The yippy-yappy cries of barking dogs have left Jackson County commissioners in a quandary as they face a rising tide of howls from unhappy residents.
How best to balance dog owners’ rights with residents’ growls for peace?
“I’m hoping that somebody has a magic solution out there,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “Because it’s a heck of a thing to figure out how to enforce.”
The county manager said that in addition to hearing multiple complaints from the public during recent county commissioner meetings, he’s received numerous emails and letters asking something be done.
Both Haywood and Swain counties have regulations governing barking dogs; Jackson and Macon do not.
Swain County, facing mounting complaints as Jackson is now, ultimately adopted state regulations that prohibit “habitual” barking dog offenders, Commissioner David Monteith said. Because as Wooten pointed out, it’s difficult to write an ordinance that commissioners will agree to pass and that is actually enforceable by local government.
“We looked at, I think, a dozen different ordinances,” Monteith said, “and couldn’t agree on any of them. We finally just adopted the state law.”
The keyword, Monteith emphasized, is “habitual.” It is an easier strategy than setting absolute limits, such as a certain time of night when no barking is allowed or a specific duration of barking that is just too much.
Haywood County’s ordinance regulates “frequent or long continued barking” that “disturbs the peace, quiet and comfort of residents of the area.”
Swain’s ordinance allows hunting dogs to bay unfettered, something that keeps local hunters happy — and they are always a strong political force to be reckoned with by local governments here in hunting-happy Western North Carolina.
But other residents weary of listening to neighbors’ dogs are pushing Jackson County commissioners hard. The latest complaint came from Margo Gray, who pleaded with commissioners earlier this month to do something. Gray, who owns three dogs of her own, is actively known for her work in the community promoting canine causes as a leader of the Western Carolina Dog Fanciers Association.
But now, Gray is entangled in a civil case with one of her neighbors in Webster, where she’s lived for 16 years, because of incessant barking by this neighbor’s dog.
“With owning a dog comes responsibility,” said Gray, who is co-owner of The Sylva Herald newspaper.
Gray said the barking, which she can hear inside her home day and night, is ruining her life.
David Young, who lives in Cashiers, couldn’t agree more. He expressed optimism this week that county workers truly seem interested in finding a solution, but that upbeat assessment was tempered by the fact he’s been complaining since 2008 on behalf of residents in Red Fox subdivision.
Young said the residents there are at their “last resort,” as is Gray, of “having to take their own legal action” against the dog owner to quiet the barking.
It shouldn’t be left to taxpaying residents to be forced into the court system to settle these matters, Young said, who added the question, “how is not acting on this helping to keep the peace?”
Wooten said he would ask County Planner Gerald Green to review dog-barking related ordinances; specifically, what might fall under the health department’s possible jurisdiction, and to consult with Sheriff Jimmy Ashe. Once Green has completed the research, he will present those findings to the county planning board to draft an ordinance for possible recommendation to commissioners, Wooten said.
It’s not everyday that you can shop at the local feed and seed store for organic foods and produce, but that’s the case these days in Sylva.
Last year at almost exactly this time, Deb and Randy Hooper took a significant business risk. The couple used the back portion of their building on N.C. 107 and expanded the 40-year-old Bryson Farm Supply by adding a small organics grocery. That means folks can pick up their fertilizers and shovels and other gardening needs from Randy Hooper, then shop in the Natural Food Store section of Bryson’s for that night’s dinner from his wife.
The Natural Food Store carries such hard-to-find delicacies as grass-fed local beef, natural pork, goat cheeses, free-trade coffee from the Cherokee-based Tribal Grounds, bins of grains and beans, locally raised trout and more.
Time has proven the Hoopers’ business hunch a good one: There is a definite local clientele for organics and naturally and locally produced foods, as also evidenced by the rapid growth of the county’s popular Saturday farmers market on backstreet in Sylva and at St. John’s Church during winter months.
The community has been hugely supportive, Deb Hooper said. That includes some free help from residents eager to see the business survive and thrive. Kolleen Begley of the Village of Forest Hills helped build a website for the business, www.brysonfarmsupply.com, free of charge.
“I did their website as a type of community service and really had fun doing so,” Begley said. “I’m thrilled to see this small, local, family owned business carry the local foods as well as organic and Amish foods, and I support that — I hope to see them expand that part of their business.”
Deb Hooper also has her hopes set, perhaps, of one day growing the store still larger. The size of Earth Fare in Asheville, she said, referring to one of the region’s largest natural food-based grocery stores.
But, don’t expect that kind of growth anytime soon: the couple wants to build the organics portion of their business slowly and wisely.
“This is still a work in progress,” Deb Hooper said, gesturing out toward the Natural Food Store, complete with its large coolers, stock laden wooden shelves and bulk bins. “We want to move forward with even more here, first. But I’d love to get big.”
It’s that kind of willingness, one of being open to forward motion after carefully calculating business opportunities, that often spells the difference among local businesses that endure and survive this tough economy and those that don’t, said Paige Roberson, head of the Downtown Sylva Association and head of economic development for the town.
“They’ve changed as needed over the years,” Roberson said of Bryson’s, which Deb Hooper’s parents opened in 1972. “They try and meet customers’ desires for certain products.”
Roberson knows a good bit about the hardware store business: her family once ran Roberson Supply, a hardware store then located a mile or two on N.C. 107 from Bryson’s.
Deb Hooper said opening and running a Natural Foods Store has proven quite an education. She and her husband are eating more local and naturally grown foods themselves these days, supplementing vegetables raised in their home garden.
“He settled right into it,” Deb Hooper said of her husband’s agreeability to try new foods that the expansion into organics has led to.
In addition to meats and bulk foods, the Natural Foods Store purchases and sells local honey and fresh eggs. Deb Hooper tried selling vegetables but discovered that her clientele is apparently made up of the same people who visit and support the farmers market. Seeing no need and little business opportunity, Hooper reversed course on the vegetables, limiting herself at least for now to other product lines.
Running a grocery store seems to come easily to Hooper. Though she openly acknowledged “I never thought I’d be doing any of this stuff,” her grandparents in fact owned and managed one of Sylva’s most popular groceries, Ensley Supermarket, for years.
“This is really my heritage,” Hooper said.
As I have written previously, in my dreams I am a tidy gardener. One of those saints who uses a tool and trots dutifully into the garage, cleans said tool in a bucket of sand and oil, and hangs up this now pristine work implement in an orderly fashion; exactly, of course, where it is supposed to go, and where it will be easily found for use as expected when next required.
But order is boring, chaos exciting.
In real life I am a garden slob. Abandoned buckets strewn about, hoes left forgotten for two or three days at a time until a deluge of rain reminds me of my garden duties. Then, after of course the rain is finished (I wouldn’t want to actually get wet), I trot about retrieving my tools; and if I have time, clean them and hang them where they are supposed to go. And if busy I simply cram them willy-nilly into the garage where they threaten to scratch the car and decapitate passers-by. Or I discover some hitherto never-before used or conceived-of place for garden tools so that nobody, most of all me, could ever find them in the future. I get angry that someone put them there, until I remember that someone was actually yours truly. It’s a good thing I’m also working these days on self-forgiveness. So I let my anger dissolve into nothingness.
I have similar tidy habits in the house.
You should understand that I was an unruly child, at least mentally, and tuned out during those early lessons about how like shapes go with like shapes. Or, the truth is I tuned out of this lesson when it comes to certain objects but not all; but anyway, that’s a different column and probably a different publication.
In a kitchen where I’m residing spoons somehow end up with forks; spatulas in the drawer near the refrigerator where whisks go rather than in the drawer near the stove where spatulas go.
The other night, after mindfully measuring out a cup of rice virtually grain by grain and two cups of water laboriously drop by sonorous drop (I’m working hard on mindfulness these days, in fact I recently attended an entire workshop devoted to nothing but paying reverent attention to the moment), I dropped the rice bag into the pot-lid drawer instead of taking it back to the pantry. This gave me a small start when I later opened the drawer to fish out a lid,and reached down and instead pulled out a bag of rice. A bag of rice, I share now with the world, works poorly as a lid substitute.
But I mustn’t wander.
In theory, I was this past weekend on my way to a goat-themed workshop in northern Virginia. I stopped instead in Winston-Salem, exhausted with the thought of driving another eight hours or so, and spent two very enjoyable days in that city’s art district and in old Salem.
There was a much-ballyhooed exhibit of modern art at Reynolda House, the “bungalow” built by the Reynolds family of tobacco fame (their bungalow is my mansion; their rustic campsite would, I suspect, be a grand estate to me). I enjoyed the exhibit, but frankly lacked the language and framework to enjoy the abstracts as much as I suspect they deserved.
After touring the art exhibit and house, I gravitated to the easily deciphered kitchen gardens. I later toured the kitchen gardens in old Salem, too. I have much in common with Moravians and tobacco barons, I learned. They love tidy gardens.
Unlike me, however, Moravians and tobacco barons achieved them.
I am left in envy. Nary a piece of grass dared cross the edging of the garden beds; every bed was exact in geometric perfection; all were weed- and bug-damage free. Perfect, absolutely perfect.
After getting back home, I glanced into my kitchen garden and wished I hadn’t. Weeds, bug damage, beds with lines drawn as if by a drunken snake, a hoe carelessly left out and five or six repurposed Ingles icing buckets serving as fine decorative elements.
Begin anew, I reminded myself. Everything changes, I muttered insightfully. Tomorrow dawns as a new day, a start to my future immaculate kitchen garden; one in which tools are never strewn carelessly about, weeds dare not grow and bugs don’t bite unsightly holes in the vegetables.
A failure by the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce and the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority to provide county leaders reports on how room-tax dollars are spent led this week to promises of prompt corrective action.
Mark Jones, who serves in a dual role as county commissioner and chairman of the Cashiers Travel and Tourism Authority, said he had not been aware that there had been multiple and ongoing attempts to understand tourism marketing efforts. These are carried out with county funds under the direction of Cashiers Chamber of Commerce Director Sue Bumgarner. Bumgarner also has failed to provide the county with copies of minutes from Cashiers tourism board meetings as requested.
Jones’ concession came, however, after he indicated that he believed adequate information was already available to commissioners from the county’s finance office.
County Finance Officer Darlene Fox “prepares reports every month. Every dollar that goes in and every dollar that goes out,” Jones told the board.
While the bills for the Cashiers tourism agency are filed with the county finance department, it is often not clear from the invoices exactly what it is for, however, with only general references to an ad that ran in an unnamed magazine during an unspecified month or generic “marketing” services.
Chairman Jack Debnam made it evident that he didn’t consider Jones’ suggestion to simply rely on the finance office a satisfying one. Debnam indicated that he wants direct answers from the people with their hands down in the money pot.
“I’ve requested copy of minutes, since January, and information from (Bumgarner) and received nothing,” Debnam said.
Debnam said that the Jackson County Tourism and Travel Authority, by contrast, has provided him information and minutes of board meetings.
“I apologize,” Jones said. “I was not aware of the repetitive requests, but I hear loud and clear now.”
County Attorney Jay Coward told board members they have a lawful right to the information being sought. He did not detail possible remedies if the Cashiers TTA information and minutes continue being withheld from county leaders.
Bumbargner also was unable to provide The Smoky Mountain News with minutes from her tourism board meetings or an accounting of how marketing money was spent, including magazines ads had published in. Bumgarner was not at the commission work session, held this week to discuss whether to hike the county room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent.
Room tax hike deliberated
Jones urged a slowdown on the consideration of a room tax hike from 3 to 6 percent. The tax on overnight lodging generated $440,000 last year, which is pumped back into tourism marketing efforts carried out by two separate tourism promotion agencies in the county — the Cashiers and Jackson County Travel and Tourism authorities.
Commissioner Doug Cody defended the county’s attempt to demand accountability for how tourism tax money is being spent.
“I want to know why we are getting our butts kicked, and where our money is going, and is it being used wisely, and I want to find out now. And putting the tax increase aside, there’s a reason we are lagging behind. And, I don’t want to wait a year,” Cody said.
Regional tourism numbers show Jackson County behind other Western North Carolina counties, both in revenue made and jobs created.
The commissioners did not weigh in during the workshop on their individual stances on a room tax increase. Previously, four voted in favor of the increase, but that was before public backlash. Commissioners will take up the issue in early January for a vote, with intentions of studying the issue between now and then.
County Manager Chuck Wooten estimated the county’s two TTAs have spent as much as $10 million combined in tourism tax money over the past 25 years. Cashiers receives 75 percent of the lodging tax generated in the Cashiers area — which amounted to $177,000 last year. The remaining $263,000 went to the Jackson Travel and Tourism Authority.
Cashiers’ efforts to attract tourists have been isolated from the county’s overall tourism efforts, spearheaded by the separate Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority and the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.
Cashiers does not share marketing strategy or advertising campaigns with the Jackson County TTA.
How we got here
• Jackson County commissioners in early October voted 4-1 to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent, with Mark Jones voting against the increase.
• The board later rescinded that vote because, as advised by County Attorney Jay Coward, they failed to hold a legally required public hearing.
• A side issue erupted over whether the two separate tourism marketing arms — one for Cashiers and one for the county as a whole — should be merged.
• The obligatory public hearing was held last week, attracting a swarm of unhappy lodging owners from the southern portion of the county who aired their vast displeasure with the proposed increase.
• Commissioners held a work session this week to discuss the possible hike. Discussion among commissioners deteriorated into accusations of underhanded dealing and political power plays. Before the argument broke out, County Manager Chuck Wooten defended the sequence of events leading up to the room-tax vote by presenting commissioners and members of the news media with an inch-tall stack of paperwork. These included emails and other documentation accumulated before and after the October room tax hike.
Where do we go next?
County Manager Chuck Wooten provided the following suggestions for consideration by commissioners, carefully emphasizing these were an attempt to help, not control, the debate:
• Take no action: Occupancy tax remains at 3 percent and the county’s two travel and tourism boards continue as currently configured.
• Make minor structural changes: Keep two tourism agencies, but provide more flexibility in how the room tax is spent, allowing a portion to go toward “tourism-related expenditures,” including capital projects, rather than solely marketing and promotions.
• Do a comprehensive performance evaluation of the current tourism agencies and analyze the effectiveness of these organizations, then make decisions based off of the results.
• Hike the tax from 3 percent to 6 percent and form a single Jackson County Tourism Development Authority.
A work session this week on Jackson County’s room tax appears to mark the beginning of open warfare and the explosive end of a fragile truce that has existed on the board of commissioners since three newcomers were elected last year.
Commissioner Joe Cowan, in a simile that would have done Homer justice, compared himself and fellow Democrat Mark Jones to “mushrooms left to grow in the dark” when it comes to having rightful access to county information.
Cowan accused board Chairman Jack Debnam and County Manager Chuck Wooten of sneaky, underhanded dealings, and of deliberately not providing the two Democrats with adequate and advanced background on issues that would enable them to make informed decisions.
Cowan has undoubtedly been in a minority on the board following a power shift in last year’s election. As for why he’s now suddenly irked by having no voice? One might possibly attribute Cowan’s anger to self-induced chagrin.
Cowan voted “yes” in October to hike the county’s room tax from 3 percent to 6 percent. In doing so, Cowan abandoned the only other Democratic Commissioner on the board, leaving Mark Jones high, dry and visibly alone — Jones was the sole “no” vote against the hike. Cowan this week, without being explicit about the exact trigger for his public outburst, seemed to blame a lack of information for his previous, and apparently now regretted, support.
“In nine years on this board I’ve never experienced this before,” a bucked-up Cowan told his fellow board members, his face reddening. “And I resent the hell out it.”
“The chairman doesn’t communicate with me, this gentleman doesn’t communicate with me,” Cowan said gesturing toward Wooten, who was hired in place of longtime Manager Ken Westmoreland when the new board took over.
“If you’d come to the office more than 15 minutes before the meeting, you might know what was happening,” Debnam said in reply.
Cowan said that in his previous years on the board, information flowed to commissioners via copious emails and written communications.
“I’m just saying it’s not right,” Cowan said.
Wooten, after the meeting, maintained that he regularly emails four of the commissioners, including Cowan. Commissioner Charles Elders does not use email; he receives written documentation of county business, the county manager said.
Debnam again asserted that if Cowan doesn’t know what’s going on, it’s his own fault for not putting much effort into staying informed.
“You need to call me every once in a while,” Debnam shot back at Cowan during the lengthy exchange.
“I don’t know what to call you about, because I don’t know what you are doing,” Cowan said.
Commissioner Doug Cody wryly suggested that Cowan consider checking the upcoming agendas for board meetings as the other commissioners do.
Cowan told news reporters after the meeting that he believes he and Jones are being shutout of the information flow because they are in the minority.
“Hell, I’m the minority party,” Debnam said when asked if he was, as accused, persecuting Democrats by withholding information they need and are rightfully entitled to have.
Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent who won election, at least in part, through the use of GOP advertising dollars. The other two members of the five-man board, Doug Cody and Charles Elders, are bona fide registered Republicans.
Elders and Jones were silent during the verbal brawl.
The proposed tax increase has been rescinded because of a failure to hold a required public meeting. This time lapse, in turn, has allowed outraged Jackson County lodging owners an opening to express strong opposition. They have said an additional tax burden imposed in such a sour economic climate could put some of them out of business and severely damage the bottom lines of everyone in the lodging industry reliant on tourist dollars (see accompanying article).
Annie’s Naturally Bakery, the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva that helped launch a Main Street renaissance of sorts here when it opened more than a decade ago, will close Thursday.
The closure comes as a surprise to many in this Jackson County community, who said they simply can’t imagine visiting downtown Sylva without stopping at Annie’s.
“This gave the community a place to gather where we felt welcomed,” said Susan Anspacher, who was at Annie’s Naturally Bakery on Monday staving off the day’s autumn chill with a hot bowl of southwestern bean and chicken soup. “I think it takes an inner strength and beauty to be able to do that.”
SEE ALSO: Whitman’s closing leaves downtown Waynesville ‘hungry for a bakery’
Annie Ritota, who owns the namesake bakery with husband Joe, grew teary frequently while describing the painful process the couple worked through before deciding to close the retail portion of their business. The Ritotas last year moved the wholesale side of their bakery business to Asheville.
The two businesses previously “shared” costs — the wholesale side helped subsidize overhead at their Main Street store. Ingles grocery stores across Western North Carolina and North Georgia sell Annie’s bread, as do many restaurants in the region.
“We separated the numbers, and realized that it was going to be harder for the retail to make it on its own,” Ritota said.
Yes, the faltering economy played a part in making sourdough out of yeast bread, and triggered a slowdown in summer tourist traffic.
“But if we had the energy and time, we could turn this around,” Ritota said. “This is more so that Joe and I can have a life together again. Joe is in Asheville, driving an hour there everyday, and I’m here mostly.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, who lives in Waynesville and works in Sylva, is being hit with a double whammy — Whitman’s bakey on Main Street in Waynesville is coincidentally closing down as well as Annie’s in Sylva.
“We so love a good bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.
There will be a void in the towns now, she said.
“There is something so nostalgic about a bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.
When she married her husband, the couple went to Italy for a honeymoon, “and there were bakeries there to give you that certain feel of relaxation and comfort,” Roberts-Fer said.
The Ritotas moved the wholesale side of Annie’s business to Asheville because the 75 or so accounts they were handling at the time were mostly in that region, not in the state’s westernmost counties, and too much money was being lost in buying gasoline and through wear-and-tear on the delivery vehicles. Wholesale demand for their breads also had outgrown their kitchen space in downtown Sylva.
Subsequent rapid growth on the wholesale end since that shift to Asheville has taken energy from the retail portion of Annie’s, Ritota said.
The Ritotas started Annie’s Naturally Bakery in 1998 in their garage in Franklin. They rented space on Main Street in September 2001, and the retail side of Annie’s was born.
Annie Ritota grew up in Bristol, Va., and comes from a family of cooks. Later, she learned the restaurant business in her brother’s restaurant and studied vegetarian and healthy cooking while living in Colorado. She opened a vegetarian, health food restaurant in Greenville, S.C. in 1985, where she met Joe, a fourth-generation Italian baker.
Once together, Joe Ritota wanted to move to a small town, which brought the couple to Franklin and then Sylva.
When Annie’s Naturally Bakery opened, the community flocked through the doors, and never wavered over the years in their support of the bakery, Ritota said.
“The local clientele remained,” she said, adding that she hopes someone will buy the business and continue it as a bakery.
That’s Paige Roberson, the new executive director of the Downtown Sylva Association’s hope, too.
“The ideal thing would be to have the space providing the same services to the downtown and county,” Roberson said, who then stepped out of her official DSA costume and added her own personal lament for the loss of Annie’s. “I absolutely hate that it’s going out. It was such a neat place, and had such great baked goods and coffee.”
Catt Tyndall is hoping for the sudden appearance of a fairy godmother to take over the bakery and keep Annie’s Naturally Bakery running. She’s worked for two years this week at the downtown shop.
“Where are people going to get their cannoli? And their pumpkin cookies — they are like crack. To not have that anymore, I just hate it,” Tyndall said.
Up to nine employees will lose their jobs with the shutdown, Annie Ritota said, her eyes filling with tears once again. Most are college students, or have such strong ties to the community, that commuting to Asheville isn’t feasible, she said.
Tyndall plans to start school at Western Carolina University in January, explaining the job loss prompted her to go back to WCU and finish her education.
Asked if it’s as cool to work at Annie’s as it appears, Tyndall responded: “it’s probably even cooler — everyone who works here brings their own bit of character to it.”
Sylva voters on Tuesday night might have put the brakes on something of a voting trifecta by adding former commissioner Lynda Sossamon to the town board at the expense of incumbent Ray Lewis.
