Quintin Ellison

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Driven by a Republican-dominated commission, Macon County’s beleaguered planning board will undergo wholesale changes that likely include member term limits and a lessened, some might argue silenced, voice in writing development ordinances.

But these steps, agreed to in concept by commissioners during a Saturday workshop, might not repair growing chasms among the county’s leaders regarding the planning board’s proper role. Or, who should lead the planning board.

Commissioner Ron Haven didn’t mince words in a recent email to fellow county commissioners. It went viral almost as quickly as Haven hit the “send” button last Friday night.

In the email, Haven demanded the ouster of Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland. Penland has been a vocal champion for steep slope regulations, and was instrumental in pushing for mountainside construction standards — a stance Haven apparently disagrees with, based on his characterization of the planning board as dictators and his call to possibly abolish it.

At the workshop, Haven accused the planning board of running amok and disregarding commissioners’ instructions. While feuding on the planning board has been shared by both sides — with opponents of steep slope regulations at least as vocal about their own positions as pro-planning advocates — Haven blamed Penland.

Penland’s term on the planning board is expiring. Commissioners must decide whether to reappoint him. Haven warned commissioners not to renew Penland’s appointment. He said if they did, they would pay for that decision during the next election.

“So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way,” Haven wrote in the email. “It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board.”

Democrat Commissioner Bobby Kuppers defended the 12-member planning board, which he served as liaison to until recently.

“We handed them a prioritized list,” Kuppers said. “We told them as you complete one, move to the next — that list was approved by the commissioners. To their credit, they have followed that list … in fairness they did what we asked them to do. And to say they didn’t is really unfair.”

Haven, a conservative Republican, defended his take on planning and the planning board.

“I have always felt planning is a good thing,” Haven wrote in his email. But, “I feel this board is a nonfunctioning tool to the commissioner board and the citizens. When all that is important it [sic] to make citizens surrender their property rights, hinder job growth, and be a dictater [sic] then where if [sic] freedom in America if it can’t start at home.”

Penland on Monday said that he does find some common ground with Haven. The commission board needs to “quit kicking the can down the road” as Haven asserted in his email and make decisions about planning in Macon County, said Penland, who is a golf-course developer in real life. Penland for now declined further comment on Haven’s unflattering description.

Saturday, in what at times included terse and sharp exchanges among the five commissioners (three Republicans and two Democrats), the future shape of the planning board began to emerge.

For pro-planners in Macon County, it isn’t pretty: the board likely will not make decisions or have much meaningful say regarding land planning. Instead, it would make what Republican commissioners’ are dubbing “recommendations.”

“For lack of a better term, I’d call it a bullet list,” Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin said.

In an interview with The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago, Corbin laid out a vision for the planning board that would reduce its role from writing proposed ordinances to suggesting general parameters, and then having the county attorney develop ordinance language.

Commissioner Jimmy Tate of Highlands had a front-row seat of when serving on the planning board. Tate was selected to be the commissioners’ new liaison to the planning board.

“They get bogged down … on how to rewrite one word,” Tate said, adding the bold promise he’d “get them on a sled and slide right through that.”

The spillover from Haven’s email and the Saturday commissioners’ discussion are likely to reverberate for the foreseeable future. Conservationist Bill McLarney, a highly regarded aquatic biologist in Macon County who is married to longtime planning board member Susan Ervin, shot back in defense of polite manners in a widely distributed email of his own.

“I am dismayed by what appears to be the low level to which political discourse has descended in this county,” McLarney wrote. “Hopefully Mr. Haven’s letter is an anomaly; it is certainly an embarrassment to us all. To the extent that the commissioners and we the public allow this sort of ignorant outburst to inform county policy and decisions, we are all losers.”


A long and winding road

Commissioner Ron Haven’s push for planning board reform comes as county leaders continue ruminating (three months and counting) on whether to pass construction guidelines developed by the advisory group.

By most counties’ standards, the guidelines are routine — they mainly deal with cut and fill regulations and with road-compaction standards. The planning board hoped to see the construction guidelines incorporated into two existing county ordinances, the soil and erosion regulations and subdivision regulations. The subdivision regulations are now under review. This marks at least the fifth or so time in Macon County the subdivision regulations have been re-examined at commissioners’ request since being adopted.

The construction guidelines were the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep-slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and lukewarm support from county commissioners, the proposed ordinance was replaced with more basic construction guidelines.


Sometimes what we expect to happen doesn’t:

On vacation this week, I stopped in Raleigh and viewed the “Rembrandt in America” exhibit currently showing at the N.C. Museum of Art. I enjoyed the exhibit very much indeed. But what honestly carried far greater emotional impact for me was a secondary exhibit by North Carolina artist Beverly McIver.

McIver is an African-American woman born in Greensboro; she lives now in Durham. McIver’s work to date has focused on her mother, Ethel, who died in 2004. And on Beverly McIver’s mentally disabled sister, Renee, who is in her 50s but has the “mental mindset” of a second-grader.

McIver’s paintings are bold. They are raw and honest. Her rendering of her mother in “Mom Died” literally and unexpectedly brought me to tears. Her mother’s mouth is open, a hole in a white, unfilled-in face. Ethel is lying flat in her hospital bed; the perspective is incredibly pain-filled and heartfelt, unmistakably real.

I have cried listening to certain music performances. I have cried while reading particular books. Never have I been forced to leave an art exhibit because of overwhelming emotion and tears. This was a new, welcome if painful, experience, and Beverly McIver’s powerful paintings are an exciting addition to my life. I look forward to seeing what she will produce in the coming years, and have every intention of tracking her work in various galleries. What a tremendous gift this woman has, and the labor she has clearly invested into mastering her craft is sobering but inspiring.

McIver’s work hangs at the state museum through June 24. Rembrandt’s, by the way, can be viewed through Jan. 22.


Learning dreams really can come true:

I stayed as a guest in a 15-year-old community in Carrboro, Arcadia Co-housing, which residents tout as “a progressive, intentional community governed by consensus.” Amazingly enough, that proud claim rings true — there are 33 families here, each living in their own individual houses. Residents work together to create an interconnected community. Arcadia consists of 16.5 acres of land, but development is limited to five of those acres. The remainder is kept in woods, a field, a pond, a community garden and meadows.

All households are represented on Arcadia’s board of directors. Business meetings are held monthly, there are work signup parties quarterly, steering committee meetings are scheduled monthly, and other meetings (stonings? banishments? The group’s website doesn’t specify) are held “as needed.”

I stayed in a room located in Arcadia’s common house. The group built this common facility, in part, to provide housing for guests. This keeps residents’ houses smaller and absent of guest rooms that would only experience occasional use. There’s a laundry in the common house so that residents don’t have these appliances in their homes, a multipurpose sitting area, rooms geared toward kid activities, extra storage room and a large kitchen with a dining area. Monthly community meals are scheduled, with volunteers doing the cooking.

I’m a raging liberal by almost any definition you choose. But I admit to harboring a certain skepticism when it comes to intentional housing. I would never have believed it could work, much less for 15 years, and furthermore seem really cool and fun.

My friend Kevin Corbin, who is as far to the right as I am to the left, happened to call while I was visiting in Arcadia. He wanted to chat about a particular article I’d written about the commission board in Macon County, which he chairs. Kevin’s son attends UNC-Chapel Hill’s dental school, an odd choice for the scion of such a proud GOP-oriented family. Kevin assures me that UNC’s dental school is different from regular UNC. It is suitably conservative, he said, even for a Corbin.

Kevin laughed when I told him I was in Carrboro. “You know that even the people who live in Chapel Hill think Carrboro is too liberal. Don’t you?” he asked me, clearly amused but also not speaking in jest.

Maybe indeed Arcadia could exist only in a bastion of liberals, but it’s neat indeed that it does work, regardless of where. We could use more Arcadias in our world.


And, finally, the loveliness of our state:

When it comes time for my occasional trips to the beach, I’ve consistently chosen South Carolina because of its relative nearness to Western North Carolina. This vacation, however, I struck out on Interstate 40 and then to the Outer Banks. What a delight this place has proven.

The ocean here is strikingly rough, churning and chopping in unceasing, un-rhythmic, mesmerizing motion. The shells deposited on beaches bear the branding of this unforgiving ocean — they are rarely whole, usually just bits and pieces. There’s a natural beauty to this region that seems unique from other coastal areas I’ve visited. There’s something about being surrounded by so much water that is stunning, and even a bit overwhelming and frightening.

Damage from last year’s hurricane is clearly visible. Driving north down the coast, you come to a heavily hit, abandoned-appearing vacation or second-home community. Porches of houses were sheared, hanging desolate and broken in the sky; house pilings exposed, in places collapsed. Water was everywhere, in areas where water was not wanted or welcome. The place was a disaster.

The sign on the development was unintentionally prescient of what occurred: “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream,” it read cheerily, a slogan written to entice potential buyers pre-Hurricane Irene.

It seems to me that building in the Outer Banks is a crapshoot. More hurricanes will come; continued erosion is a given, not a guess. Sort of like building in defiance of a mountain’s grain; at least, that’s what this visitor from WNC couldn’t help but think.

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


Calling and talking on cell phones while driving is likely to continue, at least for now, in North Carolina.

But the debate still rages since the National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended a national ban on all cell phone use, even hands-free devices.

Donna McClure of Franklin is all for cell phone restrictions, describing distracted drivers on the road as “frightening.” She’s no hypocrite: McClure refuses to even own a cell phone, much less use one while motoring along highways and byways.

“I’m afraid it will ring when I’m driving, and that I’ll feel guilty for not answering it. So I avoid that,” said McClure, breaking away for a moment to chat from her volunteer job tending to sales at the Macon County Friends of the Library Bookstore. “If you don’t have a cell phone to answer, then you don’t feel guilty about not answering it. I prefer to communicate directly with another person.”

If you want to reach McClure, you’ll have to call her at home and leave a message on her answering machine.

But talking while driving has become an engrained behavior for most Americans. In the neighboring Mirror Dance Hair Studio, down a few doors from the Franklin bookstore, hairdresser Kristina Neighbarger is part of the fast moving high-tech world most Americans thrive on.

“I don’t text while driving, but I to drive and talk on my cell phone,” Neighbarger said. “I’d miss it, if it weren’t allowed.”

Neighbarger perhaps spoke for many when she noted that, truthfully, she wishes other drivers, however, were banned from using cell phones — just not her. Because, like most, Neighbarger believes she motors safely and attentively with a cell phone in hand, but not those other drivers.

Some drivers, such as Kathy Riddle of Waynesville, strike a middle balance between no-cell-phone McClure and talking-and-driving Neighbarger.

“I pull over on the side of the road if I need to talk,” said Riddle, who runs the Haywood Barber Shop.

Riddle said she learned the value of cell phones after, some years ago, experiencing a car breakdown on Interstate 85 in Virginia. She and her mother sat by the side of the highway for hours unable to summon help, Riddle said.

“I promised myself, if they ever come out here, I’ll get a cell phone,” the barber said.

They did, and she did — but Riddle is fearful of the level of distraction many motorists demonstrate while talking on their cell phones.

“It’s kind of scary. They get to talking, and they don’t even look while they’re driving,” she said. “And I think texting is even more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.”

That said, Riddle would support some restrictions, because, she said, it might just save some lives.


Jackson County commissioners plan this week to discuss the upcoming property revaluation, though it remains unclear whether they will postpone the process as some residents are requesting.

In a revaluation, every home, lot and tract of land is assigned a new property value to reflect the going real estate market — a value that in turn dictates how much people pay in property taxes. But, the volatile real estate market has led many counties to postpone revaluations.

Jackson County has postponed its revaluation until 2013, but Tax Assessor Bobby McMahan has suggested waiting a couple more years. McMahan plans to give a report on the issue during a commissioner work session Jan. 13.

The market value of high-priced lots and homes are destined to fall in a countywide revaluation. Delaying the reval means the county can continue taxing high-end properties at inflated book value. Going ahead with the reval would shift property tax burden to median-priced properties as those are more likely to hold their value while the high-end properties fall — and that’s what Jackson County residents are protesting.

“You will be negatively impacting the lower-income families,” said Avram Friedman, an environmental advocate in Sylva.

Allen Lomax, a local real estate agent, told Jackson County commissioners a property revaluation “will definitely” have the most wallop on the wallets of the less affluent in the county.

While Macon and Swain have postponed their revaluations for a couple more years, Haywood County went ahead with its last year.

Counties must do a revaluation every eight years, which wouldn’t be until 2016 for Jackson.

Carol Odom of the Glenville community views the situation from another angle. She told commissioners that she’s neither rich nor under-taxed. Odom said she’s seen 75 percent of her income evaporate because of the dour economy. She believes homeowners shouldn’t be paying taxes based on false property values but that the whole county should “share their pain.”

“I hope you do revaluate, and that it gets shared all across the county — everyone should contribute. I’m not here to support other people financially,” Odom said.


Cutting collards this past weekend, I was surprised to find colonies of purplish-colored aphids under many of the leaves.

That discovery spurred me into a more extensive garden inventory. I discovered several of the more tender greens, such as the Asian introductions Tokyo Bekana and Vitamin Green, bore evidence of feeding insects. There were shotgun patterns of holes marring these tasty plants’ leaves.

When later I jerked a length of row cover from a shelf in the garden storage shed, the abrupt movement disturbed a small village of Asian beetles. The honeybees, too, were actively in search of something to feed upon. But because they fly from the hive at temperatures roughly 50 degrees or warmer, this wasn’t as profound a marker of the unseasonable-ness of our recent weather as other insect types.

This is the first time I can remember such vigorous insect activity this late (or should that be early) in the year. I’m certain we’ve had similar warm, early winter weather in past years; until I became a gardener there was little reason to note such events in my memory bank. Which is an excellent reason, among many excellent reasons, to garden. One immediately becomes an acute, if amateur, observer of nature; and a historian of sorts regarding previous garden seasons and anomalies accompanying them.

The surge of insect activity hadn’t been isolated to the garden. I’d noticed, but not attended to the why, our hens were ranging farther and farther from where their laying pellets are kept. The insect populations clearly must have rebounded elsewhere, too. The hens this past week could be viewed happily tossing the leaf litter on the forest floor like so many industrious chicken leafblowers. They must have been uncovering and devouring newly emerging or reemerging bugs and worms.

The weather forecasters, however, warned of an impending deep freeze while I snacked in front of the local news broadcast hours after devouring a requisite helping of hoppin’ john. The winds indeed were gusting by nightfall of the new year’s first day. A burst of Arctic air, as the television weather woman ominously and breathlessly termed the incoming assault, accompanied most likely by accumulating snow. That sounded brutal, but such cold certainly would prove much more painful for the insects than me, given my ability to hole up, sheltered, by a warm fire. An “Arctic blast” would end not only their unseasonable romps through the garden, but indeed through life.

A New Year’s Day visitor noticed the honeybees flying from the hives perched on the hill above the house and asked how well they winter. Perfectly, I responded, unless they get wet, diseased or starve to death.

Honeybees in cold weather form a cluster, a huddle, to protect themselves and most importantly, to shelter the brood and queen. Honeybees during cold spells will disconnect their wing muscles from their wings. This allows them to more easily vibrate and, in this manner, generate lifesaving and life-giving warmth. The temperature inside of the cluster containing the precious queen and brood has been measured at a consistent, and balmy, 92 degrees.  

The outermost honeybees periodically move into the center of the huddle to stay warm, leaving other honeybees for a time to endure the cold’s brunt on the cluster’s parameter. There is a constant in and out flow to a winter cluster, a cycle as perpetual as the movement of waves on an ocean, ever coming and going. I find this enjoyable to ponder when having an insomniac moment on a cold night.

I have sugar water prepared to go on the hives into hive-top feeders. This should have been fed to the honeybees already, but an attack of a plague-like illness sent me to bed, to weakened even to care for the bees. I had hoped to send them into this cold weather as prepared as possible. Fat and sassy, scoffing even at the promised Arctic blast and accumulating snowfall.

There’s little doubt that honeybees will be starving this winter across Western North Carolina if beekeepers neglect feeding them. The warm weather means they’ve likely been eating their stores at a torrid pace.

Starvation, even in colder winters than this one, is the most common method of death for honeybee colonies.

The beekeeper can know she’s starved her charges quite easily — you raise the cover and inner lid of a hive to discover the honeybees’ butts in the air, dead facedown into the comb cells. They starved there while searching in vain for something to eat. This is a sad, discouraging sight indeed for any beekeeper, maybe the worst one I know when it comes to honeybees. Because it’s so clearly the result of preventable neglect; akin to the act of leaving a dog in a car with rolled up windows on a hot summer day. Or tethering a goat unwatched to feed on weeds, like so much bait on a fishing line for marauding neighborhood dogs.

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


With the advent of new leadership for commissioners, Macon County’s planning board could undergo a metamorphosis into what’s being dubbed a truer “advisory” role.

In recent years, the planning board has been a magnet of negativity for factions on both sides of the land planning issue.

Kevin Corbin has been the new chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners for less than a month, but has already identified land-use planning as one of the county’s most pressing issues. A date has not yet been settled on for the board’s annual retreat where the topic will be discussed.

Corbin was appointed to the county board to replace Brian McClellan, who resigned following his second DWI arrest in two years. Corbin was elected to the leadership seat by his fellow four commissioners the same week shortly after McClellan stepped down.

The chairman has just one vote but does have real power to steer the board’s agenda and structure meetings. Corbin, a Republican from Franklin, isn’t new to the county’s political sphere. He served for two decades as a member of the Macon County Board of Education. And, like father like son: Corbin’s Dad, Harold, served as chairman of the commission board from 1998 to 2002.

Other issues Corbin wants reviewed during the retreat include economic development initiatives, school needs and the county’s budget for the next fiscal year.

Corbin on Monday said he believes that the planning board has become polarized by its members’ fundamentally different views. Commissioners, he said, must assume more prominent roles in the land-planning arena for meaningful progress on planning to take place.

“I think it’s a tough balance,” Corbin said. “But I really do believe there’s a way to have sensible regulations without stopping construction and real estate.”

The new chairman equated land planning to the delicate task of holding a wet bar of soap. Squeeze too hard, the soap squirts from your hand. Hold the bar too loosely and it falls from such a tepid grip.

Corbin wants commissioners simply to receive recommendations from the planning board, not written ordinances ready for adoption or rejection. Commissioners instead would hammer out tricky details; the county attorney would prepare the actual document.

This would remove some of the spotlight from planning board members, Corbin said, and place the pressures where they more rightfully belong — on commissioners. It’s commissioners who’ve been duly elected to make these decisions. Planning board members, in contrast, are community volunteers appointed to their positions by commissioners.

Besides, commissioners ultimately approve any ordinance drafted by the planning board, and in the process end up rewriting portions of it anyway — usually repeating the same debate that already played out at the planning board level.

Where would that leave the construction guidelines adopted by the planning board after great public strife? The guidelines are the result of a two-year effort by the planning board to write a steep slope ordinance. But following dissent on the planning board and perceived lukewarm support from county commissioners, the full ordinance was replaced with more basic construction “guidelines.” Commissioners have been holding the proposed guidelines from the planning board for some three months without any visible signs of action.

Corbin wants those suggested guidelines and the county’s subdivision and soil and erosion ordinances reviewed by Attorney Chester Jones. There is redundancy plus, possibly, needed changes such as what’s involved in the rules for subdivision road building, Corbin said.

In this brave new world, commissioners would clearly and publicly guide Attorney Jones, Corbin said. A prime example would be the actual slope percentages when it comes to cut and fill rules in road building: commissioners would decide on a percentage they find acceptable, not the attorney.

On other issues, Corbin said:

• Macon County is in “very good shape” financially. That said, this Republican-controlled board will look for areas in which to make additional cuts. This could be difficult to accomplish because the historically fiscally conservative board has reduced the county budgets by an overall 15 percent already as a result of the recession.

Also, because of ongoing national, state and local economic maladies, residents’ basic needs are increasing: real help, in the form of additional county dollars, might need funneling toward assisting with heating, food and so on, Corbin said.

“We may find ourselves in a place where we have to support these things aggressively,” he said.

• The Macon County Schools will need financial help, too. Federal funding, up to $2 million worth, has dried up. “You increase what you spend or reduce what you do,” Corbin said, adding he opposes any budget reductions that would hit teachers and teacher assistants. Macon County might look at some one-time spending options for the schools, such as helping replace aging computers, Corbin said.

• Economic development efforts must press forward regardless of whether such efforts bear immediate fruit or, more likely in this woeful economic climate, don’t.

Corbin said that new county economic development leader Tommy Jenkins would discuss planned efforts and economic hopes


A loosely affiliated group of 30 some people have been quietly meeting, more or less each week, in Jackson County on the heels of an Occupy Sylva event held last October.

