing Grube in saying that the issue is one the greater community of Jackson County, as well as the region, faces.

Comment

Sylva leaders want their Jackson County counterparts to lease, for $1 a year, the old library building to them, citing space needs and a heightened Main Street presence for the town’s police department.

The Sylva library is in the process of moving to a building beside the newly renovated, historic Jackson County courthouse. The grand opening is set for next month. This comes as Sylva’s 15-member police department jockeys for space in 1,000 square feet the town can allot to it. The Sylva Police Department is next to town hall on Allen Street, several blocks from the downtown.

Lack of space “makes it very difficult to investigate cases, interview witnesses and interrogate suspects,” town board member Chris Matheson, a former assistant district attorney, told county commissioners at a meeting this week. “It is imperative at this point we try to find a location for them.”

County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said they’d consider discussing the town’s request during a budget work session next week.

The town has eyed the former public library for a police department at least since the spring of 2009. Then Police Chief Jeff Jamison contacted then County Manager Ken Westmoreland at the town board’s request. Westmoreland told Jamison the county would be willing to sell or lease the building, but didn’t specify the town’s cost for either of those options.

That was then, and this is now: Jamison is gone, Westmoreland is gone, and a new majority of commissioners took control in last November’s election. It’s unclear what they want to do with the old library building, if they even know, at this juncture, themselves.

Matheson characterized the town’s desire for the centrally located building as something of an “equity issue.” She pointed out Sylva shares 50 percent of its ABC revenues with the county. A vast number of cases investigated by the town police involve people who have been drinking alcoholic beverages, Matheson said.

ABC dollars totaled $139,890 this year alone in revenue gains for Jackson County.

“What have we done that makes Sylva want to be so good to us?” Commissioner Joe Coward asked Matheson about the town’s willingness to share the ABC wealth.

The councilmember responded she believes Sylva simply didn’t — at least initially when it agreed to share the wealth — realize how significant the revenue stream would prove. After voters approved the sale of mixed drinks at bars and restaurants in a 2005 referendum, sales at the Sylva ABC store went up more than 40 percent.

This 50-50 split between a town and county is an unusual arrangement, Matheson said, and is mirrored by just five or so other municipalities in North Carolina.

Franklin keeps 100 percent of its ABC revenues; Bryson City keeps 90 percent and specifies the remaining 10 percent go to parks and recreation; Waynesville keeps 64 percent and gives 18 percent to the schools, and the remaining 18 percent is funneled into Haywood County’s general fund.

Matheson, drawing on her legal skills to weave a persuasive sticky web commissioners might find difficulty disentangling from, continued gently but firmly pressing for the coveted downtown space. She pointed out that Sylva officials were kind enough to rent to Jackson County a town-owned building for use as a senior-citizen facility — $1 a year for 15 years, and before that, for free. And, additionally, the town provided a building to house the chamber of commerce — again, Matheson noted, free of cost to the county.

What the town offers in return for the old library building, Matheson said in summation during her closing argument, is an opportunity to protect and serve all the residents of Jackson County who come, in large part, to conduct the county’s business in Sylva. And that could best happen if the space-crunched police department is in the old library; for, she said, a nominal fee a year accompanied by a long-term lease consisting of at least 25 years. And the town will even pay for renovations and repairs, which she estimated could total $150,000, Matheson said, adding a possible enticing carrot.

County commissioners thanked the town board member for her presentation, but did not commit one way or another to her request.

Carl Iobst, a regular member of the public at county meetings, told commissioners during the public-comment session that he wants the town to reimburse the county “a fair and reasonable amount” for the building, saying in these fiscally trying times, $1 a year is too little an amount for such a prize.

Comment

No increase in taxes, more funding for the new public library, the same amount for the schools and a more than 3 percent overall drop in spending highlight Jackson County’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Does the proposal simply sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not, interim County Manager Chuck Wooten reassured commissioners this week when presenting the fruit of Finance Officer Darlene Fox and his labors.

The proposed budget would total just more than $58 million; the general fund would come to just more than $49 million. A budget work session is set for 1 p.m. on Monday, May 9, when commissioners meet with the Jackson County Department of Social Services. At 2 p.m., they will walk through the proposed budget with Wooten to determine what, if any, changes they want to make.

“We just trimmed every department,” Fox explained before the meeting while passing out copies of the budget to reporters.

County employees won’t see a pay increase for the second consecutive year, and there is a net decrease in county employment by 17.1 positions (through elimination of open positions, consolidation of some duties, and privatizing some of the solid waste operations).

Additionally, Jackson County would give the school system the $235,000 extra in capital outlay administrators requested recently. School leaders said during a work session with commissioners that the money was necessary to fix roofs, buy security cameras and meet other basic facility needs.

School board members and administrators also requested commissioners hold steady at the same nearly $6.8 million amount budget this year, which is accomplished under the proposed budget.

The new Jackson County Public Library in Sylva would see funding increase from $500,000 to $675,000.

Mary Otto Selzer, who attends virtually every commission meeting, including this one, was pleased with the proposal. She is the co-chair of the Friends of the Library committee that raised nearly $2 million in donations and grants to furnish and outfit the new library. The former investment banker praised the working budget for containing sufficient funds to keep the library operating at 45 hours per week.

“The county and community have made a significant investment in this new facility and we want to have it open and accessible to serve the communities needs,” Selzer said. “The community had hoped our new library would be able to increase its hours of operation from 45 to 60 hours per week  — the minimum level recommended by the state — but this is wonderful news in view of the current financial climate.”

Selzer said Librarian Dottie Brunette is working to set the hours of operation for the new library complex (they are in process now of moving the libraries books and other resources to the building). Brunette, Selzer said, is hoping to offer at least a couple of days with evening hours to better serve working families.

Funding for nonprofits in Jackson County was held at current year levels. New dollars amounting to $7,000 was provided for Mountain Projects; Webster Enterprises has new funding in the amount of $10,000; and The Community Table, which requested $10,000, was recommended for $5,000.

“It’s not a surprise – it’s a tough economic climate,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table, a group helping feed those in need. “Anything we can get in the form of financial assistance is a help.”

Wooten said the financial climate seems to be improving.

“Jackson County continues to feel the impact of the economic slowdown even though some signs suggest things may have bottomed out,” Wooten wrote in his introductory remarks to the proposed budget. “Foreclosures are up and building permits are down; but, overall, it seems we may be witnessing the beginning of a slow recovery.”

Wooten noted that while the ad valorem tax rate of 28 cents would remain the same, and that the fund balance (the county’s rainy day fund) would go untapped, “overall the projected ad valorem tax value and revenues are less than were budgeted in fiscal year 2010-2011.”

The projected tax base is $11,323,240,141, or $74.5 million less than the current fiscal year.

Comment

Luke Hyde is too young to remember Horace Kephart, but his parents and grandparents knew the great American outdoor writer well when the St. Louis transplant was living in the Bryson City area.

“He was a highly talented man who did some good things. Horace Kephart also was a human being who had some warts,” said Hyde, owner of The Historic Calhoun House in Bryson City and cofounder, with Kephart great-granddaughter Libby Kephart Hargrave, of a foundation to honor the writer and benefit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Kephart was pivotal in making the park a reality, working tirelessly through the 1920s to protect the Smoky Mountains he loved so deeply. Kephart wrote letters, articles and a booklet, plus teamed with photographer George Masa to raise awareness about the unique beauty and importance of these mountains.

Kephart penned the regional classic Our Southern Highlanders; he wrote what even his fiercest critics acknowledge might well be one of the best outdoors books ever written, Camping and Woodcraft.

Though few, if any, would deny the value of Kephart’s efforts to preserve the Smokies — or attempt, with much legitimacy, to denigrate the overall value of his writings — his legacy in Western North Carolina has remained somewhat contentious.

That Kephart drank to excess is true and well documented. That he abandoned his wife and children in his retreat to this region is arguable with any seriousness only by some of his descendents, who find this apparent rejection of the family hearth a source of some lingering pain, or perhaps, shame.