Two other incumbent commissioners, Chris Matheson and Harold Hensley, both won seats at the table.
Hensley, Lewis and current Commissioner Danny Allen generally spoke in a unified voice and voted together when it came to deciding most Sylva issues.
Sossamon, who served a four-year term in the 1990s, described herself as “progressive yet traditional in things such as saving taxpayer money — but progressive in the sense that I want to move Sylva forward in some ways.”
“I’m glad it’s over,” Hensley said before saying he needed to call his wife and let her know the results.
“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the citizens of the town of Sylva for four more years,” an openly relieved Matheson said.
Turnout was low. Out of 1,593 register voters, just 234 people opted to vote. Among them were Tammi VanHook and her 89-year-old mother, Ida Jean Bryson.
VanHook said she cast her vote for one simple reason: “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.”
Bryson, who registered to vote on Oct. 16, 1965, had a slightly different view than her daughter.
“I don’t complain,” she said softly. “It don’t do no good.”
But Bryson never fails to cast her vote. Board of Elections records show Bryson has participated in every election in which she’s been eligible to vote since registering on Oct. 16, 1965.
Seats up for election: 3
Total seats on board: 5
Christine Matheson (I) 177
Lynda Sossoman 152
Harold Hensley 127
Ray Lewis (I) 88
John Bubacz 72
Jackson County plans to buy land along U.S. 441 heading toward Franklin for a future emergency management center to house 911 operations and dispatch.
The 7-acre tract is owned by Duke Energy. If the deal closes, it will cost $350,000. Duke had the property on the market for $369,000. Its tax value was assessed at $1 million, County Manager Chuck Wooten said during a meeting of Jackson’s commissioners this week.
The site previously served Duke as the company’s Sylva operations center.
Jackson County has more than $1.1 million in 911 dollars. The money comes from a statewide monthly fee of 60 cents on each landline and wireless phone. The revenue is earmarked for emergency management services.
The deal includes certain improvements made by Duke on the property, such as a metal storage building, a fence enclosing the site and a trailer.
“We felt like this would make an ideal location, a good place” for an emergency management center, Wooten said, because of easy and safe highway access.
The county’s emergency management center is currently located in the county administration building with the sheriff’s office.
Constant reshuffling of the organizational structure at Western Carolina University — at least three such applecart upsets in just six years — led to a recent faculty resolution seeking some order to the chaos.
“This … is in response to past practices, or mis-practices, on campus,” said Sean O’Connell, a WCU professor who led a review of how other universities handle similar reorganizations.
WCU’s Faculty Senate passed an official request recently calling on administration to develop guidelines and to follow them when considering organizational changes.
The tone of the meeting — discussion lasted just 20 minutes — was in stark contrast to a two-hour debate that raged among the board’s members on the same topic last April.
That spring meeting came shortly after the College of Education and Allied Profession was shuffled about, however, resulting in the resignation of Professor Jacqueline Jacobs, a tenured faculty member. She resigned to bring attention to her contention that university administration failed to include faculty members in decisions concerning reorganization.
More than six months later, Faculty Senate opted in a 22-2 vote to ask the university’s administration to emphasize “shared governance,” and to “recognize the necessity of faculty knowledge and participation in academic decision making.”
This, according to the resolution, would mean “all reviews and deliberations about reorganization should be conducted in a collegial and constructive way. Any reorganization proposal should seriously consider disciplinary and interdisciplinary relationships and shall also investigate impacts on stakeholders in non-academic units.”
In plain English, the people who work at WCU want to have their views considered when changes are contemplated.
Faculty hope making their desire for inclusion clear in the form of a resolution will avoid what has happened in the past.
“I think it’s clear that if the new reorganization policy recently passed by Faculty Senate had been in effect last year, the reorganization of the College of Education and Allied Professions, which eliminated two departments and suspended the doctoral program would not have proceeded as it did, without any significant faculty participation,” Professor Mary Jean Herzog said in an email interview.
Herzog works within the College of Education and Allied Professions and was critical of how a re-organization within that college was handled.
“Faculty participation and voice may scare some administrators as well as some faculty, but it has been proven, over and over again, that when decisions are made that involve all the stakeholders, the institution earns dividends in student, staff, and faculty support,” Herzog said in an email.
Perry Schoon, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions, defended the reorganization, however. A university-level review of decision-making during the reorganization of the College “determined that appropriate processes were followed. … The institution has recognized the likelihood of other units needing to reorganize due to the economy and the lack of any university policy to guide those efforts. The resolution from the senate is the first step from one of the constituencies on campus to begin the development of guidelines.”
There’s no word on when, or if, the university’s top leadership will embrace the resolution as future policy when it comes to reorganization.
Salary scrutiny study
Western Carolina University Chancellor David Belcher told faculty members late last month that he has authorized a “thorough” salary analysis to review who gets what and why in the form of pay at the university.
“This is to be prepared for that time when we do get money again,” Belcher said. “I’m worried about the salaries.”
Belcher noted a salary study at WCU has not been done in several years. Salary increases also have been nonexistent as North Carolina struggles with the economic downturn.
English Professor Elizabeth Heffelfinger asked if the study would include information previously gathered about possible inequities at WCU in what women and men are paid.
“I want this to be as comprehensive as possible,” Belcher said in an affirmative response. The study would include all faculty, staff, and administrative positions.
Rules in Jackson County controlling how development occurs along the five-mile stretch or so of U.S. 441 that leads into the Cherokee Indian Reservation are undergoing review.
That concerns former Commissioner William Shelton, a resident and farmer who lives and works in that area. Shelton helped pass the regulations after the Whittier community developed a long-range vision and plan for this critical stretch of four-lane highway, known as the Gateway area.
“It is their plan, what they want to happen and to not happen,” Shelton said.
The Whittier land-use plan was a landmark event when passed four years ago. It marked one of the first attempts by any county west of Buncombe to undertake what is essentially spot-zoning. The county planning board now wants to revise the land-use plan.
County Planner Gerald Green, who was hired by the previous Democrat-controlled board just before its members were ousted during the last election, said there’s no desire in play here to strip the regulations of meaning.
Green said that he initiated the review himself. The planner maintained this is a simple attempt “to improve” rules on development in the corridor “and make them work for everyone.”
“The intention was to preserve the scenic rural character of the area. But I’m not sure the ordinance does that,” Green said.
Republican Commissioners Charles Elders and Doug Cody both said this week they support a planning board review of the U.S. 441 ordinance.
Cody described the existing regulations as “anti-development.” Elders, who lives and works in that area and replaced Shelton on the board, said that he’s heard a multitude of complaints in his community about the rules being too restrictive.
The current regulations don’t particularly limit where development can occur along the strip of highway leading to Cherokee. Instead, it lays out aesthetic standards, such as architecture and landscaping, to ensure what development does occur will be attractive. And that’s sort of what’s there now — some older motels, a consignment shop or two, service stations and a few businesses dot the corridor.
Green said he believes stipulating “nodes” of concentrated development might actually work better, such as at the juncture of U.S. 74 and U.S. 441. Concentrated development might be preferable to allowing growth to sprawl along the entire strip, he said, adding this sprawl actually could under-gird, not weaken, another goal of the original plan — traffic management.
Green also wants to take a hard look at rules now in place that dictate any new parking lots go behind buildings, not in front. The ordinance, he said, fulfills “new urbanist philosophies” but doesn’t take into account more practical considerations, such as the “context” of development already in place along U.S. 441.
Additionally, the ordinance fails to stipulate that developers can’t just “flip” their new businesses around. In other words, new development could technically meet the ordinance requirements by “fronting” the highway with the actual back of a new building, he said. Then the parking lot would be “in front” of the building as required — but that would not be what motorists on U.S. 441 were looking at as they travel to and from Cherokee.
The ordinance also fails to meet a more desirable planning goal of being able to get to several shops from a single access road instead of having a long smear of strip development along the entire corridor, Green said. And that discourages pedestrian movement between shops, he added.
Urban fix to rural problem
A Charlotte firm helped develop the ordinance, and the county planner said that big-city approach to controlling development simply doesn’t work well on the ground in rural Western North Carolina.
“I see it as improving these regulations,” Green said of the planning board review. “The more I look at the ordinance the more questions I have about it. The plan (by the community) was very well done. It is the ordinance that is being reviewed.”
A series of community workshops and public meetings was held in Whittier to help develop a vision for the corridor. That vision laid the groundwork for the logistical aspects of the ordinance written by the contracted firm.
Green said he does not believe “that the goal of protecting the corridor and encouraging development is exclusive.”
Next May, Jackson County residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages countywide. In April, Cherokee residents will vote on whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages reservation-wide. A “yes” by both or either of those communities is likely to trigger some development along U.S. 441, though Green believes it will be fairly slow because of poor economic conditions.
“I do think it will grow, but given the state of the economy, it won’t be fast,” the county planner said.
And, if Jackson residents OK the sale of alcoholic beverages in May, it would take about a year for the actual reality of sales to occur. And that, loosely, is the timeframe Green wants to see the planning board work within, too.
“We want to make sure (Gateway) is both attractive and viable as a transportation corridor,” the planner said.
Motorcycle rallies are all the rage these days in Western North Carolina, and Franklin tourism leaders are busy finalizing plans to take their first bite out of that tempting economic pie.
“Rumble in the Smokies” is scheduled to take place for three days next August. This is Macon County’s initial foray into hosting a large-scale, officially sanctioned motorcycle rally.
Starting in January, the event’s promoter will be hyping the rally via booths setup at events such as the Great American Motorcycle Show in Norcross, Ga., and the International Motorcycle Show in Charlotte, plus handing out fliers at rallies later in the year in Daytona Beach, Fla., and in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
“Riders want to see the vendors, and what Franklin has to offer, and to get out and ride. What better place to lay your head down at night after riding than in Franklin?” said Sylvia Cochran, of USRiderNews, the Georgia-based promoter, when asked whether she was concerned that the WNC motorcycle-rally angle might be a tad oversaturated.
Listeners were left to extrapolate from this response that no, Cochran in fact doesn’t consider the market too crowded.
But such events have become increasingly commonplace in WNC over the past decade, perhaps nowhere as much as in Maggie Valley, boasting five major rallies every year. The rallies, along with Maggie’s proximity to the Parkway and a world renowned motorcycle museum, have cemented the town as a motorcycle haven, witnessed by the diners, bars and motels plastering their placards with motorcycle friendly messages.
“It is extremely important to Maggie Valley’s economy. I’d estimate it at well over 50 percent,” said Marion Hamel, director of the Haywood Hotel and Motel Authority.
Cherokee also has its share of rallies. The Survivors Motorcycle Rally was held there twice a year since the mid-1980s — until this year when Cherokee pulled the plug on the twice-a-year event.
And that vacancy in the regional rally calendar, according to Franklin tourism officials at a Tourism Development Authority workshop last weekend, is helping ensure the likely future success of their new rally.
But they might be counting Cherokee out of the mix a bit too soon.
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, said that although Cherokee didn’t have the spring or fall rally in 2011, “it is something that is being looked at for 2012,” as well as other events.
“I don’t believe the market is oversaturated, but in order to have a strong rally there should be something that sets it apart from the others,” Pegg said. “WNC is an ideal setting for motorcycle enthusiasts and continues to be a strong market for regional tourism. With the natural beauty we enjoy, and an abundance of great riding roads, people are naturally drawn to the area. Our job as a region is to take good care of them while they are here.”
Maggie Valley business owner Robert Leatherwood believes another motorcycle rally will prove good news for all merchants in the region. He said it would help to further solidify the grip on this all-important motorcyclist-as-tourist niche.
Rallies such as the Rumble in the Smokies, are the best way to attract those particular dollars, he said.
“I’m glad that Franklin is doing one,” Leatherwood said. “We’d help if needed — it’ll be good for WNC, and it’ll do good for Franklin to have one over there.”
Leatherwood owns the new Stingrays bar, strategically positioned near Maggie Valley’s Wheels Through Time motorcycle museum. During rallies, he gets crowds of motorcyclists visiting his bar. His waitresses, dressed in bikinis, offer free bike washes, a popular draw indeed, Leatherwood said. And he opens the normally day-closed bar instead of just at night.
One of the drawbacks perks of my job is the amazing number of meetings I’m forced fortunate enough to attend.
For instance, earlier today (a Sunday) I spent several hours in Franklin at a Tourism Development Authority retreat. The nice people on that board fed me Bojangle’s fried chicken and politely put up with my drilling down for details on their various tourism projects, funding and so on. The retreat lasted for more than three hours.
I am paid to attend these meetings. I assume the two Town of Franklin employees who sat in were reimbursed for spending their Sunday afternoons there, too. It’s part of our jobs; I worked a Sunday instead of a Friday, no big deal. They probably did something similar.
But not the seven board members — they are volunteers, and attended the retreat after putting in full workweeks of their own at their respective businesses. Hence, I suppose, the very odd day of the week chosen for this gathering.
Frequent readers of this column probably know I’m not given much to general cheerleading. And I’ve certainly never been accused of being a Pollyanna. Though I’m not prepared to render a verdict on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this particular board (this being my first opportunity to watch them in action), what did strike me as I endured enjoyed the retreat is just how fortunate we are to have volunteers such as these.
“We” being those who live in these mountain communities. And who subsequently benefit from this wealth of time and resources given by our neighbors. Countless groups, countless volunteers, countless volunteer hours — what would we do, what would we have in the form of communities, without them?
Matt Bateman is a new member to Franklin’s TDA. This was, I think, his second meeting. Matt admitted to missing the opportunity to watch NFL football on this Sunday afternoon, but said that he had decided to serve on the TDA for a simple reason: “I wanted to know, ‘How is Franklin being positioned as far as tourism goes?’” In other words, instead of standing apart and criticizing the board’s action, Matt asked that he be placed on the TDA board as a member.
I counted, and Matt asked the other board members exactly one-million-and-one questions. He would have made a dandy journalist. And in a sense, that’s something of what Matt’s doing within the vast capabilities of new media. He’s the developer of “playandstayinthesmokies.com,” a website-based business headquartered in Macon County.
Ron Winecoff is also a member of the TDA.
“I’m interested in the future of Franklin – I try to be progressive. But, sometimes Franklin won’t let me,” Ron said when I quizzed him on his volunteering bent. I’ve known Ron, in passing, for decades. He’s served on a variety of boards that I, in turn, have covered for a variety of newspapers.
I wasn’t sure if Ron was joking or not about being hindered in his progressive agenda. But I knew he wasn’t joking when he talked about young professionals such as Matt, at 30, as representing “the hope” of the community.
Winecoff described himself and the other, older-than-Matt volunteers as “pay phone people in a smart phone world” — we need these younger folks to take a seat at the table, he said. I agree. Fifteen years older than Matt, and I, too, feel like a “pay phone” person in a smart phone world. (Though I do have a smart phone of my own — I’m convinced that it is, indeed, considerably smarter than me.)
Beverly Mason is another perennial volunteer in Macon County. The acronyms for the groups she’s served on roll off her tongue like an odd poetry: TDA, TDC, EDC. Plus, the county planning board, the board of realtors, a bank board, two terms on the chamber of commerce board.
“The community is good to me. I love the community, I love these mountains,” said Beverly, a Buchanan by birth from Sylva.
Like Ron, Beverly is thrilled to see a younger generation in Macon County, the next wave, coming to take their places at gatherings such as the one Sunday. The volunteering, do-good spirit that has sustained this community, that has built and given meaning to all of our communities, lives on. And that, my friends, is a very good thing indeed.
I missed a golden opportunity to see my name emblazoned on a book spine by not writing about Western North Carolina’s very own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph. Many people suggested I turn my experiences into a nonfiction account. I certainly had the material and the background.
I covered that madman and the ensuing years-long manhunt in exhaustive blow-by-blow for the Asheville Citizen-Times, whose motto should have been “no detail too small to print.” (Today, by contrast, the newspaper might well consider using “nothing west of Asheville.”)
But, back to that rascally Rudolph and all his endearing reindeer games. Such as adding nails and tacks to bombs to ensure living victims were torn into as many bits as possible.
I wrote about Rudolph and how he ordered a deluxe Bible at the Christian bookstore in Murphy just before he blew up that policeman and nurse at an Alabama abortion clinic. I interviewed the bookstore owner in-depth and wrote the article in my best breathless, cliché-ridden Brenda Starr-reporter style.
I wrote about a threat Rudolph did not send (though we did not know at the time that someone else was seeking attention) to one of Murphy’s weekly newspapers. It was suggestively signed “the Army of God.” CNN and other national media outlets picked up what proved a non-story, and we at the newspaper were quite proud because this seemed proof of “owning the story” and of setting a torrid pace for everyone else to follow in panting envy.
I wrote about caves Rudolph did not hole up in when he did not hide in the Nantahala Gorge, complete with interviews with geologists who had never heard of Rudolph and extensive timelines and helpful maps about the region’s history of mining, hence the existence of the many caves not used by Rudolph.
I even wrote a piece, which I most fervently hope never again sees the light of day, for the newspaper’s parent company’s newsletter about how other Gannett newspapers around the country could cover big stories in an equally riveting style as mine.
I was, as you can imagine, suffering a full-blown case of Rudolph burnout when he was finally nabbed in 2003 Dumpster diving in Murphy. A book was out of the question.
By then, my interest in the Rudolph story rivaled my current level of passion for covering Macon County’s apparent insatiable appetite for initiating land-planning studies and fighting over them. The first time I wrote on that subject? Try 1992.
Even then, as a rank green cub reporter at The Franklin Press with a big dose of bravado and few skills to back the attitude, I suspected covering planning studies in Macon County might simply prove an exercise in burning newspaper space. Two decades later and I’m suspicious of precisely the same thing.
Hell, even most of the people I’m covering are the same people, often saying exactly the same things I quoted them saying three newspapers and two decades ago.
We — and this would be folks on either side of the issue, I don’t have a particular dog in that fight — often hug hello at meetings before getting down to business. It’s a familiarity that feels perfectly appropriate after our long, strange journey together. Like greeting extended family you never see except at the occasional funeral of some great aunt or great uncle, or hugging hello when everyone gathers to bury a cousin so far removed on your mother’s side that the exact connection isn’t fathomable even by the most ardent family genealogist.
A book about the various planning scrums in Macon County, however, would bore even those involved in the issues — not to mention me, the poor writer.
This leaves me to contemplate a one-year book. There is a sudden proliferation of taking on inspiring goals for one year and then writing best-selling books about these experiences.
One year of living biblically, one year of “test driving” the wisdom of the ages to discover the secret of happiness, one year of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
With this publishing explosion comes one-year improvement plans, too, such as one year of not buying anything new, one year of not eating processed foods, one year spent reading the “Five-foot Shelf” of Harvard Classics.
I understand what these authors are about, what they are “up to,” if you will. The one-year format provides ready-made topics and structures. That is very appealing for would-be writers who are short on good, original ideas.
Perhaps I could spend one year making various potpies, then write about eating potpies. I adore potpies, so that would be very enjoyable — but I shudder to think what I’d pack on in weight eating a potpie a week for a year.
I’m a voracious reader, so perhaps I could do something along that line … One year spent in bed reading whatever I wanted to, probably mainly British mysteries, with my food catered to me. I would, of course, condescend to get up to go to the bathroom as needed. That, in fact, could serve as chapter breaks.
The trouble with this outstanding idea is that my every-two-week bank deposit from The Smoky Mountain News might not continue in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed. But I’d be happy to dedicate the book “to my friends at The SMN, with many thanks for the literal support” if the newspaper’s owners would subsidize my yearlong break.
Plus, please, pay for an extra few months so that I could actually write what would — as inevitably as night follows day and local television reporters freely and without guilt lift stories from newspapers that are, in their books, too-small-to-count — be a runaway bestseller.
Economic times are simply too hard, and Duke Energy is being too greedy for the state utilities commission to allow the company to hike its rates, many of the speakers taking advantage of a public hearing in Franklin said last week.
Some 30 speakers used the microphone at the Oct. 26 hearing, which attracted about 100 people from North Carolina’s westernmost counties. A similar hearing drew an overflow crowd Oct. 11 in Marion, the only other forum focused on the hike that was held in Western North Carolina.
Duke Energy wants to raise residential rates 17.4 percent and, on average, raise commercial rates by 15 percent. The increase, which would take effect in February, would add about $19 a month to the typical residential customer’s bill of about $97.
Three-fourths of the increase would help pay for $4.8 billion for building new power plants and for pollution-control equipment to help the environment.
Duke District Manager Fred Alexander told the commission the increase in rates is necessary to help Duke continue providing the “vital service” of electricity.
“I’m here tonight appealing to you on the behalf of the clients that we have at Second Mile Ministry,” said Hazel Finley. “These are mainly elderly people who are on a fixed income,” and underemployed or unemployed people “who have exhausted” their benefits. “I see no reason for Duke to get (an increase) on the backs of these people who are, so desperately, trying to make it one day at a time here in Macon County,” she said.
Many speakers told the commission members of their anger at Duke’s seeking more customer dollars when, in 2010, the company reportedly earned $1.3 billion and paid its chief executive $6.9 million.
With those sorts of profits, “then why does Duke believe that they need to take any more of my money?” Carl Iobst of Jackson County queried the commission.
A rate hike, said Bob Harold of Stanley Furniture in Robbinsville, could possibly take the furniture manufacture under and put up to 420 people out of work. Stanley Furniture is Graham County’s largest employer.
Stanley Furniture pays Duke $1. 2 million under the company’s current rates for electricity.
“It will put us in a very noncompetitive situation where it will increase our electricity bill per year $180,000,” Harold said. “I feel like the rate increase is too exorbitant.”
Other businessmen attempted a softer approach, with Nantahala Outdoor Center’s John Burton in the particularly unenviable position of trying to urge caution about raising rates while not criticizing the very entity that controls the water flow whitewater rafters, and the company, depend upon.