This confederacy of the self-dubbed “99 percent” has morphed into Occupy Western North Carolina. While Asheville has its own Occupy group, OccupyWNC has become a catch-all for the counties west of Buncombe, bringing in residents from Waynesville, Franklin and farther west who expressed a desire to get involved following the Occupy Sylva rally.

“This is a much broader coalition than just Sylva,” member Allen Lomax, a Sylva resident and Waynesville-based real estate agent who also helps local, small investors connect with local, small businesses or entrepreneurs. “It has become much bigger than that.”

Don’t expect the tents or protests in WNC that you’ve seen elsewhere, or a visible police presence to ensure things stay calm. But, you also shouldn’t let the quiet nature of OccupyWNC’s gatherings fool you. These folks are dead serious about change. And they seem prepared to help make some noise, soon, to get just that. They are seeking results through “all possible nonviolent means of action.”

Gary Stamper, a Whittier resident who moved from Seattle to WNC three-and-a-half years ago, said he believes it’s time for change. And, that the nation is ripe for change.

“My outrage about what is going on is that we are losing all of our freedoms and rights. I can’t sit idly by and let it go,” Stamper said.

Stamper believes that bridges can be built to other groups, including the Tea Party and Republicans, and that the majority of Americans can work together for needed change.

“We have far more in common than not,” he said, adding that anything meaningful that happens will “start with individuals.”

“Really, we are just 100 percent,” Stamper said. “We are all in this together.”

While the OccupySylva rally last fall was organized under the auspices of the county’s Democratic party, the Democratic mantle of that event seems to have lifted, though there are certainly Democrats actively involved.

OccupyWNC is a self-described “diverse and nonpartisan coalition that acts to promote economic and social justice for the 99 plus 1 percent,” according to information provided by Lomax that has been officially approved by this very unofficial group.

OccupyWNC is open to all and seeks consensus through shared leadership, as it’s done on a national level in the Occupy events.

Lucy Christopher of Cashiers said that she became involved because of her reaction to the changes in the Middle East, and a sense of something new in the world.

“That restless unwillingness to continue with the status quo is now alive in my own country and in the neighboring part of my state,” Christopher said in an email interview. “I believe that our national security is threatened from within by its enormous economic disparity. I want a more just world for all of us, including my children and grandchildren.”

Lomax said that current financial and political situations shaping the nation are “simply not right.” Lomax cited some of the group’s dissatisfactions, including corporate ownership over most media outlets, which members believe means the message is controlled, and corporate ownership of the telecommunications industry, which is leading to increasing attempts to place restrictions on the Internet.

Though not an active conspiracy, the “1 percent,” Lomax said, is a loosely bound group of people who share common interests and, individually, great wealth.

“There’s 400 or so families involved — not that many,” he said. “And they certainly know each other, and go in the same circles. They are openly working to control legislation and are not hiding the fact that they are buying elections.”

Lomax said the Occupy movement has a much more powerful weapon than the money controlled by the 1 percent.

“We have the people,” Lomax said.


Rally with OccupyWNC for change

A nationwide rally will have its place in Western North Carolina on the streets of Bryson City at the federal building on Main Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m Friday, Jan. 20. Occupy groups across the nation want a constitutional amendment to end “corporate personhood and legalize Democracy.”


Attend the next OccupyWNC meeting

The OccupyWNC General Assembly meets most Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Jackson County Justice Center in Room 220.

Get more information by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or visit www.facebook.com/pages/OccupyWNC/243008235753789.


More than $2 million in mostly federal dollars will pay for repaving the runway at the Macon County Airport, likely boosting a surge of business-class jets now landing there since an extension of the runway was added last year.

The state and county will each have to kick in a 10 percent match, while federal funds will comprise 80 percent of the project cost.

Macon County’s airport is the nearest airport to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort that can handle small corporate jets. Additionally, well-heeled residents with second or third homes in the Highlands-Cashiers area visit this region via Macon’s airport.

“This is another tool in our economic tool belt,” Tommy Jenkins, the county’s economic director, said Tuesday. “We’ve got an asset in the airport that a lot of surrounding counties don’t have. We’ve got to make sure we take care of it.”

Federal aviation dollars come in to the state through the N.C. Division of Aviation, which then disperses the funds based on need to airports in the state.

Macon County, again using a combination of federal and state funding along with a county match, spent $4.5 million building a 600-foot extension and a 300-foot grass safety area over the past two years.

Work at the airport has been a source of controversy, with critics citing the large cost for relatively few users and the impact of the growing airport on the rural Iotla Valley off N.C. 28. But the biggest controversy came when Indian graves were discovered in the path of the runway extension. The county reached agreements with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, allowing work to move forward following an archaeological excavation.

Miles Gregory, the airport board’s chairman, said Tuesday that he believes what sealed the funding deal was a firsthand visit in September to the airport by N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti. The state bigwig was in the area to attend a bridge naming ceremony for former state Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County.

“The runway is all in pieces,” Gregory said. “It’s been in bad repair for a long time. (Conti) just shook his head, and said he’d do what he could to help us.”

Bids for the repaving project likely will be let this spring.

New airport hangars are 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 drilled well right now. It wouldn’t put out a lit match,” Gregory said. “I’m exaggerating of course, but we could use that water.”

A statewide economic impact study conducted five years ago indicated that Macon County’s airport had an approximate $7.9 million a year total annual impact on North Carolina and supports more than 122 jobs.


The town of Fontana Dam can still send and receive mail via its own post office — at least for now.

The U.S. Postal Service decided to delay closing or merging scores of post offices nationwide following protests from lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville. Legislators wanted the process slowed so that Congress can first debate possible methods of fixing the money-troubled U.S. Postal Service.

The shutdowns were slated to begin early this year.

This postponement comes as great news to residents of North Carolina's newest town, Fontana Dam — population 33 — a rural outpost in the wilds of Graham County near the Tennessee line.

"I think it is really important we have a post office," said Darlene Waycaster, who doesn't actually live within the town's limits but is an employee of the town's sole employer, Fontana Village Resort. "We do so much mail through here, and we have so many Appalachian Trail hikers coming through, too."

Fontana Village Resort boasts 140 employees during warmer times of the years, and more than 100,000 visitors annually make their way to this remote spot. The Village's seasonal workers rely on post office boxes as the only means to get their mail. The demand is so high that some years the Fontana post office has run out of post office boxes.

Equally reliant on the post office in Fontana Dam are the legions of Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who stop to pickup supplies as they traverse the famous footpath, which spans from Georgia to Maine. Many AT hikers, before leaving on their treks, mail themselves food and camping items to various drop points along the trail. Fontana Dam is the last re-supply point before hikers hit a tough stretch of the Smokies.

That information seemed to make an impression on U.S. Postal workers, said Fontana Dam town board member Craig Litz. Driving the curvy road to this far-flung outpost, some 45 miles roundtrip from the next nearest post office, probably made some sort of an impression, too, he acknowledged. The Postal Service actually came to Fontana Dam to hear concerns.

Litz had praise for the postal workers and U.S. Rep. Shuler. He said both parties seemed genuinely interested in hearing and understanding the situation faced by Fontana Dam's residents, workers, visitors and hikers should the post office close.

"It was definitely not just for show," Litz said. "They definitely heard us."

That said, the U.S. Postal Service is teetering into bankruptcy and is forecasted to lose a record $14.1 billion this year alone.

The mail-carrier service has plans to cut $20 billion in costs by 2015. Doing so, however, is contingent on closing more than 3,700 post offices and about 250 mail-processing facilities, including one in Asheville that serves this region. Mail processing for Western North Carolina would be consolidated into a facility in Greenville, S.C.

The Postal Service also wants to end Saturday mail deliveries, slow the delivery of first-class mail and change labor union contracts to cut up to 120,000 jobs.

Nothing will happen now, at least regarding the post office and mail-processing facilities, until May 15 at the earliest. Since northbound Appalachian Trail hikers pass through Fontana in April and early May, they can continue to use the post office for their supply drops this year. Reviews of the situation and various postal offices will continue, though.

"Given the Postal Service's financial situation and the loss of mail volume, the Postal Service must continue to take all steps necessary to reduce costs and increase revenue," USPS said in a recent statement.

But even a reprieve is helpful, Fontana Dam's first-ever official mayor, Tim Gamble, said — and not just because everyone who is associated with the town would like to have a place to send and receive mail. But, also, because of the historic importance of the post office to the Fontana area: Fontana Village Resort is one pillar supporting this community, and the post office serves as the other one.

Both pillars, town leaders and community members said, are vital.


Wildlife officers have charged a Cashiers man with killing a bear that he claimed was damaging his property, the second such case in Jackson County in less than a year.

Jeffrey Spencer Green, 39, was charged recently with illegally shooting and killing a 300-pound bear, according to records on file at the Jackson County Clerk of Court’s office. Green claimed the bear was damaging his house and property on Slab Town Road, but there was no evidence supporting that claim, Wildlife Officer Brent Hyatt said.

Last summer, Hyatt charged Sylva chiropractor John Caplinger with killing a bear perched in a tree on his property. Caplinger, like Green, reportedly claimed that he believed the bear a threat.

State law forbids killing a bear unless it’s causing significant property damage or is threatening a person’s life. Replacement costs for a bear are $2,213 in North Carolina. Court costs alone top $2,000. Combined convictions could carry hefty financial penalties.

Both Green and Caplinger, coincidentally, are set to appear in a Jackson County courtroom Jan. 26.

But, poaching a bear isn’t the only charge Green will face. As Hyatt traced the dead bear back to Green, it resulted in a slew of other charges against Green, plus two other Cashiers residents as well.

The investigation led to charges of an illegally killed deer and a turkey. There’s even a littering charge against Green for, according to Hyatt, improperly disposing of the turkey by tossing its carcass out of a vehicle window onto the roadside.

The bear beginning

According to court papers and Officer Hyatt, Green shot the bear a stone’s throw off N.C. 107 on Slab Town Road near the busy Cashiers’ crossroads. Upset by the death of this favorite neighborhood visitor, someone aware of and unhappy about the bear’s slaying tipped the state agency.

Hyatt said he suspects some of Slab Town’s residents were feeding the bear, causing it to lose its healthy, natural fear of humans. Though he’s sympathetic regarding the neighborhood’s loss, Hyatt said the situation served as yet another reminder to not feed wildlife — for the bear’s own good.

After shooting the bear, Green let it lie on the side of the road for a day, Hyatt said, then called a friend, Steve Crawford of the Pine Creek community, and asked for help moving it.

“The deal was Mr. Crawford would keep the meat, Mr. Green the bear hide,” Hyatt said, adding that the bear meat actually had spoiled because the animal was left in the heat for too long.

Crawford ended up being charged with possessing and transporting an illegally taken black bear.

As the investigation blossomed, Hyatt said he charged Green with, among a variety of other charges, night deer hunting and taking a turkey out of season.

Additionally, Marlena Carlton of Cashiers was charged in the night deer-hunting incident, Hyatt said.

“It turned into a big case,” the wildlife officer said in a bit of an understatement.

Report poaching

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is actively seeking the public’s help. Call in wildlife violations for investigations at 800.662.7137 or, if in Jackson County, call Wildlife Officer Brent Hyatt directly at 828.293.3417.


A rare sighting of a white squirrel at Western Carolina University has workers there abuzz.

The squirrel has been spotted a number of times, and is clearly not albino because it doesn’t have pink eyes, said Roger Turk, grounds superintendent for WCU’s facilities management department.

There is a large population of 1,500 or so white squirrels in Brevard, a unique phenomenon intrinsic to that area. Sightings are unusual outside Transylvania County, although not entirely unheard of. Whether the white squirrel in Cullowhee is an offshoot of that population, or simply a variation of the Eastern Gray Squirrel living at WCU, isn’t known.

Jim Costa, a WCU biology professor and director of the Highlands Biological Station, said it’s possible the white squirrel strain from Brevard migrated to Cullowhee — but it might also be a separate strain that evolved on its own.

“Squirrels disperse over the generations, but the one sighted on campus did not necessarily originate in the Brevard population — it may have, or it may be a color variant that arose recently in the local population,” said Costa.

A couple of years ago, Costa saw a white squirrel between Cashiers and Highlands, but that’s the only time he’s seen one very far from Brevard.

“As you can imagine there’s a pretty stiff penalty for being a white squirrel in an area with loads of hawks and such, but they manage to hold their own in Brevard,” Costa said.

In Brevard, the white squirrels have a distinctive black cap and black saddle that WCU employees aren’t reporting seeing on their white squirrel.

“The markings are noticeable,” said Madrid Zimmerman, director of the Brevard Main Street program.

Regardless of its origins, the sighting at WCU has been exciting for those lucky enough to catch a glimpse. The white squirrel has been seen around the baseball fields and the greenhouse and at least once, by an off-campus witness, near St. David’s Episcopal Church behind the Ramsey Center.

WCU’s Turk hasn’t seen the creature himself, but several of his employees have — and they’ve gotten good, long looks at the animal, he said.

“It’s been seen six to eight times,” Turk said. “So far they’ve only seen the one.”

Lynn Warner of Heart of Brevard said it isn’t that unusual for them to field calls from excited individuals who’ve seen white squirrels outside of Brevard.

“People call and say, ‘I’ve seen one,’” Warner said. “And they’re fascinated.”

But when you’ve got as many of the creatures as Brevard does, it’s hard to overly impress the workers in that town.

The white squirrel population in Brevard, according to annual white squirrel counts, is growing larger, Warner said. They currently make up a significant percent of the squirrel population there; some biologists believe the white color might one day dominate over gray-colored squirrels, she said.

The 2010 count recorded 37.1 percent white-versus-gray, the highest yet on record, in Brevard, well above the 14-year average of 28.1 percent, according to Brevard’s White Squirrel Research Institute.

One of the prime viewing sites for white squirrels is Brevard College. The town and college are so proud of their white squirrels Brevard holds an annual White Squirrel Festival and a Squirrel Box Derby.

Brevard residents commonly — and happily — put out birdseed for the white squirrels, Zimmerman said, but they try to discourage the gray squirrels from feasting.

“We all brake for white squirrels. We think twice for gray squirrels,” she said, only seemingly in semi-jest.  

The story behind the population in Brevard seems a mixture of fact and lore.

According to history, the white squirrels there originated from a circus truck that overturned in 1949 near the home of a man in Madison, Fla. (this according to www.whitesquirrels.com). He gave two white squirrels to another individual, who bequeathed them on Barbara Mull, a longtime resident of Brevard.

She kept them inside and hoped they might breed, but they didn’t. In 1951, one of the white squirrels escaped outdoors. Not long afterwards, Barbara’s father let the other white squirrel free. 

Before long, white squirrels were seen about Brevard. And now, at WCU.


Brevard takes its squirrels seriously

A town ordinance states: “The entire area embraced within the corporate limits of the city is hereby designated as a sanctuary for all species of squirrel (family Sciuriadae), and in particular the Brevard White Squirrel. It shall be unlawful for any person to hunt, kill, trap, or otherwise take any protected squirrels within the city by this section.”


Jim Pennington’s rebuilt Mustang car is a thing of beauty. Candy-apple red, spotlessly clean, sleek lines and an immaculate, original interior make for one amazing car.

Toiling over the Mustang has been a labor of love for Pennington. He needs little in the way of reward other than the personal fulfillment it brings and a little bonding time with his son under the hood. But on the show circuit this year, it garnered more than just the normal nods of appreciation from fellow car connoisseurs. His painstaking efforts to restore this built-for-racing vehicle have landed in the national spotlight.

Pennington’s Mustang is prominently featured in the latest issue of “5.0 Mustang and Super Fords,” under the headline “Generation Thrill: Behind the wheel of his ’95 GTS, Jim Pennington’s Retirement is a blast.”

And, it clearly is, at that — Pennington, who lives in Franklin, retired in February as director of maintenance for the Jackson County school system. He’d previously worked as director of engineering for Angel Medical Center in Franklin.

“I’m enjoying it,” said Pennington, adding that retirement has given this car buff more time to travel to shows and to devote to his hobby — one that he’s managed to rope his family into. His wife, Mildred, helps by keeping his red Mustang interior pristinely clean.  His son, Jon, has a black Mustang. They travel nationwide together to shows, and he has boxes of plaques to show for it.

“Old cars are just like people,” Pennington said. “Just when you think they have no future, they can come out of nowhere and surprise you.”

Pennington purchased the Mustang in Asheville five year ago with 50,000 miles on the odometer, and restored the car in 2007. His son painted the car, replacing the original “laser” red with the candy apple color.

He elicited the help of others as well. Franklin resident Brian Sellers put Saleen stripes on the doors and Andrews resident David Wilson built the stroker engine that helps put the “power” into the super-powerful Mustang. Pennington added a rear spoiler.

Not too many of these types of Mustangs were made, Pennington said, and 1995 was the last year for the pushrod 5.0, which means something to Mustang aficionados such as himself.

Initially, Pennington noted, he just wanted to restore the car for a particular National Mustang Racing Authority event, True Street Drag Racing, but the looks and praise he received launched him instead into national car shows. Since 2007, he and his wife have spent almost every weekend at shows throughout the Southeast.

The editor of “5.0 Mustang & Super Fords” magazine was in the crowd during a show at Commerce, Ga. He asked Pennington if the magazine could feature him and his car, and Pennington said “sure.” At first, he didn’t realize what he’d gotten himself into.

“The photo shoots lasted two days,” Pennington said, noting that one shot alone of the car’s interior took the magazine’s photographer about two hours to capture.

Pennington also has restored a Chevrolet pickup truck, and he owns a 1989 Mustang GT with a built 306 with a Tremac.

Cars, it turns out, have paralleled his own retirement in more ways than one.

“With a little TLC and hard work, (cars) can have a new and rewarding second life,” he said.


N.C. Rep. Phil Haire’s decision not to run for re-election after 14 years in office opens the door for a possible free-for-all of both Democratic and Republican candidates seeking the suddenly available House seat.

Tuesday’s news spread like an out-of-control wildfire through Western North Carolina’s political grapevine. Top leaders in both parties will clearly be paying close attention to this now vacant seat — a seat Haire had easily secured year after year for the Democratic Party but could now be in flux.

“This is not a good sign for Democrats,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. Incumbent Democrats tend to hold on. But when their seats come open, then those seats are much more likely to go Republican.”

Taking control of Haire’s seat won’t be easy, however. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district — which is made up of Waynesville and Lake Junaluska in Haywood County, Jackson County and Swain County.

But a possible pile-on by Democrat candidates could weakend their position going in to the general election in the fall, Cooper said.

“If they have too many eggs in a basket, they will shoot themselves in the foot. The best thing for the Democratic Party is to figure out who the best candidate really is,” Cooper said.

Any Democrat with state political aspirations might figure this could be their one shot at holding office. Haire had proved immovable from the seat until he opted to step down.

For his part, Haire said there’s not an “heir” apparent.

“I am not going to speculate because I am sure there are going to be several people in the primary,” the state representative said, adding that he won’t endorse anyone.

“I am not going out on that limb,” Haire said.

Haire plans to wait and see who wins the primary, then support that candidate in the general election. The Democrat’s primary winner had better be a strong candidate and be girded for a fight, Haire said.

“Since it is a vacant seat, the Republicans will make a shot at it,” Haire said. “I guarantee you Republicans will make a good strong effort to take it.”

It could be the GOP’s one shot, too. For Republican Party leaders, the news that a veteran incumbent Democrat would be retiring came as a belated, but happily received, Christmas present.

Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party, was clearly pleased with GOP prospects of seizing the district. During the last election, Haire had to fight off an unexpectedly strong attempt by Sylva Republican candidate Dodie Allen, giving Republicans added hope this time around.

Allen, a Sylva auctioneer, ran a grassroots campaign. She narrowly beat Haire in Haywood County and ended up garnering 44 percent of the vote district-wide.

One Republican candidate immediately emerged Tuesday following Haire’s announcement. Mike Clampitt of Bryson City said he’d run for the now-vacant seat.

“I believe that North Carolina is at a crossroads, and that we must bring conservative common-sense leadership to the state,” Clampitt said in a news release issued Tuesday.

But one veteran Republican struck a cautionary note on the prospect of wresting Haire’s vacated seat away from the Democrats.

“It is a good strong Democratic district,” said N.C. Rep. Roger West, R-Marble, who has served with Haire in Raleigh for more than a decade. West said bluntly that he doesn’t see Republicans being able to capture Haire’s seat given the district’s leanings.

In the Democratic field, one name being circulated is former Judge Danny Davis of Waynesville. Davis said that he’d barely had a chance to process the news Tuesday that Haire wouldn’t run before his phone started ringing from people wanting to know if he would.