That these truths somehow tarnish Kephart’s legacy as a writer and protector of the Great Smoky Mountains is certainly peculiar, though the debate of late has focused on Kephart’s “right” as an outsider to chronicle the lives and times of mountain people.

Despite the venom displayed by many of Kephart’s critics, since 2009 Bryson City has begun to openly — if a bit cautiously — embrace the man who made this Swain County town his spiritual and creative base.

Horace Kephart Days Celebration is scheduled for Friday through Sunday, (April 29-May 1). Hyde, for one, is happy to see the writer get his due, and so is Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker.

“It’s part of our history,” Walker said. “I think it’s enjoyable to have Libby (Kephart Hargrave) here, and for us to reflect on those days.”

The event isn’t huge, the mayor noted, but it is drawing an increasing number of people into Bryson City.

“It’s a piece of the (economic) puzzle, a part of things that go into making a whole,” Walker said of the event.

 

Horace Kephart Days Celebration

• Friday, 7 p.m.: Meet and greet at the Calhoun
House, 135 Everett Street.

• Saturday: Breakfast at the Calhoun House, reservations required, $10 per person, 828.488.1234

• Saturday, 10 a.m.: Ceremony at Hillside Cemetery

• Saturday, noon: Riverfront Park with the Schiele Museum Interpretation Camping Team; musician Lee Knight; artisan Bill Alexander; speakers
Dale Ditmanson, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; researcher and writer
Janet McCue; researcher and writer George Ellison; and more.

• Sunday: Breakfast at the Calhoun House, reservations required, $10 per person. Guest speaker will be Bill Alexander, mountain poet and East Tennessee artisan.

Comment

The next time you are standing about the yard scratching your head in confusion about which tree climber in Jackson County to call because there’s a swarm of bees in the tippy-toppy portion of a tree, let me please recommend David Hatton, a very fine tree climber and a man whose resume now includes experience in the hellish ways of honeybees.

David this week heroically ascended a rather smallish but very tallish white oak at my behest. He cracked jokes about how much he was enjoying being 50 to 60 feet up the tiny tree as it swayed wildly about, rather like a Q-tip might writhe before gale-force winds. He endured four stings in his scalp without (much) complaint — although David did, I noticed, descend the oak tree at an alarmingly rapid pace after announcing: “That’s it” in a calm, but resolute, tone of voice.

David endured all of this only to watch the bees take off for parts unknown, sort of “Westward, Ho!” and down, out of sight they disappeared into the valley below.

And thus this tree climber unwittingly, but gamely, became an initiate into the world of beekeeping. David learned firsthand the great lesson bees are here to teach us: the knowledge that the subject of one’s ardor will, as often as not, receive the attentions lavished upon them ungratefully; and in return for adoration, will visit great pain and, sometimes, absolute rejection upon us.

Does that sound a bit dark, a tad jaded, a wee bit pessimistic? Let me hasten to add that I am wild for swarms, and passionate about honeybees. Something deep inside me thrills when I see that tornadic rotation of thousands of bees launching upwards from a hive, and I hear the astonishingly loud buzzing roar that signals a swarm.

Even if, as so often proves the case, the swarm disappears without so much as a “thanks, dedicated beekeeper, for feeding us all winter.” And this just a couple weeks before, you’ll note, it is time to start collecting honey for said beekeeper. And just one day — one day! — before I planned to split this particular hive to hinder swarming.

I console myself it’s only through my losses, and the losses of other beekeepers, that the forests will be repopulated with honeybees.

(Though, philosophic resignation be damned, I would really like my swarm back. So if someone in the Fairview community spots a large wad of honeybees hanging about, please get in touch with me (unless the bees went into the walls of your home, in which case, that most certainly wasn’t my swarm)).

•••

This seems like as good a place as any to answer some of the many questions I get about honeybees.

Q: Dear Quintin, I’m really interested in getting into beekeeping. How many hives should I own?

A: Two to start with. More than two is too much work; fewer than two and you don’t have a point of comparison.

Q: Dear Quintin, where can I get bees?

A: It’s really late in the season to be getting bees. Most beekeepers take orders in the fall for the following spring. So think about doing it next year, and in the meantime, join a bee club (call your local N.C. Cooperative Extension Service agent for more information).

Q: Dear Quintin, I have bees, somehow they survived my total neglect and lived through the winter. What should I be doing now?

A: I hope you’ve been feeding them sugar water, or there’s a very good chance your bees starved this spring even after surviving the winter. If they are alive, I for one am strongly considering putting my supers on now — I spotted some locust in bloom, and it looks as if the poplar trees are getting ready to bloom, too. Stop feeding sugar water when you super up. Actually, I quit earlier this month — you don’t want them to store sugar water instead of honey.

Q: Dear Quintin, why not just put the supers on early, say March? Why the what’s-in-bloom-now fixation?

A: Put supers on too early and the bees will use the wax in the frames for other purposes, not necessarily as a place to store honey.

Q: Dear Quintin, what the hell is a super?

A: Supers are boxes that contain frames of foundation, usually made of wax that encourage bees to store honey, which you can later rob from them.

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

Comment

A new building started taking shape last month at Southwestern Community College’s campus in Sylva, with completion slated for next March.

When finished, the nearly $8-million project will be called the Conrad G. Burrell building after longtime board of trustee member Conrad Burrell, who once took carpentry, electrical and other classes at what was then a technical college. The building will provide the school new bookstore space, plus additional academic and administrative space.

This represents the first state-funded construction to take place at SCC’s main campus since 1986, Project Manager George Stanley said. More recently, Jackson County paid to build an early-college building for high-school students there. The county transferred ownership of that building to the community college.

Jackson County also pitched in about $2.7 million to help fund the new building.

This new 38,210-square-foot Burrell building is being paid for with remnants of the 2000 education bond referendum. Stanley said the school asked to delay using the bond money to work out a swap for the land-strapped institution from the N.C. Forest Service, which neighbored SCC’s campus. Burrell was instrumental in making that deal happen — the Forest Service identified nine acres to relocate to elsewhere in Jackson, in the Greens Creek area, and SCC purchased the land for them.

“That was a good trade,” Burrell said. “Southwestern needed that property bad.”

The building is environmentally friendly, though it won’t carry the coveted LEED certification tag because of ongoing costs associated with that program.

“We have a pedigree building without the registration,” Stanley said.

That includes geothermal heating and cooling with 48 wells used to meet the 105-ton cooling load of the building.

Thanks to the economic doldrums, construction came in $1.5-million less than budgeted. This will allow SCC, pending state approval, to use its surplus to buy an abandoned Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Association water tank on campus. This is needed to provide adequate pressure to power a fire sprinkler system for all of the buildings on SCC’s campus, and to reach the third floor of the new building, Stanley said.

Burrell said he was honored when the SCC board of trustee’s named the building after him.

“I had no idea the board was going to do this,” Burrell said. “We were in a meeting, they asked me to leave — I thought they were going to fire me or something. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Comment

For Jackson County’s book-loving residents, the temporary closure of the public library in Sylva presents true hardship, a time of doing without and intense, shared community pain.

The current library on Main Street closes May 2 while some 40,000 items are toted up the hill to a grand new library beside the renovated, historic courthouse. The library will boost its opening day collection with 24,000 new books, DVDs, audio books and other materials — even portable audioplayers that come pre-loaded with audio books.

A grand opening celebration is scheduled for June 11.

Recognizing the dangers of widespread reader deprivation, Jackson County’s librarians, bookstore owners and others have taken steps to help during this long public library drought.

Library cards are available at Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University, both located in Jackson County. The Fontana Regional Library card possessed by every Jackson County library user is universally recognized in libraries in Cashiers, Highlands, Franklin, Bryson City, and if you are desperate and don’t mind a really long drive, in the Nantahala community, which has a tiny book facility of its own.