“I’m counting on you guys to vet the proposal,” Burton told the commission. “To make sure … that it’s reasonable. While the rate hike is painful, some of it is necessary to keep doing what they do.”
F.P. Bodenheimer, a Franklin businessman, spoke more directly in Duke’s favor, noting the importance of a good energy supply to power manufacturing machines. In the older days, when Nantahala Power and Light delivered the energy to his lumber-based business, reliability was questionable and the power sometimes failed, Bodenheimer said.
That costs businesses time and money that simply aren’t expendable, he said.
“But, we do have one opportunity that the homeowner does not have,” Bodenheimer said. “We can pass on some of the cost to customers who buy our product … possibly. But for the homeowner, there’s no place for them to pass it.”
Ken Brown of Jackson County spoke both as a Duke customer and as a representative of the environmental group Western North Carolina Alliance. Brown noted the lack of competition facing Duke here in the Southeast and linked that to the company’s reluctance, in his view, to offer competitive rates. The energy company’s grasp might just get tighter in the days to come if a merger proposal with Progress Energy is approved.
“In North Carolina, Duke Energy and Progress Energy are conspiring to monopolize electric generation by asking the N.C. Utilities Commission to approve a merger that will squash competition in North Carolina,” Brown told commissioners, a sentiment echoed by Swain County resident Joe Deddo.
Brown also spoke to cost overruns at the controversial Rutherford County-based Cliffside plant being passed on to North Carolina customers, for electricity to leave the state and serve customers in South Carolina.
This, Brown said, would “unnecessarily burden business, industrial, municipal and residential ratepayers with a third rate increase in two years to pay for an outmoded facility.”
Other speakers also had strong environmental concerns and said they wanted to see Duke turn toward more earth-friendly sources of energy.
“I want cleaner energy,” Scott Burns of Franklin told the commission before opposing the rate hike as “outrageous” on Duke’s part to even request.
Macon County commissioners decided last week that they needed more time to study whether to implement construction guidelines recommended by the county’s planning board.
During a workshop on the issue, commissioners heard a stern warning from a licensed engineer and PhD that if they planned on weakening the regulations beyond their current form, then they pretty much shouldn’t bother to implement them at all.
“These standards right here are about as close to nothing as you can get,” Dan Marks of Asheville told commissioners. “If you water it down, you’re not going to have anything. … If you are going to pass this thing, please don’t take it down another notch — and I think you need to go back up a notch.”
The planning board was originally tasked two years ago with developing rules for steep-slope development but got bogged down and instead settled on so-called “construction guidelines” as a means of salvaging a few of the more salient building rules. The guidelines include stipulations that limit how high and steep cut-and-fill slopes can be and require compaction of fill dirt.
Planning Board Chairman Lewis Penland told commissioners they have a “responsibility to protect property owners from substandard development.”
“People who might otherwise invest in Macon County don’t feel like they’re investing in land that’s secure, and they don’t feel like they have all the best available information to make wise decisions,” Penland said.
Penland said residents and move-ins to Macon County need some assurances there are “basic public safeguards” on the books.
Commissioners indicated they would hold another meeting to again review the planning board’s construction guidelines.
Cherokee tribal members could vote this April on whether to allow alcoholic beverage sales on the reservation, one month before a similar referendum will be held on legalizing sales countywide in neighboring Jackson County.
Cherokee’s referendum is contingent on Principal Chief Michell Hicks signing off on a resolution passed last week by nine of the 12 Tribal Council members.
Hicks has 30 days from Oct. 24, the day council voted, to make up his mind.
Asked Monday if he would allow the vote to go forward, Hicks said in response: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m still praying on it.”
Hicks might not be able to stop a referendum even if he tries, however. Tribal Council can override the chief if the council has two-thirds majority — which, unless some members reverse their votes, it would. One complicating factor is that tribal council members’ votes are weighted to account for the number of people living in the townships they represent. One vote does not mean one vote, in other words.
Hicks described the decision about whether to try and stop the vote as difficult, one that involves weighing both the “good and the bad” aspects of allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages to be legalized on tribal lands.
“It has to be a determination for all of our people and not just a few of our people,” he said, adding that it’s also important to him that tribal members get some kind of voice in the decision to come. Which is the rub, of course — how best to give them that voice?
If Hicks allows the vote to take place, tribal members will decide these three questions. They could approve all, none, or one or two independently from the others:
• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.
• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.
• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.
How it happened
A resolution calling for an alcohol vote was originally going to be brought before tribal council by the ABC commission of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. There’s an amendment, however, on the official resolution document. It notifies tribal clerks to strike the ABC commission as the origin and simply say state the resolution was Tribal Council-submitted. There is no additional explanation attached.
Chairman of the Cherokee ABC Board Bob Blankenship on Monday said that with neighboring Jackson County looking to vote on the same issue in May, he believed this is an opportune time for people in Cherokee to decide whether to legalize the sale of alcohol there, too.
“Jackson County needs it, we need it, everyone needs it who is involved in the tourism business,” Blankenship said bluntly.
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment about the possible vote. The Cherokee chamber is hosting an “open forum” for members to discuss the issue Nov. 2 in Cherokee.
The resolution was approved by nine out of the 12 members of Tribal Council, with no one technically voting against it — member Terri Henry was given an official absence to travel; Mike Parker and David Wolfe voted to table the resolution.
Here’s who voted yes: Bo Taylor, Perry Shell, Gene Crowe, Bill Taylor, Jim Owle, Diamond Brown, Adam Wachacha, Alan Ensley and Tommye Saunooke.
In the community
It’s not easy to find someone in Cherokee willing to endorse the sale of alcoholic beverages, not with their name attached to the supporting quote in black and white print, right here and forever in the newspaper.
It’s a cakewalk to interview those in the opposition camp, however. That’s because there’s a sudden swell of anti-alcohol indignation in Cherokee, one tapping into decades and decades of fervently held sentiment. The iron fist in this velvet glove is the 20 or so Baptist churches that call the Qualla Boundary home, united in staunch and fierce opposition to the consumption of alcohol — period, the end, in every case and without exception.
There’s also the touchy subject of alcoholism and diabetes to pair with these fundamental Christian beliefs that predominate among the Cherokee. And about seeing the tribe’s young people thrive and prosper. And, of course, there’s the deep and real respect here for Cherokee’s elders, who traditionally have spoken in one voice — a united “no” — when it comes to legalized sales.
Charla Crowe, 49, agrees with that position.
“I do not want to see alcohol in Cherokee,” Crowe said, sounding the words distinctly and in a fashion that brooked no misunderstandings.
Crowe is a Wolftown resident and owner of the store, Cherokee By Design, which is located across the road from the Tribal Council house.
Asked why, exactly, she’s against alcohol being sold here in Cherokee, Crowe responded: “We were raised here in Cherokee, and it was dry. And I want it to stay that way. We just don’t need alcohol so readily available. I’m a Christian, and that plays a huge part in my decision. We’ve got enough problems for the kids without bringing this right to our door.”
Crowe voted “no” two years ago to allow the sale of alcohol at Harrah’s casino. Walt French, of the Yellowhill community, voted “yes.” Today, he regrets that vote.
“The only way it passed at the casino was because the per capita was supposed to go up, but it sure didn’t happen that way,” French said.
From the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among the tribe’s 14,000 members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.
Estimates in the days leading up to the 2009 casino-alcohol vote by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise put the per capita return to tribal members at about $9,000 per person by 2015. In other words, a “yes” vote allowing Harrah’s to sell alcohol meant more business for the casino, and in turn individual riches in an economically strapped region where extra dollars are tough to find.
His flat wallet, however, tells a different tale than what was promised, French said.
“Though I figured a vote would happen after they voted it in at the casino,” he said. Indeed, opponents at the time said allowing alcohol at the casino was a slippery slope that would sooner or later to lead alcohol reservation-wide.
“But I don’t think it’ll pass — I won’t vote for it again,” French said. “(Tribal leaders) made a lot of promises that didn’t happen. You tell a person he’s got $5, but you do this right here and you’ll get $20. Well, people do that; because they need that money in such a bad economy to buy food, pay for electricity.”
And, at 18, Victoria Wolfe, too, opposes the sale of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands.
Soft spoken and shy, Wolfe said simply, “I’m concerned about our kids. Drugs are already bad enough here.”
A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales reservation-wide has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but the idea has been toyed with several times since then.
• 1980: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 2 to 1.
• 1992: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.
• 1999: Patrick Lambert, head of the gaming commission, convinced tribal council to hold a referendum on alcohol sales. A groundswell of opposition spurred council members to cancel the referendum before it could be held.
• 2006: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a referendum on alcohol sales at the casino. Opposition swiftly mounted a campaign. TCGE withdrew their request before tribal council had a chance to vote on it.
• 2008: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a tribal referendum on allowing alcohol sales at the casino only. It narrowly passed tribal council but was vetoed by Chief Michell Hicks.
• 2009: Supporters of a referendum submited a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote. It passed by a surprisingly large majority of 59 to 41 percent.
• 2011: Tribal Council approved a referendum for an April vote on allowing the legal sale of alcoholic beverages on all tribal lands. Hicks has 30 days to decide whether to allow the vote to be held, though Tribal Council can overturn a veto if there are enough votes.
Regional implications of Cherokee alcohol vote huge
A “yes” vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on Cherokee tribal lands will touch many more people than just enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voting in the special election next April.
That’s because the tribe has lands in four Western North Carolina counties: Jackson, Swain, Cherokee and Graham. Of those, Graham County currently stands solitarily as the one county out of North Carolina’s 100 counties that is totally dry. The others have alcohol sales inside town limits, even if the rest of the county does not. But in conservative Graham County, a six-pack of beer or bottle-of-wine are not to be had, even in the county seat of Robbinsville.
Here’s the sorest potential spot in what’s promising to erupt into a hotly argued issue, particularly in Cherokee’s most traditional communities — Big Cove, probably, but almost certainly in the Snowbird community in dry Graham County. Even if a majority of residents in a particular Cherokee community vote against alcohol sales, the door would still open if Cherokee voters overall — reservation-wide, that is — approve the resolution.
“Those are tribal lands,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in explanation. “This would be a tribal-wide vote.”
Jackson is dry, but alcohol sales are allowed in Sylva and Dillsboro. Swain is dry, but alcohol is sold in Bryson City. Cherokee County is dry, but alcohol is sold in Murphy and Andrews.
Also in play for tribal alcohol supporters is this fact: The Eastern Band is considering building a satellite mini casino on 200 acres in Cherokee County on tribal lands outside of Andrews. This vote might well open the door to alcohol sales at this hybrid, not-quite-a-casino, but more-than-bingo facility. Cherokee voters in June 2009 approved the sale of alcoholic beverages at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in downtown Cherokee but not for the rest of the reservation.
— By Quintin Ellison
Though perhaps it’s not exactly the moveable feast Ernest Hemingway discovered in the cafés of Paris, the ambiance of The Coffee Shop in Sylva suits local writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young just fine.
It is here, in this 84-year-old, family owned, down-home restaurant strategically positioned near Sylva’s paper plant, Jackson Paper Manufacturing, that the Swain County native writes much of her work. One short story is now garnering national attention. “The Tender Branch” is this year’s winner of the High School Teachers Writing Award from the Norman Mailer Center.
Each morning, for two or so hours, The Coffee Shop customers such as Teresa Coward would notice the slim, studious-looking woman in one of the café’s bright orange-plastic booths, drinking cups of coffee with cream. A cup of coffee costs $1.25 at The Coffee Shop, including a refill; a side of apple, cherry, coconut, lemon or chocolate pie adds $2.50 to the tab.
“It’s home here,” says Coward, nodding in ready understanding as to why a writer would choose The Coffee Shop over some of the town’s more uptown, upscale café options.
Gilchrist-Young, caffeine satiated, would move on to write until noon at the public library. She didn’t want to command a table in the small café for too much time each day, inconveniencing owner Phyllis Gibson or waitresses such as Chessa Hoyle, livelihood-dependent on collecting the quarter and dollar tips left by appreciative, but working-class, customers.
This café is no stranger to Western North Carolina’s literati, at least the homegrown kind. Hoyle serves Sylva writer Gary Carden everyday. The late John Parris, of the “Roaming the Mountains” Asheville Citizen-Times column fame, was a regular here, too.
These days Gilchrist-Young calls the Village of Forest Hills in Cullowhee home. She lives there with her stonemason husband, Eric. Their daughter, Aaron, is attending Warren Wilson College.
The Norman Mailer award will put this unassuming writer, who has worked as an English teacher at Swain County High School for 14 years, on stage with former President Bill Clinton, Elie Wiesel and Tina Brown, Newsweek’s editor in chief; and conceivably even Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones fame. Like Gilchrist-Young, Richards is a recipient of a Norman Mailer Center award, in his case for his recent book, Life.
Gilchrist-Young and the other Norman Mailer award winners will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on Nov. 8. Additionally, she won $10,000 and a month next summer at the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony in Provincetown, Mass.
Gilchrist-Young is a meticulous craftsperson. Her story was one of but two written a couple summers ago. Each story required two months to complete, the length basically of this schoolteacher’s annual summer break.
“The Tender Branch” delivers on the tenderness promised in the title. But the story is equally rich in the horrors attendant for women immersed in domestic violence. That violence is presented here simply as True Fact: the story seems to say, ‘You see, this is how many women live, but that is not the whole of them.’
Gilchrist-Young’s story is set in Haywood County: Canton, to be exact.
“My grandma was mean, but I’m not mean like her, just vengeful like her, vengeful like a cat you’ve left locked in the house all day and thinking everything is fine until you come home and there’s a pile of shit right on your pillow,” her character says in a moment of raw self description.
Gilchrist-Young writes only in the summer. The remainder of her time is spent — and this is not purple prose, not hyperbole, but simple conveyance of more True Fact — giving of her talents and herself to the kids attending Swain County High School. She was once given a year’s sabbatical from Swain to teach at Western Carolina University, a 12-month gift, she says, from then Swain Principal Janet Clapsaddle and the local school board. They wanted this talented woman to find herself, to assess whether she’d be happiest teaching at the university level, or returning once again to Swain’s classrooms.
Gilchrist-Young opted for the latter, deciding that the high school needed her, the college did not; she notes this must mean she needs to be needed.
So Gilchrist-Young, each school day, walks into Swain County High School. And by her simple presence demonstrates that a homebred girl, who would marry at 18 and who was raised in a singlewide trailer in the Euchella community with four brothers and sisters by working-class parents, Wretha and Robert Gilchrist, is at the same time a sophisticated, highly educated woman. Her resume includes Columbia University and an MFA from Warren Wilson. And, of course, and maybe this is the most important True Fact about Gilchrist-Young, is a living, breathing, in-the-flesh writer the kids can talk to each day.
One’s upbringing is a part, not the whole; it is through parts, however, that we create a whole — that is Gilchrist-Young’s message to her students and one seemingly delivered through her writings.
“This is a Southern Appalachian woman,” Gilchrist-Young says of herself, an exclamation point on a conversation that includes discussions about stereotyping of mountain people, the suffocation of being dubbed a “regional” writer, and the equally True Fact that Swain County and other local school systems were (often but not always perhaps for everyone) truly wonderful places for aspiring writers, artists and musicians to find themselves growing up.
A work ethic
Finding the energy to both teach high school English and write is clearly a family hand-me-down, “the Gilchrist work ethic” personified, as husband Eric Young describes it.
Her father, now in his mid-70s, gets up at 4 a.m. and does masonry until his body gives out, sometime in the afternoon or evening.
“If he doesn’t work, he doesn’t feel like he’s living,” Gilchrist-Young says.
Her mother stayed home with the children, three girls and two boys, plus worked some in local factories and in the school’s cafeteria.
When the couple built a room onto their trailer, her father added bookshelves on either side of the fireplace. He and wife Wretha ordered a set of “The World’s 100 Greatest Classics” to fill the shelves. This was, for the most part, a family of readers.
“We were surrounded by these great writers,” Gilchrist-Young says. “Dostoevsky, Austen.”
The young girl would select books based on her attraction to the titles. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” she found offensive; “Sense and Sensibility,” on the other hand, had an attractive alliteration, and she discovered through that simple siren song the world of Jane Austen.
Her father, a Zane Grey zealot, passed his love for Grey’s Westerns and adventure stories on to his daughter, and “Riders of the Purple Sage” would become, as would her mother’s Ellery Queen mysteries, future literary touchstones.
There were nightly Bible readings. The sonorous prose of the King James version of the Bible became yet another touchstone for Gilchrist-Young. It would influence her writing ear as it has so many others. More deeply imbedded than even her parent’s love for literature — and the Bible, which in that household was not literature but True Fact — was the Gilchrist code, which goes something like this:
“There is an authority that is higher than law, and a goodness that is more important than anything else.”
The exquisite, fleeting beauty of autumn is with us now. Cold nights signal changes to come. Soon there will be a killing frost; winter will be upon us then.
“Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.”
Autumn, this brief window between the heat of summer and the gray skies and frigid mornings of winter, is my favorite time of year. There is a bittersweet quality to the season that I’ve never quite been able to capture in words. I think it’s in autumn, or in my desire to write autumn, that I most wish I had been given the gift of poetry. Only poets, it seems, can come near capturing the … the what?
I lack the words, the skill needed to describe this perfect day in a perfect autumn. Blue skies, the sun, the chill, the leaves in yellows and reds; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground; to become trees with leaves that are first green, then yellow and red; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground — a cyclical pattern writ perfectly, but one written here imperfectly.
John Keats wrote to a friend in September 1819: “How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
Keats’ composition was “To Autumn.” It begins: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run/To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,/And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …”
As with Shakespeare in the first quote, we find “ripeness” repeated here in Keats. That tickles my thoughts, and the Buddhist phrase, “like licking honey from the razor’s edge,” resonates in my mind. The simultaneous gain of pain and pleasure is one possible interpretation of that saying. Or, the insistence on gaining pleasure, knowing that doing so brings with it the inevitability of pain — that would be another interpretation, perhaps.
“Here be dragons,” one of the world’s oldest maps, the Lenox Globe, warned would-be travelers nearing the east coast of Asia; another way, I think, of saying something of the same thing … explore at your own peril, living on the working edge, licking honey from the razor’s edge, ripeness is all, autumn changes to winter.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die/a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted/A time to kill, and a time to heal/ a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh/A time to mourn, and a time to dance/A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together/A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing/A time to get, and a time to lose/ a time to keep, and a time to cast away/A time to rend, and a time to sew/ a time to keep silence, and a time to speak/A time to love, and a time to hate/ a time of war, and a time of peace.”
When autumn comes and my thoughts spin into unanswerable questions such as these, about beginnings and endings and the passing of the seasons; when I pick up the Bible and read Ecclesiastes, or search the Norton Anthology of English Literature for Keats; and when I find myself staring for too long into the glass front showcasing the wood fire at night, I like to ground myself by thinking about the ending of a particular book by the fine Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering. He spent time in Japan studying Zen. Van de Wetering, who also wrote a fantastic series of detective novels, recounted his youthful experiences searching for life’s meaning in “The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.” This quest involved long hours of meditation and endless efforts to solve koans, those puzzle-like questions designed to help one obtain enlightenment.
Ultimately, at the book’s end, van de Wetering leaves the monastery and goes to a bar and has a beer.
That, too, is ripeness of a sort, I suppose. Having already imbibed my life’s allotment of beers, I think I’ll go have a glass of tea.
More than a decade ago, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida became the first state to approve a “Choose Life” specialty plate. Since then, similar plates have been OK’d in more than two-dozen states.
Supporters view them as a means to mass-market adoption to mothers who might otherwise abort; detractors believe the plates are government-endorsed attacks on abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose.
Thanks to North Carolina House Bill 289, passed earlier this year by a Republican-dominated state General Assembly and signed into law by avowedly pro-choice Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, motorists around North Carolina can now sport the “Choose Life” message on a specialty license plate.
Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was among Democrats who voted against the bill, introduced by Rep. Mitch Gillespie, R-Marion. Gillespie was out of the country last week; a message left at his home went unreturned by press time Tuesday.
Rapp described Gillespie’s bill as “crafty,” one that satisfied several conservative goals and ambitions: “Choose Life” plates were approved, and by adding groups to the bill such as the Boy Scouts, Fox Hunting and the National Wild Turkey Federation, Democrats such as Rapp who stood in opposition can, in upcoming elections, be painted as “against Boy Scouts,” apple pie and the American flag, the veteran lawmaker said.
“We have, historically, not let issue plates be issued,” Rapp said. “We didn’t want North Carolina cars to become rolling billboards for political issues.”
Drivers can opt for the “Choose Life” plates for a $25 extra annual fee. Nonprofit pregnancy counseling centers opposed to abortion get $15 from each plate sold.
As part of House Bill 289, started in 2015, state specialty plates — including the “Choose Life” plates — must all change to meet a uniform template approved by various law enforcement agencies, including the state Highway Patrol.
Therein lies the next “crafty” machination of state Republicans, according to Rapp. Law enforcement’s concerns were truly legitimate, he said, “and there was a public safety issue, and true cause for concern.”
The new law will gut the attractive full-color plate designs and instead relegate a logo for the organization to one corner of the plate, leaving plate numbers easily seen and the state of origin easy to ascertain. There are 216 specialty plates, but fewer than 30 boast the full-color designs such as Friends of the Smokies.
But in the debate, the particularly popular specialty plates such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway plates, “were held hostage over whether to let the right-to-life plates be in the list of specialty plates,” Rapp said.
“It is a much bigger issue than just GSMNP plates and Blue Ridge Parkway plates,” Rapp said of the behind-the-scenes political fight over what messages should and should not be allowed on license plates.
