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Bell ringers cope with corporate regulations, recession

Around Thanksgiving, they begin showing up outside stores with a red kettle, a jingling bell and a smile. In many people’s eyes, Salvation Army bell ringers are as integral to the holiday season as Christmas trees, carols and Santa Claus.

So when Ingles dared to ban the bell ringers last month, the Western North Carolina-based grocery chain faced a powerful backlash from many of its customers.

Pulling the plug on what has become a kind of Christmas tradition did not pan out for Ingles, which decided last week to allow the bell ringers once more in some stores in Western North Carolina.

While the Salvation Army struggles to recoup lost time and meet its fundraising goals this year, it is also experimenting with new techniques, like debit card machines and online kettles.

It remains to be seen if the organization can successfully raise funds to meet a demand that has skyrocketed amidst a recession.

But for the rest of this holiday season, consumers can expect bell ringers to continue their tradition of braving the cold to benefit those in need.

 

To have or have not

In a move designed to ease solicitation of its customers during the holiday season, Ingles decided last month to prohibit the Salvation Army from stationing its bell ringers outside grocery stores.

The grocery chain also hoped to form a more consistent policy. Since the recession hit, an increasing number of organizations have asked that they, too, be allowed to solicit outside Ingles stores.

What appeared to be a simple business decision to help customers quickly fueled public outrage.

Far from being grateful about the measure, customers e-mailed and called the company, and wrote to their local newspapers, demanding that Ingles permit bell ringers to front its stores.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army publicly maintained its cool.

“We understand that it was a business decision that needed to be made by Ingles,” said Capt. Craig Gontner, area coordinator for the Western North Carolina branch of the Salvation Army. “For us, it was unfortunate, but it was understandable.”

Luckily for the Salvation Army, Ingles was soon swayed by public opinion. It decided to allow bell ringers to chime during the week of Christmas.

That compromise, however, was still unacceptable to many customers.

Lynda Pierce, an Ingles customer in Waynesville, said she just doesn’t understand why Ingles would want to ban bell ringers.

“It’s not hurting them,” said Pierce.

Ingles’ decision was widely unpopular, partly because bell ringing has become synonymous with the holidays for Pierce and many others across the country.

“The kettles have established themselves as a Christmas tradition, especially in small towns like ours,” said Gontner.

Last week, Gontner received word that Ingles had a change of heart and decided to allow bell ringers at a few stores after all.

“There are additional stores in our service area, but the exception was granted for Waynesville and Canton only,” said Gontner.

Ron Freeman, Chief Financial Officer for Ingles, said his company fully supports the Salvation Army’s mission and hopes the organization reaches its fundraising goal this holiday season.

“We’ve spoken with Salvation Army representatives in a number of our market areas and have come up with solutions that everyone can work with,” Freeman said, adding that each year Ingles donates cash and food worth millions of dollars.

Fred Galloway, a Waynesville resident who has been a bell ringer for 11 years, said he was “very worried” about Ingles’ initial decision, but is grateful the company had a change of heart.

“It’s a prime spot,” said Galloway.

Wal-Mart, another prime spot for Salvation Army, also altered its policy on bell ringers this year, allowing bell ringers at its storefronts only until Dec. 24, instead of the usual Dec. 31.

Though Wal-Mart’s decision will undoubtedly hurt the Salvation Army’s fundraising goal, there has been little outcry over that policy change. Meanwhile, Bi-Lo only allows bell ringers on Fridays and Saturdays, and Food Lion allows all charitable organizations to solicit its customers for two Saturdays each year. Belk is one of the few companies that don’t have any such restrictions in place for bell ringers.

 

Far behind

While the Salvation Army is relieved that it has won back a place in front of Ingles stores, the organization has not escaped this holiday season unscathed.

“We’re halfway through the season,” said Tim Pullin, a Waynesville resident who was frustrated by Ingles’ initial ban. “It’s impossible, making up all that lost ground and time.”

The WNC branch of the Salvation Army is, indeed, behind on its fundraising goal. It has managed to raise $18,600 this year, down by $22,000 from the same period last year.

In 2008, the branch raised a total of $116,000 from its 11 kettle sites and 40 counter kettles in seven western counties.

A number of factors could be blamed for the major dip in donations.

The Salvation Army started fundraising a week later than usual. The poor economy is another potential culprit.

But donations have been on the rise the last six years, and the WNC branch raised a record amount of money in 2008, when the country was still bogged down by the recession.

The weak economy has meant, inevitably, a greater need for charitable services.

According to Gontner, demand for the Salvation Army’s services has skyrocketed by 40 percent.

“This was not the year for us to see a decline,” said Gontner.

“Because they’re struggling, a lot of other people are going to be a struggling, too,” said Pullin. “It’s going to be a long, cold winter, and a lot of people are going to be hurting.”

It’s difficult to discount the Ingles factor in the Salvation Army’s fundraising troubles this year. After Wal-Mart, the Ingles stores in Canton and Waynesville rake in the most money for the WNC Salvation Army.

While customers flooded Ingles stores to buy turkeys the day before Thanksgiving, no bell ringers were around for one of the biggest fundraising days of the year.

They will be back at Ingles in time for another pivotal fundraising period, the week before Christmas.

“It is going to allow for us to hopefully come close to what we did last year,” said Gontner. “With us being behind by $22,000 this early in the game, it was very difficult for us to even be optimistic.”

 

The age of plastic

On a sunny winter day, bell ringers Linda Arnold and Lynda Self are standing outside the Belk in Waynesville next to a sign that signals a new day in bell ringing — debit card “kettles.”

This is the first year bell ringers in Western North Carolina are accepting plastic. Since fewer customers are carrying cold hard cash, the organization has decided to adapt to the card-carrying culture.

But so far, it’s the customers who are having trouble adapting.