Friends of the Library is laying out the welcome mat at its Main Street bookstore, as is City Lights Bookstore’s Chris Wilcox, who nobly noted, “I’m staying open long hours … of course we do that anyway,” he said.

 

New assistant librarian

Just in time for a new library, there’s a new assistant librarian in Jackson County: Elizabeth “Liz” Gregg, from Radford, Va., has joined the staff. She graduated in 2008 from UNC-Chapel Hill’s information and library science master’s degree program. Gregg spent two years working in the Piedmont area of the state.

 

Need a book fix?

Librarians at Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University are prepared to welcome the deprived public-library folks into their institutions. Though, it must be admitted, you might find the general fiction a bit lacking when compared to the choices at a public library. The collections, after all, are geared toward academia. But don’t be intimidated! This is a fine time to take on those classics you’ve neglected to read, or to perhaps to peruse a riveting academic journal or something along those lines. A library card at SCC is free; one at WCU costs $10 a year, you need a driver’s license for proof of residency. Additionally, SCC, keep in mind, in particular is geared toward working-aged students, who rely on the library as a place to get away from home for quiet study. That said, “We’re glad to be able to help people,” SCC Library Director Dianne Lindgren noted.

 

Rely on the library for Internet access, what to do now?

Well, you can ride up and down Main Street in Sylva and find laptop WiFi hotspots, or you can head to Southwestern Community College’s Holt Library and Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library. Frankly, you’re better off at WCU, which has more computers available. Dean Dana Sally said he’s happy to have the university library help out. “A lot of community members — probably 300 — already use our library,” Sally said. “Maybe this will create an uptick.”  

 

Got book donations?

Don’t throw those old books away! With the library closed, Sandra Burbank, who oversees the Friends of the Library’s Used Bookstore, is urging folks to bring them directly to the store (on Main Street, so you can pick up bread at the same time a few doors down at Annie’s Naturally Bakery, or stop on the way and get a cup of coffee at John’s place, Signature Brew Coffee Company). “At the same time,” Burbank cleverly added about book givers, “they can take a look around the bookstore.” And, she hopes, buy something, which, after all, goes to help fund the new library.

 

Want to join in the fun?

Then become a volunteer — Jackson County even has a new library volunteer coordinator, Jeni Silver, who is currently accepting applications. The jobs include tour guides, greeters, shelvers, book repairers, book coverers, patrolling and facility monitoring (in short, all the dirty work we really don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars having staff do). Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or snail mail to: Volunteers, P.O. 1122, Dillsboro, N.C. 28725.

 

Library recruits readers to help

Jackson County’s library has encouraged patrons to check out as many books as they want — boxes of them, carloads of them, moving vans full of them — to help potentially deprived readers during the library closure and to help the library: because, of course, it then will have fewer to move.

Darlene and Isaac Melcher, children Bela, age 1, and Audrey, age 3, took advantage of the library’s largesse one day last week. The couple filled a diaper box and a cloth bag with children’s books, from 60 to 100, in expectations of a month at least without access to the children’s collection.

“They love being read to,” Darlene Melcher said. “They like story time.”

Of course, while Bela is big on pictures Audrey has recently moved on to enjoying a read-aloud narrative, meaning two sets of books instead of one were necessary to sustain the young family.

Comment

The organization many credit with helping to create and nurture Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene is facing the possibility of going belly up over funding issues.

During a budget work session last week, a majority of town commissioners indicated they might vote against giving money to the Downtown Sylva Association. DSA, as it’s dubbed, formed 18 years ago under a different name — Sylva Partners in Renewal — but with the same basic mission: to promote the economic growth and vitality of downtown Sylva.

The group is seeking $25,000 from the town as it moves toward dropping what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — begging for money directly from merchants — developed as a defense during previous funding attacks. DSA has created a wedge on the town board, marked by narrow split votes flip-flopping for or against DSA, depending on the winners in the last election.

The town’s support dropped from $20,000 to a low of $2,000 a year, and surged back to $12,000 last year following a brief shift in power on the board that favored DSA. This amount contrasts, by way of example, to the $45,000 a year Franklin’s town board chips-in for its Main Street program.

As happened previously in Sylva, a fiscally prudent threesome is in power these days, meaning the DSA could get far less than the amount requested. Zero dollars doesn’t look farfetched, in fact, with commissioners Harold Hensley, Ray Lewis and Danny Allen making no bones about their overall unwillingness to continue underwriting an organization they have declared too Main Street/Back Street/and a couple-of-side streets-centric. The same three town commissioners were in power when the town first yanked DSA funding seven years ago, but subsequently lost their majority control.

Commissioners Chris Matheson and Stacy Knotts are expressing support for funding DSA. Mayor Maurice Moody is, too, but he doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. That possibility is not as completely farfetched as it might appear.

Because, in the melodrama that is the Sylva town board, Allen a couple of months ago announced he planned to resign … though he wouldn’t say why, when, or how exactly this exit would take place. If history serves as a guide, Allen’s resignation might not happen at all, or even be mentioned again: A few years ago Allen made exactly the same sort of pronouncement, only to continue blithely on without public explanation about why he wanted to leave in the first place, yet never did.

So, while Moody holds the potential tiebreaker, that might be as close as the mayor gets to being able to demonstrate his voting power.  

DSA is fighting back. About 20 merchants turned up at last week’s meeting to demonstrate their support for the group that represents them. Most were DSA members who’ve ponied-up money over the past few years as the town’s financial support teeter-tottered.

One state Main Street requirement is that town programs must have a paid director. DSA’s version is Julie Sylvester, who receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.

Robin Kevlin, speaking for DSA, told commissioners their support is critical.

“We must have active involvement of both public and private sectors for continued growth and prosperity for the town of Sylva,” said Kevlin, who works at the downtown office of Metrostat. “The Main Street program is a proven strategy for revitalization, a powerful network of linked communities, and a national support program that leads the field.”

Kevlin went on to describe downtown Sylva as the “heartbeat of northern Jackson County” and “the reason we move here and stay here.”

Jackson County Planner Gerald Green added his voice in support of DSA, playing off Kevlin’s heartbeat analogy.

“With a healthy heart the rest of the community can remain strong,” Green said in a flash of inspired speechifying.

Sylva in the past has touched on the possibility of forming a special tax district, where businesses pay a surcharge on their property taxes to support downtown initiatives. The idea was not universally supported by merchants or building owners and was dropped, however. In the absence of a tax district, the DSA relies on money from the town and from voluntary membership dues.

 

DSA puts its future in hands of town leaders

Downtown Sylva Association will no longer ask merchants for membership money, a financial model that has proven unsustainable, according to Julie Sylvester, executive director of Downtown Sylva Association.

The organization hopes to rely more on funding from the town, but this comes at the same time town leaders are poised to cut funding to the organization.

“The DSA has now reached the point where its solvency will be in danger unless the town acts to provide the level of funding the DSA requested of $25,000,” Sylvester said. “Unfortunately, the funding that has been set aside in the town budget for the DSA has fluctuated over the past several years, forcing the DSA to tap into its dwindling reserves to make up the difference.”

Sylvester said the group deserves money from the town’s coffers given its contributions to the community.

“The Downtown Sylva Association provides events that highlight the beauty of downtown Sylva and its community and attract visitors from both the local area, and from surrounding states,” Sylvester said in a written statement. “Without the DSA, the town of Sylva would not have received $100,000 in grants from the State of North Carolina’s Main Street program in the past year alone.” DSA also led a $120,000 fundraising effort to build Bridge Park.

DSA sponsors festivals and concerts that bring visitors downtown to spend money, helping the economy and generating tax revenue. Other DSA events “help us build a strong, family friendly community,” Sylvester said.

“In the past, the DSA received its funding through a combination of fundraisers, sponsorships, membership driven revenue and local government funding. In light of the current economic climate and the fact that only one or two other Main Street programs out of more than 50 operate with a membership based organization, the DSA made the decision to discontinue its local business membership program at the end of this fiscal year,” Sylvester said. “This has put the DSA’s funding in the hands of local government.”