N.C. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, agreed. He said that Republicans efforts to get the Choose Life plates have potentially come at the steep cost of the public’s support for good causes such as the Smokies and the parkway.
“That money (raised) really helps these organizations,” Haire said.
Rapp believes there is a solution, though whether he can get it through the Republican-dominated House is debatable. Rapp wants certain groups, particularly the Friends of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, exempted from the new rules. That would allow the nonprofits to continue marketing the full-colored plates used now.
“They helped to get this whole thing started to begin with,” Rapp said, “and I think they should get some preferential treatment. We’ve got to try to find a way around this — that’s a huge revenue source for these groups during these times of revenue cuts, and they need these sources of revenue more than ever.”
The political slugfest that took place over House Bill 289, Republicans thwarted efforts by Democrats to, in response to the Choose Life plates, add a license plate with the abortion rights message “Respect Choice.”
In September, The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking the specialty license plate supporting a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. The lawsuit alleges that North Carolina is engaging in “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment by allowing pro-life but not pro-choice license plates.
— By Quintin Ellison
Existing full-colored specialty plates
• Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
• Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
• Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
• Friends of the Appalachian Trail
• NC Coastal Federation
• In God We Trust
• Stock Car Racing Theme
• Buddy Pelletier Surfing Foundation
• Guilford Battleground Company
• National Wild Turkey Federation
• North Carolina Aquarium Society
• First in Forestry
• North Carolina Wildlife Habitat Foundation
• N.C. Trout Unlimited
• Ducks Unlimited
• Lung Cancer Research
• N.C. State Parks
• Support Our Troops
• U.S. Equine Rescue League
• Fox Hunting
• Back Country Horsemen of North Carolina
• Home Care and Hospice
• N.C. Tennis Foundation
• AIDS Awareness
Newly approved full-colored specialty plates:
• Donate Life
• Farmland Preservation
• Travel and Tourism
• Battle of Kings Mountain
• N.C. Civil War
• North Carolina Zoological Society
• United States Service Academy
• Carolina Raptor Center
• Carolinas Credit Union Foundation
• North Carolina State Flag
• N.C. Mining
• Coastal Land Trust
• ARTS NC
• Choose Life
• N.C. Green Industry Council
• N.C. Horse Council
• Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
Dr. Jessica Ange of Sylva enjoys sporting on the back of her Subaru Outback the colorful black and green Great Smoky Mountains National Park license plate, with its emblematic black bear head and background of green mountain peaks.
She’s honest enough to admit her enjoyment comes not just with supporting the Smokies; it’s also simple fact that the plate looks really cool. And, Ange isn’t sure if she would have paid the extra $30 a year, at least originally, if the plates were any less striking.
“Since I’ve already gotten one of the park plates, I might now continue on to support such a good cause,” Ange said. “So that’s part of the allure — but I don’t know if I would have initiated getting one to begin with if the plates were less colorful.”
That’s a choice Ange might soon have to make, however, because of a new law that attempts to standardize the state’s specialty plates to a uniform template.
Could changes hurt sales?
The Smokies specialty license plate costs motorists such as Ange an extra fee of $30 per year. Of the fee, $20 goes to Friends of the Smokies to support efforts to preserve and protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The remaining $10 goes into the Special Registration Plate Account, which supports the following: issues and handling of special plates, N.C. State Visitors Centers, travel and tourism advertising, highway beautification and travel accessibility for disabled people.
Friends members worry new regulations for special license plates could squelch sales. A new state law will eliminate the full-color designs for specialty plates. Instead, an emblem for the group will be shoehorned into one small corner of the plate, with just room to accommodate a logo.
The new law starts in 2015. But, in actuality, new designs will hit the roads when the existing inventory of specialty plates runs out — which has happened, or is about to happen, according to Marge Howell, spokeswoman for the state Division of Motor Vehicles.
SEE ALSO: Safety or politics? Battle between state lawmakers influenced specialty license plate debate
Holly Demuth, North Carolina Director of the Friends of the Smokies, said she understands that the stock for the bear license plates has indeed run dry, and that sales have been suspended.
The Friends group is working with DMV on a transitional-plate design — one that isn’t quite as austere as the new 2015 law would require. It would still feature a black bear, but the plate is less colorful than the current design. The hybrid design will fill the gap until 2015, when the future stark reality of the state’s specialty license plates becomes official.
Last year alone, the sale of specialty plates raised $385,000 for Friends of the Smokies, said Friends board member Steve Woody. All of the money raised was spent on the North Carolina side of the park, including the Parks as Classrooms project, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center displays, the Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob, helping fund the hemlock woolly adelgid battle and even to help bring back elk into Cataloochee, Woody said.
“It was a surprise to us when the state said it wanted to change the plate,” Woody said. “It had been approved by both the Highway Patrol and the manufacturer.”
Woody said surveys have shown 40 percent of sales are by people “who buy because they like the plate.”
Pat Steinbrueck of Sylva said that when she and husband, Steve, moved here from Pennsylvania a few years ago, the colorful Smokies plate “caught my eye right away — it seemed the perfect opportunity to have a pretty plate and support a good cause.”
Several of the nonprofit groups with specialty plates in the mountains have formed a coalition to lobby legislators to reconsider gutting the plate design.
“We are trying to convince the people in Raleigh to keep them the way they are,” said Joyce Cooper, a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I think if they take the color off of them it will destroy the beauty and the interest that people have. They are so attractive, that’s what makes people want to have them.”
The cool factor of sporting a specialty plate indeed seems to be a driver for those buying them. Case in point: after the Smokies redesigned its original specialty license plate — a turquoise and pink color scheme with a silhouette of trees — to the iconic black bear design, sales skyrocketed. Friends of the Smokies saw the number of its license plates on the road increase by more than 50 percent after introducing the new design.
The Friends plate, launched in 2000, was the first in a subsequent explosion of colorful specialty license plates in the state. In addition to “First in Flight” standard plates, North Carolina issues 216 other specialty plates, including a hiker on the Appalachian Trail plate, a scenic mountain road on the Blue Ridge Parkway plate, and an elk plate that supports the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The problem comes with some of the 25 full background specialty plates now decorating cars on North Carolina’s roads and highways: Highway Patrol troopers have said some of the plates are difficult to read, increasing the difficulty of keeping the motoring public safe.
Yet this year, the legislature approved an additional 25 or so full-color plates — the same lawmakers, and in the same bill, that phases out full-color plates.
Micah McClure, a designer for The Smoky Mountain News, designed the popular black bear Smokies plate. It replaced the older plate which sported pink and turquoise curly-cue letters. He’s attempting now to design the “transitional” plate. McClure said that it’s not an impossible task to create a beautiful specialty tag and meet law enforcement needs, too.
Color choice is critical, he said, as is contrast and not “making it too busy” with too many graphic elements. McClure said that he’d noticed during the weekend a N.C. Tennis Foundation specialty license plate, with dark blue lettering on a dark green background, and understood instantly why law enforcement officers have been complaining.
“There has to be legibility for law enforcement,” McClure said, “You couldn’t read it. But if the contrast is there, then there shouldn’t be a problem.”
The Parkway plate has navy lettering on a yellow background, for example. That color contrast makes it is easy to read, as is the Smokies’ — dark blue on light green.
Kate Dixon, executive director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, said getting a specialty license plate approved in North Carolina proved “an incredible political process” to undergo. That Friends group wanted one of the full-color plate designs. But Dixon was told the state wasn’t approving any more of those, and the only design she could have was the new kind with a tiny logo in the corner.
“It was disappointing to us,” Dixon said.
It was also quite confusing to Dixon, because the state did indeed approve full-color plates for certain groups — around 25 or so — including plates for anti-abortion groups, N.C. Mining and Carolinas Credit Union Association.
The Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail has started selling its plate already, but it must obtain 300 prepaid applications before the DMV will start manufacturing them, a job that is done by prisoners in state correctional facilities.
Specialty plates by the number
Friends of the Smokies
• raised $2.5 million since 2000 in N.C.
• almost 20,000 plates on the road.
Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation
• raised $2.9 million since 2004
• 27,000 plates on the road.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy
• $586,000 since 2004
• more than 5,000 plates on the road.
• Need to sell 300 before the state will manufacture and distribute; have sold about 150 since 2004. No plates on the road.
• More than 4,000 plates on the road
• Raised more than $200,000 since 2003
When Walmart of Franklin moves from U.S. 441 to its new location next spring, at least two — perhaps three — of the other businesses in Holly Springs Plaza will move right along with the retail giant.
That’s not a happy prospect for the strip mall’s nine or so remaining tenants. Those business owners are looking at working in a virtual ghost setting if new merchants don’t come in to fill the void of those leaving.
The Walmart Supercenter will be at the corner of Wells Grove and Dawdle Mountain roads, just off the U.S. 441 bypass on a 33-acre site.
“This place will pretty much be empty,” said Jordan Myers, an 18-year-old Franklin native who works at Cato in Holly Springs Plaza. Her job, via her employer, is making the shift with Walmart to the new site, along with Shoe Show, and, reportedly, Dollar Tree, though officials in that store declined to comment. “Maybe people will put some boutiques in,” Jordan said.
But that didn’t happen in Haywood County in November 2008 when Walmart made the move from Clyde to Waynesville to build a new super store. In Haywood County, Walmart left behind a huge, vacant building with an equally huge, vacant parking lot in front.
Finally, in early 2010, Haywood County’s commissioners decided to purchase the vacant shell to house the Department of Social Services and Health, which had long awaited a move from their aging facilities. The new county offices will cost taxpayers an estimated $12.5 million. A facelift of the building is under way now.
Franklin Manager Sam Greenwood said the soon-to-be-vacated building in Franklin is serviceable, and could possibly be repurposed for another company.
There is some talk about town that Ingles might acquire the shopping center, and build a larger grocery store to compete with Walmart.
“It’ll shut this place down,” predicted Irene Hughes of Walmart’s impending move.
The Franklin resident was overseeing a Toys for Tots collection drive from a site in the Holly Springs Plaza.
Hughes currently drives to neighboring Clayton, Ga., to a Walmart Supercenter there for groceries. Though she’s not a fan of the new Franklin site because it might cause traffic problems for two nearby schools and people making their way through the area, she readily admitted, “it’ll be more convenient than driving to Clayton.”
“And, it’ll mean more jobs, because they’ll need more people,” Hughes said. “But what about all these places that will be sitting empty? What will happen to them?”
“It’s great to be one of the retailers going, and not staying,” said Ali Travis-Bonard, assistant manager of Shoe Show. “I’m really looking forward to it — we have a space issue here.”
Unlike Hughes, Travis-Bonard believes Walmart’s site selection for the new store is “ingenious — because everyone needs to go for something at Walmart after school.”
Kim McCloud, who works for U.S. Cellular in Holly Springs, is one of the retailers staying when Walmart leaves. She, however, isn’t particularly worried.
“We have a steady base of customers, people who have been with us for awhile,” McCloud said. “I really don’t think it will hurt us.”
In a town that has long thrived on competitive, and sometimes markedly heated, political contests, the prospect of an incumbents-only race this November in Franklin seems ghastly. Even to several of the shoo-in incumbents themselves.
“Maybe they’re afraid they might actually get the job,” a curmudgeonly sounding Mayor Joe Collins said when asked for an explanation.
“Maybe they love you, and the voters think you’re a fantastic mayor?” he was queried.
“No, no, no,” Collins replied unequivocally. “It’s just that nobody is running against anybody.”
Collins, unless upset by an unknown, unexpected and unlikely write-in candidate, will win a fifth, two-year term in office. Also running without competition? Four aldermen candidates: Bob Scott, Farrell Jamison (appointed to fill the unexpired term of the late Jerry Evans), Joyce Handley and Verlin Curtis.
It isn’t as if there aren’t important issues in Franklin. The board will be hiring a new town manager to replace governmental veteran Sam Greenwood, and a new police chief to replace Terry Bradley. Several more of the town’s top employees have enough years in that they could opt to leave, too.
“It is nice not to have to go through the process of putting up signs, raising money and going through the suspense of how the election comes out,” Collins acknowledged, “but it would absolutely be better” for the town if there were competition.
“That brings discussions, and different ideas, and maybe even different people around the table,” he said.
George Hasara, co-owner of Rathskeller Coffee House, a popular Franklin watering hole and unofficial discussion-central for the town, agreed with Collins that “it’s a shame” to have uncontested elections.
“Everyone should be challenged,” Hasara said. “If nothing else, to highlight the issues. But, sometimes it just happens that way. The town’s not rife with corruption — these are good people, so there’s no groundswell of indignation.”
Alderman Scott, who came within 14 votes of unseating Collins as mayor during the last election, agrees with his former political adversary that the lack of competition really isn’t healthy for Franklin.
“I can’t explain it,” Scott said. “I have two theories. Nobody wants to have anything to do with us or else we are doing such a good job nobody wanted to interfere with us. That’s my theories, and I am sticking with them. I am disappointed that there is no opposition. No opposition takes the fun out of politics.”
Millie Griffin, who co-owns Millie and Eve’s Used Bookstore on U.S. 441 south of town, believes the apathy in Franklin is simply a reflection of overall problems at the local, county, state and federal levels. She added that “outsiders” probably don’t signup as candidates because, “If you’re not from this area, you won’t get in — so why bother?” And that right there, Griffin said, narrows the pool of contenders considerably.
“‘Everybody’s happy,’ you could say. But a cynic would say, ‘Nobody gives a rat’s ass, they don’t want to be burdened with it,’” soon-to-retire Town Manager Greenwood said in his usual polished diplomatic manner. “I just hope it is not going to be the new trend. It would show that people aren’t interested. And that’s really not good for the community, long term.”
Design work on a proposed gym and fine arts center will move forward at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, with commissioners this week giving the school board an unofficial thumbs up.
Additionally, upgrading the men’s dressing room at Blue Ridge School near Cashiers also received an OK.
Commissioners will vote as soon as education leaders can nail down a few numbers, such as whether the cost of a sound system and scoreboards are included in the estimated $10.9 million cost for a 1,508-seat gym and a 560-seat theater. A chorus room and a shop for building sets for theater performances are included.
After the meeting, Assistant Superintendent Steve Jones said he hopes for an official vote next month, or, short of that, “as soon as possible.”
“The real beauty about this is the shared common space” between the proposed gym and fine arts center, Jones told commissioners in a joint meeting between the school board and county this week. The dual-purpose building cancels the need for duplicate heating and air-coolant systems and saves taxpayer dollars, he said.
The site already has been prepped “and we’ll just kind of scoot right in it,” said Ali Laird-Large, a school board member.
County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as Western Carolina University’s finance officer for 30 years, said paying for design work will cost approximately $560,000, based on an estimated percentage of the overall construction cost. It will be paid for with a portion of the state sales tax that is returned to the county and earmarked for schools. There is already $587,857 accumulated in the fund — a total of $897,136 available when combined with a school-designated fund balance.
“We spend it on schools or we don’t spend it?” County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam queried the town manager.
“Right,” Wooten said in reply.
The county manager said that commissioners’ expected approval of design work “does not require us to bid the project, or build the project.” But, he added, there is enough money available through the sales tax each year to pay for the annual debt on the projects at Smoky Mountain and Blue Ridge with “no negative impact on the county budget.”
With building prices down, “there’s probably not a better time, if you can afford to build, than there is right now,” Wooten said.
A fine arts center for Smoky Mountain was conceived in the 1970s. Former school Superintendent Joe Cowan, now a county commissioner, clearly found the moment sweet tasting indeed. The additions to Smoky Mountain have been long stalled, at times politically, at other times economically — and sometimes by both political and economic realities.
“Twenty years ago, I was in Dr. Murray’s seat,” Cowan said, nodding toward new Superintendent Mike Murray, seated across from him at a large board table. “This is just a dream come true for me — it is needed.”
Designs are expected to take about a year to complete. This means construction bids could be let next fall.
Steve Hewitt of the Villages of Plott Creek in Haywood County already has a pretty good idea about the concept of live and let live when it comes to bears.
There have been a number of bear sightings in his community, and one very close sighting indeed for he and his wife. About two weeks ago, at about 4 or 5 p.m., his wife thought she saw the couple’s black dog walking around outside the house.
It wasn’t — it was a bear and her cubs, “and they weren’t concerned” at all about human interest in their movements, Hewitt said.
The couple doesn’t keep bird feeders in the yard, though a neighbor had bird feeders torn down by bears. Hewitt also isn’t terribly worried about his dog tangling with a bear.
“He’s not a real courageous dog,” he explained. Hewitt believes people just need to live with the reality of bears, and leave them alone to go about their bear business.
Along with many other subdivisions and residential areas in Western North Carolina, the Villages of Plott Creek has sent out warnings to residents about the increase in bear activity.
Last week, in a newsletter, it was noted: “There have been several black bear sightings within and around the Villages of Plott Creek in the past four months. We are sending this notice to inform all residents to use caution with your children, pets, bird feeders and other food items in yards, walking and driving in the Villages. To date, none of the sightings have shown aggression other than damaging bird feeders and searching for natural food in yards.”
Bear sightings and bear visits are also taking place, of course, in other communities. Ray Daniel, who lives in the Cashiers community on Breedlove Road with his wife, Janet, has replaced three window screens torn out by bears.
The bears have actually made their way into the couple’s house on at least two occasions. Three or four weeks ago, the Daniels awoke to discover a bear had ripped through a screen and gotten in the kitchen — forensic proof, in the form of a perfect imprint of a bear paw, was discovered on a stainless-steel kitchen appliance.
The bear apparently ate chocolate chips, crackers and cookies, plus peaches and bananas.
“It didn’t like the oatmeal — the bear left that,” Daniel said, adding that peach pits and banana peels were left on the porch. Not long after that particular break-in, a bear got into the couple’s basement where trashcans were stored. Trash was strewn over the yard.
A helpful friend told the couple that they understood bears dislike the smell of Clorox. And, in fact, after Daniel scrubbed out the trashcans with the cleaner, the bears haven’t been back. But they’ve been seen around the community by neighbors, leaving the Daniels to keep a wary eye out for their unwelcome breakfast guests.
A bad year for acorns in the higher elevations, coupled with a poor berry crop region wide, has resulted in an influx of black bears into areas where the majority of mountain residents live: the cities, towns and mountainside developments of Western North Carolina.
Hungry bears are looking for acorns, moving into lower elevations in their hunt for food before hibernating for the winter. This has bear and human encounters in WNC tracking on a record pace this year.
“This year is an anomaly because of the acorn crop. There almost none (high) in the mountains,” said biologist Mike Carraway of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “The bears are looking for food.”
SEE ALSO: Forget the birdfeeders and dog bowls, this bear went straight for the kitchen cupboard
As hungry bears descend from the highlands, motorists are hitting and killing bears on the highway more than ever, particularly in such traditional bear habitat as the Pigeon River Gorge where Interstate 40 cuts through national forest lands.
The Wildlife Resources Commission reports cars have hit and killed more than a dozen black bears in WNC in the last couple of weeks alone. In all 12 months of last year, 10 bears were killed after being struck by motorists.
Additionally, phone calls about “nuisance” bears to North Carolina’s wildlife offices are numbering in the hundreds, well above what’s usually received, Carraway said. The state has received 300 calls so far this year, with the previous high for an entire year standing at about 400, he said.
SEE ALSO: Close encounters of the bear kind
The state does not capture and remove bears anymore: there’s simply nowhere to put them. Additionally, “we can’t catch hundreds of bears,” Carraway said.
The bottom-line on the issue, at least according to the state biologist and the region’s other bear experts? We’ve got to learn how to live with black bears. And to not feed them, to put up bird food and dog food as needed, to slow down and watch out for bears on the highway, and do those other easy, sensible things that will allow bears and humans to peacefully coexist.
Why so many?
The sheer numbers of bears now in the mountains are compounding the problem. Conservation efforts to help black bears in WNC thrive have proven successful, which is terrific, except that right now all of them are converging into the lower elevations in a desperate hunt for food.
“There’s a lot of mobility in and out of the park,” said Bob Miller of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “It’s the fall shuffle. But, normally this time of year, there would have been a good acorn crop (in the Smokies) they could have camped out on. They are headed to apple orchards, and so on.”
There have been the same issues, an increase in human and bear encounters, in east Tennessee, Miller said. Camper and bear encounters are down in the Smokies, because the bears have moved on — two backcountry campsites were closed because of bear activity, but park officials probably will reopen those soon, Miller said.
Plus, mother bears responded to a great acorn crop last year by having more cubs than normal this spring. Which is likely why so many local newspapers in recent days are running reader-donated photographs of a mother bears and their young — the mothers are trying to find food to save the cubs from starvation.
When I moved to Sylva from Bryson City, two dogs stayed and three cats came with me. These are Edgar — I’ve written winningly about him before — and two calicos, Agatha and Tuppence.
That’s a lot of cats.
But wait, that’s not all: In addition to the three I ended up with, there is one more cat here, Isadora. I adopted her while helping to pick out a billy goat. Isadora was part of a large litter born to a barn cat at the Madison County goat farm, Spinning Spider. The owner was happy to include a cat in the billy goat deal, and Isadora was adopted before I understood that my Bryson City cat responsibilities would be joining me in Sylva.
But wait, that’s not all, either:
There were actually five cats until just recently. But Jack the barn cat has gone missing. Jack, I’m afraid, disappeared into the jaws of a coyote or fox. But a barn cat we must have — the squirrels are having a heyday eating the chicken’s laying pellets in his absence.
(I must, for my own mental comfort, make it very clear — and while I’ve made this point before, it bears repeating — that I never expected to be caretaker of this many cats. One doesn’t really grow up dreaming of being a cat lady. I had ideas about music, and writing, and even pictured romances and perhaps travels in Europe, but a keeper of cats? That never crossed my mind.)