The three card machines, which are available at high-traffic Wal-Mart and Belk sites, receive only a few swipes a day.

“It doesn’t appear the public at large has adapted to a debit card kettle,” said Gontner.

According to Sammy Fowler, kettle coordinator for WNC’s Salvation Army, 99 percent of donations are still cash.

There is hope, since the machines have been well received in other parts of the country, Gontner said.

“Here, we haven’t accepted it just quite as readily,” said Gontner, who predicts that more people will be more comfortable with using the machines next year.

Multiple theories exist for why customers in WNC are breezing past the debit card kettles.

Self, who was ringing outside of Belk in Waynesville last week, said most people drop spare change into the red kettles. Self postulates that that’s not enough money to warrant pulling out a VISA card.

Arnold added that most people are in a hurry and uneager to linger outside in the cold to punch numbers on a credit card machine.

But that doesn’t mean the machines aren’t handy.

“It’s a good option to have,” said Arnold.

Added security is another benefit of the machines. While stealing traditional kettles that carry large chunks of change could be relatively easy, a thief could be clueless about what to do with a stolen credit card machine.

Other than the debit card kettles, the Salvation Army has added two new ways of donating in recent years.

Consumers can donate gift cards with leftover balances, or to an online red kettle.

Haywood residents protest property tax hike during bad economy

Scores of Haywood County taxpayers criticized the county’s proposed budget at a public hearing Monday (June 1) saying commissioners had not looked thoroughly at every possible option before proposing job cuts and a property tax increase.

Nearly 150 residents attended the meeting, many waving signs denouncing additional taxes.

The proposed budget recommends cutting 35 county positions and increasing the property tax rate by 1.7 cents from the current rate of 49.7 cents per $100 to make up for a $7 million budget shortfall. The 2009/2010 fiscal year starts July 1.

“Come up with cost saving ideas instead of the typical knee jerk reaction of raising taxes,” county resident Bill Davis suggested to commissioners.

Resident Ted Carr said it was ludicrous for commissioners to even consider a tax hike at a time when the economy is causing many to struggle.

“With the economy in the tank and the jobless rate as high as it is, I think it’s unconscionable that you’d suggest a 1.7 cent increase,” Carr said.

Others said county residents would suffer with a tax increase.

“For the people who are on fixed incomes, I see a heavy hit if you raise the taxes,” warned resident Yvonne Mazet. Though Mazet opposes a tax increase, she could give few specifics when interviewed about how she would make up for the $7 million budget shortfall the county faces.

“I’m just one person. I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know where to cut. It’s not my job,” Mazet said, adding “I don’t want my taxes raised.”

Commissioner Skeeter Curtis told the audience of concerned citizens that the budget shortfall had left commissioners with few options.

“I want to find some more money, too, but I don’t know where it’s going to be right now because we’ve cut right down to the bottom,” Curtis said.

Some audience members said they understood the county is in a tough position, but that commissioners had gone too far with some of the proposed cuts.

“Our budget is at a place right now where we’re going to have to juggle, but when we cut our health out and we cut our schools off, we cut our throats,” said resident Danny Heatherly, referring to proposed cuts to the Department of Social Services and the public school system.

Audience members had plenty of suggestions, but in many cases, commissioners had already taken them into consideration.

Resident Linda Bennet suggested the county cut funding to programs that don’t benefit all citizens, like nonprofits.

“I’m not saying they’re not good causes, I’m not saying you’re not being sweet by paying for them, but if it’s not a program that benefits every single person, that’s the program you look at first,” Bennet said.

But the county already plans to cut all funding for nonprofits next year, and pre-emptively pulled funding for the remainder of this fiscal year. The cuts have impacted organizations like the Haywood County Arts Council and the Haywood County Fairgrounds.

Resident Pat Carr agreed with many other audience members, saying that the county should pare down to the essentials like many residents have had to do.

“When I have to cut my budget, I look to see at what is a necessity and what is not a necessity,” Carr said. “I’d much rather see recreation programs cut than teachers cut.”

The county has already proposed significant cuts to recreation, including yanking all funding it provides to individual towns.

“We’re not giving any money to the town of Waynesville (for recreation) this budget,” Curtis said. “Canton is getting zero dollars this year.”

Audience members had other suggestions. For instance, Tammy Maney suggested increasing room taxes paid at area hotels and motels to alleviate some of the tax burden from county residents.

But Commissioner Mark Swanger pointed out that hiking the lodging tax requires approval by the state General Assembly.

“A couple of speakers mentioned the ... increase in occupancy tax, but that requires legislation in Raleigh,” Swanger said. “That’s a state statute that authorizes that.”

State law also dictates that room tax money must be invested back into tourism and can’t be spent on general county services.

Other audience suggestions included closing county administrative offices one day a week, raising the deductible county employees pay on their health insurance premium, reducing the salaries of some of the highest paid county administration, and consolidating some county and town services.

Resident Bruce Gardner said the commissioners need to examine cuts to even the smallest expenses, like turning the lights of the county justice center off at night.

“It’s the little things, it’s the dollars,” that add up, Gardner said.

Some residents blamed the county for frivolous spending in the past, saying it contributed to the county’s tough position today. Tammy Maney made that point just after Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick asked her to limit her speech to three minutes.

“If you’d been as strict with money in the county as the time limit to get up here and talk about it, we’d all be a lot better off,” Maney said.

Resident Sharon Miller pointed to the county’s grading of the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the east end of the county in hopes it would lure industry as an example of wasteful spending.

“(You spent) $1 million for the tearing down of a mountain where a year later there’s still no development there,” Miller said.

Resident Johnnie Curé, one of the most vocal of the tax opponents, pointed to the former county board’s purchase of 22 acres of land on Jonathan Creek over a year ago, intended for recreation purposes, as an example of wasteful spending. The former board of commissioners spent more than $1 million on the parcel.