Comment

Depending on which town leader you ask, Dillsboro is prepared to co-sign on a more than $300,000 loan for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad — or, short of that, the town is inclined to help the railroad in some significant, still-to-be-determined manner.

That loan amount is nearly double the town’s annual budget of $171,610.

“We’d sign if need be,” Dillsboro Alderman David Gates said flatly. “If they have adequate collateral, we said we would.”

Gates’ fellow board member, David Jones, was a bit more circumspect about the potentially controversial agreement: “We’re interested, and we certainly want the railroad here — we’ve agreed to listen to more details.”

The railroad is privately owned by businessman Al Harper, who has asked Jackson County commissioners for $95,176 in cash and $322,000 in the form of a loan to keep the tourist trains coming to Dillsboro on a regular basis. This is less than Harper originally sought. In early March, he asked for more than $800,000 from Jackson County in the form of grants and a loan, but later downsized the dollar request.

Swain County has contributed $25,000 to help the railway, and the Swain County Tourism Development Authority has kicked in another $25,000, said Bryson City Mayor Brad Walker.

“It’s an economic engine for Bryson City,” Walker said in explanation of the willingness in Swain County to fund a private, for-profit enterprise. “I call it our Harrah’s.”

That would be a reference to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, the money machine for the neighboring Cherokee Indian Reservation.

The railway recently bought an old steam engine — which is currently in Maine — and wants to put it in service along with its diesel-powered engines. Harper said the money from the county would help make that vision a reality.

In return for the loan from the county, the train in exchange says it will run 110 to 120 days of service each year out of Dillsboro.  

Harper told commissioners the excursions would create 15 to 20 new jobs in Jackson County, and bring in least 20,000 visitors annually to the tourism-dependent town.

Dillsboro served as the headquarters of Great Smoky Mountains Railway, an excursion railroad catering to tourists. About 60,000 people a year rode the train, and Dillsboro boomed — until the train pulled out in 2008.

Last year the Great Smoky Mountains Railway began limited, seasonal trips out of Dillsboro again. The company said in January that Dillsboro was put back on the schedule because the scenic little town of about 220 residents is a drawing card for the business. Currently, the train is advertising excursions from Bryson City to Dillsboro five days a week during the summer and four days a week during fall, according to its online schedule.

Dillsboro leaders would like to cement more spots in the train’s schedule.

According to draft minutes of the April 11 Dillsboro town board meeting, Mayor Mike Fitzgerald told his fellow board members, “Jackson County commissioners would like the Dillsboro Board of Alderman to co-sign the loan, provided that the GSMR gives adequate collateral to cover such a loan. David Gates made motion that the board agrees to support the Jackson County commissioners, providing sufficient collateral is given by GSMR. The motion was seconded by Tim Parris, and passed with four ayes, one abstention.”

Interim County Manager Chuck Wooten said county commissioners have not taken any formal action to ask Dillsboro to co-sign at this point.

“However, informal discussions among the commissioners generated this concept as an idea,” he said. “I believe Chairman (Jack) Debnam asked Mayor Fitzgerald to poll his members to determine if this might be something they would consider. Based on their action, it appears they would endorse this action once they feel comfortable with the pledged collateral to secure the loan.”

The county hasn’t yet received a formal loan application from the railway, Wooten said, adding, however, “I suspect the commissioners will feel more at ease approving a loan if Dillsboro is willing to co-sign.”

Wooten has previously explained that the $95,176 grant would be used to restore and paint the steam locomotive and exterior of first-class coaches. Wooten said he intends to consider this grant in the upcoming fiscal-year county budget, which commissioners have final say over.

“We will discuss their grant request during upcoming budget discussions ...  I’m still hopeful I will have a budget document to submit to the commissioners on Monday, May 2,” he said.

The $322,000 revolving loan would pay for moving the newly purchased train from Maine to North Carolina. The county’s economic development arm manages the revolving loan fund. It would be up to county commissioners whether to approve the loan request.

Harper’s company, American Heritage Family Parks, owns two other tourist railroads in Colorado and Texas. Harper is one of the principle investors and owners of Ghost Town in the Sky amusement park in Maggie Valley, which has been in bankruptcy for two years. Harper has made an effort to buy the park out of bankruptcy, but has been unable to secure financing. Harper at one point had lined up a loan using the railroad as collateral, but the deal fell through. A new deal is pending, which involved transferring 49-percent ownership in the railroad to a newly created corporation for the purpose of piecing together a Ghost Town rescue.

Comment

Tonight’s menu calls for salad from the garden, which reminded me to jot down a method for growing lettuce that, being very lazy busy lately, I’ve grown quite fond of doing.

Lettuce doesn’t need coddling, or careful spacing of the seed, or much of anything at all for that matter. Those expensive bags of mixed salad you buy at the farmers market or in produce sections of grocery stores? You can easily and inexpensively grow the stuff at home.

Here’s how you to grow your own Mesclun mix:

Broadcast lettuce seed thickly over a prepared garden bed. Broadcasting means strewing or scattering. A properly prepared bed is one free of rocks, amended with compost or, short of that, amended with organic fertilizer. The soil should have been limed to sweeten the soil, ideally some four months previously. The state extension service people will fuss at me about this — they do so like to recommend soil testing, probably in part because of the job insurance such testing entails — but don’t wait for results to come back from the laboratory if you haven’t tested and limed yet. I can pretty much guarantee that in Western North Carolina, home to acid soil, you need lime if you haven’t limed before. So get a bag of the stuff and, using a light hand, dust the top of the bed. It won’t hurt the seed, and this way rain will drive the lime down to where it can do the most good.  

Your seed should be leaf lettuce such as Black-Seeded Simpson, not a heading lettuce. Though having said that I hasten to be contradictory by adding Buttercrunch lettuce — which is a Bibb type — works particularly well when broadcasted.

After you’ve gotten the seed down, stir it around a bit using the back of a rake. This presses the seeds into the soil and helps with germination. Don’t try to cover every seed, that’s unnecessary; in fact, some lettuces (the white-seeded types) need light for even germination. By stirring the seed you are simply trying to make some contact between said seed and the soil.

Keep the bed moistened if the weather turns dry. This is very important because, using this method, the seed is more or less on the surface of the ground and subsequently will dry out very quickly. The lettuce generally germinates in about a week this time of year.

One wonderful side benefit to using my method if you, too, are really lazy very busy is that by broadcasting thickly, weeds are crowded out.

When the lettuce leaves have grown a few inches tall, take scissors and whack them off, a couple of inches from the ground: tah dah, you have salad. The lettuce will re-grow; you will take a pair of scissors and whack the leaves off again, fertilizing every couple of weeks (liquid fertilizer, such as compost tea or a fish emulsion). Over and over you cut, shearing the bed, at least you can do this until the weather turns really hot and the lettuce bolts or turns bitter.

You can help slow bolting by putting shade-cloth over top and watering frequently, but don’t bother until temperatures stay consistently in the 80s. Interestingly, once your lettuce starts tasting bitter, try rinsing it in warm water: for some reason, that helps more than cold water.

I’ve also found Slobolt, a leaf lettuce readily available through various seed companies, lives up to its name. I seed Slobolt in late spring to help tide me through the hot summer when Black-Seeded Simpson and Buttercrunch are a distant spring memory. I also have a hot-weather mix that I’ve grown for market I’ll write about another day. It has no actual lettuce (which is a cool-weather crop, and germination rates drop accordingly as temperatures rise), but instead relies on baby kales, collards and so on.

Other items that go into my salad mix this time of year: baby beet leaves, particularly the variety unappetizingly called bull’s blood beets. This type has lovely dark purple leaves and really dresses up a salad, but any young beet leaves will do. I also add claytonia, or Miner’s lettuce, a West Coast native that has a wonderful buttery taste; lamb’s quarters, a pernicious weed in our soil but a nice salad addition; sorrel; Asian greens such as tatsoi and mizuna; and Arugula.

