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New town of Fontana Dam springs up in the middle of nowhere

It doesn’t take long to survey North Carolina’s newest town; perhaps five minutes, tops.

There’s the swanky Fontana Village Resort, the community’s sole employer. Just down the road are an ice cream shop, laundromat, post office and gasoline station. There’s a combined general store and outfitter where tourists can purchase their T-shirts, ballcaps, refrigerator magnets, beer and that Smokies gift-shop standard, the iconic black-bear figurine.

That’s pretty much it.

Fontana Dam, despite officially encompassing 250 acres, isn’t even a one-stoplight town — it’s actually a town of stop signs, a blip of urbanity within a huge swath of federally held forestlands.

The General Assembly earlier this month agreed Fontana Dam could incorporate.

This is a company town in every sense of the word. It existed initially to accommodate the workers and their families who helped build Fontana Dam during World War II; and later, to serve Fontana Village Resort and the 100,000 visitors who make their way each year to this remote spot.

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“We are a half an hour from any other group of people,” said Theresa Broderick, breaking briefly from greeting and checking in new arrivals at the front desk of Fontana Village Resort to chat. “If you don’t like your neighbors, you’re in trouble.”

During the warm months, about 140 people work at Fontana Village Resort. Come winter, however, the staff drops to a core 45 or so. Officially, just 33 fulltime residents call the new town of Fontana Dam home, including Broderick.


The nuts and bolts of incorporation

It took community unity and a concerted push to get the incorporation approved by the General Assembly. That vote followed literally years of efforts, said Mack Tallent, a lawyer in nearby Robbinsville who has been handling the town’s legal matters.

Tallent believes Fontana Dam’s unusual circumstances — being on federal Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lands — gave legislators pause.

Unusual it might be, but the situation is not unheard of: Tallent pointed out that there are military bases in the eastern part of North Carolina where municipalities can be found, like Fontana Dam, situated on federal-land holdings.

Craig Litz, one of the town’s newly appointed interim council members, said the option for Fontana Dam to be a township was contained in original land leases with TVA. It just took this many years to actually make that happen.

This is not about opening the door to selling legalized alcoholic beverages, Litz emphasized. People can already buy beer and such through Fontana Village Resort, if they want to, though Graham County itself is dry.

Fontana Village Resort has supported the incorporation efforts, including offering the use of its events hall both for town council meetings and an election polling site in the fall.

The attorney said that sometime this week, Fontana Dam would have its first town council meeting. The interim board will be sworn in, a town clerk hired and an attorney officially appointed  — probably Tallent, though he was careful to emphasize the town can hire anyone it pleases. His firm, McKinney & Tallent, already represents Graham County’s other two municipalities, bringing a certain level of municipal legal expertise difficult to find elsewhere in a county of fewer than 8,000 people.

It’s fun, the 44-year-old attorney openly acknowledged, to help create a town from scratch. After all, how many people ever experience such a thing?

Though, interestingly, Graham County had another town form within the past couple decades.

Robbinsville was incorporated in 1893. It was joined by the Town of Santeetlah, which incorporated in early 1989 after a developer more or less abandoned the infrastructure of what was then called Thunderbird Mountain.

State grants and assessments on the properties allowed Santeetlah to build a water system; roads were also repaved. A volunteer fire department and community center were built, and a decade later, in 1998, a town hall in Santeetlah was dedicated.

Fontana Dam hopes to follow suit. In November, the new town will hold its first election. But Fontana Dam “needs to be up and running” by then, Attorney Tallent said.

That means creating a budget from scratch. And it means sorting out what Fontana Dam will get in tax payments from Fontana Village Resort. That’s just one of the many issues facing this new town, Tallent said.


Why incorporate?

Interim Mayor Tammie Dees had just come off working the third shift at Fontana Village Resort. She was clearly tired, but still excited to be talking to a reporter about her new town.

Dees’ accent tags her as having growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Turned out she was raised not too far away, on Cochrans Creek in Graham County. As a child, Dees and her family used to travel over to Fontana Dam to see movies. There was a theater in the community in those days.

She takes her new duties seriously.

Residents of the community, Dees said, “have put faith in me to try to get the town off the ground.” She isn’t sure whether she’ll actually run for election in November, but Dees clearly plans to put her heart and energies into Fontana Dam until then, regardless of future political decisions.

Dees said Fontana Dam plans to hire a town manager and clerk; long-term, residents want municipal fire and rescue services and police. Town residents also want Fontana Dam to oversee municipal infrastructure that’s already in place: a sewage and wastewater plant, disposal system, a water treatment plant, solid waste pick up and disposal, paved roads and electrical systems.

That is actually more than many small towns in WNC can offer. Dillsboro has a part-time employee — Webster, none.

Being officially incorporated should allow Fontana Dam to tap state funding these other municipalities take for granted.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Dees said. “We’ve been operating as a town since the 1940s — I think it is about time.”

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