“Why did we spend it when we didn’t have it?” Curé demanded. “You must have a great deal more stewardship when it comes to our money. Stop asking for more and more of it. There is no more to take.”

Curtis encouraged audience members to stay involved in the budget process.

“Stay engaged, because it is your budget, and it is your county,” Curtis said.

Commissioners will go back to the drawing board for another budget work session at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 4, at the Haywood County Justice Center. A vote on the budget is scheduled for Monday, June 15 at the commissioners’ meeting at 5 p.m.

Persistent WCU grads find work in tough economy

It’s slim pickin’s out there, as Western Carolina University students are finding out. This past weekend, more than 1,100 graduates walked across the stage and into the most unforgiving job market in decades.

The competition is stiff. Fewer companies are hiring — the college reported a 30 percent decline this year in the number of career fairs held for students, said WCU Career Services Director Mardy Ashe. The downturn has hit every field, even traditionally stable ones like healthcare, where recruitment of students is down 16 percent.

New grads are competing with much more experienced workers who have been thrust back into the job market. Alumni contacts to the Career Services office have increased dramatically, as more people in the workforce lose their positions, Ashe said.

Ashe commonly hears students say that they feel finding a job won’t be tough for them, even though they know the market is a challenge right now.

“Many of them are very naïve about what to expect after graduation,” Ashe said. “On the other hand, some of them are also planning. They’re looking at alternatives.”

With resourcefulness and flexibility, some students have been successful. Here’s how a few WCU grads landed a job in this tough economy.

 

Compromise

For Amanda Tomlinson, a finance and accounting double major, scoring a job meant doing something she hadn’t planned on. Tomlinson initially wanted to work for a bank — financial planning is her specific interest — but kept hitting a wall.

“I started applying three months ago, and probably applied for 40 positions,” Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson scoured online job search engines like Monster, CareerBuilder, and even Craigslist, to no avail. Without experience in her field, most employers wouldn’t even grant her an interview.

“Businesses sent back replies saying, ‘You’re not qualified,’” said Tomlinson. “But my biggest problem is that they didn’t let me get to the actual interview. I’m a pretty driven person — I double majored and finished in three years. But applying online, they just shut you out of the system.”

Tomlinson got turned down for even the most basic gigs, including a bank teller position.

“They sent me a one line response that said, ‘You’re not qualified,’” she said. “It was really upsetting. With the knowledge I’ve gotten from WCU, I’m qualified, but nobody wants to give me the opportunity. It was very, very tough.”

With no luck in her desired field, Tomlinson began to look elsewhere. The approach worked. She was hired as a clerical assistant for a building materials company. She’ll be handling paperwork as the company gets contracts for jobs funded by the federal stimulus package.

“It’s not really something I wanted to do, but it is something,” Tomlinson says. “I’m going to be out of school, and I have to pay bills.”

Ashe gives Tomlinson big kudos for her persistence, which played a role in her success.

“The more things you send out, the greater the likelihood you’ll be lucky,” Ashe said. “I would be persistent in this kind of economy until they tell you to stop.”

But Ashe says she would be cautious relying too much on job search engines, which, as Tomlinson discovered, don’t always yield results.

“The job search engines are not as successful as students think they’ll be,” Ashe said. “You’re competing with millions of people who’ve got the same things you’ve got.”

Having geographic flexibility is also helpful, Ashe said. Tomlinson narrowed her search to Western North Carolina, since she wanted to stay close to her boyfriend, a football player at WCU.

“Students and alumni with the most problems are those who are inflexible geographically,” Ashe says. “Consider other parts of the state, or even the Southeast.”

 

Shifting plans

Geographic flexibility was key in helping Cara Ward, a theater major, land a prestigious graduate school assistantship.

“I was originally aiming for Florida. That’s where I’d like to end up,” Ward said. “I found things there, but the opportunities were better in other places.”

Those places included Wayne State University in Detroit — Ward’s hometown, and the last place she figured she would end up.

“I swore I would never return to Michigan after I left,” Ward chuckles. “But when they offer you something like that, you don’t say no,” referring to the graduate assistantship she landed at Wayne State.

Going straight to graduate school after college wasn’t in Ward’s original plans either, but she couldn’t let the opportunity pass her by.

“My original plan was after graduation I would get a job, work for a couple of years and make sure this is what I wanted to do, and then apply for grad school,” said Ward. “But I figured I might as well do it.”

Ward also has a summer job lined up at Stagedoor Manor, a theatrical summer camp for kids serious about breaking into the industry. She’s working as a costume designer, and will design six shows over the course of the summer.

How did Ward manage to find such great gigs? Some serious networking. She came across both opportunities at the Southeastern Theater Conference, where she was able to impress potential employers face to face and hand them her portfolio of design work in person.

“Networking is more than essential to theater students especially,” Ward said. “At the conference, I made connections with other people throughout the country and the world and had my portfolio reviewed by all of them.”

In the current economy, networking is the best way to find a job, Ashe affirms, and racking your brain for who you know. Any connection is worth trying, she says, including friends of family, family of friends, former employers, and faculty members.

 

Free labor, big payoff

It’s not always fun to work for free, but in recent WCU graduate Stephanie Drum’s case, the end reward was well worth it.

This past spring, Drum held a part-time, unpaid internship five days a week at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County. The Lake doesn’t generally take on interns in the spring, but since Drum agreed to work for free, they agreed to let her come on. Drum, who concentrated in professional writing, gained a wealth of experience in her field, creating walking tour and visitor guides as well as web content.

Then, as luck would have it, a temporary communications specialist position opened up at Lake Junaluska. The department didn’t have to look far for a qualified candidate, since Drum had been learning the ins and outs of the business for months. Lake Junaluska officials offered her the position.