Don’t forget to clip some dill or other herbs into the salad. I also enjoy adding edible flowers, such as violets or nasturtiums, for both beauty and gustatory pleasure.

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

Comment

With Jackson County set to take possession next month of the renovated historic courthouse and new library, commissioners agreed it’s high time to get some ground rules in place for their future tenants.

The county wants formalized agreements not only with Fontana Regional Library, but also with three nonprofits promised space in the historic courthouse: the arts council, genealogical society and the historical society, so that there is “a written understanding on how that building would be used,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said, “and no misunderstandings.”

Jackson County has been grappling with how to pay for the extra overhead associated with the new and bigger library, plus the renovated historic courthouse, in this time of budget restraints. Bigger heating and cooling bills, higher liability insurance and more janitors could cost the county an extra $70,000 to $90,000, Wooten estimated previously.

The three community groups offered space in the historic courthouse had not been asked to share in overhead previously.

“Their understanding is there was no expectation on them to compensate the county in anyway for the space they occupied,” Wooten said of discussions he’s had with those groups involved, adding that he’s putting together a usage and utilities reimbursement proposal based on square-footage usage.

Wooten also raised concerns about liability insurance.

Commissioners agreed that Doug Cody, Mark Jones and Wooten would meet with the other parties involved to reach an understanding.

In other library-related news, Wooten said the county would use a moving company to cart the books and other items from the old building to the new library.

Comment

Jackson County Schools isn’t asking for extra money this year from county commissioners despite an expected 10 percent or more cut from the state.

What is taking a back seat in these tough economic times, however, are school-board members’ wishes to build a new gymnasium and fine arts building at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva.

“Our school board is ... unanimous in wanting to finish the fine arts building and gymnasium,” Alie Laird-Large told commissioners during a joint workshop this week, adding that she hopes a “conversation at some point” could take place on that plan. A site has already been prepared.

Laird-Large said she and the other school board members would like to get some architectural designs and plans done, if possible. There were no commitments one way or another from commissioners.

What dominated the bulk of conversation during the work session were the possible state cuts to education funding. Gwen Edwards, the schools finance officer, outlined scenarios if what is currently being considered in the state House becomes reality. As she pointed out, the numbers “are changing by the minute,” so getting a fix on the future is proving difficult.

Funding for teachers assistants, textbooks, school buses and more is on the table, Edwards said. She projected the schools could lose $2.3 million under the House proposal. An additional $1.1 million or so in federal funding, temporary dollars, are also going away this year, Edwards said.

“We knew this was going to happen, it’s not like this was a surprise,” she told commissioners, adding the schools still hope to receive the nearly $6.8 million the county gave the system last year. Everything that could be done to reduce costs has taken place, she said, including not filling vacancies.

“(So) we’re not asking for increase — but if we could get the same amount of money we’d be very happy,” Edwards said.

Additionally, the schools are seeking $235,000 in capital outlay funding, for such items as roof and boiler repairs, more security cameras and a phone-system upgrade.

Commission Chairman Jack Debnam suggested another joint work session take place when the actual extent of state cuts becomes known.

Comment

Mike Decker is retracing the steps he made 11 years ago when he left county government for a job across the street in Franklin’s town hall.

Decker is returning to county government as human resource director and deputy clerk to the Macon County Board of Commissioners — essentially a jack-of-all-trades who keeps county government running as a right-hand man to the county manager. Decker worked as the Macon County planner for seven years, then the Franklin town administrator for 11.

County Manager Jack Horton lauded Decker’s experience and familiarity with county and municipal governments, saying the longtime public servant had exactly the right set of complex skills needed for the dual job.

“We’re very happy to have Mike step in,” Horton said.

Decker follows Wilma Anderson, who retired as HR director and assistant to the county manager last month after 36 years.

As director of human resources, Decker — a newspaper reporter and editor before getting into local government work — will help oversee about 360 fulltime employees. As deputy clerk to the board of commissioners, he is responsible for keeping minutes for the elected board and notifying reporters about times and places for the meetings.

“I’m grateful to be here, and I’m very grateful to have had time to work with Wilma before she left,” Decker said.

This fall, Macon County will have to fill another key government position when longtime Finance Director Evelyn Southard retires.

Decker is not the only one who’s played musical chairs between county and town government. When former County Manager Sam Greenwood retired from that job, he was soon hired by Franklin as the town manager.

Comment

With the latest increase in gas and grocery prices, the already long lines at soup kitchens and food pantries across Western North Carolina are growing even longer.

“The need is going up again,” said Amy Grimes, executive director of The Community Table in Sylva. “We could break another record this year.”

That’s not a record Grimes is particularly thrilled about: In 2010, the Sylva group served 20,393 dinners alone, double the number of dinners served at The Community Table the previous year, when 10,335 were given out. The surge, Grimes said, is directly attributable to the hard times individuals and families are experiencing as fallout continues from the nation’s long economic slump.

The story is the same across WNC. The need is getting greater and greater, even as many people’s abilities to help financially have become increasingly difficult. That widening chasm, and the best means of tackling the problem regionally, will be the focus of a forum on food security Monday, April 25, at Western Carolina University in the A.K. Hinds University Center.

Sponsored by WCU’s Public Policy Institute and MANNA Foodbank, the forum is intended to highlight the problems of hunger in WNC and outline possible regional solutions, said Paul Dezendorf, a WCU professor who is helping organize the event.

“North Carolina has one of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, and the Asheville metro area ranks No. 7 in the country for food hardship among all metro areas in 2010. We all know that the rural counties are even worse, not better,” Dezendorf said.

There are two main objectives set for this forum at WCU: the first is to provide a public setting for discussing the problem and deciding how to improve the situation, and the second is figuring out how the academic community and those directly involved in feeding the hungry can communicate better.

A networking session for community organizations will be held in the morning. The public session is set for 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and will include speakers from MANNA FoodBank and other area nonprofits, plus local experts on healthcare and sustainable agriculture. That event will take place in the theater of the University Center.

Dezendorf said he and other organizers hope the forum will evolve into an annual event focused on increasing food security across WNC.

 

Want to help?

The Community Table in Sylva needs assistance picking up boxes of donated food from Wal-Mart. Pickups are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. If you can help on one or more of those days, call Amy Grimes at 828.586.6782. Additionally, the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year is set for Friday, April 22, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets for the Empty Bowl are $20, available at the door, and include choices of handcrafted, locally made bowls; plus soup, bread and desserts from local restaurants. 828.586.6782.

Comment

Swain and Macon commissioners believe a state plan to widen and pave a 3.3-mile gravel road along a remote stretch of the Little Tennessee River goes too far.

Leaders of both counties have unanimously called for a scaled down version of the full-blown design suggested by the N.C. Department of Transportation. The DOT plan would widen the narrow road to a minimum of 18 feet, with additional construction work on the roadway’s shoulders.

The estimated price tag is $13.1 million, which environmental groups have termed a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars. That said, many of those same environmentalists have called for some type of surface treatment because of river-damaging sedimentation from the gravel road. The Little Tennessee River is within spitting distance of the road, and dirt is spewed routinely into the water, damaging the fragile aquatic balance.

The resolutions by Swain and Macon commissioners for a compromise design received rave reviews from those same environmental groups. Julie Sanders of the Little Tennessee Watershed Association offered “many thanks” for the wisdom shown by both boards.

“We appreciate Macon and Swain counties’ leadership on this issue and feel that this is an important move,” she said. “It shows that both boards care about Needmore and that they listened to the community.”

Some residents along Needmore Road, however, believe the scaled down version backed by county commissioners falls short of what’s required to actually make the road safer.

“Needmore will essentially remain an unsafe road,” said Stephen Poole, one of those few people who actually live in the remote area. “Those of us who actually use the road would like to see it paved and made safer. We also would like to see this done with extraordinary care for the environment the road passes through. We not only live in the area, we love it.”

Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said he believed that the two county boards, via the resolutions, walked the line between protecting the area and helping residents have a safer byway to and from their homes. The resolutions (with wording agreed on beforehand by representatives from both counties) noted: “both … agree and support efforts to improve and pave in place … with modifications including river-access areas and guardrails at specific needed locations.”   

Additionally, commissioners from Macon and Swain counties called on state officials to include only “minimum lane width” and “minimum shoulder widths.” They pointed out that the primary purpose of the project is to improve the quality of travel for local residents and to reduce sediment to the Little Tennessee River, which McClellan said the counties’ proposals would do.

“We suggested let’s meet in the middle on this one, and try to do something that might be the most feasible for everybody involved,” he said. “For the people there, this would be a much-improved surface without mudholes and potholes, and this would minimize runoff into the river and maintain the rural character of the area.”

Poole said paving is a priority for the people who use the road regularly so that the dust in the summer and the quagmire in the spring are eliminated.

But it is not the only problem residents face with the road, he said. During heavy rains, the road floods in spots, and those areas need to be raised “so that we aren’t stranded until the water recedes and the roadbed repaired.”

Also, the road should be widened where it is too narrow for two vehicles to safely pass, Poole said. During a 2009 traffic count, an average of 320 vehicles a day used the road.

Julia Merchant, a spokeswoman for the transportation department, said the next step is a concurrence meeting. Transportation officials and representatives from other state and federal agencies “will choose the least environmentally damaging, practicable alternative for the project,” Merchant said.

That meeting is tentatively scheduled for July in Raleigh. If the past is any indication of the future, agreement might be hard to come by. State and federal environmental agencies for more than a decade have questioned the need to make substantial improvements to Needmore Road. They’ve also repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of serious environmental damage and worried about public reaction, based on a review of road documents by The Smoky Mountain News last fall.

Construction at the level proposed by the transportation department would require cutting out and removing Anakeesta-type rock, often dubbed “hot rock” because of the possibility it can leach acid when exposed.

The transportation department has maintained that the acidic levels of the rock are low, and that at those levels, runoff would not be considered “hot.” Furthermore, any runoff that did occur could be neutralized.

Merchant said that as part of the decision-making process, officials would take into account the commissioners’ votes as well as public comments received. Two public hearings were held, one in Macon County at the specific request of commissioners there.

McClellan said he’d find the situation very odd if transportation officials chose to ignore a “100 percent agreement” among elected officials in two counties on what should be done to improve Needmore Road.

“With every elected official in the counties involved unanimous on what’s to be done, I wouldn’t quite understand what’s then not to like,” McClellan said.

 

What, and where, is Needmore Road?

Needmore is a rough, one-lane road paralleling N.C. 28 between Swain and Macon counties, but on the opposite bank of the Little Tennessee River.

The attention being paid to such a short stretch of gravel might seem outsized except for a couple of important caveats: Needmore Road runs smack through the protected Needmore Game Lands, which were created after a broad coalition of environmentalists, hunters, local residents and others saved the 4,400-acre tract from development some six years ago after raising $19 million to buy the land from Duke Energy.

Comment

The likelihood of the state Department of Transportation building a bypass around Sylva seems increasingly unlikely after Jackson County commissioners elected this week not to push for the new highway.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 on a list of its top six road-building priorities. Conspicuously absent from that top six was a controversial “connector” from N.C. 107 to U.S. 74, which DOT has pushed as a means of easing traffic congestion in Sylva.

Instead of a building a new road to bypass the commercial artery, commissioners would rather see N.C. 107 redesigned to improve traffic flow — a project four of the five commissioners ranked No. 1.

The connector ranked seventh on commissioners’ collective list, arrived at by adding up individual commissioners’ scores for 16 road projects. Commissioner Joe Cowan, who personally ranked the bypass as his top priority, was the lone “no” vote against the overall list.

SEE ALSO: Where the commissioners stand

For at least a decade, DOT’s bypass concept has faced active and ongoing opposition in Jackson County. Opponents formed an alliance — Smart Roads — to fight the project collectively, and were successful in turning out residents by the hundreds at various meetings on the project. Several of those Smart Roads members were on hand Monday night as commissioners, by virtue of not including the bypass in their top six, in essence voted against a new highway.

“Thank you, thank you — we truly thank you for that,” Pat Vance, a homeowner in the Cane Creek area where the bypass might be built, told commissioners.

Cowan, however, sounded a dour note. He said he believes Jackson County, by voting to exclude the proposed bypass, has sent the state an unmistakable signal: take its millions in road-building dollars elsewhere, down East most likely, a position Cowan emphasized he could not, and would not, support.

The proposed bypass also hasn’t fared well in other public-sampling tests in Jackson County lately. The project wasn’t a top pick on the list of road priorities compiled by Sylva town leaders or the county’s planning board either.

In the end, however, those lists don’t count — only the county commissioners’ list does: Commissioners’ picks are used to help develop a Top 25 of construction priorities for the six westernmost counties, which are grouped together for transportation-department purposes.

For that reason, commissioners needed to be very clear about whether the bypass is — or is not — a priority in Jackson County, said Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Development Commission, who heads up a regional transportation planning organization.

So be it then, Chairman Jack Debnam said.

“Then I’ll go down as the one who took it down and kept it down,” Debnam responded to Sherby.

Debnam and other commissioners expressed frustrations with the state’s method of developing road priorities, with the chairman characterizing the process as a “roll of the dice” based on hunches developed without knowledge or adequate information.

“We don’t have traffic counts, no accident rates; when it leaves here — after it runs in the paper this week — nobody is going to be mad at anybody in Raleigh or anybody else, it is all going to be our fault,” Debnam said.

Commissioner Doug Cody agreed. He said he isn’t convinced that commissioners’ participation actually counts for much anyway, except to deflect anger from the state toward local government officials. And ultimately, Cody said, he believes the transportation department is likely to do exactly what it wants anyway when the time comes to build or not build roads.

“We’re kind of sticking our necks out for 100 percent of the blame for 15 percent of the influence,” Cody said, adding that he believes something does need to be done to N.C. 107, but that the answer was not this single choice — a major bypass going from two undefined points through five or six miles of the county — that was on the table.

“I believe there ought to be options, spelled out,” Cody said. “I don’t like a pig in a poke. … The way we are voting doesn’t take the need away form some type of improvement — it just voices our apprehension, or displeasure, with the process.”

Clearly frustrated, Debnam told Sherby, “you are coming to five commissioners ... who have no experience whatsoever in planning, and putting this burden on our shoulders.”

Historically, the 14-member state board of transportation, stacked with political appointees, wielded nearly unilateral influence on which roads got built.

But under Gov. Beverly Perdue, a complicated system aimed at being more objective assigns points for different variables. The list from commissioners is one of those many variables.

“I just don’t know what the governor thought … that we could be knowledgeable just by virtue by being elected? I think this whole system is just a way for DOT, or the government or someone, to throw the burden on us and not take any flak,” Debnam said.

Mark Jones, one of two Democrats on the board along with Cowan, joined his more conservative board members in voicing displeasure in the process. Jones said when commissioners are asked again in two years for another list, he hopes to at least have “ballpark figures” attached to the projects to consider.

“Then we might be able to make a little bit better decisions in two years as times and numbers change,” Jones said.

Sherby told commissioners that he believes their decision to not include a bypass around Sylva will have real ramifications.

“It’s my opinion that if you all don’t rank this project high, funding is going to go away for it,” he said.

Comment

Tom Robbins came out of retirement for two months to help the National Park Center open up the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

“I never thought I’d get a chance to work in the new building,” he said. “This is nice.”

Robbins, a career park employee, spent some 24 years manning the desk at the old visitor center, which was intended as “temporary,” but was in use for decades.

Among the attributes Robbins’ seemed pleased to see in the new building? The visitor center is about as environmentally friendly as it gets. The building is being nationally certified under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system.