“I am interested in it. I am not ready to commit just yet, but I am always interested in serving,” Davis said, adding that “Phil has done a great job and I hate to see him go.”

Davis said he had contemplated running for Haire’s seat whenever Haire retired — he just didn’t think it would be this soon.

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is probably one of the most observant watchers of the rapidly unfolding political changes in the far-western counties. Rapp’s legislative district borders Haire’s to the north. As neighboring representatives Rapp and Haire often worked together. This is a political necessity for getting anything accomplished for this slice of the state. After all, there are more state representatives from the Charlotte area alone than in all of WNC, from Murphy to Boone.

Rapp hopes that the winner of Haire’s vacated seat will be a go-to partner in the legislature, and for this reason, he isn’t about to support one candidate over another just yet.

“There are a number of qualified people who could step up and do a fine job of serving in the WNC legislature and I look forward to working with whomever the district chooses for its eventual representative,” Rapp said.


It happens to writers much better than me. I know this, because I need only to open a book and find a sentence like this one to be instantly reassured: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”

That brilliant start is by James Thurber in The Thurber Carnival at the beginning of his essay, “What do you mean it was Brillig?”

Let us break down that sentence by the master, shall we?

Thurber, like me, was clearly stuck. He was as stuck as any writer can be. “I am sitting” is writer’s code that he’d been at his desk for hours, perhaps days and weeks, waiting for inspiration. “Inspiration” is the oft-spoken-about muse fiction writers apparently visit on whim. Nonfiction writers like myself and — if I dare even write his name in such close proximity to my own presence —  Thurber, tend to find their muses on deadline. And what a wicked witch she is, the old bag.

Thurber confirms he’d been moldering at his desk for some time with his very next words: “one afternoon several weeks ago.” See? He’d been there several weeks, poor man, unable to find a topic. Think about the wedding scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations and you’ll have a nice mental picture of a columnists’ or essayists’ life when writer’s block strikes: A tortured Miss Havisham, as seen by Pip, dressed in her tattered, yellowing wedding dress and hovering near the cobweb-festooned bride cake feasted on by mice. That’s what the world of Thurber on that day looked like, waiting like Miss Havisham for something that never comes. And my writer’s torture chamber looks like that, too. The greatest or the least of us, it matters not, we suffer the same.

I know the feeling well that Thurber described in his simple sentence of being chained to the writer’s desk (I repeat it here, in case you’ve forgotten his golden words: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”)

I myself sat Sunday for at least 10 minutes staring at a blank computer screen trying to hit on something to write about before I noticed how lovely a day it was for mid December. You remember the sun shone so bright and warmly. So I went about my merry way with the mental justification, “I’ll just get up a bit early in the morning and write.”

Now, of course, it’s early in the morning and I still don’t have a topic, and I’m doing something that I swore on the sacred writer’s Bible I’d never do: I’m writing my column about not having a topic for my column.

Some of the very worst writing abuses ever found in newspapers — and that’s saying a lot given the writing abuses that are found in newspapers — have been wrought by columnists bereft of reasons to write. Columnists who have no topic of interest yet insist nevertheless on being columnists regardless of their total absence of anything meaningful to write upon.

Why, I have railed many a time against these sham writers, usually with a bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand because, my dears, one needs props when railing, though I’ve noticed that since I’ve become so amazingly humble and bourbon- and cigarette-less I tend not to rail at all … funny how it works like that.  

Thurber concludes our shining example by noting that he was “staring at a piece of blank white paper.” I’m here to note there is nothing more stimulating about staring at a blank white Microsoft word document than a blank sheet of actual paper. The key words in that sentence are the double repetition of “blank.” Nothing else matters — blank is blank, believe you me, whether it is on a computer screen or at a typewriter.

An aside: Unlike many here in this kiddy romper room that poses as The Smoky Mountain News — I jest not, the newspaper’s owners raid the state’s juvenile detention center for wayward 11- and 12-year-olds when in need of staff, they come cheaper by the dozen that way — I’m old enough to have stared mindlessly at real paper. Real, crinkly paper, children; the stuff you can hold in your hands.

Despite the uncanny similarity of us both being writers, you will be surprised to know there are a few distinct differences between Thurber and myself. First of all, he’s dead and I’m not; he was male and I’m female; we have different names; he was a Yankee and I’m a Southerner.

The End.

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


The number of people applying for library cards in Jackson County has doubled since the new library opened this summer.

Jackson’s striking increase in library use in part is a testament to just how low use was before. A dismally undersized library, limited programs and a small collection led to abnormally low per capita use at its former location. In fact, Jackson had the lowest circulation per capita and fewer library card holders per capita compared to surrounding counties — and was well under the state average in those benchmark areas.

When planning for a new library began in earnest four years ago, librarians cautioned the county not to put too much stock in the number of past library users as a yardstick for how big the future library should be. New libraries are like self-fulfilling prophecies, with more users suddenly crawling out of the woodworks as soon as its doors open.

So while it’s no surprise that library use has gone up, no one anticipated it would go up by as much as it has.

Jackson’s has gone up by much more than other counties that have recently built new libraries.

• After building new libraries, Macon County saw only a 15 percent increase in the number of people applying for new library cards, Polk saw 12 percent increase and Transylvania County saw 58 percent — nothing close to the 100 percent increase in Jackson.

• Jackson’s new library has increased by 38 percent in circulation of materials. Compared to Macon’s circulation increase of 17 percent, Transylvania’s by 27 percent and Polk’s by 20 percent.

And, with 28 public computers, computer use is up an amazing 154 percent.

A counter on the front door is also logging a huge increase in the number of library visits. For that stat, Jackson County Head Librarian Dottie Brunette said that it isn’t just people living in Jackson County driving the higher numbers, however, though they obviously are beating a track into the library.

“Daily, we get people in just to look at it,” Brunette said.


Insanely popular

The new Jackson County library in Sylva has seen skyrocketing use since it opened this summer. These numbers tell the tale, comparing use between July and November of this year at the new library compared to the same five months of last year in the old library.

                                         Old    New

Items checked out    34,735    48,112

Computer sessions    5,501    14,196

Special programs        78    382


Everyone who has seen and toured Jackson County’s new public library knows that it’s beautiful, but now the state has put an official stamp on that fact.

The library recently won the Outstanding Facility Award for new libraries larger than 26,000 square feet presented by the N.C. Public Libraries Directors Association.

Library patrons last week said they weren’t the least surprised to hear the facility was a state winner when it comes to beauty, functionality and technology.

“I love this library,” said Karen Wall, who was working on her laptop in the reference section one day last week. She was seated in a comfortable chair at a desk near huge windows affording a bird’s eye view of the Plott-Balsams mountain range.

SEE ALSO: New Jackson library a self-fulfilling prophecy

Wall described herself as a grateful library user. She is a voracious reader, one of those people who have two or more books going at a time. Fiction, nonfiction, it matters not just so long as the books involved are captivating.

“There’s a joy for me to be able to come here,” Wall said, gesturing toward the view.

That sentiment holds true for Becky Foxx of Sylva, too. Foxx’s one complaint is that the books aren’t as clearly labeled, by topics, as they were in the old library on Main Street. She was searching near the audio section for spiritual and self-help books, which were located several shelves from where Foxx actually was hunting. With 5,500 linear feet of shelving capacity — over one-mile of shelving if stretched out end to end — Foxx was finding navigation at the new county library a bit of a challenge.

That one irritant aside, Foxx loves her library. Like Wall, she said it was well worth every penny spent despite some grumbling over the price tag in certain quarters.

Jackson County’s library towers over Sylva — 107 steps up from Main Street — attached to the back of the historic courthouse complex. The new library cost $8 million, a project that also included renovating the historic courthouse as an auditorium and community meeting space.

The Jackson County Friends of the Library raised $1.8 million to outfit and furnish the new library. The cost per square foot was $282, including construction, landscaping, site improvements, architect and consultant fees and the furniture and equipment.

The librarian accept the facilities award last month in Greensboro where she presented a PowerPoint slideshow about the building at a showcase of the state awards given for facilities, programs, staff development and service innovation.

McMillan, Pazdan, Smith Architecture designed the library for Jackson County.

If there’s been one major challenge for Jackson County’s new library, it’s been parking. There just isn’t enough space on the 2.8-acre site, at least close-by, to meet demand.

There are only 73 parking spaces on top of the hill. To save those spots for library visitors, employees park in a lot down below and hoof it up the hill either from a small parking lot on Keener Street or from Mark Watson Park. The county recently improved a trail up leading the back side of the hill from Mark Watson Park and added a handrail to make the route more friendly.


Clyde’s police chief has been placed on suspension, but town leaders are not saying why.

Police Chief Derek Dendy is currently on a 30-day unpaid suspension, with the possibility of further action pending the outcome of a hearing in two weeks. Clyde Town Administrator Joy Garland cited state personnel laws as preventing the town from discussing the reasons for the suspension. Dendy has been a police officer for the town of just more than 1,300 since September 1998. He was promoted to chief in 2008.  

Mayor Jerry Walker said a pre-disciplinary hearing for Dendy is set for Jan. 9 at 2 p.m. with the five-member town board. This hearing presumably affords Dendy the opportunity to respond to further disciplinary action being considered by the board.

Walker noted town leaders opted for an unpaid suspension because otherwise, the mayor said, “it’s just a month-long vacation.”


Want to see, for free, one of the best examples of folk art to be found in Western North Carolina? Then head to the humble Hazelwood community in Haywood County and view what some of the residents living there have created using simple Christmas lights and inexpensive or homemade decorations.

This is truly art from the heart.

Thousands, literally thousands, if not actually millions, of lights festoon the trees and decorate the small former mill houses and the trailers that line Hyatt Street. Here, after dusk — in a blatant, unapologetic display of keeping-up-with-the-neighbors — one finds lit candy canes, Santas, reindeer, stars and more. Much more, starting sometime late in October until whenever the residents decide it’s time to take them down.

There are so many decorations per house that most of the people who participate in this volunteer neighborhood extravaganza are forced to buy or build individual sheds just to store their Christmas supplies.

There is a story bandied about Haywood County that the extravagant Christmas lights display on Hyatt Street started with a neighborhood competition gone mad. That, however, is not true. Though there was, indeed, at one time community Christmas lights competitions in this region, including here in Hazelwood.

The Christmas lights gala on Hyatt Street started simply enough, and this is how: more than two decades ago, some of Ronald and Cecile Fish’s then-neighbors decided to move to Pennsylvania. They gave Ronald and Cecile Fish two strings of Christmas lights rather than pack them.

From a single acorn grows a mighty oak.

Ronald Fish put up those two strings of Christmas lights, and something deep inside him grew three sizes that day. The next year, he put up more lights. Then more, and more each year, and Ronald Fish soon found the strength of 10 men, plus two, and hung lights from the house, the trees, the fence; he built more decorations, added reindeer and Santas and American flags and more, much more. Ronald Fish couldn’t stop and to this day he is still adding lights to his collection.

“I counted them one time, some years ago, and it was something over 100 strings — that’s 10,000 to 20,000 lights,” he said.

There’s a lot more than that in the Fish yard now, too many to count.

Down the street a few houses away, Ronnie Cook one Christmas season noticed the Fish yard aglow. Cook was struck by a wonderful, awful, idea: he would have more lights than his good friend Fish. He began stringing lights on trees, on his house, down the sidewalk, up the shed; he couldn’t stop and to this day he, like Fish, is still adding to his Christmas lights collection.

Across the street from Ronald Fish and a mere two houses or so from Cook, Juan and Rosy Camacho grew envious, too, of their neighbors’ yards and houses. Their mouths hung open a moment or two, until they knew what to do and so they ceased crying, “Boo Hoo.”

The Camachos started visiting box stores, thrift stores and more. They bought cases, perhaps even truckloads, of Christmas lights, and decorated their home and yard, too.

“It’s a competition thing,” Rosy Comacho freely admitted.

Other residents joined in. Though a few houses here on Hyatt Street are determinedly undecorated and dark. Perhaps in protest, or perhaps in sheer surrender to the virtuosity displayed by those who are decorating for the season.

The electric bills for these Hazelwood residents who do participate in this Christmas light festooning are insane. Cook’s jumps about $150 a month, the Camachos’ bill goes up at least $50 (they just started in the game about six years ago). And Ronald and Cecile Fish admit to their bill doubling, though they demurely shy away from saying what that electric cost is before the doubling.

One wouldn’t, after all, want to appear to brag over one’s neighbors.


It’s early on a workday, and there’s a single player seated at one of the 18 machines in the two-room M&J’s sweepstakes café, located in a small strip mall on Highlands Road in Franklin.

Louise Dills, who works at the nearby manufacturing plant Whitley Products, has casually dressed for the time she’ll spend here. The Macon County native was wearing a sweat suit, T-shirt and tennis shoes, her typical sweepstakes attire. She was playing her favorite sweepstakes game: “Candy Money.”

M&J’s is one of more than 1,000 sweepstakes cafes that have sprung up statewide, despite a ban by the General Assembly on video gambling. Dozens are here in Western North Carolina.

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

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

Dills has defied the odds, in her accounting at least. She said she’s won more money at the games than waved goodbye to. Dills won $5,800 playing Candy Money a few weeks ago. It isn’t a hard game to master, she said, putting down a cigarette into an ashtray to free her hands and visually explain the game. You simply match identical items on the screen. They match; you win, she said, pointing at the screen.

“I’ll probably never win that much again,” Dills said of that blue ribbon day. “But I really play just to take a break.”

That break could end for gamblers such as Dills if the state of North Carolina has its way. Sweepstakes cafes such as this one are in the crosshairs.

The General Assembly first banned video gambling in 2007. It didn’t take long before so-called “sweepstakes” cropped up as an alternative. Lawmakers viewed the sweepstakes as a reincarnation of video gambling under a different name, designed to circumvent the previous ban. So the General Assembly went back to the drawing board and passed another ban in 2010 aimed at putting sweepstakes cafes out of business as well — the third attempt in an ongoing game of cat and mouse between the state and video gambling industry.

But the situation didn’t turn out as black and white as lawmakers had anticipated. Lawsuits challenging the ban have allowed the games to continue, leaving local law enforcement officers confused about whether sweepstakes machines operating in their counties are illegal or not.

And, meanwhile, owners of sweepstakes cafes are arguing that any attempt to close them down is a violation of free speech rights under the First Amendment — the basis of the pending lawsuit.

“There are some people who have gambling problems,” said Melissa Hurst, the owner of M&J’s in Franklin. “But what is the difference between us doing it here, and the casino being right over the mountain?”

Or, for that matter, sweepstake proponents argue, what’s the difference from sweepstakes machines in parlors and the state-endorsed, state-managed education lottery?

The sweepstakes cafes are a helpful, if not always fully embraced, revenue source in towns such as Franklin. The municipality charges a $50 business licensing fee and a $2,600 sweepstakes fee. The towns of Canton and Maggie Valley levy comparable fees on businesses operating sweepstakes machines.

In Franklin, it adds up to about $10,000 a year in revenue for the town, according to Franklin Finance Officer Janet Anderson.

And that’s just for four sweepstakes cafes located in the town limits; there’s many more operating outside those boundaries in greater Macon County. The county, however, doesn’t levy specific fees for these types of businesses.


‘Confusing law’

Law enforcement officers in Macon County, and in most of the state, have taken a hands-off approach to the sweepstakes cafes.

“We’ve been advised by the state Attorney General’s office not to enforce the law,” Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland said. “It’s a very confusing law. We know there are people potentially abusing it, but the AG did not want us to prosecute any cases until they have a ruling.”

The state Court of Appeals held oral arguments last month on two lawsuits challenging the state’s sweepstakes ban but has not issued a ruling. The cases were first heard by lower-level courts, with those judges issuing mixed reviews on the 2010 law.

One judge upheld the entire law to ban the machines. Another judge struck down part of the law and allowed that certain machines could operate legally but also agreeing to the Free Speech argument in certain other cases.

“We have to keep watching the law, because it keeps changing,” M&J’s Hurst said.

Christy Wilson, who works in a nearby sweepstakes café owned by the same family, agreed with Hurst.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re up to date,” Wilson said.

The Buncombe County sheriff was one of the few in the state who was enforcing the state law banning sweepstakes machines. Buncombe, perhaps, has a lower tolerance for the offshoot of video gambling. Its former sheriff went to jail for his involvement in an organized crime ring centered around video poker.

After charges against those operating the sweepstakes machines were dismissed in Buncombe County court because of the pending lawsuit, the sheriff announced this month that he would suspend action against sweepstake operators.

Running sweepstakes cafes come at potential costs in the community to these business owners and workers included.

“There’s a lot of people who look down on it,” Hurst said.

Leaving possible moral implications aside, Sheriff Holland’s deputies in actuality respond to very few calls at or from the local sweepstakes cafes.

“There are few to zero problems at the establishments where these machines are set up,” Holland said.


When it comes to connecting farmers with students and substituting common cafeteria fare with fresh, local produce grown here in the mountains, Jackson County Schools stands at or near the forefront of Western North Carolina school systems.

Jackson County has encouraged students to actively grow lettuce used in the school’s cafeteria, utilized grant money to help introduce elementary school children to fresh vegetables and tapped into nutritional expertise at Western Carolina University and area community colleges. School cafeteria workers have even been taken on field trips to visit the local farms where some of the produce they use comes from.

On a recent weekday at Smoky Mountain High School, students such as Jesse Ammons were busy in the school’s greenhouse testing the waters for the airoponics lettuce they produce. The roots of airoponics lettuce are neither in soil nor water, but are misted with water droplets.

These students are part of an unusual local foods program here in Sylva that involves those in the school’s agriculture classes learning to grow salad for themselves and other students to enjoy in the school’s cafeteria. “Mustang salad,” they call it, in honor of the school’s mascot.

Ammons is busy, but he takes the time to acknowledge briefly that he does enjoy the hands-on experience he receives in this particular class.

“I do like it,” Ammons said before rushing off to complete another assigned task.



“It’s a win-win situation,” said Jim Hill, the schools’ nutritionist. “This has really helped us in ‘branding’ a salad. That means consumption of salad goes up. Just getting the word out that students’ friends have helped grow the salad gets them more interested.”

Agriculture educator Jeremy Jones said there’s been quite a learning curve to growing the lettuce. It required fieldtrips to Haywood Community College, among other things, to see it being done correctly.

The lettuce project at Smoky Mountain High School is in its third year. To serve the lettuce, Jackson County’s school system had to gain OKs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jackson County’s health department and the state Department of Public Instruction.

The students can’t grow enough lettuce to fully supply the demand of fellow students, so Hill has reached out to local farmers to help supply additional homegrown products for the cafeteria. This has helped foster ties into the local agriculture community.

Steven Beltram and wife Becca Nestler, who operate Balsam Gardens, are working with the schools in Jackson County. It hasn’t been easy circumnavigating all the federal and state regulations involved, Beltram said.

“But Jim Hill has a major interest in making it happen,” Beltram said. “So we’re hoping our work with Jackson County Schools can be sort of a pilot project and model for other school systems in the region.”

Beltram and Nestler grow organic vegetables, plus raise and sell small livestock such as pigs, turkeys, ducks and chickens off their small, diversified farm. The couple just had their first child and has a special, but understandable, interest in seeing the farm-to-schools program work.

This led them to explore renting greenhouse space at the county’s Green Energy Park. Beltram and Nestler hope to start growing hydroponics lettuce there starting this year and sell the resulting produce to Jackson County Schools.

“That’s an idea we are trying to make happen,” Beltram said.


WCU, ASAP also involved

‘Mustang Salads’ might be the flashy calling card for the local foods program in Jackson County. But there’s much more going on than just that. The schools are also working with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project to introduce kids to local food through school gardens, farm field trips and cooking demonstrations. There are “tasting” events at Cullowhee Valley School on a regular basis, where kids sample a variety of vegetables, presented in fun ways, exposing them to tastes they might not otherwise enjoy.

“It’s phenomenal what ASAP is doing here,” Hill said. “We don’t have the staff or financial ability to do and fund the amount of nutrition projects they are now helping us with.”

Specifically, ASAP was awarded a three-year grant of $600,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to integrate farm-to-school course work into the teaching college curriculum at Western Carolina University. The purpose is simple but complex: to get the future teachers of America thinking about how local foods and ultimately, get school kids eating good, locally grown foods.

Cullowhee Valley School, just across the street from WCU, has served as a learning lab for the WCU initiative.

“The students from WCU can come see farm-to-school in action,” said Emily Jackson, program director of ASAP. “They can see first hand children cooking in the classroom, children gardening, taste tests in the cafeteria.”