For Drum, the internship provided a direct path into her desired field.

“I think I would have had a very hard time if I hadn’t interned,” she said. “I’m glad they make us do it.”

Indeed, the communications and English departments at WCU require students to do an internship as part of their coursework. But mandatory or not, Drum says every student should try to do one.

“If they get offered the chance to take an internship, even if it’s not required, they really should,” Drum said. “It will pay in the end.”

Ashe says finding an internship is one of the smartest moves a student can make when it comes to scoring a job, because employers “want to see directly related experience.”

Now Drum has professional experience in her field, which will come in handy when her job ends in July. Still, Drum isn’t limiting her job search to just one field. She knows the market’s tough, and she’s willing to be flexible.

“I’m kind of worried about getting a job in my field. If I can’t do that, I’m pretty sure I could find a seasonal job,” she says. Drum may even return to the summer gig she’s held for a few years during college — working at Wal-Mart.

In tough times, local company looks to expand

In yet another piece of positive economic news, Waynesville-based Haywood Vocational Opportunities announced a proposed expansion that would create at least 50 new jobs.

HVO, which makes disposable medical supplies, plans to pay $400,000 for 10 acres at the Beaverdam Industrial Park in the eastern end of Haywood County and spend more than $1 million to construct a 40,000-square-foot building on the site.

The county recently spent $700,000 to grade the industrial site, and therefore is selling it at a loss. That’s just the nature of the business, said county Economic Development Director Mark Clasby. Grading industrial sites to ready them for building is one way to lure companies.

“That’s part of the economic development incentive, to work with existing businesses to retain them, or in this case, expand. That’s even better — it’s an investment in jobs for the future,” Clasby said.

HVO’s proposal has been OK’d by the Economic Development Commission, and is now awaiting final approval by county commissioners.

The company currently employs 315 full-time workers at its factory in the Hazelwood community. It also runs an employment and training program, which enrolls 120 people. The company operates under a unique business model — about 25 percent of its employee base at any given time has a disabling physical or mental condition that is a barrier to employment.

HVO has maintained a rapid rate of growth at a time when many businesses are struggling with the economic recession. The company moved into its current headquarters in 2005 and is already looking to expand. It added 72 new jobs in the last 18 months, mostly hourly positions, according to HVO President George Marshall. HVO is forecasting continued growth over the next 24 to 36 months.

“We have emerging business that, right now, I can’t comment on,” said Marshall.

The company plans to add 50 new jobs over that time period that will range from machine operators to assemblers. That’s apart from the jobs directly linked to construction of the building.

HVO makes a niche product that isn’t easily outsourced, which has helped it to weather the economic downturn.

“Basically, we’re in a real specialty market as it relates to healthcare,” Marshall said. “We produce custom surgical products for the healthcare industry, which, generally speaking, has not been able to be taken offshore. As commodity products have moved, this was one element that really could not practically, nor economically, be moved.”

HVO has developed a huge market for its products.

“Our customers are throughout the U.S. and international,” Marshall said. About 30 percent of HVO’s business is outside the country, including clients in Sydney.

Marshall said that HVO will aim to complete its new facility at the industrial park by the end of 2009.

Software CEO doing well in bad times

Drake Software CEO Phil Drake is taking the tough economic times with ease.

He believes he can get through the recession without closing any businesses or laying anyone of his employees off. With 500 employees, Drake is the second largest employer in Macon County.

“Overall our business is up, especially in software,” Drake said.

Drake pays out about $16 million in payroll and benefits annually.

“I really want Franklin and Western North Carolina to be a player when our kids grow up. I don’t want them to have to leave home to find a good job.”

Being responsible for so many employees’ livelihoods, Drake said he has some “trepidation.”

“There’s a huge responsibility in making payroll every Friday,” Drake said.

Other than his own businesses he also worries about the country.

“Our country has some dangerous times ahead,” he said. “Our country has got to stop spending more money than it has.”

Other than the software company, Drake has built a small business empire across Macon County: an Athlete’s Foot, Christian bookstore, a print shop, 9-hole golf course, a Microtel franchise, the Fun Factory, a marketing company, Internet service provider, a Christian radio station, construction company and a Verizon store.

And on July 3 he will open his 1,500-seat performing arts center in Macon County with the Oak Ridge Boys kicking it off. Charlie Daniels will also play at the center soon after, he said.

Out of all his businesses, his software company is the most profitable. Of his 500 employees, 300 of them work in the software side, he said.

“The software business is great,” Drake said. “I write tax software for accountants. That business is recession proof. People have to file income tax returns no matter what.”

Drake said his software business is up 14 percent this year. He said 30,000 accountants use his software, and his product does 10 million tax returns a year.

Business is up because, “We have a real good sales team and God has put me in a good place,” he said.

All of Drake’s other businesses are down, he said, adding that they started going south in September when gas hit $4 a gallon.

For instance, the Fun Factory isn’t on people’s priority list these days as they struggle to buy groceries and pay bills.

Drake may cut back on part-time high school workers at The Fun Factory.

Likewise, employees for his construction company have seen less work because of the slowdown, but there have been no permanent layoffs, Drake said.

“There have been weeks where there hasn’t been work to do,” Drake said.

Business will pick back up some when the weather improves, Drake said, noting that there is always a slowdown during the winter months when tourists aren’t here.

Tourism will be down this summer, he predicts, but he can’t foresee how much. Hopefully his performing arts center will draw people to the area, and people who would normally make long summer trips may stay in the region this year, he said.

By the summer of 2010 he thinks the local economy will rebound.

“I think we are very near the bottom,” Drake said of the national economy.

 

WNC not hit as hard

Western North Carolina hasn’t been hammered as hard by the recession as other parts of the country like Washington state, which has seen Microsoft lay off 5,000 workers, New York or Detroit, which is hurting from the automobile decline, Drake said.