Autumn Rathbun of Trotter and Associates, an architectural firm in Gatlinburg, Tenn., that helped with the design, described some of the eco-friendly features.

“It uses quite a bit of recycled materials and regional materials,” Rathbun said. “There are also waterless urinals and dual-flush toilets.”

The toilets use a rain water-harvesting tank, set into the ground, for flushing, Rathbun explained.

And, that’s not all.

There is geothermal heat and cooling, in that the heat-pump system takes advantage of the constant 55 degrees temperature of the earth. It pumps water into the ground though tubing where it gains or gives off heat, increasing the efficiency of the system.

The building heavily relies on natural daylight, including “really cool solar tubes,” as Rathbun notes. The orientation of the building and the select placement of windows allow plenty of indirect lighting into the building.

Outside, the landscaping uses native plants, which need little watering to thrive.

“In my mind, it is a leap ahead,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger for the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. “We wanted something that would complement the landscape.”

Doucette pointed out that part of the new building resembles the barn in the nearby Mountain Farm Museum (a collection of historic log buildings); part resembles the old house in Mountain Farm Museum.

“It does mimic the buildings on the farm,” the ranger said.

Comment

To describe the new visitor center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a long time coming is something of an understatement.

Try some 76 years since plans were first hatched for a museum of this type, where visitors could learn about the cultural history of these mountains and the people who helped shape them. There never seemed to be enough money, and perhaps at times, enough interest, for such a visitor center to be built.

Until now, that is. The new Oconaluftee Visitor Center opened this month at the main entrance to the park just outside Cherokee, one that seems to do justice to the most-visited national park in the country.

“This is much more educational than the old one,” said Brenda Hornbuckle, who lives near Atlanta and was at the visitor center one day last week with her sister, Becky Strickland.

“I love it,” Strickland said, adding the two now plan to make another trip, and soon, so that the sisters’ grandchildren can tour the visitor center.

“This is a lot more updated and a lot bigger,” Strickland said.

And that is true: the old building, pressed into service as a “temporary” visitor center in 1948, will return to its original purpose as an administrative building for park personnel. The new 6,000-square-foot visitor center highlights Cherokee history, early settlers and mountain culture. The visitor center on the Tennessee side focuses on the mountain environment, wildlife and nature.

“There was always the intention of having a visitor center on this side of the park,” said Lynda Doucette, supervisory park ranger in Oconaluftee. “I’m just really tickled we finally have a building.”

And what a building: Built entirely from private funding for $3 million, Oconaluftee Visitor Center is, in a word, “powerful,” as Lisa Bach of Seymour, Tenn., described it. The exterior is wood and stone, very visible from nearby U.S. 441. So much so, some 1,300-1,600 people each day are stopping by — double the 600 to 800 daily visitors in the former, make-do center.

Bach said she was stunned by the building’s beauty and the quality of the presentation.

“I love it,” she said simply.

That’s exactly what people such as Holly Demuth, North Carolina director of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, were hoping. Demuth used words such as “topnotch” and “top quality” in describing the visitor center.

The Friends group chipped in $550,000 toward the exhibits and visitor orientation. The Great Smoky Mountains Association paid for the building and adjacent 1,700-square-foot “comfort station,” the euphemistically designated public restrooms.

“I think this signifies the role private funding can play,” Demuth said. “This has been part of the park’s plan for all those years, but the funding just wasn’t there.”

Demuth added that she believes the visitor center goes a long ways toward underscoring the increasingly important role the national park plays in North Carolina.

Relations between N.C. residents and the park haven’t always been smooth sailing. There’s lingering bitterness over the forced evacuation of farms and rural communities to make way for the park’s creation, and long-festering rancor over a road through the park that was promised to Swain County but never built.

The North Carolina entrance to the park saw three million visitors last year, less than half the number on the Tennessee-side of the park. Having a real visitor center might help attract people to this side of the park.

“We are proud to be a part of this process, of bringing a visitor center that is appropriate for bringing people into the park here in North Carolina,” Demuth said.

Shawn Byrd, a visitor from Michigan who was on his first visit to the Smokies, was suitably impressed, describing his impressions of the exhibits as “informative” and helpful to him in understanding Southern Appalachian culture and development.

Kent Cave, the park’s interpretive branch chief, would have been delighted to hear Byrd.

In a brainstorming meeting held in October 2008, Cave remembers discussing possible “themes” for the future visitor center. The folks gathered that day talked quite a bit, he said, about the need to dispel myths about mountain culture.

“We seized on an idea to show how land was used over time,” Cave said. “And we were very careful to integrate the Cherokee story throughout.”

In other words, the park story is the Cherokees’ story, too, the ranger said in explanation. Careful and meticulous attention was devoted to working with Cherokee experts on how they should tell this intertwined story, and that of the white Southern Appalachians who came to these mountains.

“I think we hit it pretty well,” Cave said.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, believes so, too.

“Anytime there is an opportunity for visitors to receive information about an area they discover something that they most likely never knew,” Pegg said. “If the visitors stop at the new visitor center and discover a new attraction or hike or fishing opportunity they are likely to extend their stay and in turn put more money into our economy — and that is a very good thing.”

“Pooh” Cooper Lancaster, owner of Madison’s on Main in Bryson City, and in Cherokee, Great Smoky Fine Arts and The Native American Craft Shop, said the visitor center was “desperately needed.”

“And it’s about time they’ve put a little money and building on this side of the park,” the Swain County native said. “I’m tired of Tennessee getting everything. North Carolina, as a state, has not done a good job of promoting the park.”

But with the coming of the new visitor center, Lancaster said she believes that now is truly changing.

 

Ribbon cutting

A ribbon cutting and celebration for the new visitor center at the North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday.

Comment

Raspberries, like any fruit we plant, represent an act of faith.

As others are doing this time of year, this past weekend I dutifully dug little holes, added amendments and planted a long row of sad little sticks, carefully watering them in. Three or so years from now, perhaps sooner, I’m confident that I’ll be harvesting mounds of delicious red raspberries from these sticks.

Now that’s belief in the future, displayed on a dizzying number of levels: I’ll be here, the raspberries will produce, and all the work in between today and then has magically occurred. The garden fairies during the intervening years have been hard at work staking, weedeating, watering, amending, cutting out old canes, perhaps netting the plants from greedy birds, which I’m quite sure were salivating in nearby trees even as I laboriously dug and planted in the field below.

I’m suddenly reminded of one of the many Henry Mitchell writing jewels sprinkled throughout his columns on gardening. “Cats, by the way,” he astutely noticed when discussing raspberries, “are no answer to anybody’s bird problem, since then you would have cats.”

Don’t, please, now fire off a letter to the editor in defense of cats, because this is a sore point with me. I’m currently helping to feed no fewer than five of them — which I’m still at a complete loss to explain how such a feat occurred — because that’s way into creepy cat lady territory, where I swore I’d never go. Only Jack the barn cat, by any stretch of the imagination, can be considered to be earning his way in this world, in that he occasionally awakens from his naps long enough to swat casually at a mouse or two before heading back to slumber in the hay bales. The other four cats exist simply thanks to my largesse, which they’ve yet to show any gratitude or appreciation for, despite great expense and no small expenditure of labor on my part.

In my raspberry fantasies indulged in over the weekend, I envisioned harvests of such abundance I’ll probably be able — no, forced — to open a pick-your-own raspberry farm. Here lies every farmer’s secret fantasy: a farm (and to farm) with no labor.

Hah. Back to reality.

Raspberries, as with all things in life, respond in corresponding measures to the love lavished upon them. They will survive in poor soil, and fight their way through weeds and a dearth of moisture, to spit out a seedy berry or two. But give them lots of attention — rich soil, adequate moisture, plenty of room to grow — and the return is raspberries by the bowls full, nay, by the pails full.

One of the most elaborate raspberry plantings I’ve heard of is recounted in a book titled Ten Acres Enough, first published in 1864, by Edmond Morris. This was a man serious about his raspberries.