So, you ask, why not move one of the four house cats to the barn? Life just isn’t that simple, at least not my life as I lead it.
Edgar, at 19 or so, is too old to live in the barn. And frankly, at this geriatric stage in life, he doesn’t give a hoot about killing anything — he mainly wants to snooze in the sun. Squirrels could do The Charleston in front of him and he’d just snore on. Edgar’s idea of excitement and fun is abusing the two dogs. They led idyllic lives until he moved in. Edgar enjoys spitting at them, then rubbing lovingly against them; swatting at them, then walking enticingly beneath their muzzles — I’m waiting for one to snap and send him to his final resting place. Though I’d miss the old fool, I wouldn’t much blame a dog for doing him in.
Agatha, and I must be blunt, is too stupid to live in the barn. I’m very fond of Agatha, but I’m suspicious she was born under a hot tin roof. She’s slightly demented. Agatha isn’t interested in living creatures, she lives only to kill feral socks — anytime she can find a way into the house she buries into drawers and emerges with socks, which she attacks ferociously, mewling continuously, before leaving them for dead.
(A note: Agatha, Edgar and Tuppence live in the garage, which is closed at night, and Isadora — they hate her and are mean to her — stays in the house nighttimes. Edgar bit Isadora not too long ago, requiring a visit to the veterinarian and a round of antibiotics. You might remember he bit me last year, requiring a visit to the urgent care center and a round of antibiotics then, too. Isn’t he just adorable?)
That leaves Tuppence as the only barn cat option among them. She is a very odd looking little cat, very lithe and dainty, though also amazingly loud and demanding. Tuppence, I’ve discovered since moving to Sylva, is also a serial murderess. In Bryson City, she stayed in the house, so I had no idea then of her true nature.
Being a cat whisperer, I can tell you what runs through Tuppence’s tiny brain: “kill, kill, kill, kill.”
Chipmunks, birds, snakes, mice — she is slaying every small living creature on the mountain, and leaving them for me to find on the backdoor mat. I know they’re for my enjoyment, because Tuppence adores me. I am her sun, moon and stars, and I often feel guilty about not paying her the nonstop attention she craves. But I feel even worse about the presents she insists on leaving me, and the overall carnage on the mountain.
Here’s why she can’t go to the barn: I’d worry myself sick if I put her there. Besides, she enjoys Agatha’s company. Not Edgar — she loathes him. But she likes Agatha well enough, as does everybody, even the dogs.
So how to stop Tuppence’s bloodletting? This is not an exaggeration: loosely counting, Tuppence has killed at least 20 chipmunks in the last month.
Tuppence is an amazing hunter and athlete. She can leap more than four feet straight in the air and pluck a startled, unsuspecting bird off the platform feeder. She can snatch chipmunks that are in a full run, and grab butterflies from the air as they flutter nearby. Tuppence is Super Kitty.
I came home from work one day to find Tuppence wearing a huge, massive bell on her collar. It was so outsized I wasn’t clear how the little cat could walk. I shouldn’t have worried, however. Tuppence soon strolled by with a mouse in her mouth. The bell bothered her not at all; off it came, and so ended that idea as a solution.
Short of locking Tuppence up in the house, where she would beat up Isadora, I’m not sure what the next step might be. Perhaps taking down the bird feeders. There can’t be much of a chipmunk population left to worry over, not after her fall rampage.
Residents in a Cashiers subdivision weary of incessant dog barking called on county commissioners this week to help them find some peace and quiet.
“For the past six years, our community has had to deal with a kennel of dogs that bark day and night,” Bill Armgard said. “It’s just maddening. It is stressful 24 hours a day.”
Armgard, speaking on behalf of residents in Red Fox Ridge in the Norton community, asked commissioners to please amend the county’s noise ordinance to muzzle barking dogs.
Armgard was armed with a recording of the dogs’ barking to share with commissioners. He opted not to play it for fear of seeming inappropriate or disrespectful, Armgard said after the meeting.
About 40 people attended the board meeting, held in Cashiers at the Albert Carlton Library.
Another resident in a different part of the county also recently asked commissioners to tackle the problem of barking dogs. That resident had added concerns about a neighbor firing guns.
County Planner Gerald Green noted that Jackson and Macon counties are the only local governments in the immediate region who do not have restrictions on noises made by pets and animals.
Jackson County adopted a noise ordinance in 1991; it was last amended in 2003. The county’s noise ordinance essentially prohibits any “loud, raucous and disturbing noise,” defined as “any sound, which because of its volume level, duration and character annoys, disturbs, injures or endangers the comfort, health peace or safety of reasonable persons of ordinary sensibilities,” Green said.
Even if barking meets that definition, a noise ordinance doesn’t apply to pets unless it specifically says so — which Jackson’s doesn’t.
David Young, also a resident of the Norton community, provided commissioners with a copy of a letter he wrote to the dogs’ owner in July 2010, asking that something be done.
“You and I understand that roosters crow, cows moo, people talk and dogs bark,” Young wrote on the behalf of the residents of Red Fox Ridge. “Obviously, these are all natural forms of behavior/communication. My point is that typically domesticated animals are quiet at night. The nighttime barking from dogs can, I believe, be equated to a person yelling … ‘hey, hey, hey … hey … hey, hey, hey … hey, hey, hey’ outside someone’s home incessantly at inappropriate times. I believe the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you applies here.”
The letter, Young told commissioners, fell on deaf ears.
Green asked that the board consider the requests and decide if it wanted him to work with the sheriff’s department on barking-dog restrictions.
Jackson County commissioners won’t allow alcohol to be served during private functions at the newly renovated historic courthouse and library.
Library supporters have been marketing the venue as an ideal spot for receptions, weddings and other functions as a way to raise extra money for the library. Not being able to serve alcohol could make the facility less attractive to private groups.
But county commissioners feared a slippery slope.
“If we open the door and allow one particular facility, I believe you’ll get additional requests,” County Manager Chuck Wooten told commissioners this week.
The county is in the process of crafting a lease for the library building, which is county-owned but run by the Fontana Regional Library system. The alcohol issue had to be settled for the lease to move forward.
In a moment of absolute and somewhat rare unanimity, commissioners voted against allowing alcohol at the library as a county-owned building. Commissioner Mark Jones, who lives in Cashiers, said he’d recently received two requests that alcoholic beverages be allowed at Albert Carlton Library during events there, too — offered as evidence that a flood of requests could follow if the alcoholic-beverage door was cracked open.
County Attorney Jay Coward said the libraries, as well as other entities using county buildings, had long operated under handshake agreements.
“We are trying to formalize these leases … so everybody understands what the ground rules are,” Wooten said.
Chairman Jack Debnam said he objected to allowing alcoholic beverages to be served at the new library for two reasons.
“The library is competing against the private sector if they are leasing the facility and serving alcohol. I don’t think we need to get in that part of it,” he said. “And, second, where do we stop? What if they wanted to serve alcohol at the Golden Age Center? Suppose they want to serve alcohol over here at the baseball fields one day? Where do we stop?”
Commissioner Joe Cowan said that concerned him, too.
“This brings in the whole aspect of public schools,” Cowan said, adding that he also felt uncomfortable about the liability issue.
Here, by the side of U.S. 74 as you start up the Balsams after leaving Sylva, isn’t exactly the place you’d expect to stumble onto a bookstore with some 20,000 volumes of select, vintage books.
A photography shop bookends one side of this tiny, easily missed strip mall. Harry Alter’s used, scholarly and rare bookstore serves to bookend the other. And a thrift store and furniture store fills out the middle of this odd juxtaposition of businesses.
Be that as it may, Alton, 43, is here with his bookstore, and has been for about three years. The Pittsburgh native ended up in Jackson County six years ago after his wife, Elizabeth Heffelfinger, took a position in the English Department at Western Carolina University as director of motion picture studies.
Alter’s book selection in the store is tremendous — particularly choice in the political science and history venues, such as the Civil War, but there is also plenty to peruse for those who want books on gardening and the environment, or philosophy and psychology.
That Alter would grow up to own and operate a bookstore seems entirely natural if you can persuade this shy man to talk about himself. He was born of a book-loving and book-reading family. Alter started his business with about 3,000 books in a spare bedroom of his mother’s house. By the time he actually moved out of her home, he had 6,000 books and had drifted into the mail-order book business.
Go online today, and you’ll find the remnants of that original core business. Alter keeps busy selling through Amazon, and at more select book Internet sites such as Alibris.
“I spend a lot of time in front of the computer,” Alton said. “That’s not the fun, glamorous part of it. That’s a lot data entry.”
In fact, this self-described “passionate” reader is finding it hard to make the time to actually read. Being a small bookseller in a big, shark-eating bookseller world is hard work. Most booksellers these days are into quantity, not by quality — they are making money by selling hundreds and thousands of volumes at low prices, not by selling just a few, rare books at higher prices, as independent booksellers generally do, Alter said.
Business isn’t exactly booming at the bookstore on U.S. 74, which is nice for the book browser in his store but not so good for the bookseller himself. Alter keeps irregular hours, or is available by appointment. His time is often absorbed elsewhere packaging and sending books to fulfill online orders.
Most of Alter’s drop-by customers are searching for Westerns, general fiction or theology, not necessarily what he has to offer them in the more select, scholarly fields.
“They want to go back to original sources,” Alter said in explanation of the unexpected hunger he’s found in this region for theology texts. “Older versions of the Bible, mostly King James. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and other old Protestant classics.”
Gary Carden of Sylva has been down the road Alter is now traveling. Some years ago, he opened a bookstore in Cullowhee called The Down and Out.
“I didn’t do very well at all and yes, I suffered under the illusion that college students read,” Carden said. “Instead, I got a steady stream of ladies addicted to those romance novels that are so generic, they are sold by numbers, not titles: ‘I’ve got a No. 65, but I can’t find a No. 78.’”
Then Carden opened a store in downtown Sylva, where he “dreamed of spending my life … with a thriving crowd of eccentrics who would sit and drink coffee while we talked about Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald and maybe Hemingway. The coffee-drinking eccentrics never arrived. Instead, what I got was teenagers: boys looking for soft porn (which he finally stocked) and girls who read the fashion magazines but never bought anything.”
Joyce Moore bought Carden out, keeping the name City Lights — the name comes from a Charlie Chaplin movie of that name, not the famous bookstore in San Francisco. Chris Wilcox, who worked for Moore, now owns and operates City Lights in Sylva.
Carden likes to drop by Alter’s bookstore. Alter, with a grin, said he is suspicious that Carden is somewhat “relieved that I’m not doing a booming business with academics, either.”
Carden — a voracious reader — is certainly a huge supporter, however. He said he would love to get locked up in the store for a couple nights.
“He has a fantastic store,” Carden said.
Alter isn’t down on the bookselling businesses, though it’s a tough time to be an independent bookseller — contrarily, he believes this is an ideal time in history to be a book buyer, because the choices of what and where to buy are virtually endless. And he’s been impressed with how many people in these mountains truly love to read.
“There is so much access to books and information,” Alter said. “This is truly a great time to be a buyer.”
There’s still no reprieve in sight for WRGC, Sylva’s radio station and a five-decade community mainstay for local weather, news and more.
The station, broadcasting at 680 AM, went off the air at the end of August.
Gary Ayers, a regional radio personality living in Jackson County who has an intense interest in locally owned and operated radio stations, previously indicated that he might try to buy WRGC and get it back on the airwaves. Ayers once worked at WBHN in Bryson City, and previously owned a radio station in Canton.
Art Sutton, president and CEO of Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company, which owns WRGC, said local advertising didn’t generate enough money to keep the station running. WRGC had about 8,000 daily listeners.
Sutton said many of them have called or emailed to express their sadness over losing the station.
Ayers said the door remains open to the possibility of buying the station, but he’s not sure it’s a good business decision to walk through that open door. Local advertising support, Ayers said, seems tepid at best. In talking with business owners, Ayers found few have interest in radio as an advertising medium.
Since 2008, the radio station’s revenue in Sylva had declined by 40 percent. The broadcasting company owns two stations in neighboring Franklin, one on AM and the other on FM, and there the revenue, despite the economy, grew nearly 10 percent over the same period.
Sutton said last week that the station’s lease on its office and studios and tower site expires at the end of the year. The immediate urgency for a buyer would come if a new owner wanted to use the present site. Georgia-Carolina Radiocasting Company leases the office and tower site from the station’s founder and longtime owner, Jimmy Childress of Sylva.
The FCC will allow the station to remain silent until Aug. 31 of next year before pulling the frequency, Sutton said.
“At that time, it must return to the air waves or the license will be deleted,” he said. “If a buyer does not come forward very soon, and wish to build the station’s tower in another location, yes, we will move the frequency to another market.”
Sutton declined, citing competitive reasons, to say where the frequency might go.
He said the company plans to begin removing the towers and equipment next month.
“I still believe a local operator could do well with WRGC,” Sutton said. “The station had a large audience for a small town station.”
Sutton described WRGC as a “unique situation,” but one “I think a local person living and working there could figure out, respond to more quickly than an absentee operator like us, and be successful.”
This November, Sylva residents will elect three commissioners, deciding who will control the majority on that five-member board. All three incumbents are running for re-election, plus two challengers.
In the next four years, it’s likely that Sylva’s chosen leaders will help decide what should be done, if anything, to the main commercial and commuter artery of N.C. 107. They might pick a new town manager, if a permanent one hasn’t been selected before then by the current board.
In other words, this selection of board members could have ramifications for Jackson County’s largest town for years, if not decades, to come.
N.C. 107, a busy stretch of highway south of town that has in the last decade or so seen the addition of a Super Walmart and a Lowe’s Home Improvement, has proven controversial in Jackson County. The N.C. Department of Transportation has proposed massive widening, which could displace many businesses, or possibly building a by-pass around it, which could level a number of homes out in the county.
A bypass between N.C. 107 and U.S. 74 doesn’t much seem to excite anyone running for town council. Most expressed worries that such a bypass could divert traffic not only around town, but also away from the town’s businesses. But something, each agreed, probably needs to be done to alleviate the growing traffic problem on N.C. 107.
A new town manager is also in the headlights for Sylva. The town board forced former Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower to resign in September. The commissioners, citing personnel laws, did not make clear their reasons for demanding the resignation.
Dan Schaeffer, the town’s public works director, is serving as a stopgap manager.
Commissioners, pick three
John Bubazc, 44, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Company
Bubazc is running as a candidate because he wants to provide voters “a moderate, flexible, informed decision maker.”
He also wants to help the town of Sylva work with Dillsboro to redirect thru trucks around the two towns, unless the truckers have business in the downtowns. Too many concrete trucks and delivery trucks heading for Walmart or the university or elsewhere are thundering through, he said.
“It’s really dangerous with cars having to back out into traffic,” Bubazc said.
Bubazc said his overall solution to N.C. 107 hasn’t been settled on, because there’s a committee made up of various stakeholders studying the issue now. “Why would we ignore their recommendation?” he said rhetorically.
Bubazc, a member of the Downtown Sylva Association board, wants the group to become 100-percent funded again, and for the DSA board to hire and oversee its own director. This does not necessarily negate the need for a town economic development director, who was hired recently in a dual role overseeing DSA, he said. Until then, DSA had its own director, which is what Bubazc is pushing for again.
The coffee roasting company owner has clear ideas about the type of individual he’d like to see hired as the town’s manager: “Someone who is experienced, who knows how to deal with groups of people and who is good at interagency communications, and who is sensible enough to work in a small town.”
Harold Hensley, 74, retired maintenance supervisor for Jackson County Schools
Hensley had served on the board previously, but narrowly lost his seat in the last election in 2009. He found his way back on the board last year, however, after being appointed to replace the outgoing Sarah Graham, who resigned after moving out of the town limits.
“I think, really and truly, that I have tried my best to be a voice for all of the people of Sylva,” Hensley said, adding that there are ongoing town projects such as additional sidewalks and the police department’s move to the old library he’d like to see through.
“I think there are some good things going on,” he said.
Hensley believes that the solution to N.C. 107 traffic problems lies, at least in part, with undoing “the bottleneck” that exists at an intersection where hospital and other business traffic dumps into the highway.
“That’s where the traffic backs up at,” he said, adding that in such sour economic times he doesn’t believe Jackson County will get millions of dollars to fix the problem — the solutions must be smaller, such as relieving the pressure at the intersection.
Hensley, too, knows the type person he wants to see as the town’s new manager. They need the necessary qualifications, and people skills, too, he said.
“I would look strongly at some local person, if you get the (proper) qualifications,” Hensley said.
Ray Lewis, 68, retired Sylva police officer
If reelected, Lewis will serve his third four-year term as a town board member. He said the actual job of commissioner “isn’t really a political thing, but I’ve always been interested in politics — and if I can help the people out, that’s what I want to do.”
Lewis is the only member of the town board to flatly support building some new roadway to alleviate traffic pressure on N.C. 107. But his idea echoes one made by SmartRoad proponents in Sylva a few years ago. That of building, or in many ways connecting existing roads, to create a “service road” running behind businesses along the highway, giving some relief to traffic congestion, Lewis said.
Like Hensley, Lewis would like to see a local person hired as the town’s new manager. Someone, he explained, who knows, understands and cares about the community.
Christine Matheson, 52, owner of a gift shop in Cherokee
Matheson, like Hensley, gained her seat on the board via an appointment. The former assistant district attorney stepped in when Mayor Maurice Moody was elected, leaving a commission seat vacant.
“I feel like I’ve made a contribution to the town for the last two years, but I feel like there’s still more to do,” Matheson said. “I love Sylva. It is my home and my heritage.”
Matheson, like Hensley, wants to help see the new police department built, which will require extensive work to the county’s old public library on Main Street. And she wants to help mold the DSA and town relationship.
“That relationship is growing and defining itself,” Matheson said. “We are meshing two entities.”
Matheson is serving on the committee studying what best to do to “fix” N.C. 107.
“I think the committee needs to do its work,” she said, adding that there’s seemingly no clear solution that won’t adversely impact someone.
Matheson wants a town manager who is willing to learn, who has good communication and management skills, is personable and who isn’t afraid to not know something because they are willing to learn and research to find answers. Most importantly, it must be “someone who loves the community” and is willing to be part of the community, Matheson said.
Lynda Sossoman, 64, owner of Radio Shack in Sylva and Cashiers
Sossoman isn’t a newcomer to the town politics — she served a four-year term on the town board in the late 1990s. Sossoman said several people in the community have asked her to run again.
“I really care about my community, and I want to give back to it,” said Sossoman, who is an active volunteer in Jackson County.
Owning a business on N.C. 107 has given her a unique perspective on the problem of what to do to ease congestion.
“I’ve thought about that a lot — the road just doesn’t have very far to grow,” she said.
Perhaps a traffic circle at the intersection where Radio Shack is could help, Sossoman said, who worries that a connector could pull business away from downtown.
Sossoman is deeply concerned about downtown. Radio Shack used to be located there, and she helped form the group that evolved into DSA.
“I want to make sure the downtown stays strong,” Sossoman said, adding that she wants a continuation of downtown events, though she also gave a strong nod to extending the strength of the downtown outside of its traditional limits.
Concerning a town manager, Sossoman wants someone with an education, the proper qualifications and who “is able to communicate with everybody in the community, and with the town board.”
“Occupy Sylva” on Saturday looked and sounded a lot like a Democratic-party function, but with a twist. The message wasn’t necessarily about voting Democratic, though speakers, particularly political office holders, certainly worked that wish into speeches when their moments came to grab the microphone.
The bigger message, and what seemed to have motivated the more than 60 people gathered on Main Street Sylva more than party politics, was about stopping corporate greed, creating jobs and not limiting wealth to a privileged few in a nation with such vast resources at its command.
This was Sylva’s contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. The leaderless movement started one month ago in New York City, with protests spreading nationwide and beyond. Occupy Sylva, Occupy Asheville, Occupy Seattle … even Occupy Helsinki, Occupy Rome, Occupy Berlin and Occupy London.
Sylva’s occupiers waved mostly homemade signs at passing traffic, receiving either toots of horns in support or blank looks from motorists as they swung their cars by the water fountain that fronts Main Street where the protesters gathered.
The signs read, “Corporations are not people,” “Get money out of politics,” “No more predatory capitalism,” “Jobs not cuts.”
No tent city emerged in Sylva as in other Occupy events — after about an hour, everyone wandered off, many to area restaurants to grab a bite to eat before heading to their homes. No clashes with police occurred, either. In fact, if there were any Sylva officers keeping an eye on this group, they were deep, deep undercover — there wasn’t a blue uniform in sight.
While small-town civility ruled this particular Occupy event, the people who gathered were clearly serious in their intentions: They were one voice in demanding that change, real change, must take place.
“We are not a poor country. Our money is just in the wrong place,” said Marsha Crites, who attended the event.
Kurt Lewis, a member of the Young Democrats at Smoky Mountain High School, was somewhat disappointed that few people in his age group showed up. He held a sign that read, “Wall Street is America’s largest casino.”
“They need to care now instead of caring later, before it is too late,” the 17 year old said of his fellow teens.
This being Jackson County, where a preponderance of WNC’s literati call home, poems were of course read, too. Ben Bridgers, retired from attorney work this year, said he’s turned to writing as a means to funnel his growing frustrations with what’s taking place nationally.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Bridgers told the crowd, before reading aloud a few poems that spoke to why he believes this country is in trouble.
The Occupy Sylva event looked quite a bit like the left’s version of the Tea Party movement, though the speeches and political aims couldn’t be more different.
Political junkie Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches political science, noticed and enjoyed that irony, too. He turned out to observe the nation’s latest grassroots movement at work in small town WNC.