Jobs in the area are not dependent on GM, Wall Street and other industries taking a big hit, Drake said.

“I don’t think the recession has hurt us too much. If we have a big impact it’s less tourism,” he said. “Most people still have a job, most people are still making the same amount they were making. Gas prices are down now.”

Seattle could be a tough job market now with 5,000 Microsoft employees looking for a job, he said.

“Those types of layoffs haven’t hit Western North Carolina,” Drake said.

Also, there hasn’t been as much subprime lending here compared to the rest of the country, he said.

Unlike Dade County, Fla., where the bottom dropped out of property values, this area has seen more modest declines between 3 to 5 percent, he said.

“We’re not seeing stuff drop through the floor,” Drake said. “There are not as many foreclosures.”

However, Drake acknowledges that North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 8.7 percent in December — the highest since 1993 — and that some small businesses are closing.

In fact, Drake, who’s been in business for 35 years, says it is still the worst he’s ever seen.

“It wasn’t this bad in the ‘70s during the oil embargo,” he said. “I remember having to line up at the gas station, and you could only buy $5 of gas or buy gas on even or odd days based on you tag number.”

 

A bad plan

Something has happened in the past 40 years to make the United States go from the greatest creditor nation in the world to now the largest debtor nation, Drake said.

“Part of it is that we are spending more money than we take in,” he said.

And he said the nation is about to do it again with the proposed stimulus plan.

“We’re about to spend $819 billion we don’t have,” Drake said.

Drake would prefer if the government took a laissez-faire approach.

“The best thing the government could do for the economy is stay out of it,” Drake said. “Doing nothing is better than what they’re doing.”

The government got the country into the current economic situation by encouraging banks to make sub-prime mortgages to unqualified buyers so low-income people could realize the American Dream, Drake asserted.

The Federal Reserve artificially lowered interest rates to entice people to buy homes they couldn’t afford, Drake added.

If anyone is to blame it may be whoever was on the Senate Finance Committee when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac gave 0 percent down home loans, Drake said.

Drake calls the proposed stimulus plan before the Senate a “bad plan.”

“It ‘s bad for several reasons,” Drake said. “It’s not going to stimulate the economy. We’re just borrowing from our kids. We’re putting ourselves further in debt.” Moreover, the plan has lots of pork barrel spending.

“Some of it’s going to Planned Parenthood. It’s a bad bill.”

The bill has been compared to FDR’s New Deal in that it proposes to create jobs building roads and bridges across the nation.

“My grandfather did some WPA work laying rock along the roadsides,” Drake said. “I’m not saying it won’t help a few people.”

The economy will recover on its own if the government stays out of it, Drake said.

“Businesses have done well in America on their own for over 200 years,” Drake said. “That government is best that governs least. American people are ingenious and hard working and if left to their own devices will succeed.”

Sawmill manager: World going to hell

T&S Hardwoods General Manager Jack Swanner sat in his office with an ashtray full of cigarette butts next to him and an unopened bottle of merlot on his desk.

Laying beside him was a Wall Street Journal, and Swanner said the news was bad.

“It says the same thing they all say, the world is going to hell,” Swanner said of the newspaper. “I barely read them anymore.”

However, the headline that day was fairly optimistic: “Price Cuts Spur Home Sales.”

Swanner has hope, too, even though business is down 40 percent.

“This is not the end of the world or the United States,” Swanner said. “This is the worst recession we’ve been in in my lifetime. The system will fix itself. There will be people who make it. There will be prosperity, but there is going to be a lot of collateral damage and carnage.”

‘I don’t like not producing’

Through the window of Swanner’s Sylva office the sawmill yard is seen but there are no forklifts moving, no loading trucks filled with boards, no workers walking about like there would normally be — just stacks of wood sitting in what appears to be a ghost town.

The empty work yard is reminiscent of what is going on around the country with few people working and fewer products being produced.

“It is a ghost town,” said Swanner, a tall burly man who hates to see his beloved hardwood industry in the pits.

“I don’t like not producing, I don’t like not working,” said Swanner, as he walked around the sawmill yard.

In January Swanner made the tough decision to cut his 75 employees’ hours to 18 a week compared to their usual 40 or more. Now employees only work Monday and Tuesday — the rest of the week the plant is closed.

“Until sales increase, we can’t run more,” Swanner said. “It’s sad seeing the economy this way. The men are not getting the hours they need.”

The cutback hours will continue into February, Swanner said.

Businesses associated with the logging industry are hurting also. The sawmill once contracted with three trucking companies to haul lumber, but now there is only one.

“You’re literally looking at the death of an entire industry,” said Swanner as he leaned back in his office chair.

He noted that a sawmill in Canton that was in business for 70 years just closed.

“Numerous loggers are sitting at the house, and the people working for them are sitting at the house,” Swanner said.

The sawmill’s employees are not the type of people who enjoy not working.

“There’s not a man or woman out here that wants unemployment or welfare,” Swanner said.

Swanner also has a strong work ethic and despises greedy CEOs like a recent corporate bank president who allegedly spent $1.2 million remodeling an office and Bernie Madoff, who masterminded a scam that bilked millions from investors.

There is a mindset of greed in the United States and a certain class of people with no work ethic, he said. But for the most part he believes Americans are still hard workers.

‘Mad at the system’

Sawmill yard supervisor Sandy Johnson has worked at the sawmill for 37 years and has never seen the economy this bad.

Since 1946, the sawmill has been in steady operation. Some employees have grandfathers who worked at the plant.

But today, as Johnson walked around the yard he said the employees worry about making their home and car payments.

When the tough decision was made to cut workers’ hours, Swanner gathered each shift at a safety meeting and broke the news in person.

“They’re not mad at us, they’re mad at the system,” Swanner said. They know what’s going on in the economy and the world.”