Morris was a city slicker who dreamed of the country life. After turning 40, he moved to New Jersey (which isn’t as weird as it sounds, because New Jersey at the time lived up to its moniker, “the garden state,”) with his family, and commenced to farming.

In addition to blackberries and strawberries, Morris planted raspberries, and lots of them — 5,656 plants, or nearly two-acres worth, all within his new peach tree orchard. It took him three days, but he was well satisfied with the results:

“I am sure the growth of my raspberries was owing, in a great degree, to the deep ploughing the land had received. The soil they delight in is one combining richness, depth and moisture. It is only from such that a full crop may be expected every season. The roots must have abundance of elbow-room to run down and suck up moisture from the abundant reservoir which exists below.

“Deep ploughing will save them from the effects of dry weather, which otherwise will blast the grower’s hopes, giving him a small berry, shriveled up from want of moisture, instead of one of ample size, rich, and juicy. Hence irrigation has been known to double the size of raspberries, as well as doubling the growth of the canes in a single season. Mulching also is a capital thing.”

Good advice, then and now.

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

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A 600-foot extension of Macon County’s airport runway is scheduled for completion by mid-May and plans for a ribbon-cutting ceremony are in the works, Miles Gregory, chairman of the airport authority, told local leaders last week.

The $4.5 million project will allow larger corporate jets to land in Macon County. When finished, the runway will be 5,000-feet long, and include a 300-foot grass safety area. About $1 million was spent meeting archaeological requirements for using the site, Gregory said.

Two years ago, the runway extension provoked bitter opposition, with standing-room-only crowds attending meetings and an environmental group threatening to sue and stop the project. An archaeological assessment in 2000 had revealed about 400 Indian burials.

Macon County reached agreement with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, and the project was able to move forward.

The extension was opposed by nearby residents who fear the additional traffic at the airport will threaten the rural valley, but commissioners supported the project for its economic development potential.

“Planes that could not land here and be covered on their insurance now will be covered,” said Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners.

New airport hangars are also in the works, Gregory said. Additionally, there are plans to try to run a 12-inch line and hook into the town’s water.

“We have a well right now,” Gregory said. “If we had a fire out here, we’d be in trouble.”

Bringing Franklin town water into Iotla Valley where the airport is located also would benefit the future elementary school near there. Insurance coverage for both the school and the airport would cost less as a result, Gregory said.

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It required barely 15 minutes and a minimum of discussion for Western Carolina University’s Faculty Senate to unanimously vote it be given a role in any future reorganization efforts.

Whether they get what they ask for will depend on WCU’s next chancellor, David Belcher, who was hired two days after the meeting took place. He replaces John Bardo starting July 1.

The faculty leadership’s resolution comes in the wake of at least three internal reorganizations at WCU in just five years. A growing number of faculty members at WCU have protested against what they have dubbed top-down, administrative-driven changes.

Perhaps the prospect of a new boss dampened discussion, or maybe it was the ongoing pressures to a faculty weary of worrying about how deeply the General Assembly will cut into higher education (at least $8.6 million, and probably more, is expected to disappear from WCU). Regardless of exactly why, the group was considerably muted last week when compared to an earlier meeting this month — then debate raged for more than two hours over the faculty’s role in these restructuring efforts.

This time, the most impassioned discussions involved particular points about Robert’s Rules of Order, which included frequent references to the meeting-guideline book, and an explanation by Secretary Laura Wright that the electronic voting clicker wasn’t working again, so should voting take place by a show of hands or by paper ballots? Paper ballots won out.

Cheryl Waters-Tormey, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Erin McNelis, emphasized at the outset that this resolution seeking faculty participation lays out a procedure of sorts for the university.

And, Waters-Tormey added, perhaps more hopefully than anything else, “it is not tied at all” to a resolution that sparked the initial debate and failed the week before. That resolution was brought by nine faculty members who wanted their colleagues in the Faculty Senate to intervene in a particular reorganization — one that would consolidation the College of Education and Allied Professions from five to three departments.

A tenured professor has resigned in protest over the realignment and alleged targeted non-reappointments of some professors.

The substitute resolution just passed seeks the formation of a task force to study reorganization issues, and for the development of a “clear, coherent, and effective” reorganization policy and process that protects the integrity of WCU’s academic mission.

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Budget concerns that the state will dump responsibilities on local governments, and anecdotal assessments of the current economic climate, dominated a meeting last week of Macon County’s elected local leaders.

The informal, relatively freewheeling discussion took place over plates of steak and potatoes in a conference room at the county’s airport. Elected leaders from Franklin, Highlands and Macon County took part, joined by the towns’ and county’s top administrators.

Describing Highlands as the “bellwether” economic indicator for Macon County, Commissioner Ronnie Beale queried Mayor David Wilkes about the spending mood in his better-heeled-than-most town.

Wilkes, who owns and operates three outfitting stores in the Highlands and Cashiers areas, responded the retail sector seems to be emerging normally from the winter doldrums.

“Business is picking up as it usually does, and people seem to have a comfort level,” Wilkes said.

He added that the huge second-home population of Highlands has helped some to insulate the town. Though more-regular folks might forgo the expense of traveling to the area, those who have invested in a real house have proved more likely to continue spending part of the year there regardless of the depressed economy, Wilkes said.

Macon County Manager Jack Horton told elected leaders that Macon County had eight housing starts last month, one of which was in Highlands. Though not outstanding when compared with the housing-boom days, Horton said that number does represent an uptick for the county.

Highlands Commissioner Larry Rogers, who owns a construction company in Highlands, said business is still very slow, as did Beale, who runs a construction company in Franklin.

 

State eyes county savings

Looming ominously over the discussion were fears the state’s $2.4 billion or so shortfall will result in future hard times for local governments. Gov. Beverly Perdue earlier this month sent unhappy shockwaves through the leadership of the state’s 100 counties with her suggestion counties pick up the tab for some state functions by tapping into the $2.1 billion they collectively hold in reserve through fund balances.

Macon County’s fund balance is healthy, representing about 25 percent of its budget. The state requires counties to keep a reserve of at least 8 percent. The state pointed to these robust fund balances as proof that counties aren’t hurting as much as the state and can afford to take on more responsibilities.

“We don’t feel like we should be punished for being prudent with our money,” Brian McClellan, chairman of the commission board and a financial advisor in Highlands, said of Perdue’s plan. “We don’t think it’s a good idea for them to eyeball our county fund balance.”  

In an interesting reversal of fortunes and a now-the-shoe-is-on-the-other-foot kind of way, county commissioners in February sparked a very similar reaction from local education leaders, when, during a budget work session, commissioners discussed the need for school administrators to give up some of their own $3 million fund balance for the good of the county.

“Their fund balance is our fund balance,” Commissioner Bobby Kuppers said then.

The irony, such as it was, went un-remarked upon at last week’s meeting.

County Commissioner Kevin Corbin, who previously served 20 years on the board of education, said he believes the state will impose a cut of about 8 percent for schools.

“We’re all going to have to live within our means,” Corbin said, adding there’s no way for the county to pick up the tab for state education cuts.

Also of concern to local leaders in Macon County is that Perdue’s proposed budget would force counties to pay for workers’ compensation for public school and community college employees. The state may also cut the county’s share of corporate income taxes.

Jackson and Haywood county commissioners held similar discussions last week. The N.C. Association of County Commissioners had sounded the alarm the week before, calling on counties to voice their concerns.

David Thompson, director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said it was “very disconcerting” that counties could be asked to tap their fund balances — saved up over the years often with an eye toward school construction or future building projects — as “the silver bullet to manage the state’s budget crisis.”

Haywood County commissioners passed a resolution last week opposing the state shift of funding duties, particularly for schools. Among proposals on the table: the state would take 75 percent of the county’s share of lottery money intended for schools and make counties pay for new school buses.

“The state said they aren’t going to have any new tax increase but they haven’t said anything about pushing the costs on to us and us having to do tax increases,” Haywood Commissioner Bill Upton said.

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