“It’s very interesting,” Cooper said. “Both (groups) are saying they are fed up, but they have such radically different solutions.”
Jackson County commissioners likely erred two weeks ago when they voted to double the county’s tax on overnight lodging: they failed to hold a public hearing first.
Commissioners were forced to rescind their vote, and will now hold a public hearing Nov. 7.
Commissioners had voted 4-1 to bump the room tax up from 3 to 6 percent, making it one of the highest in the region. The tax on overnight stays brought in $446,000 last year, which is pumped back in to tourism promotion through the Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority.
County Attorney Jay Coward had failed to tell commissioners a public hearing was necessary.
Coward, who gets paid $150 an hour for his legal work by the county, explained that he thought Jackson County was exempt under a certain state general statute from the requirement for a hearing.
“Since then, I’ve decided that we probably ought to have that public hearing in case that was a defect in my reasoning,” Coward said.
The hearing is most likely an exercise in formality rather than a genuine intent to hearing public opinion, as a do-over of the vote is planned for the same night.
“After the public hearing we’ll take it up again,” said Commissioner Charles Elders.
Commissioners may get an earful, however.
Henry Hoche of Innisfree Inn By-The-Lake spoke against the doubling of Jackson County’s room tax at the county meeting this week. Taxing visitors might seem more attractive than upping property taxes, Hoche said, “but it is not advantageous” to owners of inns and motels. “It is difficult enough for us in the lodging business today.”
Hoche said a higher room tax would mean visitors stay in the area for shorter amounts of time.
Bob Dews of Laurelwood Mountain Inn in Cashiers also spoke against an increase, saying the economy has knocked down guest numbers, and inn and motel owners don’t need help from the county in knocking rates down even further.
Dews said people would choose to stay elsewhere if the room tax is higher in Jackson than neighboring areas.
A box of bulbs arrived Saturday, containing within the cardboard confines all the promises of fall work, winter waiting and spring wonder.
The decision was made last March or April to order then rather than waiting to select and purchase the following season’s bulbs during these autumn days. That way, the reasoning went, the choices would be thoughtful, with awareness of precisely where new daffodils, fritillaria, tulips and crocuses should best go.
Needs were plain to see, as absences that begged filling. I also developed an itch that required scratching: a heated passion for tulips. With this newly awakened appreciation I marvel at how I could have wasted more than four decades failing to enjoy the beauty of these flowers. Hoity-toity me, I sniffed and condemned tulips as too artificial for the likes of my cultured self.
My ignorance, now that I’ve discovered the vast array and endless beauty of the tulip, staggers me; my condescension toward those who enjoy them shames me. Before this past spring, I suspected tulip aficionados to be of a type who most likely enjoyed ‘tulip tires,’ too, and who whitewashed tree trunks. And who were capable of positioning an abandoned metal bed frame beside the road, planted with flowers, bearing a helpful hand-painted sign for passer-byes cleverly noting that here is a “flowerbed.”
Gentled this past year, tulip tires, white-washed trees and metal flowerbeds seem poignant — a Southern phenomenon like our Easter-egg trees, when mountain families festoon winter-bare trees with colorful plastic eggs, a cultural practice I can’t, frankly, quite fathom. But we’ll be poorer for it when that day comes in the South when no one in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina decorate their yards for motorists’ enjoyment, and if trees in Western North Carolina each April don’t inexplicably spawn plastic Easter eggs.
To return to bulbs: I’m very happy, now that bulb-planting time is here, with the decision to order early. It was so unlike me to do something in anticipation, rather than in mere Pavlovian-conditioned response. To actually plan nearly 12 months in advance for future pleasures — how thrilling now that the box has arrived in the mail, how satisfying the expectations of spring beauty to come.
The word “spring” is used in the loosest sense. For the flower gardener, at least this particular flower gardener, the beginning of spring is the onset of bloom following snows. That can be early February some years in Western North Carolina, though sometimes we must wait almost for March to arrive.
After months of hot weather and crazed growth, I can no longer easily picture what the landscape looks like during the comparative bareness of spring. Not with the flower garden bursting with fall bloom. I can’t see beyond the now of lilac-colored asters, gold- and maroon- and salmon-colored chrysanthemums, bright zinnias and light, delicate pink cosmos flanked by the husky, darker pinks of autumn sedum. A huge patch of grasses, as tall as I am, has declined to remain within its allotted space but towers resplendent in the gold and fading greens of fall, dominating the front bed. Sea oats bounce in response to the slightest breath of air, a quivering living edge for the back bed nearest the dining-room windows.
My breakfast, as usual a bowl of cereal drowning in goat’s milk, was spent this morning watching birds visit the feeders and surveying the flowerbeds. This breakfast inspection wasn’t encouraging.
The flowerbeds do not seem to allow for adding even a single blade of grass. Much less the 100 or so bulbs ordered, with more to come in another shipment.
Though I congratulate myself on the ordering early aspect, my failure to map where I intended to actually plant these new bulbs haunts me now. Were the crocuses destined for the empty space I seem to remember near the front of the hellebores, or were they to go along the side of the house entrance? The poppy collection — where in the world did I think they could be planted? Ten minnow daffodil, five tulip, 10 Grecian windflowers, 12 hyacinths; what was I thinking? I’m surprised that in my spring enthusiasm I didn’t order a partridge in a pear tree, because if there’s room for all of these bulbs, there’s certainly room to squeeze that in, too.
If I follow my usual planting patterns, I’ll remain in frozen indecision until the last possible moment. One bleak, cold December day with snow threatening will find me hunched in the flower beds, digging holes with a trowel, dropping bulbs hither and thither in a willy-nilly frenzy, telling myself that come spring the flowers will look good wherever they grow.
And, that’s actually true. Our finest Southern garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, once noted that of the myriad flowers found in our seasonal gardens, none are so important as those first few we discover blooming. I find this particularly insightful following a long, drab winter, when the barnyard is a disagreeable mucky mess and the landscape a dull, lifeless brown for months on end. Those first blooms bring such joy and excitement. Totally out of proportion, perhaps, with the actual discreetness of the white, yellow or purple flowers. As one often discovers in a general way about almost anything in life, context is everything.
Efforts are well under way in both Sylva and Franklin to build dog parks, places where folks’ canine companions can run off-leash in safely fenced, assigned areas.
If the two communities do build dog parks, they’ll be joining their neighbors to the east: the town of Waynesville already has two fenced romping grounds for dogs along Richland Creek Greenway. The town of Highlands in Macon County also has a half-acre dog park, complete with a five-foot-tall fence. Highlands is roughly a 40-minute drive from Franklin, however, putting it out of reach for regular use by Franklin’s dog owners.
Friends of the Greenway in Franklin has been talking about building a dog park for about six months, according to Doris Munday, a member of the nonprofit support arm for the greenway along the Little Tennessee River. Her dog “uses the mountains” as its dog park, Munday said, but that hasn’t blinded her from seeing the needs of others.
Dog owners, if their pooches are leashed and they cleanup waste deposited by their animals, can use the nearly five-mile paved greenway path in Franklin. But the dogs are not allowed off-leash along the popular trail, where upwards of 20,000 people a month can be found during the summer months. Munday said there have been some problems with “neighborhood dogs” trotting about the greenway unleashed and uninvited and apparently illiterate, too; these rowdy dogs are brazen in ignoring rules about leashes and cleanup that are posted along Franklin’s greenway.
Plans this week call for the Friends group to check in with the Macon County Board of Commissioners to make sure the county doesn’t have any objections to a dog park.
In this case, asking permission seemed optimal to begging forgiveness: Munday said no one is exactly sure whether commissioners’ permission is needed for the project to move forward, but that the group decided it seemed proper to find out.
Assuming everyone is OK with the idea, private funds would be solicited to purchase fencing. The hope is to enclose the dog park this winter. Later, if people want to donate more money, the dog park could be enhanced with additional doggie attractions, Munday said.
Some dog parks have separate areas for small and large dogs. Other parks even offer such amenities as dog-agility courses. One standard feature, which would be included if a dog park is built in Franklin, are baggie dispensers so that dog owners can easily cleanup any canine deposits.
Other than the upfront cost of fencing, maintenance on dog parks is relatively minor. In Waynesville, the Haywood Animal Welfare Association buys non-toxic flea control and volunteers regularly sprinkle it on the grass.
In Jackson County, an ad hoc group of dog owners in Sylva requested via a letter sent to the county that they be allowed to use a portion of Mark Watson Park on West Main Street. The Sylva Dog Park Advocates noted in the letter, sent to county officials last month, that it believes a dog park would be “a low cost yet high benefit” addition to Jackson County.
The letter is signed by Stacy Knotts, who serves as a town council member but isn’t acting in that official capacity on this particular project.
She wrote that the group of dog owners believes 10-acre Mark Watson Park, a county-owned facility, would be the best place for a dog park because it is centrally located in Sylva on the county’s (unfinished) greenway; there is open space in the park; there are already pet-owner education classes and the “Bark in the Park” festival taking place in Mark Watson, and such a park would encourage Jackson County’s residents “from letting pets run free on the ball fields, particularly the newly designed fields in the park.”
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the request is being reviewed.
Ray Bradley Jr. is the talkative type. He’s not shy airing his opinions, whether the discussion is about Cherokee tribal politics or, as is the case now, what legalizing alcohol sales throughout Jackson County could mean along the highway leading to the reservation.
Growth, Bradley said confidently, will explode if a ballot measure next May opens the door for countywide alcohol sales in Jackson. It could bring with it major changes to the Gateway corridor — the stretch of U.S. 441 leading into the Cherokee Indian Reservation and the tourist magnet, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.
Cherokee itself is dry, except for the casino property, which serves alcohol for in-house consumption only. The closest town to Cherokee to buy a six-pack or bottle of wine is Bryson City in Swain County, roughly 10 miles away.
Jackson County’s alcohol vote could change that, making alcohol available at the reservation’s doorstep, capturing not only the demand for alcohol by local Cherokee people but the tourist market as well.
County commissioner Charles Elders, who owns and runs a gas station on U.S. 74 a couple of miles from the turnoff to Cherokee, also believes the legal sales of alcohol could spur growth in that area. He said he personally wouldn’t sell beer, but that won’t be his decision to make — Elders, at 68, is preparing to turn the business over to his son, Dewayne.
If alcohol became readily available at Cherokee’s doorstep, Bradley thinks that would bring development on par with Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Elders isn’t so sure of that, though he does endorse growth as a virtual inevitability if alcohol sales are voted in.
Bradley’s theory might seem a leap when compared with the sprinkle of businesses lining the corridor today: a few gas stations, a dollar store, thrift shops and several older motels, some of them now vacant. In Bradley’s book, rapid growth would be a good thing, bringing money, jobs and prosperity for many people now suffering without. This economic trifecta, he’s sure, simply awaits legalized alcohol sales. Bradley’s family runs a business along the four-lane highway, the Nu2U consignment shop.
“The Bible thumpers and the bootleggers won’t like it,” Bradley predicted. “But there’s no reason this gap shouldn’t look just like Gatlinburg within five years.”
Noel Blakely, owner of the Old Mill General Store and Craft Shop along the corridor, is more tempered in his view of alcohol.
The price of property on the highway in to Cherokee has increased lately, and Blakely thinks the prospect of legal alcohol sales could further that trend. It could bring a few nice restaurants and generally improve the caliber of businesses along the highway.
But Blakely believes the damage of making alcohol more accessible in Cherokee would far outweigh the benefits.
“I’m against alcohol,” said Blakely, a member of the tribe. He voted against bringing it to the casino, and if he decides to vote in the ballot measure next May, he would vote ‘no.’
Locals would no longer have to make the trek to Bryson City for alcoholic beverages, and that could fuel drinking problems on the reservation. Blakely said.
“I am a businessman and I would like to see that money stay in our community, but I see the damage it does,” Blakely said. “Jackson County is not going to pick up the tab for alcoholism.”
Bradley however, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is hopeful legalized alcohol sales just outside the reservation in Jackson County would force the tribe to follow suit. If voters in Jackson say ‘yes’ to countywide alcohol sales, dry Cherokee will have a tough choice to make: watch Jackson County rake in new business on the reservation’s very doorstep or take a cut by legalizing alcohol sales in Cherokee, too.
An economic tinderbox?
Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, doesn’t believe anything done by political outliers will move the reservation toward making “forced” decisions.
“Fortunately or unfortunately,” Pegg said, “nothing too much ‘forces’ Cherokee to do anything — over the years, Cherokee has done what it thinks is best for Cherokee. But if you can get alcohol on both sides but you can’t get it in the middle, while it won’t force anything, it might strengthen the argument for it here.”
Alcohol long has been a contentious issue in Cherokee. But two years ago voters approved the idea of selling it at the casino by a surprisingly large majority, 59 to 41 percent.
Last November, Jackson County residents voted in a new majority onto their board of commissioners. Headed by Chairman Jack Debnam, a political maverick and real estate man who doesn’t actually drink himself but has advocated for residents’ right to decide, the conservative-weighted board has signaled its intent to move forward with an alcohol referendum vote.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said that the wording of the ballot measure might be ready for review by commissioners at their meeting on Monday (Oct. 17). Debnam had asked Wooten and County Attorney Jay Coward to work on the document.
Wooten also believes that legalized alcohol sales would fuel business growth, particularly in Cullowhee with its Western Carolina University-student population. The same potential may hold true in the area of Jackson County outside Cherokee that some so strongly believe is an economic tinderbox waiting for just the right match to strike.
Jackson leaders saw the area primed for growth long before the prospect of countywide alcohol sales.
There is water and sewer in the area already, and a newly built sewage plant in Whittier with the capacity to treat 200,000 gallons of wastewater a day. Although for now, it serves only a handful of customers.
The former board of commissioners, anticipating growth from the advent of water and sewer, even created a land-use plan to regulate the commercial development they thought would surely spring up eventually — no one wanted another U.S. 107 in Jackson County, that overbuilt, congested strip marking the southern end of downtown Sylva.
But the predicted growth never materialized. At least, it hasn’t yet.
Whittier once boomed; would alcohol sales make future difference?
Oxford Hardware Store is busy. As the nearest place for the community’s residents to find nails, tools and some household goods, this store has long served as the ‘town’s’ heart.
In the winter, older men like to gather picturesquely around the woodstove toward the back of the store. Even on a warm fall day such as this one, a number of the community’s residents still make their way inside.
Kandace Powers was among them. She stopped to pick up a few items and share whatever community news might be on tap. Powers believes legalizing the sale of alcoholic beverages in Jackson County would be fine, “if nothing else, to help commerce,” she said. “It might help the economy.”
And, it might just help Whittier rebound a bit, too, she said. The one-time booming town, since turned sleepy hamlet, straddles the county lines of Swain and Jackson, several miles past the highway exit leading to Cherokee.
Whittier, incorporated in 1907 and unincorporated in the late 1930s, could once boast of large sawmills and even, according to local historian Gloria Noland, the largest department store west of Asheville.
The railroad fueled growth in Whittier. And the community, she said, has experienced sales of alcohol before — a beer joint and dance hall were located upstairs from one the store’s in Whittier, the two-story brick building where you first turn into the community after leaving the highway.
“Whittier, then, was truly looking forward to becoming a big city,” Noland said.
But the town fell on hard times with a timber-harvest decline, the Great Depression, and, perhaps, the final indignity of the devastating flood of 1940, she said. That was when the Tuckasegee River raged across Jackson County, changing the landscapes permanently in riverside communities such as Cullowhee and Whittier.
Today, there is little more here than a bunch of old houses, the Oxford hardware store, a post office, a community building and Noland’s thrift store. Housed inside is her “micro Whittier museum” and a model replica of 1900 Whittier, a reminder of better times and when the town attracted droves of tourists and shoppers.
Two recent rapes in Macon County involving assailants unknown to the victims, both cases still unsolved, have left many women here on edge.
In early August, a woman living on Rose Creek Cove Road in the Cowee community was raped after a man broke into her home during daylight hours. Late last month, on Sept. 25, a woman in the Nantahala National Forest near Wayah Road was raped after stopping to help a man lying by the side of the road.
There also was a rape in the Cashiers area of Jackson County on Aug. 14. That suspect was identified as a Hispanic male.
The suspects in Macon County, however, are identified as white males, about 6-feet tall with short brown hair, both with green to blue eyes. The only variance in the descriptions is that the Rose Creek suspect was described as having a skinny to medium-sized frame; the woman in Wayah Bald said the man who raped her weighed about 200 pounds.
Is it the same guy? No way to know the answer to that at this point, since law enforcement isn’t saying. Or, doesn’t know at this juncture.
“It is unusual. It stays in the back of your mind — I’d like to know if it is the same guy, and would like to see him caught,” said Trish Bazemore, assistant manager of the newly opened CB’s General Store (formerly Big D’s) on N.C. 28 outside of Franklin, who lives and works near the Rose Creek area near where the first victim was raped.
Bazemore said she’s not overly concerned for her own safety. But she does worry for older women and young mothers in the area who stay at their homes alone.
“I have a little Yorkie, and he’s mean; and I have a gun … and I’m really mean,” Bazemore said, only slightly in jest.
It takes a particularly brazen individual to break into a house during the daylight hours, when someone is home and, as in Bazemore’s case, might well have a gun near at hand. Or, in the other rape case, to pretend incapacitation until a woman stops to help — was it a deliberate trap, or a case of misfortunate timing?
Regardless of what exactly did take place, two cases of stranger rape raises serious questions about what, exactly, is going on in Macon County.
“It’s freaked a lot of people out here,” said Christina Brucker, taking a break from minding the cash register at Big Mountain Barbecue on the Corner, located where the Depot Street connector and N.C. 28 converge.
Her mother, Sharon Brucker, who was overseeing the restaurant, agreed: “It’s just really strange,” she said. “There are a lot of questions in the community.”
It took five days for the U.S. Forest Service to alert the public about a roadside rape in the Wayah Bald area of the Nantahala National Forest late last month.
The rape happened on Sunday Sept. 25. The forest service issued an advisory Friday, Sept. 30.
And it might not have happened even then, except that a local newspaper, The Franklin Press, obtained a transcript of the actual 911 call made by the victim. The newspaper published a story recounting the roadside attack based on the 911 call. After it came out, the federal agency confirmed that yes, a rape had taken place.
The day before, the forest service had sent out a generic press release suggesting general safety tips, but would not disclose what type of incident had occurred prompting the safety tips, let alone where or when. No description was included in that initial release, although the woman had provided a rough description of her attacker in the 911 call she made, according to a transcript.
The woman was raped after she stopped to help a man lying facedown on the ground near a piece of equipment just off Forest Service Road 711. The victim told a 911 dispatcher that her assailant had a gun, and that he told her that if she didn’t follow his orders that he would kill her.
“We released the information as soon as we could,” said Stevin Westcott, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. “It may appear that it may have been delayed … but that was to not compromise the case.”
The public “would just have to trust” the federal agents involved that the situation was handled properly, “and the wheels of justice were in motion,” Westcott said.
The U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina is not called on to investigate violent crimes very often, or handle the ensuing media deluge that follows. There were no cases of violent crime, of any type, at any of North Carolina’s four national forests in 2010, according to the public information officer.
A suspect hadn’t been apprehended as of press time Tuesday. Westcott described the effort to find the rapist as a multi-agency effort involving federal, state and local law enforcement.
“We are working hard to get it solved,” he said.
The suspect is described as a white male, 6 feet tall, 200 pounds, between the ages of 30 and 40, having brown wavy short hair, no facial hair, green to blue eyes, having a deep voice and a fair complexion. The suspect was last seen wearing dark blue jeans and a medium blue shirt.
Anyone with information is asked to call the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville at 828.257.4200 or Macon County Crimestoppers at 828.349.2600.
Poignant, touching, revealing: WCU collection of Civil War letters helps mark anniversary of war’s start
Next to Hunter Library at Western Carolina University is a Baptist church with a 190-year-old graveyard. George Frizzell, head of the library’s special collections, helped survey that graveyard 17 years ago.
So when Frizzell spotted a postscript to a letter in WCU’s collection of some 200 Civil War letters written by Western North Carolina soldiers and their families, the archivist described feeling an eerie chill. The names seemed familiar.
“We saw the one with the postscripts about the headstones, I thought, ‘could it possibly be?’” he said. “I walked over and found the grave, and next to it was the smaller stone to ‘Little Charley.”
In that Cullowhee Baptist Church graveyard are two Civil War-era tombstones, side by side; a large one for a Dr. Edmonston, the other one for Charley.
The story of the tombstones is told in a letter written by Maggie Edmonston, Dr. Edmonston’s wife and Charley’s mother. And it seems as relevant now, as the nation observes the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, as when Maggie Edmonston wrote the words “Dear Brothers” in a poignant plea for help to her brothers-in-law. The letter is dated July 14, 1864.
“Will you please go to the marble yard in Petersburg or any yard you may see and select some nice tombstones for Dr. Edmonston’s grave?” Maggie Edmonston wrote from Webster. “Have sent off three times but failed to get any. I know you will take more interest than any buddy else please let me know if you get any so I can send you the inscription if you can get some nice ones let me know I can have them shipped to Walhalla. I want two set one small set for my baby that is all I can do for him and I never will be satisfied until I get that done.”
Dr. Edmonston was a native of Haywood County who is believed to have died here in the mountains from milk sickness after returning, weakened by illness, from the war. He was practicing medicine in Webster when he apparently drank milk poisoned with tremetol, which happens when cows graze on white snakeroot. The reason the couple’s baby died isn’t recorded, though WNC’s old cemeteries provide ample evidence of many babies in the early to mid-19th century also having died from milk sickness.