The sawmill relies on global demand to survive, shipping hardwood to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Italy and China.

Now the entire worldwide market is in the dump. In fact, he said the economy is probably worse in Europe than it is in the United States.

“Every market in the world is gone,” he said. “There is no international business being done.”

However, there was some good news last week. Three loads — white oak, maple and poplar — were just shipped to Israel.

Pointing out tall stacks of wood in the yard under canopies, Swanner said there usually isn’t so much inventory. Some of the boards are bundled with double straps of wire, meaning it will be shipped overseas, and the other boards only have a single strap to show that they stay in the United States.

Stimulus strategy

Prior to the economic downturn, Swanner’s company produced about 16 million to 17 million board feet a year, but now it’s down by half. Something needs to be done to stimulate the home building industry to help turn things around, he said.

The $819 billion stimulus bill passed by the House and under review by the Senate this week needs to create jobs, he said.

He disagrees with where some of the money would be spent, saying it won’t do the country any good. He noted that the bill plans to spend $135 million fighting sexually transmitted diseases and $50 million for the arts.

That money should go toward creating real jobs, Swanner said.

“We need to put someone to work fixing an electrical grid,” Swanner said.

Projects here at home like fixing an archaic sewer system in Waynesville might be a good idea, he said.

Politicians need to set aside partisan politics and work for the betterment of the country, he said. Issues like abortion and gay marriage need to take a back seat.

And laying blame for the country’s poor economy can wait, he said.

“I don’t care whose fault it is; we’re in a crisis,” he said, adding that he doesn’t care if the blame goes all the way back to Reagan.

Swanner thinks Obama will make a good president, but the challenge is taking a fragmented Congress and making them work together.

Congress, he said, has got to understand that they were sent there for the betterment of the country.

It is regrettable that the United States went away from being a manufacturing country to a “financial services” county, Swanner said. The country needs to get back to producing jobs like electricians, miners and plumbers, he said.

“We need to manufacture something and sell it,” he said. “We don’t need to lose that.”

One of the problems in this country is that math and science scores for American children have “plummeted,” he said, resulting in fewer engineers.

No matter what happens with the proposed $819 billion stimulus bill, there will still be a massive debt passed on to Swanner’s children and other generations, he said.

Swanner remembers the recession of 1982 and 1991, but the difference with this downturn, he said, is that it is bigger worldwide.

Military a strong pull in this economy

The military remains a popular employment choice for young people today, and the poor economy is probably helping steer many through its recruitment centers.

The Army and all the other branches of the military met recruiting goals in 2008, the first time that’s happened since 2004. As unemployment numbers continue to rise across the nation, the military and its promise of steady pay, good benefits, and money for college become very attractive.

“Basically, it’s a guaranteed job, and even after you’re out they take care of you,” said Brand Lenhart, a 23-year-old Sylva resident we interviewed for a story last week about military recruiting.

Aside from the economy, another factor is probably helping recruitment — President Barack Obama’s promise to end the war in Iraq and the declining violence in that country over the last year.

Some join the military out of tradition or a duty to country, but many others sign up because it’s a steady job. For many reasons, military service remains a part of growing up for many Americans. The discipline and rigor expected of those in the military are worthwhile lessons for almost any youth. And employers generally look favorably on those who have military experience, seeing in them people who understand how to take orders and know the value of hard work.

We hope that congressional leaders continue to pass measures to make sure we pay our soldiers a fair wage and that we take care of them and their dependents, for their service is vital to our country.

In this economy, the popular recruiting slogan, “Uncle Sam Wants You,” may easily get turned on its head. Many young people want — and need — Uncle Sam so they can count on a good job with good benefits.

 

Questions for the high sheriff

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran should be more open about the incident where he fired his gun at an escapee.

Cochran shot at the vehicle of an escapee who had somehow gotten out a holding room and stolen a church van. The man had been charged with eluding arrest and drug possession when he found his way out of a holding cell at the Swain County Courthouse.

Cochran was elected sheriff in Swain County in 2006. He does not have a law enforcement background and hasn’t had Basic Law Enforcement Training, a pre-requisite for being hired for a job as a patrolman in even the state’s smallest municipalities.

The escapee was unhurt and was later captured. But shooting one’s weapon at anyone is a serious matter, and Cochran at this point is keeping too much about the incident quiet. He says the escape from the holding cell is under investigation, but the shooting is not.

We believe the SBI should be called in to assess whether the sheriff department’s response to the escape was handled properly.

The people of Swain County voted Cochran in, but that doesn’t put him above the law. Citizens need to know that the county’s highest ranking law enforcement officer is carrying out his duties with the professionalism the job demands. Anything less is not acceptable, besides being potentially dangerous.

Poor economy boosts military recruiting

When Brandon Lenhart of Sylva was laid off from his construction job, he looked for work for four months but didn’t have any luck.

Finally, he turned to one place that is always hiring — the military. With unemployment on the rise, Uncle Sam’s call of “We Want You” is becoming more attractive.

“A lot of companies aren’t hiring, and people are turning to the military as an alternative,” said Kenneth Teague, Air Force master sergeant with the recruiting office in Knoxville, Tenn. “It has steady pay, benefits, a retirement plan.”

With the war in Iraq calming down and President Barack Obama pledging to bring troops home, the military seems like a better idea to many young adults than it has the past several years.

Starting out in the Army, Lenhart will make $18,000 a year and also receive housing, medical insurance and food.

Lenhart said two out of every three soldiers he met at the military entrance processing station were unemployed.

“Basically it’s a guaranteed job, and even after you’re out they take care of you,” said Lenhart.

Lenhart, 23, thought about joining up after high school but decided not to because the war was too dangerous. But now with a new president and declining combat action, he is willing to give it a shot.