In addition to the pilot program at Cullowhee Valley, ASAP is working with the Head Start program run by Mountain Projects for pre-K children.

“This is new for us,” said Maggie Cramer, communications coordinator for ASAP, said. “We want to arm (students and educators) with healthy cooking techniques, and how to cook using local ingredients.”


A bank robbery at the N.C. State Employees Credit Union last week in Cullowhee saw a series of recent safety measures at Western Carolina University suddenly transform into the real thing.

In 2007, a shooter went on a rampage at Virginia Tech, resulting in universities across the nation reviewing and implementing safety protocols such as the ones WCU put into action.

The Cat Tracker, a WCU notification system previously used only to report class cancellations and scheduling changes because of weather, was activated. Sirens on campus sounded, and local and university law enforcement officers shut the campus down until a suspect, a WCU junior from Hendersonville, was arrested at his nearby apartment.

The lockdown meant students and faculty across campus were ordered to stay in rooms or buildings they were in. This precaution also applied to the standing-room only crowd gathered in the Ramsey Center’s hospitality room for a press conference unveiling the university’s new athletic director — a crowd that included Chancellor David Belcher.

Norman West, a real estate agent from Cullowhee, accepted the several-hour lockdown with patience, as most in the room seemed to do, saying he understood the necessity for the procedure. He did worry about making it to a funeral he’d planned to attend.

“Last time I remember something like this was a bomb scare in college,” West said.

The shut-ins included a number of reporters from news outlets across Western North Carolina. They were covering the athletic director announcement, ensuring the lockdown received ample and detailed coverage across the region as the journalists witnessed it first hand.

WCU Spokesman Bill Studenc described the lockdown and other safety measures that were instituted following the 10:20 a.m. robbery on Dec. 14 as proceeding “fairly smoothly.” He said that campus leaders planned to review the situation and correct any problems.

Some business owners on the Catwalk near campus complained that WCU’s radio station did not provide an alert, causing confusion as the sirens howled, and leaving restaurants still accepting and serving customers with doors open and unlocked.

Robin Lang of Catnip Café said those on the strip finally learned what was happening via the notification system, which consisted of text messages, voice calls and emails. There were reports, Studenc said, of  “some members of the campus community (who) did not heed the shelter-in-place advisory and were moving about on campus. As part of our post-incident evaluation, we will be looking at this issue and work to find additional ways to address it.”


Suspected robber used plastic gun

Deputies arrested student Brian Anthony Edwards, 21, of a Hendersonville address, on armed robbery and possession of stolen property charges. He was arrested at his apartment on Pointe Lane in Cullowhee at 12:45 p.m., a little more than two hours after the robbery.

Edwards robbed the credit union of $3,343 using a plastic gun, according to court papers on file at the Jackson County Courthouse. In the warrant issued for his arrest, the “gun” was described as closely resembling an automatic-style weapon.

Bank employees reported to police that the robber had run from the credit union on foot, and that a dye pack given to him in the stolen money exploded, according to a search warrant application written by Jackson County Detective John Buchanan.

Eyewitness descriptions of a getaway car matched an SUV found parked at “The Peaks” apartment complex.

“Jackson County deputies spoke to the owner of the vehicle and after an interview the owner of the vehicle confessed to robbing the bank, and the money was inside the apartment,” Buchanan wrote.

An inventory of items seized during a search of Edward’s apartment and vehicle included a black plastic gun under the SUV’s front passenger seat, clothes that appeared to match descriptions of ones worn by the robber also in the SUV, and a black mask on a bed in the apartment.

Edwards was jailed in lieu of a $250,000 secured bond.


Randy Eaton has been selected Western Carolina University’s new athletics director and the man designated with rescuing the school’s floundering football program.

He was greeted last week by a throng of Western Carolina University coaches, administrators, faculty and staff. Some students also turned out to meet and greet Eaton.

Abraham Faison, a freshman from Burlington and a member of WCU’s track team, was among those Dec. 14 in the standing-room only crowd in the Ramsey’s Center homecoming room. Faison said he hopes Eaton can turn around a football program that has experienced a decided losing streak. This year, the team won one game, and the last winning season was 2005, when WCU’s football team went 5-4.

Eaton promised the crowd to hire a new football coach by Christmas.

“I came because I wanted to show my support,” Faison said, adding that he also wanted to meet the man chosen to lead all of WCU’s sports programs, including track and field.

Eaton, 50, most recently served as senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland.

Eaton’s first job is to replace former Football Coach Dennis Wagner, who posted an 8-36 record in his four-year career at WCU. Wagner was forced out last month, sent on his way with a $300,000 settlement for having his contract terminated. WCU, trying to find the key to a competitive football team, has now bought out the contracts of three football coaches in a row.

A football coach could be named as early as this week, with the university Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday to consider a name.

Eaton replaces Athletic Director Chip Smith who was fired in October, paving the way for Chancellor David Belcher to hire Eaton.

The new athletics director will receive $160,000 a year under the terms of a contract that runs through June 30, 2016.

“What impresses me most about Randy is his unwavering commitment to the student-athlete and the fact that he understands that the word ‘student’ is the most important part of that hyphenated term,” Belcher said. “He is totally committed to the concept that these young people who come to our university are students first, and athletes second. That’s not to say that Randy does not want success on the fields and courts of play, because he shares the same expectations of excellence that I have for all of our sports teams.”

Belcher touted Eaton’s “passion for winning.”

Shawn Dholakia, a student manager for the WCU men’s basketball team, said he attended the meet and greet because he’s excited about a possible new and positive direction for WCU athletics.

“I’m interested in athletics, and I’m involved in it,” Dholakia said. “I wanted to hear what he had to say.”


Randy’s resume

WCU’s new athletic director Randy Eaton until last week was serving as the senior associate director of athletics at the University of Maryland. He joined the Terrapins’ athletics program in 2003 as associate director in charge of business operations. At Maryland, he was the No. 2 administrator in the athletics department and oversaw a $60 million annual operating budget. He served as interim director in 2010 and recently assumed additional responsibility for new revenues, facilities and operations.

Eaton, in addition to his stint at Maryland, also has held positions at the University of Houston, Texas A&M University, East Tennessee State University, Ohio State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio, and with the Ohio Glory of World League Football.


Just one day after being named Western Carolina University’s athletics director, Randy Eaton was shopping for purple-colored clothing at the school’s gift shop.

He had figured out, in a mere matter of hours, that at WCU employees are expected to dress in purple — and lots of it. The Catamount colors are purple and gold.

Though not wearing purple probably isn’t a firing offense, and technically at least your choice of dress colors isn’t tied to receiving tenure, if you don’t follow the “Power of Purple” unofficial dress code you’re going to feel mighty lonely in crowds of your coworkers here. Not to mention those “Purple Fridays” when employees are encouraged to participate by dressing — you got it — in purple.

Peer pressure operates at any age level.

Eaton, like other coaches and sports types here, has it relatively easy. He can simply walk into the on-campus gift shop and buy athletic apparel sporting the school’s logo and consider himself a fashionably dressed chap about campus. Other men at WCU, even administrators and professors or staff, don’t have it all that difficult, either. Sure, it’s a bit of a chore to find purple ties, but they are out there for the purchasing, including right here in Sylva.

“You can get this stuff at Walmart,” said Bill Studenc, the head of WCU’s public relations department as he fingered his purple tie.

Pity the poor women at WCU, however. You just aren’t going to find haute couture at a box store. They are instead left to scour the earth for purple.

“Anywhere I can get my hands on it, I buy it,” said Jennifer Brown, WCU’s associate athletics director. “Belks, T.J. Maxx, wherever.”

“Yes, it is power shopping with a goal in mind,” agreed Sue Arakas, an Asheville native who serves as associate commissioner for the Southern Conference. She was here to welcome Eaton to his new post at a press conference and reception last week.

Arakas, who must make visits to all 12 universities in SoCon, buys a variety of clothing to meet each school expectation. On this day, she was sporting a purple top, hurriedly purchased for this visit to WCU — one must be careful not to show up in, say, the blue and white colors of The Citadel when visiting this rival campus. If all else fails, Arakas reaches for pink.

“That’s nobody’s colors,” she said in explanation. And, unlikely ever to be — what self-respecting football team is going to dress out in pink?

WCU Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach Jonelle Streed has learned during her three seasons here that there’s a simple, and inexpensive, way to meet WCU’s purple-fashion madness.

“Just go black, and buy and wear purple undershirts with it,” Streed said.

But one must be careful with black, said Jill Ingram, who works in public relations for the university. Pair black with the WCU school-color gold, and you might find yourself burned at the stake or something along those lines. Black and yellow is arch rival Appalachian State’s school colors.

Ingram was suffering deeply at this event from an unmistakable, never-to-be-forgotten fashion faux pas: she’d forgotten about the Eaton event, and arrived not in the obligatory purple, but in a raspberry-sorbet colored sweater.

Never fear, Ingram said, she does have purple-colored clothing in her closet.

“Every time I go to consignment or thrift, I look for purple,” she said nervously as she defended herself from possible censure.

Purple items, in these days of massive university layoffs, are probably more easily available in Jackson County’s used clothing shops than ever before.

Ingram, like other women at the event, expressed awe and a certain measure of envy over Susan Belcher’s ability to not just stylishly wear purple, which she certainly does, but to actually accessorize each outfit. On this day, Belcher was dressed in black with a purple top and purple earrings, a purple necklace and a Liz Claiborne purple handbag.

Belcher’s husband, David, became chancellor this summer. Belcher immediately understood that unlike at their last school posting, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where the school colors of maroon and silver were rarely worn outside of sports events, purple dominates at WCU — from the classroom to the ballroom.

“I look everywhere for it now,” Belcher said. “When I see purple, and if it’s affordable, I buy it. You can’t go overboard, you can’t wear too much purple at WCU.”

Fortunately, Belcher said, purple is “in” this year, allowing her to stock her closet for possible drought years in the future.


Christmas tree farming is nothing new in Western North Carolina thanks to the perfect climate, perfect soil and preponderance of mountainsides — terrain that leaves farmers with few options for cultivating crops suited to slopes. Tree farms run the gamut, from a dirt farmer plunking down a half-acre of trees on the hill behind his house to massive wholesale tree dealers with thousands of acres in production.

Tom and Myra Sawyer of the Glenville community in southern Jackson County, however, have taken the traditional WNC Christmas tree farm and turned that concept on its ear. The Sawyers transformed their chose-and-cut tree farm into a little slice of the North Pole, complete with a visiting Santa and a cadre of elves.

In doing so, the couple has tapped into the growing agri-tourism niche. Plus they’ve provided scores of their Glenville and Cashiers neighbors with sorely needed seasonal employment. Up to 50 people work on the farm this time of year — not counting those employed through their wreath-making shop, year-round tree farm operation and the four retail Christmas tree lots they operate in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. It also doesn’t take into account the large number of family members Tom and Myra Sawyer also provide jobs for. Or the burgeoning wedding-destination sideline they’ve recently started.

Tom Sawyer, in a quiet way in a remote section of the region, is putting a whole lot of folks to work.


Elves abound in Glenville

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm & Elf Village is simply not like anything else you find in the region. There are Christmas trees for the choosing, a Christmas-themed shop, rides on horse-drawn wagons, an elf village and a whole lot of “elves.” Thousands of people make the curvy, challenging drive here each season, Sawyer said, from as far away as Atlanta and Upstate South Carolina.

The story, as Tom Sawyer relates it, is that Santa Claus sometime in the 1940s crashed his sleigh in Glenville. The elves opted to stay in this location, hence the elf village that resulted. (It wasn’t clear how this many elves — scores of them, in fact — could have squeezed onto that small sleigh with Santa, but facts shouldn’t stand in the way of a good story.)

There is a small elf chapel, an elf outhouse, an elf naughty-time out-hut and much, much more. Once Sawyer, a former certified public accountant from Florida who started growing trees here in 1982, gets an idea you’d better watch out. Because what he conceptualizes he makes happen.

The youngest child of older parents, Sawyer said that in many ways he grew up more as a little adult than an actual kid.

“I guess I’m now reliving my childhood somehow that I never had,” Sawyer said, gesturing toward the elf village.

From the looks of it, the entire community is doing the same. Take Debra Adams, dressed in her elf costume greeting people as they arrive at the farm. Adams’ two nieces also work at Sawyer’s Christmas extravaganza, one doing face painting, the other storytelling.

Adams is a professional photographer who made the move here from Mississippi to be with her sister and nieces.

“I came up, and decided to move the business here,” Adams said. “In the meantime, this is really helping pay for Christmas. (The Sawyers) have really helped with jobs in this area during these slow periods.”

That makes Sawyer very happy.

“We’ve been able to put a lot of people to work,” Sawyer said. “It’s pretty amazing. Especially in this recession, it brings tears to your eyes the people who call and need jobs  — there’s just no economy here this time of year.”

Until recently, Sawyer kept a herd of reindeer on the farm. For a variety of natural reasons, he said, the herd dwindled out. Sawyer wants to restart the reindeer portion of his business, but a state quarantine on importing the animal has prevented that from happening to date.

Reindeer didn’t just attract additional visitors. A few years ago, Sawyer took a cell call from his daughter, who reported a really huge animal was hanging out on the 80-acre farm. It turned out that one of the reintroduced elk from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had made its way from Cataloochee Valley in Haywood County all the way to Glenville. Apparently missing the camaraderie of fellow hoofed beasts during its wanderings, it took up residence with Sawyer’s reindeer.

Rangers came, and with some difficulty, captured the elk and took it back home.

Visitors, particularly the youngest ones but adults, too, seem to enjoy this not-like-any-other Christmas tree farm.

“It’s very nice,” said Michael Atkins, who was at the Sawyers’ farm on Saturday picking out a Christmas tree with his wife, Suitlana. The couple live on Big Ridge in Glenville for eight months of the year, and the rest of the time they stay in sunny Florida.


Getting there

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm and & Elf Village is open through Dec. 24, and is located at 240 Chimney Pond Road in Glenville, off N.C. 107 on the way to Cashiers from Sylva. There are ample signs in the community to help you locate the farm once you get to the area, or call 828.743.5456 or 800.662.7008.


If you haven’t covered your greens yet — and I’m among those who have not — it’s time. We’ve been favored by a long, relatively warm fall, but these 20 degrees nights cause wear and tear on our mustard, collards, turnips and whatever else currently survives outside. A telephone call this past weekend from a friend in search of row cover (I had some extra to spare) served as a reminder. Cover those greens, and you’ll get a lot more out of them than you would otherwise. A few nights below 20 degrees without protection, and they’ll disappear on us.


The last time I wrote about using row cover I received an email from a nice fellow, I think from up in the Cashiers area, who thanked me for my suggestion to use it liberally and often in the winter garden. “But what, exactly, is row cover?” he asked ever so politely after delivering several effusive compliments about my writing style intended as balm to remove any possible sting from the question. I felt more than a little embarrassed by my failure to actually define what I was writing about. As my new friend Harold is prone to ask, don’t they teach that in Journalism 101?

Harold, I’m discovering, likes to read my articles and columns and, in a jolly way, note any little journalistic errors I’ve committed that week. Everybody needs a Harold in their life; I’m glad I found mine. Harold keeps me humble and amused. But anyway, back to row cover.

So this is for the email writer and Harold: Row cover, my friends, is a type of material placed over crops to provide protection from either insects or, in the winter, cold. Or, to be more precise, to protect plants from the damaging and drying of winds — the chill and thaw and chill and thaw cycles destroy garden greens and other vegetables much more quickly than low temperatures ever will. I use a product called Agribon 19, which in theory provides a mere 4 degrees of frost protection. But in reality, that thin barrier also breaks the wind — and that’s where the vegetables get the truly needed protection. Agribon is readily available through almost any garden supply company.


I also haven’t planted either my garlic or flower bulbs. It isn’t too late, so if your neglected bulbs are in the corner of the garage as mine still are, pick a day soon and go ahead and plant them. I’ve heard of people actually not getting their garlic in until January. Now that is pushing the garlic growing season a bit far, but those farmers say the crop is usually productive even with the planting so amazingly delayed. But if the ground freezes and stays frozen, which can happen anytime now, we’ll all be out of luck, period. So get those garlic and bulbs in — I plan to.


I’ve planted carrots the week before Christmas in previous years with success. Those sown then will germinate one warm day and simply sit there, seemingly without much growth, until daylight hours lengthen. Then the carrots rapidly grow, giving the early bird gardener an early bed of carrots, indeed. The trick is to double cover the carrots after planting the seed. You can plant this bed anytime from now through whenever — to me, this early carrot planting marks the beginning of the new garden season.


And speaking of new garden seasons, this is a fine time to get your garden soil tested through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. The lab folks can get to it much faster right now than will be the case in the spring, giving you the jump on amending it as necessary. I have not actually ever followed this advice and tested my soil early, but it’s good advice nonetheless, and I’ve enjoyed intoning it for others’ benefit in an ever-so-wise gardener’s voice.

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


The price tag of transforming Western Carolina University’s losing football team into a winner — or anything less than a total embarrassment to Catamount fans — keeps rising, leaving students, alumni, faculty and staff at odds about whether the cost is just too high.

So how much is too much?

WCU recently paid $300,000 to buy out the latest head football coach deemed a loser. Dennis Wagner is the third straight coach WCU has bought out since 2001. And now, WCU wants to kick more than $1 million into the salaries of a new athletic director and for a replacement football coach.

Punt already, some students said this week: It’s just not worth it, particularly when students are facing a just announced, almost certain to be implemented $399-a-year increase in annual tuition and fees.

Other students, however, are calling for a push toward the end zone: a winning football team, they argued, is an integral part of a student’s university experience.

Chancellor David Belcher makes that argument, too.

“I feel that a successful athletics program is critical to a university,” he said in an email interview with The Smoky Mountain News. “And football, while just one part of an overall athletics program, is an important and visible component. In our region, it is fair to say that football is the most visible sport.”


High costs keep escalating

A typical WCU undergraduate student living on-campus and eating at the cafeteria can expect to pay $11,775 next year. Of that amount, $688 from each student will help fund the university’s athletic programs — a $71 increase when compared to last year.

By comparison, Wagner received $940,000 via WCU’s coffers for the four years he was on the job, including the $300,000 contract termination settlement.

“I just don’t think the football coaches should get paid what they’re paid,” Joshuah Gross, a WCU student said bluntly, shaking his head over the amount of money Wagner pulled down.

Gross ran out of money to attend WCU and is headed to a local community college to continue his education. He works at Rolling Stone Burrito on campus to earn his living.

“The team is terrible, and here they are planning to sink even more money into a failing program,” Gross said one day last week. “The professors are suffering — they need to redirect that money into other areas, like into the engineering department.”

WCU administrators have seen cash-strapped North Carolina cut the university’s budget $32 million since the 2008-2009 year.

Senior T.J. Eaves, the student body president at WCU and a former high school football player, views the situation differently than Gross, his former university classmate.

“To the student body a good team is very important. It directly contributes to the student experience,” Eaves said, adding that he believes most students “were excited for a change in the program.”

And, Eaves emphasized, most students supported Chancellor Belcher’s decision to make changes, including paying a failed football coach that $300,000 buyout fee.

Belcher didn’t shy from confirming that he was hired by WCU with certain expectations when it comes to the football team.

“In my conversations with the search committee, and later with the Board of Trustees, it became clear that improving the performance of the athletics program would, indeed, be an expectation of the next chancellor,” Belcher said. “And that expectation meshes perfectly with my expectations. I expect excellence in athletics, including football, just like I expect excellence in academics, in our Honors College, in our marching band, in everything we do at Western Carolina.”


Making tough decisions

WCU’s football program has been on a decided losing streak, winning only two or three games a year and garnering some nine losses. This year it won only one game. The team’s last winning season was 2005, when WCU went 5-4.

“My roommate and I went every time they were home playing this season,” said graduate student Tim Willis. “And the football team was really bad. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. Nobody at Western gives a (expletive) about the football team — we are all there for the marching band. They are just great.”

Willis wants to see WCU pump money back into academics, not sports.

But it just isn’t that simple, Faculty Senate Chair Erin McNelis said. Prior to joining the Faculty Senate, McNelis said she hadn’t really understood the budgeting formulas universities labor under.

There’s different pots of money, and “that’s not money we (academics) could have had anyway,” said McNelis, a math and computer science professor. “And, while my interest is predominantly academics, I recognize that students’ educations include more than that — we have an engagement component.”

Academics are funded primarily through the state and tuition. But athletics have their own funding stream, including ticket sales, sponsorships and donations.

The lion’s share — $5 million of the $8.4 million athletics budget — comes from the $688 fee assessed to each student to pay for sports.