The 200 or so letters, and WCU hopes to receive even more in the years to come through donations from local families, provide an invaluable look at this region during the mid-19th century. They are being digitized and made available online. The letters demonstrate that though times have changed, human emotions have not. And although most of the Civil War battles were fought on lands far from these mountains, it touched people here as dreadfully as anywhere in the nation. As the war dragged on, it claimed more and more WNC lives, and destroyed more and more WNC families.
George Huntley, a Rutherford County native, wrote his sister Tincy on June 29, 1863, while marching into Pennsylvania as a member of the North Carolina 34th Infantry Regiment: “We are stoped to day in a Beautiful Oke grove I Cant tell whare old Lee Will Carry us tow this is One of the finest Countrys that I Ever saw.”
Three days later Huntley, a school teacher before the war, died from a wound received in the Battle of Gettysburg.
It is those types of details that bring the letters to life for Frizzell.
“The letters summon up the emotional experiences, the concerns and the hopes,” he said. “They speak so much to place, and being here.”
There are letters from Frizzell’s ancestor, M.W. Parris, telling his wife which men had been wounded and killed during the North Carolina 25th Infantry Regiment’s latest battle. The toll included a dozen or so men from Jackson County.
“I am sorry to tel that Som of our brave boys has got kild and Severl wounded in the great battle at richmond which Commenct last wensday,” Parris wrote on July 3, 1862.
Among them: Capt. Coalman’s head was shot off by a cannonball, John B. Queen fell dead as the fight started, Joseph Moody had his fingers shot off, William Cogdal (Cogdill) was wounded in the neck, Leander Hall in the leg, Harris Hooper was struck through the thigh or leg, Major Frances was badly wounded in the shoulder, W. William Beard badly wounded by a shot through his hips.
Parris adds that he believes they’ve won the battle, but describes the victory as “dearly bought” indeed.
Frizzell said Parris clearly penned the letter about the dead and wounded to the community as much as to his wife, Jane.
“These are folks they knew, and he’s trying to let all the wives know — this is how important information was shared,” Frizzell said.
Joe and Dawn Johnson of Atlanta might be making another trip to the mountains next weekend after learning about the WNC OutdoorAthlon in Franklin Oct. 8 and 9.
The couple both enjoy mountain biking, and she jogs routinely for exercise — making them perfect candidates to enjoy a smorgasbord of events lined up for the family outdoor recreation event. The Johnsons were on the Blue Ridge Parkway last week riding motorcycles and enjoying the start of the fall’s leaf show.
“It sounds like fun,” Joe Johnson said, before openly speculating with his wife about whether they could angle more time off from work to make the trip back that soon to Western North Carolina.
That’s exactly the kind of response Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall of Outfitter 76 in Franklin were hoping to generate. The business partners believe Macon County is destined, by virtue of its location and superb outdoor opportunities, to become as big an outdoor draw as such traditional stalwarts as the Nantahala Gorge.
The future’s uncertain. But what is certain is that Gasbarro and McCall, who are touting the event as “the biggest little event in the Southeast,” are hoping, even expecting, thousands to show up for the OutdoorAthlon.
So what is it? Everything, really, to do with the outdoors — think Mountain Sports Festival in Asheville; or, the Guest Appreciation Festival at the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Here’s what’s lined up: Food, music, an outdoor triathlon, a kid’s duathlon, a 5K, an Ultimate Frisbee Team Tournament and corn hole tournament. Free clinics for fly-fishing, paddle sports, stand-up paddling, rock climbing; do-it-yourself bike maintenance and demos, backpacking and camping demo’s and more. The outdoor triathlon offers a twist on the standard trifecta — with a line-up of paddling, mountain biking and trail running instead of swimming, road biking and road running.
There are 40 vendors scheduled, plus eight food vendors. The event is free.
“It’s going well,” Gasbarro said of the organizational aspects of putting together such a gargantuan undertaking. “We’ve got lots and lots of volunteers.”
The two men also have lined up $7,000 worth of “giveaways” from outdoor specialty companies.
The events are taking place at the Cullasaja Park along Macon County’s greenway, located off Fox Ridge Road near the flea market on Highlands Road in Franklin.
Gasbarro, taking a break from minding the front desk last week at Outfitter 76 to chat about the festival, noted that remote parking is being set up, and two buses courtesy of Macon County Schools will be used to shuttle people to the event.
Visit www.outdoorathlon.com for more information.
The event runs Saturday, Oct. 8, and Sunday, Oct. 9, in Franklin at the Cullasaja Park. There is no entrance fee.
Events start both days at noon. Here are some key events:
• 12:30-2 p.m. Honey Locust 5K
• 12:30 Bicycle maintenance clinis
• 1 p.m. fly fishing clinic
• 1 p.m. beginner mountain bike ride
• 2-3 p.m. Kids’ duathlon
• 2 p.m. intro to kayaking
• 2-5 p.m. Ultimate Frisbee Tournament
• 3:45 p.m. intro to disc golf
• 12 p.m. putting and long drive disc golf competition
• 12 p.m. fly casting clinic
• 2 p.m. backpacking clinic
• 12-3 p.m. Paddle parade on the Little Tennessee
• 2-4:30 p.m. Adventure Triathlon (paddle, mtn bike, trail run)
• 3 p.m. intro to stand-up paddling
Tourists staying in Jackson County will pay more on their hotel bills starting Jan. 1. Commissioners this week hiked the tax from 3 to 6 cents, the highest room tax rate allowed by state law.
“If this money is spent wisely, I think it might be a good thing,” Dillsboro Inn owner T.J. Walker said Tuesday. “I’m not against it — but I’m not aware of it enough to be for it, either.”
Jackson County will have twice the room tax of most Western North Carolina counties, which largely set the rate at 3 percent. Haywood and Buncombe have 4 percent, Henderson has 5 percent. Only the town of Franklin has a room tax of 6 percent, though outside the town limits in the rest of Macon County it is only 3 percent.
Jackson County commissioners approved the room tax hike this week in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Mark Jones of Cashiers casting the lone no vote.
This summer, Jackson County received authorization from the state legislature to increase its room tax up to 6 percent, but had to vote to enact it.
Before voting, county leaders reviewed tourism-related information about neighboring counties. It shows Swain County is leading the pack, with 3,210 tourism-related jobs compared to 560 in Jackson County — a difference likely accounted for by the Nantahala Gorge outdoor scene and Harrah’s Cherokee casino.
Jackson County, like most counties, has seen a decline in room tax collection rates with the recession; starting about four years ago. The past couple of years, room tax collections have been rebounding, but Jackson seems to have faired worse than its neighbors, with bigger drops and a weaker rebound.
“We need to redouble our efforts to attract tourists to Jackson County,” Commissioner Doug Cody said. “Anything we make off tourism helps relieve pressure off of property taxes … these are taxes tourists pay. The citizens of Jackson County will not be burdened with another tax.”
Commissioner Charles Elders described the numbers that show Jackson lagging “troubling.”
Jones, who chairs the Cashiers Area Travel and Tourism, did not specify exactly why he voted against the tax increase. But he did caution his fellow commissioners that “I hope the intent of these monies is to stay within the original intent,” that is, to market and promote tourism.
New state language in the law, Jones said, allows “it to be piggybacked on, it allows for hardscapes — as long as it promotes tourism.” Historically, room tax — under state law — had to be spent on tourism promotion. Now, it can be spent on “tourism-related” developments, which could include sports fields to attract tournaments, greenways or festival venues.
County Manager Chuck Wooten said the original 1987 resolution by Jackson County authorizing a room tax would need modifying before any actions except promotion could take place.
“We don’t have to decide that right now,” Chairman Jack Debnam said.
The formula for distributing the additional room tax is unclear. Currently, 75 percent of room tax collected in Cashiers is used exclusively by Cashiers to promote that area rather than the county as a whole. The rest of the room tax is managed by the countywide Jackson County Travel and Tourism Authority, a public body.
Current tax rates
Haywood County 4 percent
Jackson County 3 percent
Macon County 3 percent, plus town of Franklin imposes an additional 3 percent
Swain County 3 percent
Collection rate comparison
• 2006-2007 $506,574.48
• 2007-2008 $506,004.53
• 2008-2009 $429,378.27
• 2009-2010 $413,939.07
• 2010-2011 $446,339.59
• 2006-2007 $305,352
• 2007-2008 $320,820
• 2008-2009 $309,802
• 2009-2010 $335,353
• 2010-2011 $352,437
• 2006-2007 $935,000
• 2007-2008 $1.04 million
• 2008-2009 $954,000
• 2009-2010 $891,000
• 2010-2011 $962,500
Tourism spending is on the rise after three years of stagnation and decline. The North Carolina Division of Tourism, Development conducts an economic impact study every year. It uses the industry standard “Travel Economic Impact Model” to measure the impact of travel, a disaggregated model that looks at everything from lodging and food to retail and recreation. Here’s a decade’s worth of those tourism economic impact numbers.
2000 99.9 million
2001 97.7 million
2002 97.8 million
2003 95.9 million
2004 97.69 million
2005 103.4 million
2006 111 million
2007 116.6 million
2008 113.6 million
2009 108.9 million
2010 116.3 million
2000 50.5 million
2001 50.1 million
2002 53.6 million
2003 53.5 million
2004 55.7 million
2005 61.7 million
2006 68.2 million
2007 72.6 million
2008 69 million
2009 60 million
2010 62.5 million
2000 89.7 million
2001 81.1 million
2002 89.8 million
2003 85.9 million
2004 92.2 million
2005 102.5 million
2006 111.1 million
2007 115.4 million
2008 120.5 million
2009 114.5 million
2010 122.1 million
Swain (includes Cherokee)
2001 199.2 million
2002 214.8 million
2003 216.8 million
2004 213.5 million
2005 222 million
2006 240.8 million
2007 251 million
2008 233.3 million
2009 237.3 million
2010 256.3 million
Jobs directly related to tourism for 2010
Swain (includes Cherokee) 3,210
Village of Forest Hills leaders are saying no thanks to a Charlotte company that wanted to build luxury student apartments on a 19.5-acre tract in the tiny town across the highway from Western Carolina University.
This does not mean that the 200-unit, $25-million development couldn’t be built elsewhere in Jackson County, just not in Forest Hills’ town limits. Planner Gerald Green said the only restrictions on developments of this type are in Cashiers, the county’s four municipalities and the U.S. 441 corridor.
Developer Shannon King told The Smoky Mountain News late last week that if Forest Hills said no, she would look elsewhere in the area for a suitable site. King needed Forest Hills’ to grant an exemption from the community’s zoning laws for the development to move forward there.
Before settling on the Forest Hills site, Monarch Ventures had scouted the vacant hotel — locally dubbed the ‘ghostel’ — on the main commercial drag of N.C. 107 in Sylva. This was intended to be a Clarion Inn, the town’s first name-brand hotel, but the developers ran out of money and abandoned the project, which was foreclosed on by the bank that held the construction loan. Michelle Masta of Skyros Investments is marketing the unfinished hotel shell, and she confirmed Monarch Venture’s prior interest. The hotel is mired in litigation from a contractor who wasn’t paid in full; it can’t be sold until the legal issues are resolved.
Forest Hills council members, meeting Friday in a more than five-hour visioning session, agreed that this type of student development is at odds with their vision of tranquil life in the village.
The community incorporated in 1997 expressly to keep students out. This included zoning out the possibility of large student complexes, and setting restrictions on the number of students living together in a rental house. That stance has clearly softened during the intervening years for this set of council members, at least. They noted that 50 to 75 students currently do live in Forest Hills (many in a motel there) and are part of that community. But a huge development, as proposed by Monarch Ventures, seemed more than Forest Hills leaders were willing to embrace.
“It’s not that we are anti-student because we are against a complex,” Council Member Suzanne Stone said. “Saying ‘no’ to Monarch would not mean saying ‘no’ to WCU.”
A recent survey sent to Forest Hills residents recorded little support for the development. Out of 59 responses, 38 noted they “strongly disagree” with such a development, eight disagreed, six had no opinion, two agreed and five “strongly agree.”
Additionally, Forest Hills council members cited concerns about the background — or lack of background — of the company involved, Monarch Ventures.
North Carolina incorporation records show that Monarch Ventures came into existence just 13 months ago, in September 2010; and that it has no record as a company building these types of student-based developments. This raised questions about how Monarch Ventures had presented itself to Forest Hills leaders — as a veteran student-housing development company.
The company might be new, but King, the woman who owns and launched Monarch Ventures, in fact does have an extensive, national background of building private student housing. King, until less than a year ago, was executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Campus Crest Communities, a company also based in Charlotte. Campus Crest developed and owns 32 student-housing complexes nationwide.
The company is the subject of myriad complaints regarding its housing. Additionally, a federal lawsuit filed in Mecklenburg County by a former employee accused Campus Crest of having a sexually hostile and demeaning work environment.
According to court documents, company officers directed top employees to “hire predominantly young, white women to available positions at the company’s various residential rental properties.”
Council Member Clark Corwin showed fellow board members a copy of a newspaper article that quoted from the lawsuit. King, according to court papers, is alleged to have said: “We have Southern investors; they do not like for us to hire blacks.”
“I can’t imagine that in this day and age,” Mayor Jim Wallace said in response.
“I don’t think they need anymore time at our meetings — we’re done,” Stone said.
After some discussion about how best to pull the plug on King’s development plans for Forest Hills, Council Member Gene Tweedy said: “Just tell her, ‘The community is not interested.’”
Problems with Campus Crest buildings, called “The Grove” at the company’s multitude of student housing complexes across the nation, include reports that students trying to move in were told they couldn’t because the apartments weren’t finished on schedule.
An “anti-Grove” group is active on Facebook, primarily populated by disgruntled student renters.
Asheville has a “The Grove” complex on Bulldog Drive, near UNC-Asheville, owned by Campus Crest.
“Student complaints from these complexes are the same across the country,” wrote Peggy Loonan, who is leading an effort to prevent Campus Crest from building in Fort Collins, Colo., in a Feb. 11 guest article for the Northern Colorado Business Report. “Students, not professional leasing agents, manage onsite leasing offices. Maintenance is slow to respond if at all; appliances don’t work; apartments aren’t cleaned between tenancies and mattresses are soiled. Move-in dates on signed leases are pushed back because construction isn’t complete. Students describe hearing other tenants having sex. Students turn off heat to stay within their allotted utility amount and report being denied copies of utility bills.”
King, contacted late last week, was eager to distance herself from Campus Crest and its work record.
“Quite frankly, that’s why I’m no longer with Campus Crest,” she said.
King said that Monarch Ventures is committed to building near Western Carolina University.
“We absolutely want to be in the Western community,” she said.
The Village of Forest Hills wants to control its future by possibly acquiring a 74-acre, abandoned golf course located within its borders.
If the privately owned property is obtained, the town’s leaders indicated that they might try to offset the purchase cost by developing 25 acres or so into cluster housing for Western Carolina University staff and faculty, or for active senior-aged residents.
The owner, at last check, was asking upwards of $1.3 million for the property, but Forest Hills leaders said perhaps there might be room for negotiation on that amount. Or, certain tax breaks may be available that could help knock it down.
“I’d like to see us pursue this aggressively,” Council Member Suzanne Stone told fellow board members, who gathered Friday for a facilitated strategic-planning session.
Stone echoed board member Clark Corwin in saying that she could envision the property serving Forest Hills as an important community venue. Stone mentioned the possibility of musical events; Corwin said he pictured a small arboretum.
Any residential development on a portion of the defunct golf course would be individual houses, not a large-scale student complex as proposed recently by a campus-housing company (see related article). A community survey polling residents about such developments largely received negative marks.
A residential planned unit development, however, could prove a benefit to the community and an overall land-value enhancer for Forest Hills residents, County Planner Gerald Green said. Cluster housing such as this generally includes green space and a community garden.
But money is a problem for the tiny incorporated entity, which has only a few hundred residents.
“We don’t have funds, and we don’t want higher taxes — we’re stuck,” Mayor Jim Wallace said.
Green said that wasn’t necessarily true.
“The challenge is to create a vision that people will buy into,” the county planner said.
Green suggested Forest Hills combine strategic efforts with WCU, which could advertise as a university with top-notch learning and cultural opportunities for seniors. That population, in turn, could become a source of funding for the cash-strapped institution through class fees or donations through a college-linked retirement community. The university is working on a new strategic plan now. Stone, who sits on a WCU subcommittee working on development issues as part of that plan, said she’d touch on the possibilities with her subcommittee members.
WCU annexation decision delayed indefinitely
Annexing a 35-acre parcel of Western Carolina University is off the table for now, the Village of Forest Hill leaders said Friday during a strategic-planning session.
“That is moot until after WCU’s strategic planning session,” Mayor Jim Wallace said.
Former Chancellor John Bardo last year asked the tiny town, which is across the highway from the university, to annex part of campus to further his dream of a “Town Center” for unincorporated WCU. The idea was to pave the way for legal sales of alcoholic beverages, which currently aren’t allowed outside town limits in Jackson County, in hopes it would entice new restaurants and bars to rectify the lack of nightlife around the university.
Since then, Bardo has retired and a new chancellor, David Belcher, has taken over. Belcher has initiated new strategic planning for the university; the state has slashed WCU’s budget in the name of cost-savings measures; and Jackson County commissioners have said they’ll place a countywide alcohol referendum on the ballot next year, which if it passes, could eliminate any need for annexation since alcohol sales would become legal countywide if approved by voters.
The disembodied voice crackled through the walkie-talkie: “I’ve got someone who wants to buy two lots, cash deal.”
“Sell ‘em,” L.C. Jones urged, seemingly to himself, but his response included Michelle Masta, a passenger in the backseat of his big, eggshell-colored Ford King Ranch 4X4. The radio was tuned to the NASCAR station; the volume turned off. No one in the truck was interested in listening to races on this day, not with land to sell and money to make. Masta, dressed in French jeans and heels, serves as Jones’ right-hand woman on the development, The Ridges. The development is better known as Wildflower, the Macon County subdivision’s original name. The Ridges is made up of about 500 acres of Wildflower’s original 2,200; just fewer than 100 lots were being offered through this one-day extravaganza last Saturday (Oct. 1).
Masta, who lives most of the time in Atlanta, dreams one day of permanently moving to this region with her daughter and, perhaps, gardening organically and caretaking hives of honeybees. Masta won’t buy land in this high-elevation development for that future homestead, however. She’s got a piece of nice bottomland in mind, down in one of the valleys far below.
Jones was casually attired in Levi jeans and tennis shoes. The Cullowhee native doesn’t happily sport a suit and tie, not even at an event such as this. Jones doesn’t look or talk much like a land developer. In fact, the paving company owner comes across as a man who would be perfectly comfortable operating a backhoe.
On this project, however, Jones isn’t the backhoe operator — he’s the boss, along with a couple of investors out of Atlanta. The Ridges marks Jones’ second housing development in a year in Macon County. Other developers in Western North Carolina and across the nation have seen business grind to a halt because of the crippled housing market. Jones, owner of Black Bear Paving in Franklin, has instead discovered seemingly endless financial opportunities.
The walkie-talkie crackled. Sam Pinner of Southland Marketing & Development, based in Knoxville, Tenn., was on the other end. Jones hired the former University of Tennessee football player turned time-share seller turned real-estate developer turned real-estate marketer to oversee the sales event.
Pinner has 60 to 65 sales reps spread across the 500 or so acres of The Ridges.
Jones and his investors recently purchased the development for a cool $1 million, an amount they anticipate recouping easily. BB&T was eager to get the property off its books after foreclosing on the former developer of Wildflower after that company failed to make payments. BB&T was owed $1.9 million on the property when the bank foreclosed.
“Just say, ‘Yes, that’s a deal,’” Pinner instructed the sales rep via the walkie-talkie. Like Jones, Pinner needed to hear nothing more than the word “cash” to welcome the buyer to a seat at the table.
Jones’ plan is to generate “life” into the subdivision by selling lots that were previously priced at highs of $100,000 to $300,000 for $14,000 to $30,000. Higher-priced lots were available, too, but even they weren’t priced anywhere near those heyday numbers of the real-estate boom, when scenes like the one that took place in The Ridges last weekend were commonplace.
Jones slashed the prices in The Ridges with one purpose in mind: to sell as many lots as possible, as quickly as possible. He and his investors anticipate developing more lots in the subdivision. They’ll sell those at higher prices, but the asking price on these is what the depressed market will bear, Jones said.
Jones believes he can command higher prices later if he can convince people that The Ridges is a viable, happening development with an on-site, caring developer. This is the first step in his many-stepped plan for The Ridges, and for other abandoned developments in WNC that he might take on. Jones is currently checking out another development in the Asheville area. He is a man who envisions dollar signs where others see vast money pits.
Jones and his investors can take their pick: the region’s landscape is littered with these tombstones of the once prosperous, or preposterous, WNC real-estate scene.
The selling in The Ridges started just after 9 a.m. The first lot sold in two minutes. Eight lots had sold in 10 minutes, nine lots in 12 minutes, 12 lots in 20 minutes, 21 lots in an hour. Thirty-one lots were sold by 11 a.m. A prior advertising blitz targeting Florida, Georgia, Alabama and other states paid off. Jones was having a very good day; indeed, by day’s end he’d unloaded 43 lots — 18 of them cash payments.
Truth will out
Wildflower was conceived and launched during the height of the housing boom. Riding the crest of the towering Cowee mountain range on the Macon-Jackson county lines, the development boasts truly spectacular views from its vantage point of more than 3,600 feet.
Turkeys and whitetail deer are everyday sightings, red-tailed hawks soar over the ridges to survey the valleys below. There are walking trails, a fancy clubhouse with a pool and small fitness center, water and sewer already in place at the house sites. There are even some lots with foundations on them, abandoned unfinished as previous owners’ dreams crumbled in the face of financial realities.