“It seems like Obama is a good guy,” Lenhart said. “It seems like the war is winding down.”

 

Recruiting numbers up

In the first three months of the military’s fiscal year, which began in October, 5,943 more people have been recruited to the armed services compared to the same period of time last year.

But some think it may be too early to tell if the poor economy is causing people to turn to the military for work.

“We’ve had strong recruiting for several years, and now people want to say it’s because of the poor economy,” said Department of Defense Spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk.

But there is plenty of evidence that suggests the poor economy is driving more to the military.

Air Force recruiter Michael Beutler of Sylva said lately there have been numerous people coming to his office saying they want to join because they can’t find a job. College students unable to secure jobs after graduation are joining the armed forces to give themselves additional leadership skills to help them stand out, according to Marine recruiter Sgt. Jesse Ross of Asheville.

But joining the armed forces just because you need a job is not enough, said Teague.

“You have to want to serve the country,” said Teague. “If you don’t, you won’t be happy.”

Army recruiter Jamie Wagoner of Sylva also thinks the poor economy is boosting recruitment.

“I don’t know how many 18-year-olds I’ve talked to who said, ‘I can’t find a job at a fast food restaurant,’” Wagoner said. “They say ‘I need to do something for myself to get out of this.”’

But many can’t get in the military because they are unable to meet the academic or physical requirements.

Wagoner said he is having difficulty finding people who can score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, and others have medical problems or law violations, he said.

“Of any 10 people, two are qualified,” Wagoner said. “People are confused and think anyone can get in.”

Those who are qualified may be eligible for a signing bonus of up to $40,000 to join the Army.

However, now that the economy is bad, signing bonuses may no longer be needed to entice people to join the services, Wagoner said.

“There are still bonuses, but they are definitely less,” said Wagoner.

There is other evidence that suggests the poor economy is luring people to the military.

According to U.S. Army Recruiting Command Spokesman Douglas Smith of Fort Knox, Ky., this is the first year since 2005 in which the Army met its recruiting goal the first three months of the year.

The Army’s goal is to recruit 80,000 new active duty soldiers this year. Last year the Army recruited 80,517.

Smith noted that over the years the Army has met its recruiting goals in terms of the number of soldiers, but the Army has fallen short of meeting its goal that 90 percent of recruits have a high school diploma.

“The wartime environment is part of the issue,” Smith said.

Last year the high school diploma percentage improved to 83 percent, and now that more people may be interested in the military the goal could be achieved.

 

Re-enlistments

The poor economy is also causing some people who have been in the armed forces in the past to re-enlist.

“I definitely like waking up every day knowing I’m going to get a paycheck,” said Wagoner.

In fiscal year 2008, the Army exceeded its retention goal with 73,913 soldiers reenlisting.

Spc. Ronald Rittenberry of Waynesville had been out of the Army for two and a half years before deciding to re-enlist earlier this month.

The Iraq war vet makes $2,250 a month in the military compared to $1,200 a month at his job working security at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

“I was stuck in jobs making $10 an hour,” he said. “I make better money in the Army than any job as a civilian.”

Rittenberry also joined back up because he simply loves the Army.

When he was being processed back into the military, Rittenberry said there were 57 others who had previously served.

“Some came back because of the economy,” he said. “Others got married and it didn’t work out with their wives.”

He agreed that some people may join now that the war has calmed down. He served in Iraq from 2003-2004 and said it is much less violent now.

“It’s a completely different war now than when I was over there,” he said.

The chance that he may go back to war doesn’t worry Rittenberry, who is now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. “It’s part of the job detail,” he said.

 

A recruit’s story

With student loans and other bills, Robert Ehlers is barely making it as a cook at a Murphy restaurant.

“It’s hard to make ends met,” said Ehlers, who joined the Air Force last week.

Ehlers has an associate’s degree in culinary arts and hopes to cook in the Air Force. The small town of Murphy doesn’t give him much opportunity to expand his culinary horizons, but in the military he can travel the world and sample cuisine from different cultures.

In the volatile job market it will also be good to have the job security, he said.

His dad agreed: “You don’t think about how hard it is in the military when you think how tough it is in civilian life to make it.”

As Ehlers sat in the Air Force recruiter’s office last week with his mom, dad and sister, he said he is comforted by the fact that the war has subsided and that Obama plans to bring the troops home.

“I keep it in the back of my mind that he wants to pull the troops out,” Ehlers said.

He brought his family along so they could ask the recruiter any questions before he signed the final papers to enlist.

His mother said she is frightened that her son may go to war, but his dad, Jack, a Vietnam veteran, said, “I went to war, and I didn’t have a choice. I made the best of a bad situation.”

With both of his grandparents serving in World War II and his father a Vietnam vet, Ehlers says he loves America.

His father, though, doesn’t think the United States should be in Iraq.

“That war is the silliest damn thing,” he said. “It’s just like Vietnam.”

Over the past year, Ehlers said he has fallen into a rut and was no longer a go-getter.

“This is the first thing I’ve been excited about in a long time,” he said.

The military can also help pay down Ehlers’ $44,000 in student loans, and will also pay his tuition if he pursues a bachelor’s in culinary arts.

Basic training, a tough eight and a half weeks of physical and mental tests, is facing Ehlers. When he begins basic training his head will be shaved almost bald. Ehlers’ dad shared a humorous story about his days in the military when a soldier asked for a little hair to be taken of the sides and all the hair was shaved.

The father also warned that Ehlers should not wink or smile at the drill sergeant.

“You’ll be doing more damn pushups,” the father said.

Looking at her son with loving eyes, Ehlers’ mom said, “You’re going to look cute in a uniform.”

 

Another recruit’s story

Sitting next to his father in the Air Force recruiting office in Sylva, Chris Scharf explained that he is joining the armed forces because he lacks focus in life.