The university also kicks in $1.2 million, justified as institutional support because it goes toward scholarships for student athletes and to pay the salaries of coaches who also teach academic courses. The university plans to phase out this funding over the next four years, however, making athletics self-sustaining.

Jason Lavigne is chair of WCU’s Staff Senate and a database administrator for the university. He’s also a WCU alumnus, and a fervent believer in building the university’s football program.

“Like it or not, the football team is a big face of the university,” Lavigne said.


Alumni pride means big bucks

Coach Wagner’s exit followed an undistinguished 8-36 record, including a recent 51-7 shellacking during homecoming by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team. That horror led to outcries from alumni, which helped in the forced exodus of Athletic Director Chip Smith, who had previously extended Wagner’s contract. The WCU Board of Trustees, it should be noted, had endorsed the contract extension.

Fred Cantler, WCU’s longtime senior associate athletics director for internal operations, came out of retirement to serve as interim director of athletics. WCU is expected to name a new athletics director Wednesday, Dec. 12.

“Not all of a student’s collegiate experience is inside the classroom,” Cantler said. “It’s very important that the university’s programs are successful.”

One huge reason is financial, university leaders acknowledged. Happy alumni make more frequent, and substantially larger, donations.

“Obviously, the more success that teams are having on the fields and courts of play, the more likely alumni and other donors are to contribute toward those programs,” Belcher said. “It’s human nature to want to rally around a winner. But more important than winning, I think, is being sure that we are able to field teams that are competitive … (that) translates into both a larger number of donors and into higher amounts of donations over time.”

Laura Leatherwood of Haywood County has three degrees from WCU. She served on the search committee tasked with picking the university’s replacement athletics director.

Asked whether WCU had difficulty finding anyone willing to take the job, Leatherwood laughed and replied “no” — there were many eager candidates, she said, adding that the selection they made should prove an excellent one.

Leatherwood said athletics, along with other university programs, help students with “professional development, personal development and their networking” abilities. It helps build “good character,” she said. And, like so many others, Leatherwood emphasized that the university experience isn’t isolated to academics.

Betty Jo Allen, president of the WCU Alumni Association, could have been singing a duet with Leatherwood. Allen lives in Lincolnton and drove here to WNC to attend every home game played in Cullowhee this season.

“I’m a big supporter of the team,” said Allen, who attended WCU from 1964 through 1968. “I love athletics, and I love football.”

Allen taught in North Carolina’s public school system for 37 years. She emphasized that what is often lost in the argument about football at WCU is that the arguing is about kids — the football players are students, too. They might be losing games, but they are still just young adults trying to find their ways in the world, Allen said.

She added that it should be noted that the cumulative grade point average of WCU’s football team for spring semester 2010 (2011 fall semester still being under way), was the highest in recent memory.

That said, Allen still wants a winning football team as much as anyone associated with WCU.

“I want us to be competitive,” she said. “In everything. I want it all.”

Asked if the price tag is simply too high when academics at WCU are suffering from what Belcher himself has described as “staggering cuts,” Allen hesitated, then said: “I’m just really glad I’m not the one who has to make those kinds of decisions.”


WCU athletics by the numbers

• $8.4 million Total athletic budget

• $1.4 million Athletic Departent deficit over four years

• $400,000 projected deficit for this year

• $1.275 million Amount contributed by university

• $5 million Amount raised through student fees

• $688 Student fee assessed this year

• $71 Increase in per student fee over last year

• $252,000 Amount from ticket sales

• $55,000 Decrease in ticket sales compared to last year

• $19,000 Decrease in sponsorships/royalties compared to last year

• $4,500 Decrease in novelty/program sales compared to last year

• $2.46 million Amount spent on athletic scholarships


Western Carolina University hired a new athletic director this week who will face the daunting challenge of turning the college’s losing football team around.

The official announcement will be made on campus Wednesday morning with an appearance by the new AD.

The new AD will face the tall order of rebuilding the football program — something that his predecessor failed to do and by all accounts is the reason he isn’t there anymore.

Sports has seen a renewed emphasis under Chancellor David Belcher, who pledged to improve the athletic department when he took over this summer.

“Athletics is a front door or front porch to the institution,” Belcher said last month during a kick-off for the athletic director search. “Athletics provides visibility for the university, it grounds students in the institution, and it is a way to keep in contact with donors and alumni.”

Belcher called the hiring an “important decision.”

A 15-member search committee culled through 75 applications for the athletic director position during the month of November, a recruitment process aided by the hired consulting firm Collegiate Sports Associates.

The search committee narrowed the field to seven candidates for interviews. Their top two finalists were passed along to Belcher last week, who made the final pick. While names have not been released by the university, the Asheville Citizen-Times and WLOS have reported that Tom Kleinlein, the deputy athletic director at Kent State, and Randy Eaton, Maryland’s senior associate athletics director for new revenue, facilities and operations, were finalists.

Belcher then held a conference call meeting of the WCU Board of Trustees Monday morning to get approval for the salary, benefits and contract being offered for the new AD. While the choice of who to hire is Belcher’s, the contract terms must be approved by the trustees. The salary will be $160,000 with a five-year contract until June 2016.

After the meeting, Belcher formally extended the offer, and it was accepted.


Game on

Job No. 1 for the new athletic director will be hiring a new football coach. It might not be as easy as it sounds. Since 2001, WCU has sent three football coaches packing before their contracts ended for losing too many games.

The most recent causality was former coach Dennis Wagner, forced out just before the last game of the season. The assistant head coach met a similar fate.

In four years, Wagner won only eight of the 36 games the team played. This season was the worst, however. Wagner won just one game this year — a statistic that ultimately brought the athletic director down as well.

Former Athletic Director Chip Smith was blamed at least in part for the football coaches’ failures — or at the very least for keeping the coaches around despite their poor showings. In his seven years at WCU, Smith twice supported extending the contracts for coaches who were later fired. And in both cases it cost the university, which had to pay out settlements for terminating the coaches’ contracts.

While WCU is paying Wagner $300,000 for the two years left on his contract, the negotiated settlement is less than the full amount his contract called for — a compromise both sides felt was in their best interest.

During the athletic director search process, Belcher said he wanted someone who could “hire, retain and mentor excellent coaches.” But it will also take financial savvy and a good PR face.

WCU is running a $400,000 deficit in its athletic program this year, fueled in part by declining attendance at games, declining sponsorships and even fewer sales of programs and souvenirs.

“We need someone who can build a strategically designed budget, who can manage very carefully the limited resources we do have while also playing a major role in bringing new resources to the table,” Belcher said. “We must grow our resources, in partnership with others, through fundraising, increased ticket sales and additional sponsorships.”


A timeline of  WCU sports turmoil

• Oct. 25: Athletic Director Chip Smith is fired after eight years in the position.

• Oct. 31: Assistant Head Football Coach Matt Pawlowsk is fired.

• Nov. 13: Head Football Coach Dennis Wagner is forced out, getting a $300,000 settlement for time left on his contract.

• Dec. 14 New athletic director is named.

• TBA: New head football coach named.


Stay tuned

A press conference announcing the new WCU athletic director will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, in the Hospitality Room of the Ramsey Center. Check www.smokymountainnews.com starting at 11 a.m. for updates. A community meet-and-greet session will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 14, at O’Malley’s of Sylva.


Western Carolina University students likely will shell out an additional $399 in tuition and fees to attend school next year, an increase in dollars that some on campus said will be hard for them to come by.

It’s likely to be most difficult for students such as Kayla Damons. A Tennessee resident who transferred to WCU last year, Damons faces the daunting task of paying higher out-of-state tuition requirements.

Damons, a biology major, said she expects she’ll be some $30,000 in debt after gaining an undergraduate degree. A tuition and fee hike, she said, certainly won’t help ease that burden.

“It’s really kind of scary,” Damons said, taking a short break to chat from her job at the Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee, where she works to pay her way through school. “But then there’s nothing you can do about the cost if you want an education.”

It’s not just students who are worried. Mad Batter owner Jeannette Evans said she believes there’s a constant trickledown occurring in the local economy, and that a tuition and fee hike at WCU also won’t help local businesses such as her restaurant.

“It seems you have to do more and offer more just to stay at the status quo,” such as offering additional menu items and keeping earlier and later hours, the 14-year restaurant owner said.

This year’s expected increase follows campus-wide discussion on the issue among students, perhaps the first time that sort of direct budget participation by the student body has taken place here. The University of North Carolina Board of Governors must approve WCU’s proposed tuition and student fee hike, however, before it becomes policy.

With the proposed changes approved by the trustees, WCU’s total cost of attendance in 2012-13, including on-campus housing and the most-popular meal plan, would be $11,775 per year for a typical N.C. undergraduate, according to WCU spokesman Bill Studenc.


The decision wasn’t unanimous

T.J. Eaves, student body president, helped broker something of a compromise on the proposed increase. Eaves and Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs, co-chaired a campus committee on the proposed tuition and student fees.

The increase easily could have been steeper than the 3 percent eventually arrived at. And some trustee members said, for the long-term well-being of the university, that it should have been.

Severe financial constraints — WCU has seen the state cut more than $32 million since the 2008-09 fiscal year  — have left the school scrambling to pay bills. WCU isn’t alone. The UNC system, because of budget cuts across North Carolina, authorized universities such as WCU to begin to “catch-up” with rates charged at similar-type institutions.

A study by the UNC General Administration showed that WCU is charging $1,360 less per year for tuition than the “least expensive quartile of peer institutions.”

Under a graduated plan approved by WCU’s trustees by a 9-2 vote last week, 15 percent of the $1,360 “catch-up” increase would be implemented in year one, 20 percent in year two, 25 percent in years three and four, and 15 percent in year five.

Two of the trustees urged the university to play catch-up over four years instead of the five agreed upon. Trustee Pat Kimberling said that would add an additional $48 to each student’s bill annually, for a $447 increase.

“The job of the Board of Trustees is to look after the long term well-being of the university,” Kimberling said. “The students who voted on this proposal will be gone … sometimes, in a custodial position, you have to make hard decisions.”

Trustee Carolyn Coward, who joined Kimberling in voting against the adopted recommendation, added that she believed “that we need to take advantage of this opportunity as quickly as we can, because we may never have this opportunity again.”


Listening to the students

But Trustee Wardell Townsend said the board needed to show students they were willing to listen.

“The students are not just our wards, they are consumers. And they are paying for a product,” Townsend said, adding that by accepting the students’ compromise proposal, the trustees “tell the student body that they are truly invested and that we truly hear them. They spoke; we made the adjustment.”

And that, Townsend said, would result in a “true dialogue” among administrators, the Board of Trustees and the university’s students.

What went unsaid is that by adopting the student-forged compromise, the board of trustees would endorse a new method of leadership being instituted at WCU under new Chancellor David Belcher. He took over this summer with promises to build transparency and cooperation into the system by including all stakeholders in university issues.


Rumors of an impending closing to the contrary, The Coffee Shop in Sylva is not shutting down, owner Phyllis Gibson said this week.

“We’ve heard it, too,” Gibson said. “I had a woman customer come in this morning and say she’d been praying over it.”

The rumor includes actual nitty-gritty details. That Gibson plans to close the Sylva mainstay for burgers, fries and slices of pie not for economic reasons, but because she and the workers there are tired. The Coffee Shop opened in 1926.

“We are tired,” Gibson said in reply. “But that don’t make no difference — we’re still not closing.”

Gibson said that a slew of recent business shutdowns in Sylva might have fueled the rumor of The Coffee Shop’s imminent demise, particularly the recent shutdown of Annie’s Naturally Bakery on Main Street. Additionally, 49-year-old Cope’s Superette will close next week. The decades-old Kentucky Fried Chicken on N.C 107 closed a few weeks ago, too.


It’s 8 a.m. and the everyday regulars — Sylva’s working class Janes and Joes — are stopping by Cope’s Superette on Mill Street for packs of cigarettes, morning newspapers, soft drinks, candy and other breakfast necessities you grab when on the go and in a hurry.

“Hey, Tanya,” says Jeremy Edmonds. He’s at Cope’s to buy a bag of Bugler tobacco on his way to work at Whittier Automotive. Times are hard. Like many smokers, Edmonds has taken to rolling his own cigarettes to save a few dollars.

Edmonds is one of many who walk in and greet storeowner Tanya Calhoun-Cope by first name. Ed Cope, her father, and Fred Cope, her grandfather, opened the store 49 years ago.

It’s been left to Calhoun-Cope to shut Cope’s down, for good, come Dec. 23.

Edmonds, at 24, has never known his hometown absent Cope’s Superette. In fact, he worked here for a short time following high school. He managed to accidentally set a trashcan on fire with a smoldering cigarette butt. It’s a story he and Calhoun-Cope joke together about. They are happy, for the moment at least, to have a fresh set of ears to hear their well-honed, practiced tale.

These are difficult times for Calhoun-Cope. She’s been six years coming to grips with her decision — her desire, actually — to close the family’s namesake store. Calhoun-Cope kept Cope’s Superette open during those years since her mother, Anne, died; unwilling to take that step she knew, one day, she must.

“I’m just tired of doing it,” Calhoun-Cope says in explanation. “This is not what I wanted to do. I’m going to go back to the laboratory.”

She wants to return to the medical field, to use the education she acquired at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville after graduating from Swain County High School. To, frankly, do something else with her life rather than operate a corner store. But closing Cope’s Superette feels like a funeral, Calhoun-Cope says. She’s grieving; so are Cope’s many customers.

“Stopping here is almost like a habit,” Edmonds says. “And we’ve had so many small businesses close down. It is sad to see them leave. I sure hope more businesses will come in and rejuvenate the downtown.”

There’s a moment in the film “The Fugitive” when actor Harrison Ford is walking on Mill Street. What you see in that sequence is Cope’s Superette. But the store has been more to this community than just quaint local color.

Before new technology surged, opening fast and more direct flows of information, and before newspapers started their corresponding spiraling declines, Cope’s Superette functioned as a classic newsstand. Cope’s was where you picked up copies of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Charlotte Observer, the Raleigh News and Observer, The New York Times and any of a dozen or so community newspapers in the area. Calhoun-Cope remembers when the store sold 150 newspapers each Sunday.

Atlanta, Charlotte and other metro newspapers stopped delivery to this region as cost-saving measures. Even some of the community newspapers stopped deliveries, Calhoun-Cope said.

There weren’t a lot of these classic newsstands such as Cope’s to begin with. The other well-known one in Western North Carolina was the Curb Market on Main Street in Waynesville. It shut in 2004 following the death of the market’s original owner, Adeline Patrick. The store passed on to her children. They were forced to supplement the store from their own pockets to stay afloat until finally accepting, like Calhoun-Cope, that it was time to say goodbye. Waynesville mourned the loss of the last place on Main Street where a simple loaf of bread, candy bar or boiled peanuts could be found.

Mind you, Cope’s Superette isn’t just a simple newspaper stand. There are magazines, books, T-shirts, party items — the glorious eclectic mix of items every great corner store found in small mountain towns once boasted.

Crystal Styles of Bryson City and Beth Maynor of Whittier work in a medical services practice in Sylva near Cope’s Superette. They aren’t quite sure what they’ll do each morning for their drinks and food once the store closes.

“We’re here almost daily,” Styles says. “We’ll miss it.”

And so will everyone else in Sylva.


I normally veer from airing my opinion as a columnist in the editorial pages on issues that I cover as a news writer in the news pages for The Smoky Mountain News.

In my world, and in the worlds of most respectable reporters and editors, news is news and opinion — well, the less said about that the better. It’s easier to pretend that we were born into this world devoid of any such thing (opinion? what’s that? never heard of it) than to try and explain the more accurate, but deeply complex, truth. That yes, of course, we news gatherers do have opinions about the stories we cover.

We are human; humans have opinions.

But, as the wise judge instructs the jury, our job isn’t to be devoid of opinions: that’s impossible. Our job, whether jury or news gatherer, is to set those opinions aside. For the jury, the goal is to render a verdict in accordance with law; for reporters, the goal is to report stories based on facts.

All that said, and I now want to comment in this column on two recent news topics I’ve covered as a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News.

One is Swain County High School’s successful capture of its eighth state football championship. As a 1984 graduate of that fine institution, and as a former Maroon Devils marching band member who sat in the stands and froze her rear end off year after year during numerous championship runs, I can’t help but give a shout-out to the school. Go Maroon Devils!

(And for the record, I’d like everyone to note that I do know how to use an apostrophe correctly. My headline to the contrary last week, a single Devil most certainly did not play all those football games this season.

In an “oh, oops” moment, the apostrophe wondered away from its rightful place in the headline — Devils’ — to inside the “s,” hence the embarrassing, and suddenly singular, “Devil’s.” Hey, there’s no doubt the football team is amazing, but it is made up of many devils, not simply one devil.)

Winning a state championship is a big deal. And I’ll tell you what’s an even bigger deal in my book — that Swain County did it with Coach Sam Pattillo placing such a decided emphasis on academics.

Earlier this year, former staff writer Colby Dunn (who, in a moment of insanity, accepted a job in Holland as an au pair. I kid you not, she’s in that fine country at this moment learning to speak Dutch and shepherding about two towheaded Dutch children) wrote a terrific story about the Swain football team’s reading program.

Pattillo teamed with English department head Dawn Gilchrist-Young, both fine products of Swain County High School — I’m certain neither of them would put an apostrophe on the wrong side of the “s” — in developing the program. Each summer, team members read books intended to both capture football players’ interests and enhance these student athletes’ reading skills.

Pretty cool, that’s my opinion; and even cooler now that the Devils up and won a state championship. Perhaps other area schools could institute the same reading program.

Story No. 2: I wrote this week about “preppers,” or people getting ready for they don’t know what — the Rapture or the next blizzard, they’re not sure, but by golly they aren’t going to be caught unawares and unprepared.

This is a hard subject to strike the correct tone on.

It’s difficult frankly to write about preparedness without making the people involved sound like a bunch of nuts. But also to write an article that does not stray into the nutty side that does permeate this topic.

Anyone reading this column on an even occasional basis must realize that I’m a true believer in sustainable living. I like being able to do for myself, to know how to raise vegetables and animals, and to have adequate knowledge and skills to take care of me and mine. I’m currently living in an all-solar powered house, I have a garden, I take care of livestock, and I preserve food. Does this make me a nut? Well, OK, I may be a nut, but not because I believe in sustainability. That’s perhaps the sanest part of my personality.

Sustainability is fun, sustainability is friendly to this planet, and sustainability is smart.

A small, and to me at this point in my life, an amusing confession: Before I abstained from drinking, one of my biggest concerns when it comes to sustainability was being absolutely sure I would have an adequate supply of drinks even if the world as we know it ended. I learned to brew a variety of alcoholic beverages, from moonshine to wine. I, at least, wasn’t going to go without a drink even if the world’s supply lines of booze suddenly went dry.

I noticed brewing books being sold in Carolina Readiness Supply in Waynesville. This makes me suspect that I wasn’t the only person paddling that particular sustainability boat. I’ve also noticed in recent years that some seed catalogues have taken to offering tobacco seed (often amazingly touted as “organic,” as if that mattered when you smoke cigarettes) for the home grower.

I guess in the event of apocalypse the human race will go out with a smoke in one hand and a drink in the other. Even in these days as a committed nondrinker and nonsmoker, I admit that sounds like a pretty damn fine way to say goodbye.

Bottoms up, a puff of smoke and The End.

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


An expected rubberstamp by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners to build a new auditorium and gym at Smoky Mountain High School took a brief — but wild while the ride lasted — turn this week.

Commissioners have already expressed support for the $10.5 million project and by all indications, were poised to sign off this week on a $500,000 architectural contract.

Commissioner Doug Cody instead suggested that the county’s leaders give consideration to an even grander concept. Cody said he’d been waking up early in the mornings lately stewing over. Cody suggested combining the gym and auditorium into a multi-purpose arena that could host events with the potential to draw tourists.

“I’m asking the indulgence of the school board and my fellow commissioners here to explore that option,” Cody said. “A high school play isn’t going to fill your hotels, it is not going to fill your restaurants.” But, an events arena might, he said.

Cody’s suggestion received the welcome of a bottle fly landing on a newly baked cake. School board members, sitting in the audience with county school administrators, assumed their best blank expressions, but some unhappy murmurs erupted.

Commissioner Joe Cowan spoke out against the idea, saying that chorus, band and theater students deserve their own fine arts center just as much as athletes deserve a gym.

“We’ve got a plan here that’s been in the making for 35 years. It looks good; it’s what the school board says that they want,” Cowan said.

When everything shook down, commissioners simply voted 5-0 to approve the construction designs as originally presented by educators. Cody ultimately joined in the vote to approve the design contract.