The previous developer, Ultima Carolina in Atlanta, sold more than 160 lots in Wildflower before the company went belly up. The largely out-of-state buyers were primarily looking to “flip” the properties they bought, selling for higher prices than they paid.
Wildflower’s promising beginning foundered on an out-of-control, plummeting market and a hastily designed, poorly executed development — at least in parts of Wildflower. How much, exactly, of the development is ill-built sparks heated debate in Macon County.
The very name Wildflower, for those weary of WNC’s historic abusive cycles of land speculation at the expense of public safety and environmental stewardship, has served in recent years as the region’s worst-case, best-known example. What’s unarguable is that a few years ago there was a landslide in Wildflower. It was about one-half acre in size. Today that landslide serves as an illustrative example of what happens when roads are cut in defiance of a mountain’s grain.
The culprit road was built during dry weather. Then wetter weather came, those snows and cold rains that distinguish winters in these southern mountains. Freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, with temperatures climbing from single-digit numbers into the 60s and 70s, only to drop back to single digits, over and over again.
So-called “wet” springs soon bubbled where the road overlaid. The springs most likely triggered that massive flow of mud and debris. The landslide raised fears — some say the inevitability — that a developer who could build one road like that might well have cut all of Wildflower’s many roads with a similar lack of respect for the mountains. If that’s true, anybody building here, and those living below, are at risk.
Macon County knows those dangers better than most mountain communities. In September 2004, a naturally occurring landslide originating in the Fishhawk mountains buried a small residential community below. Five people died in Peeks Creek, a tragedy of such proportions that state legislators, in response, funded a project to map these mountains, once and for all, for landslide potential.
Republican legislators, taking control of the state Senate and House last November for the first time in more than a century, have eliminated funding for more maps, with only Macon, Henderson, Buncombe and Watauga completed. North Carolina leaders were responding to real estate agents, builders, surveyors and laborers who called foul, plus a state that was facing huge economic shortfalls. Working men and women said the landslide hazard maps, coupled with the recession, hindered their abilities to make livings, unnecessarily scaring people out of buying real estate here.
Wildflower, however, was mapped for its landslide risk before the state halted the project. Red, the universal signal for stop/danger, colors the steep mountain ranges where Wildflower was built and The Ridges has since emerged.
Map opponents say state geologists greatly exaggerated the dangers of building in areas such as this.
Only time, as it’s said, will tell.
Add over-inflated land prices, under-funded buyers and loosely regulated loaning institutions to the development’s problems. These semi-natural and manmade elements combined into a toxic brew, and Wildflower, literally and metaphorically, wilted and died.
More than half those who bought the original lots in Wildflower went into foreclosure. Some because of an inability to make payments on their lots; others who found themselves upside down on a mortgage, owing more than the lot was worth and opting to let banks take over.
A local financial institution, Macon Bank, filed two civil suits claiming that it had been duped into making questionable loans in excess of $3.5 million to people buying some of those lots.
Macon Bank sued Beverly-Hanks Mortgage Services of Asheville and two of its brokers for, among other allegations, financial wrongdoing, defying bank instructions and setting up an interest cash-back scheme for borrowers. Additionally, the bank sued the lawyer handling property closings at Wildflower, the lawyer’s title guaranty company and five property owners. The lawsuits are wending through Macon County’s court system.
Allan Burkett and Sandra Wilkinson of Newnan, Ga., aren’t aware of The Ridges’ past history; it’s not clear they’d care if they were. They had just agreed to buy lot 142 for $19,900. Wilkinson sported a medallion on her neck that indicated they’d made the purchase.
The pair’s sales rep, Dusten Tipton of Knoxville, Tenn., had whisked them back into the clubhouse where the deals were being finalized. Burkett and Wilkinson seemed weary, a bit overwhelmed by the engineered giddy atmosphere of the sales event. Burkett was wearing a poorly fitted winter coat he’d bought locally the night before, shocked into the purchase by a sudden drop in temperatures from the 80s to the 40s as the first cold-front of autumn moved through the region.
After plunking the requisite 20 percent down that closed the lot deal, Burkett and Wilkinson were fed barbecue sandwiches and handed endless cups of sweet iced tea. They were told they could take a helicopter ride to view their new property. Wilkinson got to keep the medallion, a prize to take home as a reminder of the couple’s mountain dream.
“This is just like going to the county fair for the first time,” Wilkinson said.
“It’s exhilarating,” Burkett added.
An informal survey of the people buying the lots — most, if not all, were from Southeast states other than North Carolina — seemed to prove a point that Jones and Masta were eager to make. The days of “flipping” properties seem gone. The buyers are predominantly people who want to build houses in Macon County and live in the area either on a seasonal basis or after retirement.
At Diamond Falls Estates, the other development in Macon County under Jones and Masta’s management, 64 lots closed out of 80 being marketed on a one-day sales event last year.
“We already have 12 new houses being built now,” Masta said of Diamond Falls. “And that’s creating jobs in the area for local builders and contractors. Those weren’t speculator people who wanted to flip it in two months. Those were real people wanting to build real houses.”
It also shows that there is still a demand for mountain real estate when the price is right — a price that is far lower than days gone by.
Wilkinson and Burkett hope to build in a year or two. They bought for the view, to get a site ready-made with an existing foundation, and because they felt they’d gotten a great deal — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a not-to-be-missed chance to own a little piece of WNC.
Real estate experts react to Macon sale
The one-day land rush on cheap lots in The Ridges might be a sign of the times: not a real estate turn around per se, but an eagerness by banks to off-load foreclosed property, even if it means taking a loss.
“I think this is the beginning of a new trend,” said Bob Holt, real estate instructor for Southwestern Community College in Franklin and Sylva. “I think the banks are deciding, ‘I would rather take less and be done with it than hang on another year or two or three or four. To get rid of these they are going to get rid of them at rock bottom prices.’”
People buying the failed developments can in turn sell lots so cheaply that prospective lot buyers — who have otherwise proved elusive in the mountains lately — come knocking once more, witnessed by the droves of buyers lured by the fire sale at The Ridges in Macon County last weekend.
“I think we probably will see more of the fire sales,” Holt said. “I think we have waited and waited and waited and waited, and some people are saying it has got to have bottomed out now so it is going to turn around.”
Holt doesn’t think it has, however.
Some banks are attempting to sell the lots themselves, making a foray into the real estate business rather than off-load the property to a middle man. In Cashiers this spring, the bank that had foreclosed on one development orchestrated a one-day fire sale of lots. At Balsam Mountain Preserve, the lender who foreclosed on the property has stepped in as the property manager attempting to see the development through.
Peggy Patterson, who has sold real estate in Macon County for four decades, doesn’t see a return of the market at this juncture.
“I don’t think it is rebounding at all,” Patterson said. “If anything, it seems a little worse.”
I am a great admirer of efficient people. In my enthusiasm for them I sometimes mistake myself for one of those types. I wrongly imagine I’m a getting-it-done kind of person who never goes upstairs or downstairs with empty hands; I like to believe that I’m always carrying an item in one direction or another, returning said items to their proper, pre-assigned places. The items remain until needed and always — without exception — are put back after use.
That’s a very nice goal, and sometimes I am quite diligent, for a time, at putting tools away. During those neat periods I’m prone to walk about muttering, for others’ edification: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” I get very indignant when Someone Else leaves tools Like They Always Do carelessly strewn in the yard, and they get rained on — as happened a month or so ago to the Dutch hoe. Then I generally remember it was actually me who last used the tool in question. That time I forgot the hoe after trying, unsuccessfully, to hack to death the Jerusalem artichokes along the back of the garden (an aside: they are in the sunflower family, which means they are allopathic. And that means Jerusalem artichokes inhibit other nearby plants from growing, as has occurred along the entire end of the vegetable plot).
Returning to efficiency, or lack there of: let me get busy at work, or interested in a book, or fascinated by pigs or geese or ducks or a new vegetable or anything new at all, and I’m virtually useless at accomplishing anything else. I’m instantly paralyzed by my new interest, this sudden grand passion, from attending to mundane tasks such as putting away tools, or listening when I’m spoken to, or getting tasks done that need doing.
A one-track mind really doesn’t cover it.
A friend with a background in psychology recently informed me, I hope jokingly, that I suffer not at all from attention deficit disorder; but rather, from a previously undiscovered-to-medical-science syndrome: attention rigidity disorder.
If I’m interested in pigs, then I read about and talk about and dream about pigs. The same thing if it’s geese, or ducks, or I don’t know — pick something preposterous, like working a fulltime job and having 87 farm animals to care for … Oh, heck, that’s not preposterous, that was the actual count last winter before some were sold.
Another illustrative example: Boo the billy goat earlier this week got his fat head stuck through a fence trying to lick and nibble one of the does. He’s in full and stinky rut, but the does aren’t yet interested in his Don Juan self. They do seem to enjoy passing by his pen out of reach but near enough to drive him bonkers.
So here was Boo at morning feeding time, his head through the fence, trapped.
“Can you please get him out?” I asked my friend, my being dressed for work and not wanting a repeat of a recent experience in which I thoroughly offended the delicate sensibilities of my coworkers by getting his odor all over my clothes and hands.
Yes, I was told, don’t worry about Boo.
But to make a long, uninteresting story simply short and uninteresting, Boo’s head stayed wedged through the fence, despite vigorous efforts to free him. At moments like these, one must reach for the bolt cutters to cut the idiot billy free.
The bolt cutters are kept on a shelf in the barn. The bolt cutters have a place, just like the efficiency experts urge — but they were not, of course, in their correct place when actually needed.
This sent me into a full-blown snit. I was already late for work.
There are two pairs of bolt cutters on the farm, one assigned to stay at the top of the mountain, the other down below at the barn.
“Where,” I asked angrily, “are the bolt cutters this time?”
They couldn’t be found.
I slammed into the pickup truck to drive back to the house and find a pair. Meanwhile, Boo jerked his head back through to the correct side of the fence, shortcutting my trip. (See, I told you it was an uninteresting story. I have a lot like that, because my life is not nearly as fascinating on a weekly basis as it might appear from this column, culled as it is for the exciting highlights only).
How much easier, how wonderful it would be, if tools could be found where you expect to find them, when you most need them.
I stayed in my righteous snit for about 10 minutes. Then it dawned on me that I might have used the bolt cutters one day not long ago when one of the kids got her head stuck. I perhaps tossed them carelessly in the back of my car when done, taking them up to the house with intentions of bringing them back the next trip down the mountain to put them on the shelf in the barn where they belong.
Oops, again — so much for efficiency.
I cut my first fall salad this weekend: baby kale, tatsoi, mizuna, baby mustards and more. Following a summer of garden failure, this fall garden has restored my good humor and gardening confidence.
As weedy as my summer garden proved, this one is clean and weed-free. The beds are brimming with luscious greens planted over the last couple of months. The cabbage is heading, and perhaps the broccoli will soon, too. Carrot tops stand about seven-inches tall, giving hints of the bounty growing beneath the ground; winter radishes — daikons and the appealingly named beauty hearts — are doing the same. Who could resist growing a radish called a beauty heart? Certainly not I; only, perhaps, a gardener without poetry in their soul could turn away from such a promising name, if indeed such a contrary being exists.
There are two large turnip beds. The turnips, too, look promising, though insects have been chomping the leaves of some. I soon must intervene or risk losing this staple winter root vegetable. To spray or not to spray? One can be friendlier to the earth by handpicking the creatures off, but that takes more time and considerably more effort than splashes of organic, but still deadly, sprays.
There were fall gardening failures, as there always must be. And, perhaps, even should be: Success tempered with small disasters keeps gardeners humble and properly thankful for what does grow and prosper.
My beets and chard never germinated. Or, rather, one beet plant can be seen where a row was intended; four or five chard plants where 20 to 25 plants were planned. The spinach didn’t germinate, nor did the rape.
But taken overall, and standing back to admire the big picture instead of focusing narrowly on those few sparsely germinated beds, this fall garden looks to produce wonderfully. I can anticipate harvesting now until at least late December. And longer, on into spring, if I’m willing to work as necessary — gardening needn’t cease after the killing frosts arrive unless gardeners choose cold-weather respites.
I’ll leave the beds uncovered until frost. Then I’ll haul out metal hoops and yards of row cover from the shed and cover the beds.
Wind is more difficult for plants than cold — in fact, any of the plants I’ve mentioned easily endure temperatures around and below freezing, and can withstand even several degrees below that once acclimated. Somewhere below about 23 degrees, though, and you start losing the battle with the less hardy greens if you don’t intervene.
The odds for plant survival increase mightily with row cover. I generally use a product that provides 4 degrees or so of frost protection. But, as mentioned, the greater benefit of row cover is the protection from moisture-sucking winds.
Until the last couple of winters, I usually added a plastic barrier overtop the row cover when really cold weather set in. I’ve stopped doing that, however, for the most part. In my experience, the bigger issue for winter gardeners in Western North Carolina is dealing with the extreme variation in temperatures. Extreme cold followed by a week or two of balmy weather wreaks havoc in the winter garden. The plants adjust to the warmth, and then a sudden descent back into single digits is more than they can withstand, particularly within a double-protected bed of row cover and plastic.
I’ve found the plants actually withstand temperature fluctuations better when simply given protection of row cover, without the plastic. I could speculate on why, but I’ll spare you my intuition-based musings. The truth is I have no real idea how this single barrier does the trick, but it often does.
I double or triple, the row cover protection on some beds, and turnips and carrots covered in this manner can be harvested all winter.
My best-producing winter gardens have come in years when we’ve had unremitting cold and the insulation of heavy snow. My worst when we get mild weather followed by cold; and repeats of mild weather followed by cold.
This leaves me torn between desiring warm winters so that it will be easier to get outside and work; or cold, hard winters, which virtually ensure good garden production, but means that on some days you can’t harvest because the row cover is actually frozen to the ground.
And that reminds me of the wonderful “Gardener’s Prayer” by Czech writer Karel Capek, who clearly understood the vacillation that afflicts all gardeners:
O Lord, grant that in some way
it may rain every day,
Say from about midnight until three o’clock
in the morning,
But, You see, it must be gentle and warm
so that it can soak in;
Grant that at the same time it would not
rain on campion, alyssum, helianthus, lavendar,
and others which
You in Your infinite wisdom know
are drought-loving plants-
I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like-
And grant that the sun may shine
the whole day long,
But not everywhere (not, for instance, on the
gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron)
and not too much;
That there may be plenty of dew and little wind,
enough worms, no lice and snails, or mildew,
and that once a week thin liquid manure
may fall from heaven.
A Charlotte company wants to invest $25 million in a 400-person housing development for Western Carolina University students who are looking for the finer things in life.
Monarch Ventures has asked the Village of Forest Hills, a tiny incorporated community next to WCU, to allow it to use what’s known as the 19.5-acre Valhalla tract. Monarch Ventures wants to buy the tract, located on North Country Club Drive, from owner Catamount Hollow LLC.
Town leaders are expected to discuss the request, and residents’ reactions that were gathered via a community survey, on Friday during a board retreat.
Shannon King of Monarch Ventures said this would be a “premier” student housing complex, offering amenities that aren’t currently available, including a clubhouse, pool, tanning beds, exercise programs and more.
“There’s a need for quality housing at Western Carolina University,” King said. “And this could be a recruitment and retention tool for the university.”
WCU has experienced significant growth in the past decade. Spokesman Bill Studenc said as the university continues growing enrollment — a stated goal of new Chancellor David Belcher, who has noted state funding is tied to those numbers — there is a corresponding need to house those students.
“I know that right now we are at capacity,” Studenc said.
King has assured Village leaders that Monarch Ventures is “sensitive to concerns about noise and traffic,” and would provide “on-site, 24-7 management for safety.” The group also offers programs for students living with the complex. King said rental rates would be comparable to residential dorm rates at WCU.
Monarch Ventures has just broken ground on a similar project at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.
Kolleen Begley, who lives in Forest Hills and serves as the community’s finance officer, welcomes the prospect of upscale housing in the small residential village.
“Not everyone in the Village thinks students are a nuisance,” Begley said. “The Village is a municipality, not a retirement community. I have more faith in our young adults attending college than what has been depicted at monthly meetings from the only people who have time to attend. I support the university we chose to move across from. WCU is vital to our local economy. So are jobs and tax money.”
Forest Hills incorporated in 1997 for one primary purpose: keeping student housing out. The 350 to 400 people living in the Village of Forest Hills were clear at that time on not wanting students taking over their community.
The newly sworn town board’s first act after the referendum to incorporate passed? Adopting a building moratorium on everything but single-family, site-built, residential houses with at least 2,000 feet of heated space. The board was confident there weren’t many students who could afford that kind of housing.
King said ideally construction would start in November, but that she believes Monarch Ventures — if town leaders give the OK — would start phasing-in the project beginning next year.
Mark Teague, zoning administrator for Forest Hills, said that the development group would need a use permit and perhaps a variance from the town.
“They’ve got their ducks in a row,” he said, “and I think this is the No. 1 spot where they want to do it.”
Some of the lots in a 2,200-acre gated subdivision saddling the Cowee Mountain range in Macon County are being advertised across the Southeast for what’s being touted as bargain prices. The lots are slated for a big one-day, onsite sell Saturday, Oct. 1.
Prices have been knocked down from former highs of $100,000 to $300,000, to as low as $14,000, and up to the mid $30,000 range. There are 98 finished lots and more than 500 acres under new ownership.
The development, now called The Ridges but known better by its former name, Wildflower, has a troubled history. Landsides and road issues plagued the development, a project of Ultima Carolina of Atlanta, and the project fell victim to a weak economy and paralyzed housing market.
More than half of about 151 property owners in Wildflower defaulted on their mortgage payments by July 2010, walking away from dreams of “flipping” the property during the dizzying financial possibilities of the housing boom.
After Ultima failed to sell enough lots to make the bank loan, the development was foreclosed on by BB&T. The bank managed to offload the development recently to the new entity, Leed Enterprises. BB&T obviously wanted Wildflower off its books, selling it at a rather substantial loss for just $1 million.
The new developers, which include local Macon County businessman L.C. Jones, say any problems associated with Wildflower was then, and this is now at newly named The Ridges:
“There were some issues, but those are resolved,” said Michelle Masta, a spokeswoman for the project. “We have a well-funded group, we have a stake in this community, and we have eliminated any problems.”
Leed Enterprises, in a news release, noted it has retained a national engineering company and a Franklin-based engineering firm and solved the earth-moving issues in the development. Masta said a landslide area has been abandoned and a conservation easement entered into. She said the original developer had built a road “on three springheads,” setting the stage for multiple problems that are now resolved.
Still, the new developers have an uphill climb if they want to convince skeptical onlookers in Macon County, who view Wildflower as the pinnacle of out-of-control, speculator-driven mountain land development.
Susan Ervin, a longtime member of the Macon County Planning Board, noted: “We worked hard to get sensible slope development regulation — but it didn’t happen. Now, the lots are back on the sale block. What are the ‘fire sale’ prices going to do to the real estate comps, and the hopes of other landowners and realtors to sell a piece of land at a fair price? What assurance do we have that the development will be done well this time? What control do we have? Do the people looking at lots up there have any idea about the North Carolina Geological Survey Slope Movement Hazard Maps? Do they know there are unstable soils up there? Down here in the valley, we know it.”
They are dubbed by some in the community as the Three Amigos: a new chancellor at Western Carolina university, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County; Mike Murray.
Each started their respective positions July 1. Each promises new eras of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.
“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting this week. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.
Tomas said the Three Amigos have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.
“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.
The university, under the baton of Belcher, is holding a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents have to say about the school’s future. About 45 or 50 people, many of them WCU and SCC employees, turned out for the Jackson County hearing, though far fewer than that opted to actually stand up and speak.
Those who did called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty. They discussed a lack of childcare for professionals; and more specific needs, such as a request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, for WCU to again produce a regional economic report. Susie Ray, a retired WCU employee, urged the university to tap into the huge retiree population in WNC and corner a niche on “creative retirement.”
There were complaints that WCU wasn’t accessible to the community. The swimming pool, for instance, is closed to the public unless you are a student or WCU employee, forcing those who want to swim for exercise to motor over the Balsams to Waynesville. Continuing education classes are priced out of the reach of anyone except, perhaps, retired employees from WCU.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who retired from the university after 30 years service, told his former colleagues that many in the community simply don’t feel comfortable on campus. They feel uneasy and out of place. And, in turn, many of WCU’s faculty and staff choose to live somewhere other than Jackson County, with their connections to the community limited to commuting back and forth to work.
Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, spoke similarly of the “silo” mentality that’s afflicted the various Jackson County educational institutions.
“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”
The parking crunch at Jackson County’s new library in Sylva has largely eased, thanks to a new sidewalk that allows employees and exercise-minded readers to park farther away and walk safely.
The library opened earlier this summer. It is housed in a large addition to the newly renovated historic courthouse that dominates Sylva from its strategic position on a hill above town. The new library has been the toast of the town, generally lauded except for a spate of complaints about a shortage of parking spaces within the cramped footprint where it was built.
Also helping the parking cause are library and county workers, who are now officially doing what many were opting to do previously out of courtesy alone — parking away from the library to free-up as many parking spaces for patrons as possible.
“No one has complained directly to me lately about how there is ‘no parking’ at the library,” head Librarian Dottie Brunette said late last week.
The library employees are stashing their cars at Bicentennial Park below the building, and hoofing it up Keener Street via a new sidewalk the town helped build. The county also has worked to improve the access from the nearby 10-acre Mark Watson Park, located on west Main Street, where library parking is available to those willing to walk up a set of stairs.
“I didn’t have any trouble finding a parking space,” said Laura Wright, a visitor from Virginia who drove to the library as a scenic destination at the behest of local tourism officials. “And, the courthouse is lovely.”