Scharf was only 13 years old when the war in Iraq began and now could be headed there himself.

“I didn’t have any discipline,” said Scharf, 19, of Maggie Valley. “I know I need to be straightened out a little bit.”

The recruiter, Beutler, said he was the same way. “I was a very wild child before the Air Force,” Beutler said.

Beutler asked Scharf a series of questions, including whether he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, problems with credit, law violations or a drug history. Scharf answered no to all the questions.

The recruiter then asked Scharf about his future plans.

Scharf said he wants to get married and have his own house and boat.

“I want the great American Dream,” Scharf said.

The Air Force can make that dream come true by providing stability, job security and an education, the recruiter said.

Scharf tried college but didn’t have the drive. Concerned about his son’s future, Scharf’s father, Gary, wants his son on a “career track,” possibly in the fields of physical therapy or bio-medicine.

“I want to prepare him for life,” his father said.

“You’re going to have a guaranteed job in the Air Force,” Beutler said.

With the largest community college in the world, the Air Force can provide Scharf with a solid education for free, Beutler said.

As a member of the Air Force, Scharf also wants to form tight relationships with other airmen, adding that he likes encouraging others.

“When you join the Air Force, you join a big brotherhood of airmen,” said Beutler.

Scharf is the first in the family to join the Air Force, and his dad is proud of him.

As a patriotic American, Scharf said he would be proud to serve the country in war.

“I believe in what this country stands for,” Scharf said.

 

The recruiting strategy

Sgt. Beutler picks up the phone and says, “Sounds like you made a decision.”

Beutler just landed another recruit.

“Congratulations on your decision,” he says.

Beutler picked up the recruit like he does so many others —just by talking to people when he is going about his daily life.

He saw this recruit at the Wal-Mart about six months ago and stopped and talked to him about the Air Force.

Beutler may also talk to people at the gym, grocery store or the movie theatre, and he visits high schools.

Sylva had lacked a strong Air Force recruiting presence until Beutler arrived about a year and a half ago. He covers Jackson, Macon, Cherokee, Swain, Haywood, Clay and Graham counties.

Beutler was named rookie recruiter of the year in 2008 for an eight-state region for recruiting 32 to join the Air Force in 2008 when his goal was just 18.

Beutler said he creates a no-stress atmosphere.

“There is no pressure,” he said. “I only want you to join if you are committed.”

It has been said that the standards to join the armed forces have been lowered to get more people enlisted, but Beutler said the Air Force has not loosened its requirements.

In fact, the requirements may be more difficult because the Air Force is now requiring credit checks and is more stringent on criminal background checks, he said.

Recruiters are up against a lot of negative misinformation from anti-military blogs about the military, Master Sgt. Teague said.

“ I think it’s had an effect,” Teague said.

For accurate information people should go to airforce.com, he said.

WestCare cuts 45 jobs

The financially struggling WestCare Medical Center with hospitals in Sylva and Bryson City has eliminated 45 full-time positions, according to a statement from the hospital.

Some of the cuts were achieved through attrition, but others have been laid off.

WestCare has proposed cutting 90 full-time positions over the course of the year.

WestCare CEO Mark Leonard announced in October that a workforce reduction of 30 would occur by Jan. 15, but apparently the schedule has been accelerated.

The plan was designed to stem financial losses, which required a reduction in staff, emphasis on efficiency and focus on physician recruiting to provide patients more access to local healthcare, according to a hospital statement.

Because of national economic problems facing small rural hospitals, WestCare lost $3.2 million between June and August, according to WestCare.

Recruiting qualified physicians to the area is a major component of WestCare’s management plan. Since October, WestCare Health System has signed an ear, nose and throat specialist and has secured verbal commitments from four other physicians. Two internists, a radiologist and an orthopedic surgeon are planning to visit next month, according to the statement.

Casino job losses first since Cherokee opening

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is cutting 100 jobs because of the national economic downturn.

The cuts represent about 5 percent of the casino’s approximately 1,800 employees. Harrah’s hopes to achieve the workforce reduction voluntarily, with the offer of a severance package spurring people to step up. But it will force layoffs if enough volunteers don’t materialize.

Darold Londo, general manager of the casino, said the softening economy with no apparent turnaround in sight has forced the casino’s hand.

“We continue to see fewer customers as they, like all consumers, are being prudent and cautious with their discretionary incomes,” Londo said. The casino’s gaming revenue has declined 4.4 percent over the past year.

This is the first time Harrah’s Cherokee has had to lay off employees in its 11-year history, Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise Chairwoman Norma Moss noted. Moss said the employees are being offered a “fair and lucrative” severance package.

Employees were notified of the cuts Monday and told to come forward by Jan. 19 if they want to be part of the voluntary layoffs. The casino hopes the cuts will be made by the end of the month.

All of the casino’s profits are given to the Cherokee government. For the first time since the casino opened, that amount has gone down. In the 2007 fiscal year ending in September, $253 million was given to the tribe, compared to only $244 million for 2008, Moss said. Moss said the casino is trying to manage its operating costs to minimize the impact on the money distributed to the tribe.

Half of the profits go for tribal programs and the other half is distributed to the tribe’s approximately 13,500 members in the form of “per-capita” checks twice a year.

A $633 million expansion under way at the casino will not be impacted by the economic problems, Moss said.

“It will continue,” Moss said.

The expansion includes doubling the restaurants, hotel rooms, seating in the showroom and the gaming space, Moss said. The expansion will continue because the casino secured good financing and construction costs are affordable because of the lack of other construction work, Moss said.

Moss said the casino is excited about the expansion because when the economy rebounds Harrah’s Cherokee will be ahead of the competition.

Londo said as the economy improves he hopes that many employees can be rehired, and as phases of the expansion are completed additional employees will be needed.

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