“You know when you’re whipped,” a visibly frustrated Cody said.

Cody wasn’t left totally high and dry on his proposal. Fellow GOP party member Commissioner Charles Elders did attempt to place girders under his sinking colleague, asking forcefully but somewhat obscurely: “This is a bad economy … when are we going to bounce out of it, and who is going to pay for it?”

In an interview after the meeting, School Board member Elizabeth Cooper emphasized to The Smoky Mountain News that her board’s members did deeply appreciate the county chipping-in the required funds. Her fellow board member, Ali Laird-Large, said she was “ecstatic” that the project can now move forward.


Jackson County’s subdivision ordinance is destined for more tweaking by the planning board.

The planning board spent several months revising the county’s four-year-old subdivision ordinance before sending the recommended changes along to county commissioners for approval this week. Commissioners promptly sent the revised ordinance back to the planning board for more review, but not before some speakers expressed their vehement displeasure with the proposed changes. Others said during a public hearing that they, however, believed commissioners were on the right track to “streamline” the rules.

Not all the commissioners are convinced the ordinance needs changing.

“This puts the developer first, and the potential homeowner and environment second,” Commissioner Joe Cowan said, adding that he hated “to see this watered down with one fell swoop.”

While some of the proposed changes are more favorable to developers, others are more strict. Other changes are aimed at simplifying the language, such as stipulating that road building follows state standards instead of dictating those standards verbatim, as done in the current ordinance. Cullowhee resident Roy Osborn said some of the changes make sense but cautioned that he believes Planner Gerald Green’s expressed desire to “balance the needs of developers, future subdivision property owners, the environment and the citizens of Jackson County” is mistaken in its emphasis: leave out the developers, Osborn said, and the planner’s got it about right.

“This structure better prioritizes ‘needs’ from the global to the individual perspective,” he said.

Additionally, Osborn suggested adding language requiring engineers and land surveyors to provide “rigorous cost estimates” of surety bond amounts. This, he said, would help ensure that planned roads are completed if the developer defaults. He also said that if initially approved design thresholds are exceeded, such as increased slope or lessened roadway width, then a “certified roadway design professional” should be involved in a variance review.

But, Roger Clapp of the Watershed Association of the Tuckasegee River said with just a few adjustments, he could support the proposed ordinance changes.

“It is rural mountain roads that supply mud to the streams, first and foremost,” Clapp told commissioners.

And, in fact, he said, the ordinance changes proposed by Green and the planning board would largely help the environment. They would do that by reducing the footprints of roads — which would only have to be 14-feet wide instead of 18 feet.

“A smaller footprint means less construction work, thus it’s cheaper. And also less impact, which is good for the environment,” Clapp said.

On the other hand, Clapp said his conservation group would like to see the maximum slope for roads stay at 18 instead of 20 percent and an added stipulation for road maintenance agreements for small subdivisions.

“With that said, the Watershed Authority supports the bill because it does provide a step forward in environmental protection,” Clapp said.

Commissioners offered little input on the changes, but Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam questioned why the county planner is the only one with authority to enforce the regulations and suggested giving additional county staff that authority as well.


Prospective buyers of an AM radio station in Sylva could land a $289,000 loan from the Jackson County economic development fund in exchange for creating 11 jobs.

Jackson County commissioners already approved $179,000 of the loan and are poised to approve the remainder next week — if the county can figure out reasonable collateral should the radio station default. The money will primarily be used to purchase the radio license from its current owner, but since a radio station license is not very tangible, the county is hesitant about how it would serve as collateral for the loan.

Jackson County Attorney Jay Coward suggested another option: Jackson County’s name could be included as a co-license holder when filing for the frequency from the Federal Communications Commission.

“If not we would certainly have to rethink it,” Coward said of the loan.

The radio station, currently owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., went dead in August. Its owners cited a lack of revenue. Jackson County resident Roy Burnette, who once worked for WRGC and other local AM radio stations in the region, wants to get the station back on the air.  

Burnette says the new radio station would broadcast at 5,000 watts, reaching from Canton to Topton in Cherokee County, and that he would create 11 jobs.

By comparison, WCQS, the National Public Radio station based in Asheville, employees 12 fulltime and four part-time employees, said executive director Jody Evans on Tuesday.

Commissioners appear partly driven by a desire to bring back the local AM radio station in addition to the jobs themselves. Commissioner Doug Cody said he believes WRGC represents more than simply job creation, from instilling community pride to broadcasting emergency weather information.

“It is a service to the entire county,” Cody said.

Jackson County will not actually become any sort of “partner” in the radio station, even if the county does end up as a co-license holder, Chairman Jack Debnam said.

Maybe, maybe not: The idea has yet to be researched and vetted, Debnam said, adding that it would be Coward’s job to ferret out such answers before commissioners’ actually vote on the final piece of the loan next week.

Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, described the potential for public-private license arrangement between the county and the station as unusual. Bowen said that he wasn’t immediately aware of legal barriers that would prevent such an occurrence.

“But whether it would be a good investment, one would really have to know more about the market and the assets involved,” Bowen said.

When asked about the likelihood of the AM radio station surviving in today’s advertising landscape, Jackson County commissioners said they were relying on the financial projections provided by the prospective radio owner.

— From staff reports


Macon County GOP leaders on Monday selected a Highlands landscaping company owner as their pick to fill a vacant slot on the county’s board of commissioners.

James “Jimmy” Tate will replace Commissioner Brian McClellan who resigned after receiving his second driving while impaired charge in two-and-a-half years.

Tate is likely to receive the obligatory — but required — thumbs’ up next week from the Macon County Board of Commissioners. Since McClellan is a Republican, the local party gets to recommend his replacement.

Commissioners Kevin Corbin and Ron Haven, also Republicans, expressed their support for Tate’s nomination immediately following the closed-door GOP meeting. The two commissioners joined 20 other Macon County Republican Party executive committee members in casting unanimous votes for Tate, who is the vice chairman of the Macon County Republican Party.

“I think he’ll do an outstanding job,” Corbin told news reporters after the GOP meeting.

Tate, 38, last year mounted an unsuccessful primary challenge against incumbent McClellan, who went on to win his second term in office representing the Highlands area of Macon County.

McClellan had served as chairman of the board, a leadership role the commissioners decide amongst themselves. Corbin is likely to be the new chairman.

Tate, who has served for the past year on the Macon County Planning Board and for 14 years as a part-time, county-employed emergency medical services worker, said he knew there was a steep learning curve ahead for him. Tate expressed confidence in his ability to work across the aisle with the board’s two Democrat commissioners, Ronnie Beale and Bobby Kuppers.

“I’m humbled by the opportunity,” Tate said.

Corbin said he did not believe Tate’s newness to the commission board would slow county business. The most critical upcoming item, Corbin said, is preparation for the county’s 2011-2012 fiscal-year budget.


Running a small hotel in Western North Carolina isn’t the easiest way to make a living, particularly not in these penny-pinching times when prospective customers want a full range of amenities and a rock-bottom room price.

“It is hard for small businesses like this,” said Sneha Amin, who owns and manages the 22-unit Economy Inn in downtown Sylva. “People are not wanting to spend anything, because they don’t have anything.”

A plan is in the works to increase the tax on overnight lodging in Jackson County from 3 percent to 6 percent, as high as state law allows. The prospect has left Amin and other hotel owners in the area — large and small — on edge, worried that such an increase could further drive away the ever-dwindling number of visitors they depend on for survival.

But proponents say the room tax is needed to offset a decline in tourism revenue in Jackson County.  The increase will mean more money to market Jackson County as a destination, which in turn should increase tourism. That’s something supporters say Jackson County sorely needs as overnight stays are still off by 12 percent in Jackson compared to 2006.

Alleghany County, which is increasing its room tax from 3 to 6 percent this year as well, has experienced similar ups and downs, according to Alleghany County Manager Don Adams. Like Jackson, Alleghany hopes the extra money from the tax increase — which means more money at its disposal for tourism marketing — will turn the tide.

Most of the protests in Jackson County have come from the Cashiers and Glenville area, where posh inns, golf course resorts and B&Bs cater to a well-heeled, but increasingly frugal, crowd.

But the fear of hardship to come via any increase is the same in Sylva. A block or so from the Amin’s hotel at the Blue Ridge Inn, far from the Cashiers area, Pete Patel is equally worried. Patel and his wife have owned and operated the 33-unit hotel for eight years.

“The summer was OK, but the winter is going to be tough,” Patel said, adding that he hopes commissioners won’t move forward with plans to hike the tax.

Those fears might be overstated.

Linda Harbuck, longtime executive director of the Franklin Area Chamber of Commerce, said she hasn’t noticed any particular decline in Franklin’s hotel stays since that town went from a 3 to 6 percent room tax. While Macon County’s base room tax rate is only 3 percent, the town of Franklin tacked on an additional 3 percent in the town limits.

“They seem to do all right,” Harbuck said.

The story is the same in Henderson County, which a year-and-a-half ago raised its room tax from 4 to 5 percent. Karen Baker, spokesperson for the Henderson County Chamber of Commerce, said that the tourism group has not seen a visible decrease in room stays since the increase.

“There are always two sides whenever there is an increase in a tax, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt occupancy,” Baker said.

Hotel owners in Jackson County beg to differ.

Raise the room tax, and it might drive tourists away and cost the county jobs, Amin and the other hotel owners said. Amin said she’s finding it difficult enough to earn the required $8,000 or more each month needed to pay the hotel’s bills.

Larger hotels are also feeling the dour economy’s tight squeeze.

“We hope that our county commissioners will hear our concerns and ease our fears,” said Megan Orr, director of sales for Best Western Plus River Escape Inn & Suites in Dillsboro. “Prospective customers make informed choices and will see and feel the difference of our higher taxes compared to our neighbors.”


How Jackson’s room tax stacks up

Two-thirds of the state has a higher room tax rate than Jackson County. With a tax of only 3 percent, Jackson is one of only 33 counties with a rate that low.

Jackson County leaders are debating whether to take the room tax rate to 6 percent — a rate share by roughly 30 other counties. Here’s some of the other rates in Western North Carolina:

• 3 percent: Jackson, Swain, Macon, Clay, Graham, Mitchell, Yancey

• 4 percent: Haywood, Buncombe, Transylvania, Cherokee

• 5 percent: Henderson, Madison, McDowell

• 6 percent: Town of Franklin, Watauga


Swain County High School’s football players and coaches on Monday were in a different sort of huddle than usual. Instead of planning the next play, they were picking out a design for their championship rings following Saturday’s 20-14 win over Ayden-Grifton.

They also were trying to absorb certain key facts, such as emerging from a hard-fought football season as the state’s 1-AA champions. And becoming the only Swain County team ever to win more than 15 games in a season.

That’s saying a lot — this is Swain County’s eighth state football championship title, though it represents the school’s first since 2004.

Player Lee Pattillo and Quarterback Colby Hyatt — Hyatt was named the game’s most valuable player for rushing 70 yards and passing for 48 more — looked a bit like deer in headlights. They admitted feeling sort of like deer in headlights, too.

“It’s awesome, unbelievable,” said Pattillo, whose father is head coach Sam Pattillo. Lee Pattillo led the team in tackles this year.

After helping to pick out the ring design, the football players returned to classes. Though it’s doubtful they were able to focus much on this day — or any of their excited classmates, for that matter — on assigned school material.


Opportunity called, Swain answered

Coach Pattillo is a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming man. He’s answered a lot of questions lately about Swain football, and patiently answers each reporter’s version no matter how repetitive they must, by now, truly seem.

What does a state championship mean to you, the team, the school, the community?

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Pattillo said. “… winning a championship is something special.”

What was different about this team; did luck play a part?

“I don’t believe in luck,” Pattillo said in reply. “I believe in opportunities.”

And, he added, in hard work, talent and commitment, both on the field and in the classroom.

“If we’d not won, we would have been disappointed, but we still would have done our very best,” Pattillo said. “And I think that’s all you can do.”

Many at this school, at least the guys working here, seem to have played high school football. Swain County High School Principal Mike Treadway, a broad-shouldered, burly man whose physical presence dominates his small administrative office, played on Swain’s 1985 state championship football team.

Though Treadway clearly relishes the team’s accomplishment, he said that the real goal here is achievement in the classroom and in other areas of life. And that goes for all of the various students who attend Swain County High School, no matter whether it’s playing in the band, hitting volleyballs over a net, or even catching touchdowns on the field in pursuit of a state championship.

“We’ve only had one fellow leave and make money off football,” Treadway said pointedly.

That would be U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, a standout football player at Swain County High School and, later, at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before turning pro with the Washington Redskins.


Ties that bind

If there’s been one anchor to give weight to the Swain County football program through each of the school’s eight state titles, it’s Offensive Line Coach and Assistant Principal Billy Jenkins. The players and coaches were crowded into his office selecting the ring design.

Jenkins played on a state football championship team in Robbinsville. He has coached for 32 years in Swain County, making him an integral part of every state football championship the school has won: 1979, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 2001, 2004 and 2011. Jenkins just participated in his final game, however, he’ll retire at the end of the school year.

“It’s just time,” he said in explanation.

The ties that bind this school and team are incredible. Jenkins started his job at Swain County in the spring of 1979 when Coach Pattillo was a quarterback for the Swain team, leading them to the school’s first state championship that year. Jenkins has now helped coach Pattillo’s son, Lee, to the school’s most current championship, and coached Principal Treadway to the one won in 1985.

Jenkins is no less thrilled with, or jaded by, this eighth championship.

“It doesn’t get old at all,” he said. “They’re all great. And, as a coach, you want these kids to win one, because it’s something that you never forget, playing on a state championship team.”


At Carolina Readiness Supply in Waynesville you can buy freeze-dried macaroni and cheese by the 20-ounce can and a solar oven in which to warm it.

You can get a woven bracelet in a variety of fashionable colors that converts into handy lengths of cord. Then, in theory at least, you are prepared for almost anything: making simple repairs to your backpack, starting a fire with a friction bow or fashioning a ladder for an elaborate escape from some futureristic prison.

You can buy emergency kits that contain quick-assemble shelter and his-her hygiene necessities, water purification systems, lanterns of every type and variety, and 50 pounds of pinto beans packed for 25 years safe storage. You can outfit an entire library of books on survival subjects, from square-foot gardening to “Bug Out: A Complete Plan for Escaping a Catastrophe.”

At Carolina Readiness Supply, you can —just as the store name promises — get ready. For what exactly? Take your pick: Armageddon, if you choose; or just the winter’s inevitable big, electric-ending and roads-closing snowstorm.

“Will you be ready when the lights go out?” serves as the slogan of Carolina Readiness Supply, owned by Bill and Jan Sterrett. It’s a question that many in the region, and the nation, are now trying to answer.

There is a word in our modern lexicon for the Bill and Jan Sterretts of the world. They are dubbed “preppers.” These are people who have been made uneasy, for a variety of reasons, and who believe they need to prepare for potential huge changes: A terrorist attack, a devastating plague, a national technology failure or, perhaps, biological warfare.

Some preppers store enough food, water and supplies to last a month or two; others have much bigger plans and fears. They want to survive in whatever new reality would follow a societal collapse. They see prepping as an insurance policy of sorts: protection for themselves and their families in the event of major catastrophe — a catastrophe they hope never strikes. But if it does, they plan on being ready.

On the most extreme end, there are people in this region busy building and supplying bunkers. But the problem with bunker-builders, at least for the reporter writing on these topics, is that these are folks who aren’t particularly eager to clue others into their whereabouts and actual identities. After all, if there’s a huge crisis, you don’t exactly want to be the only place in the area identified as bunker-safe and food-ready.


Self-reliance is the goal

Bill Sterrett is a familiar figure in Haywood County. He retired in January 2007 as chief deputy for the Haywood County Sheriff’s Department.

Sterrett does not strike an observer as the hysterical type. He speaks only after due consideration, and so softly that, in a conversation, you soon find yourself murmuring questions in return and leaning forward to hear his answers.

Sterrett described himself as a man who has a deep interest in the traditional ways of doing for oneself and one’s family, and of simple living in general.

The economy started derailing not long after Sterrett’s retirement from law enforcement. Sterrett, like many in the U.S., looked to his investments and wondered what best to do. He had considered divesting himself of property, and of buying and working a small farm, but given ever-increasing financial restraints that dream seemed an ever more remote possibility.

“I wanted to learn the old ways, and to be self reliant,” Sterrett said in explanation. “But the economy sometimes dictates what you can and cannot do. I grew concerned about the value of paper money in the bank, and felt that it would be better to convert our cash dollars into commodities.”

That led to the idea of Carolina Readiness Supply. But his wife, Jan, wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic participant in her husband’s plans, at least not initially.

“I’m like, ‘OK, whatever,’” she said. “I told him, ‘Go ahead, do what you want.’”

Then Jan Sterrett read One Second After by Montreat College Professor William R. Forstchen, a book she now sells by the hundreds to others off the bookshelves of Carolina Readiness Supply. This apocalyptic novel, a New York Times bestseller, tells the story of a man struggling to save his family and his small town in Western North Carolina after an electromagnetic pulse sends America into a post-modern version of the Dark Ages.

After that frightening, eye-opening read, Jan Sterrett was ready to get ready, too. For what, she wasn’t exactly sure, but ready Jan Sterrett planned on being. Her husband no longer sounded a solo tune; One Second After resulted in a harmonious husband-wife duet.

“I knew we had to do something,” Jan Sterrett said. “We had to.”

Jan Sterrett, in turn, sent the book to her trauma-surgeon son, who lives in Pheonix, after he asked skeptical questions about his parents’ plans post-Dad’s retirement.

“He called back after reading it and told me, ‘Now I understand,’” Jan Sterrett said, adding that her son and his medical partners are now, too, “getting ready.”



Troy Leatherwood might not be the exact textbook definition of a prepper, but he’s a fellow with an abiding interest in living off the land. His family did just that for six generations on their property in Jonathan Valley in Haywood County. The 56-year-old licensed contractor has subsequently made a professional living elsewhere, including selling real estate in Balsam Preserve. His brother, John, still farms the family land.

Together, the brothers want to convert part of the family spread into a subdivision for others interested in living off the land — a prepping place, if you will, for preppers.

The Leatherwoods, Troy Leatherwood said, want to form a community of like-minded individuals. People who want to learn the old ways through classes on topics such as blacksmithing, gardening and so on.

Leatherwood’s idea was rooted in observations from the Internet. He noted that a particular survival blog was receiving an amazing amount of weekly “hits,” and that “a lot of the stuff on there was what mountain people grew up with.”

A light-bulb moment, of sorts, occurred.

“We should sell and market what we know,” Troy Leatherwood told his brother, and fill an obvious and growing business niche. Make some money and help some people at the same time, he said.

John Leatherwood was agreeable. The brothers are now using 16 acres of their family’s land, divided into 10 lots. They plan on having irrigated raised beds for gardening, plus other homesteading-oriented amenities. They’ve planted fruit trees, and move-ins can help and learn on the family’s currently operating, neighboring farm, Troy Leatherwood said.

The Leatherwoods plan to work on the property over the winter. They are accepting applications now, however.

Troy Leatherwood emphasizes that he isn’t a doomsayer. But he believes even harder times could come to the U.S., and that it would be foolhardy for people not to prepare, not to be ready.

“I call it being smart enough to realize that there are real dangers out there,” he said, adding that more and more technology means an ever-increasing risk of dangers.


Demand is huge

The demand for goods sold at Carolina Readiness Supply seems to be increasing. Jan and Bill Sterrett moved recently from a previous location on Depot Street because they outgrew the space.

From the looks of it, they might soon outgrow the floor space of this newer store, too. The Sterretts would like to add a line of woodstoves to their offerings, and possibly other readiness supplies as well.

Jan Sterrett said that to her knowledge, there’s not another store in the Southeast quite like Carolina Readiness Supply. And the growing customer base seems to confirm that — a guestbook used to build an email network for the store indicates people coming to shop here are from across the region. But they also hail from other neighboring states: Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia.

The Sterretts are clearly enjoying their new line of work. Bill Sterrett said they are learning, too, through researching new products and determining how best to use them. It isn’t exactly the small farm he once dreamed of working, but Carolina Readiness Supply, Bill Sterrett said, is fulfilling a dream that he never quite before knew existed.


What it takes to prep for disaster

Here’s how much food an average family of four would need to last a year.

Wheat    175 lbs

Flour    20 lbs

Quinoa    30 lbs

Rolled Oats    50 lbs

White Rice    80 lbs

Pearled Barley    5 lbs

Spaghetti or Macaroni    40 lbs

Dry Beans    45 lbs

Dry Soy Beans    2 lbs

Dry Split Peas    2 lbs

Dry Lentils    2 lbs

Dry Soup Mix    7 lbs

Peanut Butter    1 qt

Almond Butter    1 qt

Nonfat Dry Milk    14 lbs

Granulated Sugar    40 lbs

Molasses    1 lb

Honey    3 lbs

Beef Gelatin    1 lb

Salt    8 lbs

Dry Yeast    0.5 lbs

Source: Good Earth Health Food store


Permaculture has become something of a catchword in farming and homesteading circles, a grand concept — but one usually unfulfilled in hands-on practice — of layering one’s land with a variety of edible plants that will feed you or your animals.

Luckily, Sylva native and permaculture expert Zev Friedman is available to help sort the reality from fantasy. Friedman, who lives in Weaverville and runs Urban Paradise Gardening, will hold a two-day workshop this coming weekend, Dec. 3-4, on permaculture practices. The cost of the program is $75, with the workshop running from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. both days. Mountain BizWorks is sponsoring the program.

Friedman focuses on whole-system design of water savvy landscapes that yield valuable foods and medicines and provide for other human needs with a minimum of external inputs.

Friedman’s workshop will take place on a farm owned by Ron and Cathy Arps of Sylva. The couple is well known in the local agrarian community — the Arps pioneered the now popularly used Community Supported Agriculture plan in these westernmost counties. CSA’s are a means for farmers to exchange produce for purchased shares, in practice meaning those participating buy-into the farm by paying for produce at the beginning of the growing season. You then share in the risks and windfalls of that season through the CSA. The Arps have successfully fed families for more than a decade from their intensively managed small farm just off Cope Creek Road.

Friedman toured the farm recently with the couple, laying the framework for the upcoming workshop.

“This could be a pretty good workshop for getting some things done,” Friedman said, adding that it’s important that people who attend get “hands-on” experience with such work as removing invasive plants and so on. This, he explained, will translate to lessons for working their own properties.

The trio let the land help dictate the shape of the workshop, perhaps the first lesson those interested in permaculture must learn. Workshop attendees will learn about site assessment and design, information they can take back to their own properties and, hopefully, put into practice.

A stream beside an existing pasture seemed perfectly destined for a streamside forest garden, Friedman explained, perhaps with raspberry plantings or comfrey replacing the invasives dominating there now.

The existing forest area could transition to a nut, timber, craftwood and animal products system.

In addition to nitty-gritty work, Friedman views the workshop as an opportunity for local farmers, homesteaders and those generally interested in permaculture to discuss economic niches and various business opportunities. Not to mention, he said, the opportunity to network with like-minded people.


Use what works

Touring the Arps’ farm, Friedman quickly identifies what’s there now — along the stream beside the pasture and on up toward the garden, there is a heavy infiltration of walnut trees.

That leaves two choices: cut them out, or plant edibles that can co-exist with these native plants. Sure, walnut trees provide food for people and animals, but walnuts also exude a substance caused juglone, which inhibits other plant growth. Tomatoes and potatoes, particularly, suffer tremendously when grown anywhere near walnut trees — these members of the ultra-juglone sensitive nightshade family show “walnut wilt” just when the gardener believes they might just harvest a beautiful crop.

The Arps aren’t keen on cutting down trees, no matter how inhibiting they might be to other plants. Instead, the couple and Friedman decide co-existence is the way to go. That means that raspberries, elderberries or comfrey, are obvious choices. Raspberries and elderberries provide berries for people and wild creatures. Comfrey provides fodder for animals, plus is an excellent source of potassium in the soil if used for mulching. Both plants defy the presence of juglone.

“Plant big long rows of comfrey, and scythe it down,” Friedman said. “You could harvest it six times a year.”

And this is the type of information homeowners can get through Friedman’s workshop.


Say what? Explaining permaculture

Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modeled on the relationships found in nature. It is based on the ecology of how things interrelate rather than on the strictly biological concerns that form the foundation of modern agriculture. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs; it’s a system of design where each element supports and feeds other elements, ultimately aiming at systems that are virtually self-sustaining and into which humans fit as an integral part.

Source: Wikipedia


Want to participate?

What: Two-day workshop on intensive forest farming.

When: Dec. 3-4 in Sylva, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day.

Where: At Ron and Cathy Arps’ Vegnui Gardens farm.

Why: To learn how to put your land to work in a sustainable fashion.

How much: $75 for each participant. Food and beverages provided, but bring your own eating utensils, plates, and cups. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. Payment of workshop fee will reserve your space.

To register: Contact Sheryl Rudd at 631-0292 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


I helped raise three turkeys this year. They were named Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras. These turkeys were intended as the centerpieces for dinners on those festive occasions, plus one was targeted to fill a particular corner of the freezer.

There was trouble with this plan from the beginning.

Turkeys, I discovered to my dismay, are very personable. They took to greeting me happily with great joyful noises whenever I appeared in the barnyard. These shouts of delight were irrespective of whether I had food for them or not — they seemed to recognize me as an actual individual. And an amazingly wonderful, perfect individual at that, perhaps the most wonderful, perfect individual in the whole world, or maybe even the entire universe.

The turkeys’ effusive hellos, no matter how bad the day, always cheered me and provided nice boosts to my self-esteem.

Made a mistake in a newspaper article and wrote a correction that day? The turkeys didn’t care — I was AMAZING in their eyes. Got in a quarrel with a coworker and showed my … well, you know. In turkey land, all was forgiven — I was that WONDERFUL human being they loved beyond all others. Forgot an important appointment? No problem, the turkeys still shouted undying love when I, that PERFECT person they ADORED, came into eyesight.

This in total contrast to the chickens: Despite having helped raise them from tiny chicks to large hens or roosters, these ungrateful creatures still eye me untrustingly, like I’m a potential predator. They stay well out of reach and squawk hysterically when I draw near. I’m merely a food-dispensing machine, and a scary one at that, to the chickens.

And, as much as I enjoy the goats, sometimes I’m suspicious that is all I am to them, too — the person put on this earth to bring them food and water and to scratch places they can’t reach.

Not the turkeys: they visibly enjoyed having their heads petted. They would squat in front of me, making conversational noises while I rubbed their great ugly crowns, almost purring in happiness. I never knew that birds could enjoy affection and seek it out — but these three turkeys did just that.

I believe the turkeys came, via mail order, in April. Until Thanksgiving was almost upon us I successfully pretended to myself that I would be able to harvest them. (Harvest, you understand, means to chop the turkeys’ heads off, and pluck them or skin them, and generally ready them for the dinner table. “Harvest” is a nice euphemism for the word “murder.” Or for clear-cutting trees, for that matter — the word harvest has a sustainable sound that softens the actual deeds for the doers.)

At some point, just before Thanksgiving, I faced up to the fact that I wasn’t going to harvest these turkeys. That left three problems to solve:

One, we wouldn’t have a turkey for Thanksgiving. But that wasn’t too big a deal — we bought a turkey instead, and will probably do the same for Christmas.

Secondly, I don’t need and can’t afford turkey “pets” in the barnyard. Frankly, I wanted to keep them very badly, which leads directly into problem three — and this was a problem that couldn’t be solved without significant distress.

This particular breed of turkey was specifically selected, genetically, to gain weight quickly. This means the turkeys convert their feed to meat in a hyper-efficient manner. When you farm or homestead, heritage breeds are a nice concept, but the reality is the longer you feed an animal intended for the table, the more money you spend and the less you make. It is easy to end up on the losing end unless you opt for these newer, fast weight-gaining breeds.

Ironically enough, we hadn’t actually intended to get meat-specific bred turkeys. But the order was mixed up and our heritage turkeys went to someone else, a friend we’d placed an order with to save on shipping. By the time the situation was sorted out we were too attached to our individual turkeys to consider switching them.

Our turkeys, the meat-specific bred ones, were by Thanksgiving having increasing difficulties walking. Their bodies were too large for their legs. This meant I could keep them as pets, yes, but only at a great price to the turkeys. They would suffer, and one day soon, they likely wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

This left me with one single, unhappy solution. Since I couldn’t kill them myself, someone else would have to kill them. The three turkeys were given to friends in Balsam who raise and slaughter chickens and turkeys for a living. We carted them over there and said our goodbyes to the trio — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras — this past Saturday.

I know they planned to kill the turkeys the next day. I’ve not been able to block the realization that my turkeys are, by now, very dead.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the turkeys were killed in a humane and quick fashion. But dead is dead, and my hands are no freer of their blood than if I’d killed them and cooked one up for Thanksgiving — I just ate a turkey that I didn’t know on an individual basis, that’s all.

And by choosing to skirt the actual deed I took the cowardly way out.

So here’s what I got out of keeping turkeys — a whole heaping on my Thanksgiving plate of internal turmoil. Here’s hoping your experience this year was less dramatic than mine.

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


If you want to talk high school football in Swain County there’s plenty of options. But one of the most enjoyable is to head to Smith’s Dry Goods on Everett Street, a Bryson City mainstay since the mid 1970s, and a place that doesn’t just smack of local color — Smith’s Dry Goods is local color personified.

Here in the wooden-floored, unabashedly blue-collar store you’ll often find former player David Smith, sporting his trademark Swain Pride ball cap, bellied up to the welcome heat of a big woodstove. He’ll undoubtedly be talking about the latest game — or the upcoming game, or even Swain County football games played several decades ago — while customers shop for items such as work clothes and work boots.

This was a Friday, game day, in Swain County. Smith, along with everybody else in this small town, was excited. Everyone, practically, seemed intent on being at the game that night. Which in Smith’s book is exactly how it should be, and why Swain County is such a fantastic place to live if you are a local football fan. At least, this is the place to live for those fans supporting Swain County football and who bleed the school’s colors of maroon and white, of course.

“The town could just about burn down, and no one would realize it until after the game,” Smith said, only semi-jokingly.

How important is football here in Swain County, where the population stands just fewer than 14,000 residents? The Chamber of Commerce has changed the annual Christmas parade from Dec. 3 to Dec. 10 so as not to conflict with the upcoming state championship game; and here in Bryson City, even the town’s crosswalks are painted maroon and white.


Football unifies community

Last Friday night, the Maroon Devils — cheered on by Smith and hundreds of other screaming Swain County fans — played West Montgomery for the right to vie for a state championship. Swain County ultimately won the game in heart-stopping fashion, off the kicking foot of player Evan Sneed, who saved the day and the hopes of Swain County football fans with his 32-yard kick. There were just 33.6 seconds left in the game at the time.

It took Swain’s players most of the game to rally from a near-fatal thumping in the first quarter.

“It was 28 to nothing at the end of the first quarter. We were wondering where our team was at,” said Teddy Green, a sports photographer in Swain County who has been shooting Swain football games for 35 years.

But in an amazing turnaround, the team closed the gap 28-21 by the end of the second quarter.

“By halftime they had the Maroon Machine hitting on all pistons,” Green said. “It was wonderful. It was so exciting. I tell you the truth, it was down to the wire.”

As for Sneed’s winning kick?

“That boy is a hero,” Green said. It was the first game Swain has won via a field goal in at least 15 years.

Football serves as a unifying force that has long knitted the people of Swain County together — the game is more of a passion than a sport here. This is one of the state’s powerhouse football programs, with a total of seven state championships. The last one was in 2004. Now Swain will play for the 1-AA state championship title Saturday against Ayden-Grifton High School, located in Pitt County.

Swain is 14-1 this season, and has won the last 11 games here at home. Swain County Coach Sam Pattillo coaches the team. That Pattillo is homegrown — a former Swain County quarterback now leading the team to victories — makes this team’s run at another state championship all the more sweet in Bryson City.

That’s endeared Teresa Maynard even more tightly to the team, too, though she’s admittedly not a huge fan of the actual sport of football itself. But Swain County football? Now that’s entirely different matter. A horse of a different color — a maroon and white horse — as it were.

“I’ve known Sam all of his life,” Maynard said proudly, taking a brief break from her volunteer job at the Friends of the Library Bookstore to chat. “I keep up with Sam through the newspaper, and with what he’s doing. I would really like to see him go all of the way — we are so proud of him, and of the football team and all of their coaches.”

Maynard, a Swain County native who lived away from the area for a time, knows what a great football community exists here.

“The local people are football people,” Maynard said. “You think Swain County, you think football.”


Want fries with that?

If you come to Bryson City on a game day, you might want to stop at Na-Bers Drive-in along the Tuckasegee River. If it’s in the evening, you could find yourself dining with many of Swain County’s football players and cheerleaders. There’s a tradition here of eating at the six-decades old restaurant before each home game.

Eating at Na-Bers is considered good luck.

So what do the football players eat? Practically anything and everything on the menu — and plenty of it, said owner Ronnie Henderson.

“I’ve seen them eat hamburger steak, cheeseburgers, all of it,” Henderson said. “They’ll show up in a wad, three or four at a time in one car.”

These days, Na-Bers stays open only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There is more restaurant competition in town than in the old days, when the drive-in would serve its trademark burgers and shakes as late as 1:30 a.m. on game nights. The place would be packed with fans and players, all eager to relive the game play by play, in endless and seemingly down to the smallest detail.

“We don’t stay open like that anymore, but we’ll stay open as late as people are here,” Henderson said.

Lance Holland isn’t exactly a newcomer to Swain County, but the owner of Appalachian Mercantile on Everett Street previously lived in Graham County and his daughter went to Robbinsville High School.

The Black Knights in Graham County, even the most ardent Swain County fan might agree, have played some pretty good football of their own. Between 1969 and 1992, Robbinsville High School’s football program won 12 Class 1A state titles. Holland, a former football player in Georgia, cheered them on. These days, however, Holland has caught the fever for Swain County football.

“I certainly am pulling for them,” Holland said while finishing up a smoke outside his store.

This Swain County team, Holland added, is really a good, fun one to watch.

“If you’re still practicing on Thanksgiving, like this team was, you made it pretty far,” he said.


Overwhelming community support

A bicycle shop might not seem like the place to stop and chat about local high school football. But sports are sports, after all, and football in Swain dominates everything anyway, at least during a championship drive — even conversation at the bicycle shop.

Diane Cutler, co-owner of Bryson City Bicycles, has been suitably impressed by football’s uniting power in Swain County since moving here about two-and-a-half years ago. Things were different in her previous hometown, the big city of Raleigh.

“It was hard to have that same concentration of attention there,” Cutler said. “But here, there’s an outpouring of support from the community.”


What else but football?

Down the road, at a new consignment shop in a new small strip mall along the river, local lawyer Elizabeth Brigham was overseeing sales. Brigham helped open the store, and agreed to cover business there on this day. She jokes about this being a “one-stop shop” where Swain County’s finest can take care of both their legal and shopping needs.

How important does she believe football is to the people of Swain County?

“Is there anything else here but football?” Brigham responds rhetorically.

Well, yes there is, of course. But not today, game day, with the team headed toward a possible eighth state championship.

Brigham’s boys didn’t play on the team, though one played a bit of league football, she said. That doesn’t prevent her from appreciating what the game does overall for this community.

“It brings the people here together,” Brigham said. “You can be of a different political mind, a different religious mind, but one thing unifies everybody in Swain County: football.”


Listen to the game

Swain County’s bid for its eighth state football championship takes place Saturday, Dec. 3, in Winston-Salem. A web broadcast will begin at 10:45 a.m. The pre-game show and kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. Listen to this live audio stream by going to www.ustream.tv and typing “maroon devils network” in the search box.


Sylva might hear its local AM radio station WRGC back on the air — but the company involved wants a loan of $289,000 from Jackson County’s economic development fund to make it happen.

Roy Burnette, the CEO of the hopefully formed, embryonic 540 Broadcasting Co., said that he wants the future WRGC to intensely pursue the local part of local radio. But having said that, the geographic designation of “local” for WRGC would change, Burnette said.

Burnette wants to expand the range of WRGC allowing 540 Broadcasting to reach from east of Canton in Haywood County to Topton in Swain County — if he is able to get permission from the Federal Communications Commission for the extra power. The future WRGC would broadcast at 5,000 watts. Asked to explain the expansion of the Sylva-based radio station for the not-so-technical minded potential radio listener, Burnette suggested one mentally compare the light received from a 1,000-watt light bulb to a 5,000-watt light bulb.

“We want to offer in-depth service to Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood,” said Burnette on his plans for extensive regional radio reach.

Burnette has been in regional radio for years, including stints in Bryson City and Sylva. Additionally, he worked as a radio instructor for Southwestern Community College.

The Sylva radio station went dead in late August, a victim of dwindling advertising revenue dollars in a hard-knock economy. WRGC was owned by Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. If no one buys it and claims the frequency within a year, the license for that frequency would be lost.

It’s the expansion possibility, which promises a wider net of potential advertisers, that’s attracting notice at the county level.

“The 5,000-watt license is the big interest since the signal area would be substantially greater than current coverage area,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

And that, Wooten added, would “provide an opportunity to generate significantly more advertising revenue.”

Regional radio personality and Sylva resident Gary Ayers earlier had expressed interest in buying WRGC. Ayers retreated from the idea after he said local advertising interest seemed tepid.

“I talked to the owners the other day and said if this guy can make it go, then great,” Ayers said Monday. “If not, then let me know and let’s talk again.”

Art Sutton of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co. declined to comment for now on the evolving deal.

Ayers said the most important point to him is that Sylva regains a local radio station.

“We are going to put a huge focus on community-based programming,” Burnette said.

Burnette said he hopes to have WRGC on the air by Dec. 10.


What price local radio?

540 Broadcasting Co. submitted a request for a $289,000 loan from Jackson County. Of that, $250,000 would be used to purchase the radio license from current owner Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Co., and $39,000 would be used to acquire equipment needed to install the 5,000-watt station. 540 Broadcasting would provide an additional $100,000 in working capital. Payments on the county loan would be deferred until May 2012, and then be paid over ten years (40 quarterly payments) at an interest rate of 2 percent. Jimmy Childress (WRGC’s founder) would rent 540 Broadcasting the building, equipment and property where tower is located; collateral for the loan would be the radio license and equipment.

A public hearing on the loan will be held Dec. 12 at 2 p.m. at the county’s boardroom. Commissioners are scheduled to meet that same day at 2:15 p.m. to consider the request.

Source: Jackson County


The 36-member executive committee of the Macon County Republican Party will meet next week to nominate a replacement for county Commissioner Brian McClellan.

McClellan announced that he would resign as a commissioner following his second driving-while-impaired charge in two-and-a-half years. The four remaining members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners will hold an 8 a.m. meeting to accept McClellan’s resignation on Dec. 1. That clears the way for the local GOP to pick a replacement, a job that falls to the party because McClellan is a Republican. Commissioners, in an expected rubberstamp, plan to vote on the nomination in their regular Dec. 13 meeting.

The Republican Party meets Dec. 5 at 6:30 p.m. in Courtroom A of the Macon County courthouse.

“I want somebody who can work well with the other board members,” Republican Party Chair Chris Murray said Monday. “I’d want to have somebody who is not divisive … and who is a loyal Republican.”

That nominee must be a resident of the Highlands area, which McClellan represents.

McClellan served as chairman of the county commission, another position that now must be decided. In Macon, the board votes on the chairman. Commissioner Kevin Corbin is likely to become the next commission chairman. Corbin, a Republican and a longtime school board member, was appointed commissioner to fill the remaining term of Jim Davis after Davis won a state senate seat last November. The Republicans hold a 3-2 majority on the commission board, making it likely they will pick a Republican as chairman.

“I’d love to see Kevin considered for that position,” Murray said. “But that’s really not the business of the Republican Party — that’s up to the commissioners.”

Corbin on Monday confirmed that he would certainly consider becoming chairman if that’s how the cookie crumbles, as it almost surely will.

Although Corbin was appointed and not elected to the board, he’s no novice when it comes to chairing meetings. He served as chairman for 14 years of his five terms (20 years) on the Macon County Board of Education, plus filled in as vice chairman for a few years.

Corbin, during that time, attained a solid reputation for being able to cross party lines (admittedly not as difficult a task on the ostensibly nonpartisan board of education), and served as chief conductor of what were generally viewed as efficiently run, well-managed meetings.

McClellan received his second DWI charge Nov. 18 in Jackson County. He called fellow commissioners a few days later to tell them he planned to resign.

“I do support his decision — I think it’s the right one,” Corbin said, adding that in his view, McClellan had been an outstanding commissioner for the citizens of Macon County.


Joe Bock, an Indiana resident passing through this area on his way to Florida, was on a bit of a mission one recent day in Cherokee. Bock wanted to enjoy a beer with his lunch.

That desire remained unfulfilled, however — the restaurants on the Qualla Boundary, other than at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, are dry. Bock wasn’t particularly upset, and said the absence of a beer with his lunch wouldn’t deter a repeat visit to the region.

“But sometimes you’d just like a beer,” he said in something of a wistful tone.

Voters might change all that in April. Cherokee tribal members will vote on referendum questions that could bring alcoholic beverages to stores and restaurants reservation-wide.

One sticking point? News that Principal Chief Michell Hicks wants the tribe to control sales of beer, wine and liquor through a tribally run alcohol store rather than allowing it on the shelves of gas stations and grocery stores.

That concerns Pete Patel, who with his wife owns Jenkins Grocery, the last stopping point on old U.S. 19 headed west to Bryson City just before motorists leave the reservation’s boundaries.

“We’re struggling even to survive,” Patel said. “If we could sell (alcoholic beverages) legally, we’d like to sell them. We could use a little extra help.”

Hicks would support alcohol in restaurants, however, and that pleases Emily Geisler, the manager of Tribal Grounds, a popular coffee shop on the reservation.

“I think it’s really important, especially for restaurants, to be able to offer beer or wine,” Geisler said. “If somebody wants the full dining experience, now they have to go out of town.”


Metrostat Communications, the company that pioneered the advent of high-speed Internet in Sylva, will close Dec. 30.

“We’ve been through the screaming, the upset, and we’re at the point we know this is the best decision we can make,” said Robin Kevlin, co-owner of Metrostat with husband John.

Six Metrostat employees will lose their jobs. At one time, the company had 20 employees, but the ever-more difficult economy and increasing competition had taken a toll.

Metrostat was founded in 2002 in Sylva to solve a business problem for the Kevlins’ software company, located on Main Street, which they later sold. The couple needed high-speed Internet, as did other businesses in Sylva’s downtown. After identifying the critical need, they filled it for themselves and others by laying fiber optic cables and selling bandwidth to customers. The Kevlins declined to specify how many accounts they currently manage but described their service as extending throughout Sylva’s downtown area.

The business start-up was a brave foray into a market dominated by big companies such as Charter and Verizon. But here in Western North Carolina, Metrostat also found itself competing against a grant-funded, public-private partnership forged to run high-speed fiber lines through rural mountain counties in the far west.

The couple pointed to BalsamWest FiberNET, a joint venture funded by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Macon County private businessman Phil Drake, as Metrostat’s major competitor and most daunting business hurdle.

Though repeatedly emphasizing that they did not want to sound bitter or angry toward BalsamWest, the couple said Metrostat simply could not hold its ground against the larger company. Initially, BalsamWest was going to lay a fiber backbone through the mountains and allow smaller companies such as Metrostat to be the actual service providers. But BalsamWest began directly selling service and cherry-picking the customers, undermining Metrostat’s business model, they said.

“We needed the big customers, then BalsamWest came in, supposedly doing the ‘middle mile,’ and they started taking over our last-mile customers,” John Kevlin said. “And any grant money that came into Jackson County, they got 100 percent. I put my personal fortune into (Metrostat), and I got killed.”

Cecil Groves, CEO of BalsamWest, expressed sadness that Metrostat was closing down.

“I do regret that they were not able to sustain it. John and Robin did a very good job in helping this community and region. But I don’t think that falls back on BalsamWest,” the former president of Southwestern College said. “I feel for them. This is a very hard business, and it is changing very, very fast.”

For his part, Groves emphasized that BalsamWest’s business model extends far beyond Sylva where Metrostat focused its efforts.

“We’re trying to put a base in for economic development for this region, for the six western counties,” Groves said.

Groves said the initial goal, the building of the “middle mile,” was accomplished through the use of private money. Connecting the schools, Groves said, did result in BalsamWest tapping grant funding.

In downtown Sylva where Metrostat was known for providing good, fairly priced service, business owners were upset by the news they must now find another Internet carrier. Metrostat users received a Nov. 21-dated letter Monday morning via the postal service that explained the situation.

“Sustainable funding for an independent local utility requires long-term resources and support that we have not been able to identify,” the Kevlans wrote. “While we all love what Metrostat does, we simply do not see a financial path forward to continue operating.”

“I called them and said, ‘What do we need to do to keep you in business? Pay another $30 or $40 a month? Let us know, we’ll rally the troops,’” said Bernadette Peters, owner of City Lights Café in Sylva. “But it was too late. I’m not sure that they realized what people would have done to actually keep them here.”

Amazingly, in this day and age of questionable customer service, Peters said Metrostat was terrific because “you could call them if the server went down, and you’d actually get a call back.”

John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee on Main Street and a member of the Downtown Sylva Association board, said he hated to see “hardworking people like Robin and John and all of their staff lose their jobs, and the community lose such superior service. We’ll never replace them.”

That said, Bubacz was anxious to emphasize that despite some recent business closings — Annie’s Naturally Bakery, Metrostat and a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on N.C. 107 that seemingly disappeared overnight last week — Sylva’s downtown is still doing well.

“No, downtown is not dying,” Bubacz said.


Newspaper people are a special breed. As a type, these are individuals who tend toward the eccentric and are decidedly off-kilter; perhaps, dare I say it, are even slightly mad. They are ill suited for employment anywhere except at newspapers, or perhaps in a pinch, on a prison work crew.

Take The Smoky Mountain News gang in Waynesville. Now this is an odd bunch. The Smoky Mountain News people are odder even than Peggy, a woman I remember with great fondness from my years at The Franklin Press. Peggy had a take-no-prisoners outlook on life.

Peggy worked in layout for The Franklin Press. These were pre-computer days when newspapers were physically laid out by a now antique method known as “cut and paste.”

This was my first on-staff newspaper job. I wrote feature articles part-time and held a newly created position at the newspaper, optimistically dubbed “Quality Control,” to work out my remaining 20 hours a week.

Ken Hudgins, the publisher of The Franklin Press, was quite the wordsmith and something of a perfectionist. Ken’s manners were so gentle and kind it was difficult to recognize that he was a man ruled by a deep inner need for facts to be correct and words to be used properly. That’s a difficult need to have in the newspaper business, and one that resulted in this wonderful man suffering excruciating pain when our inevitably flawed, twice-a-week newspaper published.

I believe Ken dreamt of publishing the perfect newspaper. Just once, The Franklin Press would roll off the printing press and land on his desk free of blemishes. This dream newspaper would be absent embarrassing typos and factual errors, and no one would call and complain (or even worse, write a letter we were subsequently forced to print) about “pubic” instead of “public” meetings, or how we’d misidentified their loathsome children — again — in photo captions.

Ken searched high, low and in vain for an employee who would join him in this noble quest to create the perfect publication. Unable to find an actual individual, he instead settled on creating this new position of “Quality Control.” I suspect Ken hoped that by simply designating someone Quality Control they might rise to the grand title and fulfill his expectations.

Quality Control would equate to never printing corrections or letters critical of the paper, because nothing henceforth ever would be wrong. Ken, I believe, was convinced that Quality Control was the answer to life’s many woes.

Why I was hired as Quality Control I can’t imagine. My qualifications consisted of six months freelancing and of a couple decades of sleeping soundly through elementary, high school and university-level grammar courses.

My duties, Ken explained chippily during those first days when his glasses gleamed pink in color, were to place a pica stick across pages to ensure headlines were perfectly straight; and, when I spotted a misspelled word in an article, to use an X-Acto knife to cut out the offending letters and replace said letters with the correct ones.

It must have been evident early on that I was ill suited for a job so meticulous and grinding in nature. Ken endured six months or so of my ineptitude before, saddened but resigned, he moved me fulltime to writing. Ken eliminated Quality Control altogether, in sheer frustration, I suspect, at my total inability to come anywhere near his vision of what that person (something along the lines of the famous fact checkers with The New Yorker magazine) would do for The Franklin Press.

But, I mustn’t wander. Back to Peggy, who helped in layout. Peggy, I remember, became incensed at the editor. I’ve forgotten now the exact cause, but I’m fairly certain that Scott was being a smart aleck, as Scott — may he rest in peace — so often was.

Peggy was a woman of few words, so on this day when her temper quickened, she didn’t think twice — she twirled about and threw her layout knife straight toward Scott. I remember his eyes growing large and round as he looked at the knife, now stuck quivering into the wood of the layout table perhaps an inch at most from his leg, and mere inches from some even more tender parts that I am sincerely convinced Peggy was aiming for.

But I wander within a digression. We were chatting about The Smoky Mountain News crew, which in their latest demonstration of eccentricity, last week pooled pennies together to buy a rat-like thing for the office. This is a hamster, or a gerbil, or something equally small that my cats would enjoy killing.

This rat, or gerbil or hamster or whatever, has been christened Scroto Baggins. It resides in a cage in the Waynesville office. Except for 20 minutes or so at a time, when Amanda the bookkeeper or Margaret the graphic designer places Scroto into a clear plastic round thing, and he runs about in it, rolling this ball onto one’s feet and over computer cords, and generally making a nuisance of himself or herself while Lila, who is supposed to be selling advertising to help support my writing habit, squeals how cute he or she is.

(No one’s quite sure of the little creature’s sexual identity, hence the gender bending. This confusion, frankly, isn’t that unusual in the newspaper business, either.)

Is it any wonder that the newspaper you hold in your hands is flawed and imperfect? In what other industry besides news, pray tell me, could this happen? Office rats aren’t found in doctors’ offices, restaurants or in finer retail stores; at least not rats that are loved on and named.

Picture this: Here we poor writers are, trying to create Great Literature for the masses while being attacked by a rat named Scroto. It’s enough to send one scurrying in search of Quality Control.

Or, short of that, a good rat trap.

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


Brian McClellan will resign from the Macon County Board of Commissioners following his second drunken-driving arrest in just more than two years.

McClellan, a two-term Republican who served as board chairman, announced his resignation Tuesday. A replacement hasn’t been named yet.

State Highway Patrol Trooper Denny Wood stopped McClellan outside Sylva on Nov. 18 at 9:30 p.m., according to court records on file in Jackson County. The trooper stated in his report that he observed McClellan’s vehicle swerve from the right shoulder of U.S. 23 to the left shoulder. The vehicle then went into the median.

The traffic stop happened near the U.S. 23 and Mockingbird Lane intersection in Jackson County.

An hour later, at the Jackson County Jail, McClellan blew a .20 percent in a breathalyzer test, according to court records, which is more than twice North Carolina’s legal blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent.

McClellan, 55, won re-election in November despite having been charged with a DWI during the summer of 2009. He represents the Highlands district, where he lives and works as a financial advisor.

McClellan, in a press release, said he would resign from the commission board Dec. 1. He did not specifically cite the DWI arrest.

“I must refocus my priorities on my family and personal issues,” McClellan said. “I need to concentrate all my energies on taking care of those things and people most dear to me.”

Chris Murray, chairman of the Macon County Republican Party, declined to comment directly on McClellan’s DWI. He instead praised McClellan for his service to the county and wished him “Godspeed” in any challenges faced.

“Brian is a good man. He has been a good commissioner. He’s done his work well,” Murray said.

The GOP chairman said the executive committee of the local party would meet soon and select a replacement for McClellan. That person must live in the Highlands area, Murray said.

Commissioners in Macon County must vote to accept the GOP’s proposed replacement, and select a new chairman. The next board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13.


Renovating the old library on Main Street in Sylva for a new police department is on something of a hiatus until a new town board convenes.

The town board will get a new member following this month’s elections. Lynda Sossoman will replace current town Commissioner Ray Lewis. Sossoman said Monday that she fully supports the renovation of the old library for a town police department.

Town leaders must identify where the estimated $700,000 needed for the job will come from, interim Town Manager Mike Morgan said.

“The next thing we would want is to get an architect to do detailed plans — but (commissioners) are not there, yet,” he said.

Until then, the 15-member town police — counting only fulltime employees — will continue to squeeze into the current police department on Allen Street. The officers share just 1,000 square feet. The old library is 6,400 square feet in size.

Jackson County owned the old library, but agreed to a property swap at the town’s request earlier this year. The county gave Sylva the old library building on Main Street, and in exchange the town gave the county the former chamber of commerce building on Grindstaff Cove Road.

As takes place currently, any prisoners detained by police will be transported immediately to the county jail at the administration building instead of being held at the police department.

Sylva merchants have repeatedly requested a greater presence by town police on Main Street. In addition to the prospect of having the department located physically there, a new police officer was recently assigned to foot patrols downtown.


It could mark the first move in an effort to dismantle a set of strict land regulations in Jackson County that are widely considered some of the most progressive in all of Western North Carolina.

Or perhaps the renewed focus on this county’s subdivision ordinance is, as proponents assert, simply thoughtful streamlining intended to make the process of building developments in Jackson County more efficient.

A public hearing is scheduled Dec. 5 at 1:50 p.m. on a series of changes proposed to the Jackson County subdivision ordinance.

In 2007, much to the dismay of many area developers, Jackson County under a completely Democratic board of commissioners passed sweeping steep slope and subdivision ordinances.

Commissioners touted the regulations as protecting the environment and the quality of life they said was threatened by irresponsible mountainside construction.

The new regulations were crafted during a five-month moratorium on new subdivisions. This marked the end of a laissez-faire building climate in Jackson County that had paved the way for dozens of gated communities over the past decade, angering many in the real estate and building industry. Jackson County’s homebuilders’ lobby pledged to oust the four Democratic commissioners who voted in favor of the regulations.

Last year, voters indeed replaced three Democrats, including one — Chairman Brian McMahan — who had voted against the ordinance.

One year later, under this new board of commissioners, the subdivision ordinance is under review. County Planner Gerald Green, who was hired shortly before the election, asserted the changes are simply “performance enhancements,” and “not a major overhaul.”

“What we are trying to do is benefit the natural environment, the property owner and the developer,” Green said.

Not everyone is persuaded, however. During an October public hearing on the proposed changes held by the planning board, Gerlinde Lindy, a Cullowhee resident, cautioned strongly against “relaxation” of the subdivision standards.

“It would be well to proceed very carefully, particularly when providing options for circumventing the ordinance’s requirements,” Lindy told the planning board. “Any destruction of property, compromise of the county’s water resources, irreversible damage to the environment, or even loss of life that result from weakened standards will be the direct moral, if not legal, responsibility of those who crafted the revisions or allowed the exceptions.”

Lindy also expressed reservations about wording changes to the subdivision’s open-space requirements.


‘User friendly?’

Jackson County’s planning board this month voted unanimously on the proposed changes to the county’s subdivision ordinance. The vote followed two public input sessions, the public hearing and the solicitation of comments about the proposed changes from 70 Jackson County residents participating in a Listserv on the topic, Green said.

That said, it’s also important to note that the composition of the planning board has changed since the subdivision ordinance passed originally — planning board members appointed by the former commissioners are being replaced by new commission picks. At least five of the 11 members are new to the planning board, according to county records.

Planning Board Chairman Zachary Koenig defended the process undertaken by the advisory group and the changes they propose.

“I’d say that it’s to make the ordinance more efficient,” he said Monday. “I think it is a good balance, and makes (the ordinance) more workable, more user friendly.”

Koenig lives and works in the Cashiers community as a general contractor and builder. Koenig emphasized that yes, he’s a builder, but said that he seeks balance in mountain development: “I’m not someone who wants to clear cut everything.”

Meeting Monday night, county commissioners mostly left discussion of the proposed subdivision ordinance changes to Green. But at one juncture, Commissioner Joe Cowan, a Democrat who helped vote in the original subdivision ordinance, asked bluntly: “Is there an instance, in any of these recommendations, that is more stringent than what was already on the books?”

“Yes,” Green said, his reply including the following, what he termed “more stringent” changes: The maximum grade of roads would be reduced from 22 percent to 20 percent, and at least a 5-foot wide bench would be required at the toe of all fill slopes greater than 10 feet in vertical height. Plus, there’s a requirement that qualified professionals oversee all road designs, not just those on property that exceeds certain slope thresholds.

Looking at the proposed changes, one is immediately struck by the removal of pages and pages of the previous ordinance. Not to worry, Green said: That’s simply streamlining and updating, because the current ordinance includes word-for-word copying of N.C. Department of Transportation road standards.

“Rather than trying to keep up with standards, we’re just referencing those standards,” the planner said. That does not mean people won’t have to meet those standards.”


What are the key changes?


Now: Must be 18-feet wide with 2-foot shoulders on either side.

Proposed: Smaller roads would be allowed, down to 14-feet wide, depending on the size of the development. To accommodate two passing vehicles, turnouts are required, with placement of the turnouts based on road curvature and grade. Additionally, either a registered engineer or N.C.-licensed land surveyor must design subdivision roads.


Now: Developers can build subdivisions in three-year phases but “development agreements” approved by commissioners last for 20 years.

Proposed: The ordinance would allow for 10-year phasing of subdivisions and reduce “development agreements” to 10 years, too.


Now: Developers seeking a variance while building a subdivision are required to go through both the planning board and the board of adjustment.

Proposed: The board of adjustment would be eliminated from that process.

Lot sizes:

There is no change proposed to the number of houses that can be built per acre in new subdivisions. This was one of the most debated points when the original ordinance was passed.


A group protesting ever-earlier school starts in North Carolina has turned the heat down for now on its shining Bad Example in the state, Macon County, but that reprieve might prove temporary.

Save Our Summers-NC joined forces with Highlands resident Sabrina Hawkins, who has three school-aged children enrolled in Macon County Schools, in legal action earlier this year against the state’s school board. The N.C. Board of Education granted Macon Schools’ request to start school early so it could offer three weeks of concentrated reading help for remedial students during the course of the year.

When all was said and done, however, many parents in Macon County said the early Aug. 4 start really didn’t prove that big a deal for them or their children.

“It was tough with the summer being shorter, but it will all equal out in the end,” said Tara Raby, who has a school-aged daughter in Macon’s school system.

Students who aren’t targeted for the catch-up instruction will be off for those three weeks spread across the school year.

Hawkins and Save Our Summers-NC asserted that Macon County skirted the intent of the state’s school calendar law, which prohibits the use of waivers like the ones Macon received, to “accommodate system-wide classroom preferences.”

The group asked a judge to stop the Aug. 4 back-to-school date in Macon County. The judge did not intervene with an injunction as the group hoped but did allow the initial lawsuit to move forward. The group recently opted to drop the case in favor of focusing efforts, and dollars, toward next year, however.

In other words, Save Our Summers-NC is taking a mini vacation of its own before possibly launching another salvo in the calendar battle.

“They are ready to intervene should the school board choose to re-apply next year for an improper waiver,” Louise Lee, a spokesperson for Save Our Summers, said in a press release. “School districts should take note that any efforts to evade the school calendar law will be closely scrutinized in the waiver process.”


Superintendent: It’s all about student needs

That prospect doesn’t seem to deter Macon County Superintendent Dan Brigman, even though records indicate the school system spent about $26,000 in legal fees because of Save Our Summers’ calendar battle.

Brigman wanted, and received, with his school board’s approval, the waivers for each of the county’s 10 schools to use a “nontraditional calendar.” A traditional calendar, according to state law, in comparison has “one track” in operation for at least 180 days, with a long summer break of about 10 weeks in length.

Macon’s schools started early, for the most part, to allow local educators two opportunities to intercede with students needing extra academic help. That could happen again, depending on what exactly the schools’ calendar development committee and the Macon County Board of Education decide best serves students, Brigman said.

“There is always the threat of opposition to the school calendar,” he said. “But student learning (not fear of legal threats) is at the forefront of our decisions.”

It may be a moot point in Macon anyway for next year. Counties with more than eight missed days due to snow are exempt from the mandatory start date. While Macon County didn’t have enough snow days to qualify for the exemption this school year, next year it will be.

Macon’s school superintendent emphasized that the school system “followed state protocol” in requesting and receiving its waivers this year. Although all of the schools in the county ultimately got a waiver, each applied individually, and so it did not amount to a “system-wide waiver,” the N.C. Board of Education decided when ruling on the Macon schools’ request.

And, now that the first intercession is complete, Brigman maintains that he believes Macon County Schools made a good decision. About 400 students participated each day, at a cost of $163,834, according to the schools’ finance officer, Angie Cook. That number includes the salaries of teachers, bus drivers, child nutrition workers and other staff.  

Students not needing extra help could take part in certain “enrichment” activities. That’s what Kyra Doster’s nine-year-old son did.

“The intercession week was good and bad,” Doster said. “It does give the kids a break and a chance to catch their breath.”

Doster said she and her husband were luckier than some parents when it came to finding childcare for these mid-year, week-long breaks. Other family members helped watch over the fourth-grader when he wasn’t taking part in the special activities, allowing the couple to continue with their jobs as normal.

“If we had to have a babysitter, it would have been kind of tough,” Doster said.

The next intercession in Macon County Schools takes place March 5-9.


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At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.